A Papilio on My Petroselinum

There’s a Papilio on my Petroselinum!  I didn’t actually make such a dramatic (not to mention tongue-twisting) proclamation when I saw it.  My daughter was weeding the garden with me and I think I said something much less grand like, “Oh, oh, oh, cool, a baby swallowtail!”  And, baby is not even the right term.  It is a larval stage and actually pretty far along – meaning about a week old.  It is the larval stage of the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), and it’s eating my parsley (Petroselinum crispum).

Eastern Black Swallowtail larva

Eastern Black Swallowtail larva

I have always enjoyed caterpillars.  As a child I loved the fuzzy black and brown larva fondly called wooly bears that we pretended could predict the severity of winter’s chill.  I don’t remember ever being curious about its adult stage when it becomes the Isabella Tiger Moth.  I just had fun making little beds with Parkay® Margarine containers and downy milkweed seed.

Just look at those feet!

Just look at those feet!

Fast forward to years later when we lived in Houston.  I planted Asclepia (milkweed) plants and enjoyed the monarch caterpillar larvae so much that my son, Kevin, caught my enthusiasm.  He would emerge from bed in the morning, march downstairs and straight outside, often without saying good morning.  He would come back inside a few minutes later and announce, “There are five callies on the Asclepia.”  I loved this kind of morning news.  We once brought a caterpillar inside and raised it to adult stage just so we could see its intricate and stunning chrysalis:  spring green with gold décor.

At Halcyon, I have ample opportunity to see butterflies and moths, and to find caterpillars.  I have enjoyed photographing and identifying the larvae and have made PowerPoint videos for my students.  The main reason that we planted Paw Paw trees was for butterflies.  We don’t really like the fruit.  Paw Paws are native and are the only host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus).  Host species are where adults lay eggs for the larvae to feed.  I find such a specific trophic relationship an intricate dance between species, a give and take between host and guest.  I think this is one reason only one or a few eggs are laid on each plant.   It is a beautiful example of the co-evolution of species within a community. This same obligate host relationship occurs with monarchs.  They use milkweed plants as the only host species for their larvae, though there are many kinds of milkweed.

The Eastern Black Swallowtail does not have an obligate host, but it does have favorites such as dill, parsley, and Queen Anne’s lace.  When the larva is very young it looks more like a bird dropping.  This is a great camouflaged adaptation. My parsley plant has two larvae, one very young and one further along in its development.  A nearby parsley plant also has a larva that still looks like a bird dropping.  I am excited to have these Papilio larvae to watch, each at different stages of development.  Since the parsley plant is right inside the garden gate, I am sure I will get to see the chrysalis of at least one of them.  But if I’m really good – by which I mean if I check constantly – I could get the chance to see it form its chrysalis and then to see it emerge as an adult butterfly.

Younger larva of Eastern Black Swallowtail.  It is easily overlooked as a bird dropping.

Younger larva of Eastern Black Swallowtail. It is easily overlooked as a bird dropping.

By the way, I am happy to share my parsley with the Papilio larvae.  It’s a small contribution for the chance to observe such a magical transformation of life.

Do I Have to Mow all That?

Whenever I get to the first mowing of the season, I am always reminded of poor Timothy in Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O’Brien, 1972).  The various fields around the main yard are composed of foot high grass clumped and smashed by winter’s snow and ice.  I try to go slow, hoping that vibrations and noise will allow small creatures the chance to escape, unless of course they are ill like Timothy and cannot.  I did see a large rodent – a vole perhaps – run hither and thither while mowing our pond field the first time this season, and I had to “brake for black snakes” several times while mowing last week.  Truth be told though, the species that I most worry about when mowing are not mobile at all.  I care mostly about tree seedlings.

We loved Halcyon from the start, but it was a little too groomed for our aesthetic.  Most of the fields around the house were mowed.  The area around the pond and stream were mowed to the bank, leaving no riparian border, which is so important for filtering water run-off and for macroinvertebrate life.  Some areas were even barren of grass, and by the heat of July would practically scream ‘ugly’ because they were composed of hard, cracked clay.  These spaces were not only unsightly; they were impossible for roots to take hold.  To counter this overly groomed style of management, we quickly enacted our own management style: benign neglect mixed with a frenzy of mowing, trimming, and brush clearing during our teacher vacation time.  Of course, our two month summer vacation was also comprised of family visits and often a camping trip anywhere less hot and humid than Virginia in July, relegating this frenzy of yard work to a mere few weeks.  Needless to say, in our 12 years at Halcyon, the aesthetic pendulum has flipped 180 degrees.  It’s a jungle out there.

I have seen pamphlets whose purpose is to encourage landowners to conserve energy and help wildlife by reducing mowing.  These pamphlets are usually titled Do I have to mow all that?  I ponder this advice almost every time I climb up onto our riding mower.  Not because I dislike mowing, I like mowing.  It is one of those rare tasks where the outcome looks good and even lasts for a bit of time, unlike most housework chores.  No, I ponder this advice because I really do have to mow all that.  I just don’t, usually.

If I didn’t mow the hill behind the garden, “fondly” named Ailanthus Alley, we would have a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) forest in as little as 10 years, maybe earlier.  This would be an ugly forest, in my opinion, and would squeeze out many native plants because of an alleopathic chemical exuded from the roots that helps it get a competitive edge.

View of Ailanthus alley and gazebo in 2002

View of Ailanthus alley and gazebo in 2002

If I didn’t mow Mulberry Row – named after Thomas Jefferson’s Mulberry Row and because the core of our house was the quarters for slaves of the original property owners sometime between the 1830s and 1860s – we’d have an even denser forest of non-native mulberry (Morus alba).  This species was brought over in colonial times to spur a silk industry.  The industry never took off, but the tree sure has.  I only wish the native mulberry (Morus rubra) had the same competitive edge.  Alas, I’ve only one native mulberry and easily hundreds of invasive ones, no doubt tens of thousands waiting in the seed bank.

Similar view of Ailanthus alley and edge of gazebo in 2005.

Similar view of Ailanthus alley and edge of gazebo in 2005.

If I didn’t mow the pond field, we’d be taken over by autumn olive, wingstem (Verbesina alterniflora – an aggressive native wildflower), honeysuckle, and yes, ailanthus.  This flood plain is the best soil on the property and we are undecided as to whether to keep it tree-free or not.  For now though, I selectively mow around about a dozen black walnuts, two tulip poplars, a black locust, and several redbuds.  I imagine a skyward observer thinking I am drunk as I weave, curve, brake, and back up often during that critical time of discerning native seedlings from invasives.  I mow all the fields once or twice a year, and then I mow paths for the rest of the mowing season.

Mowed pond field, April 2013

Mowed pond field, April 2013

There are two more spaces – Windmill Hill and the upper field – that are more diverse in their succession.  This diversity includes hardwood trees and cedars along with autumn olive and ailanthus.  In these spaces the cedars are rapidly taking over and in the last four years have narrowed some of my paths so much so that I cannot get the mower through.  And there is yet one more area on the property I’d love to clear of invasives, but I am getting tired just thinking about all this toil; I best close this essay and get to some brush work.

Same pond field view, May 19, 2013.  You can see a path I've started.

Same pond field view, May 19, 2013. You can see a path I’ve started.

So, I don’t mow all that in that I don’t mow it all every time I mow.  The last owners did so and, well, Halcyon just wasn’t as attractive or as diverse.  We’ve seen an increase in rabbits and other small mammals, birds, and possibly even fox, bear, and coyote evidenced only by scat so far, and nearby sightings.  I had a flock of turkeys pass through last fall and I know they live nearby.  They are all welcome, even the hawk (see http://www.halcyonnature.com/2013/01/06/chicken-matters/ to see why I might not want the hawk).  However, I do have to mow more than paths a few times every summer.  It is kind of scary to think of living in the middle of an ailanthus-mulberry monoculture if I didn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Halcyon Doesn’t Just Feed my Soul

I love foraging for wild plants, and Halcyon provides me ample opportunities. Summer gardening can provide a similar satisfaction from picking the crops we plant such as strawberries, tomatoes, asparagus, and beans.  However, there is a special excitement that comes from gathering food from the wild, from the plants that were here before us, planted by birds or benign neglect (my general land-management style).  I am lucky to have black raspberries, which I prefer to the red raspberries even though the seeds get stuck in my teeth.   We also enjoy wine berries, yet another invasive species from Asia that makes for juicy eating, tasty pies, and which freezes better than any berry I know.  There are also invasive autumn olives (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2012/10/) that I will probably always be able to gather because the birds spread them, and the shrubs are growing faster than I am able to eradicate them.  We get a small amount of blackberries every summer, though I am noticing their creep in abundance, largely due to my not mowing all the fields as the previous owners did.  I eagerly await all these free treats, getting excited as I see the plants emerging from winter’s dormancy, and then even more so when the flower buds form.  Foraging provides a lovely balance of feeding my soul and stomach at the same time.

While I am waiting for the berries of summer, I could get my foraging fix from dandelion greens as early as March, but I don’t really fancy them, and so I only ate them a few times this spring.  Much more satisfying is a special treat that I found by accident one year and now seek out purposefully – the coveted morel mushroom, Morcella sp.

This most magical of my foraging adventures is short-lived, which can seem regrettable when slowly chewing a hearty sautéed sample.  To not feel sad when they are gone, I have rationalized that their temporary presence in my culinary year only makes them all the more delicious.  I couldn’t possibly appreciate a whole bushel to enjoy in various dishes for a week or frozen for use in winter stews, right?  Right?  Besides, part of the allure is finding them, and part of that allure is the fact that I do not have to add it to a to-do list, relegating it to a chore, which would surely happen if they were available for a longer window of time.

Though I’ve never hunted, foraging for morels feels how I think a hunt might feel.  I even stalk through the woods with a knife in one hand and net bag in the other.  Information about morels and other mushrooms commonly uses the phrase mushroom hunter. I think this has to do with the fact that we can’t necessarily be sure where they are each year.  We don’t say we’re raspberry hunters because we can just walk right up to the plants and start picking.  I think the choice of terms is a bit muddled.  I don’t see why you couldn’t be a raspberry hunter if you were dropped off in probable raspberry habitat and started seeking (a synonym for hunting) currently unknown plants to pick.  And, though I’ve hunted for morels all over Halcyon, they have so far always been in the same general area.

Beautiful morel specimen

Beautiful morel specimen.

Hunting for morels requires patience.  If you don’t know for sure where you will find them, you need to focus, move slowly, and keep a sight image in mind of the mushroom.  After spotting that first morel emerging from leaf litter, the hunt gets easier for me.  After I see that first morel, I can turn slowly in place and often see three or four more where I just “looked”.  Of course, spending time learning their most likely habitat helps get you started.

This one was left because of the poison ivy.

This one was left because of the poison ivy.

Morels are really good mushrooms.  They’re not mushy or slimy.  They’ve a nice, chewy bite, and a nutty, meaty flavor.  My son Kevin will eat them, and he scorns all other mushrooms.  This is a pretty typical response among other mushroom haters that have been convinced to try morels.  Morels are the king of mushrooms and worth the high price one might pay for them at a market, which makes my ability to forage for them a practically priceless experience.

Morels in my collecting bag.

Morels in my collecting bag.

This year was a particularly good hunt.  On my second time out my net bag was stuffed, and I felt that any more morels would smash the ones I had, plus I hadn’t found any more for a good ten minutes.  I decided to head home.  Right as I was crossing the stream, my net bag split and two morels fell into the water.  In the split second when I shouted, “NO!” – imagine forlorn and high-pitched tones mixed together – and looked to see them bobbing downstream, two memories and one thought crossed my mind.  I was reminded of the Aesop’s fable where the dog with the bone sees his reflection in the water and, thinking it’s another dog with a juicy piece of meat, opens his mouth to get the meat and loses his piece of meat in the water.  It would be equally greedy for me to lunge for those two morels and jeopardize my whole stash.  My other memory was of helping my daughter with a stream study project in 9th grade.  I didn’t need to measure the flow right now to know that my renegade morels would soon be lost.  And the thought that crossed my mind was about wet shoes.  I really didn’t want wet shoes.  Greed and inconvenience won out.  I was going after those morels.  By the time I ran up the opposite bank and gingerly laid my stash on the grass, the two escapees were 10 feet farther downstream.  By the time I got to the rocks where I last sighted the renegades, I could only see one trapped in an eddy.  Never minding the wet shoes, I retrieved the trapped one at least.  Morels are just that good.

Morels found the second time I searched.

Morels found the second time I searched.