Sunday, September 30, 2007

Atala the Hun

"Atala the Hun,” a friend once muttered as she perused the damage done to her once lush coontie plants by the atala caterpillar. That is as apropos a statement as I could ever create! The larvae (caterpillars) of any species can decimate a host plant (the larval food) to the nothingness faster than the plant can grow. The scientific term for this is “herbivory”…they are eating the plant.
There are categories of herbivory, too complicated to explore herein; botanists determine the severity of the herbivory by many different criteria, depending on the plant species. For example, the criteria may be determined by how many individual leaves are eaten, or how many fronds of the total are devoured. I use a criteria developed by Vivian Negron-Ortiz, who sampled herbivory in Everglades National Park (ENP), and was adapted by Hillary Cooley from ENP, for my records.
Those of you who have watched your beautiful milkweeds get devoured by Monarch larvae know that the plant is reduced to a bare stem, without flowers or leaves, by the time the larvae are ready to pupate. The same holds true for the atala and its host plant, the coontie. What’s a butterfly gardener to do!?

Here are a few suggestions. For aesthetic reasons, place the larval host plants in the background of your garden, or in another part of the garden, away from the flowering beauty of the nectar plants. Put them around the corner, to the side of the house, behind a fence, or wherever the unsightly remainders will be less visible. Plants such as milkweed can be cut off at a joint, placed in water and re-rooted in a few weeks time. The re-rooted stalks can then be planted for the next generation of nectar and larval food. (Be aware that if a female adult butterfly finds the stalks, she will lay eggs and the resulting brood will eat the rooting stems as quickly as if they were in the ground.)

Clip away the dead, eaten fronds of host plants to encourage new growth. Place a net over the young new growth of badly damaged plants so that the adult female butterflies cannot lay eggs on the new growth. This allows the plants time to recover before caterpillars eat the new sprouts. Plants that never have a chance to grow new leaves can’t photosynthesize to produce new ‘fuel’ for the growth, and will take needed nutrients from the root’s storage. This leaves less energy for the plant to sprout new foliage….the cycle will continue until the stored starches in the root are depleted and the plant will eventually die.

This is the wisdom behind manually removing the leaves of unwanted ‘weeds’, such as dandelion, in a yard. It may take a while longer to eradicate the unwanted ‘weed’, but it is a more environmentally friendly method than the use of herbicides to kill the plant. Besides, true gardeners know that ‘weeds’ are just wildflowers growing in an area where we would rather not have them growing. Everyone should have a wildflower area that is really wild and free!
Learn how to propagate your coontie plants. It’s easier than you may think. Master Gardener friend Art Constantino is presenting a wonderful workshop about propagating coontie from seeds and rootstock for the next Broward County NABA meeting, on October 11, 2007, at 7 PM, at the Broward County Extension IFAS Office (3101 College Avenue, Davie, 954- . Sandy Granson, Horticulture Technician at the IFAS Extension, is also working on a publication to help butterfly gardeners know what to do with their new garden. I will let everyone know when it is ready for us!

The NSU Mesozoic Garden was given another intensive make over this weekend. Dr. Charles Messing , Rosemary Lucas, President of the NSU Nature Club , Gina Shure from NSU Nature Club, and myself installed twenty new coontie plants, pulled “tons” of ‘weeds’ from the garden to allow more room to grow, and trimmed the huge older cycads to allow for more sunlight. Sincere appreciation to Native Plant Society friend Kirk Scott for making the trip to Homestead to purchase the coontie for us, Dr. Joshua Feingold for using his truck to haul the plants to the garden, and Dean Don Rosenblum for helping make this all happen!

We are also having another exotic plant workshop at John Williams Park on December 1, 2007. Everyone who loves the relaxing experience of pulling out non-native invasives is welcome to participate and release some tension! More on the workshops to come.


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