Some Friends for the Big Green Guy

The Big Green Guy ~ photo by Steven Schwartzman

This little marvel munching away on a gaura leaf, clearly unwilling to interrupt his meal in order to tidy up for the camera, has been tentatively identified as the larva of a white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata): the same moth I featured recently on The Task at Hand.

The first time I saw the creature, I dissolved into giggles and immediately dubbed him the Big Green Guy. His vulnerable chubbiness, his tiny, multi-purpose feet, his air of concentration, his apparent lack of embarassment at being revealed as a messy eater: all evoked a response of absurd protectiveness.

Unable to help myself, I emailed his image to friends. Despite mixed reviews, everyone recognized it as a caterpillar, although some less sensitive souls deemed it ‘just’ a caterpillar. “Yes,” I said. “It is a caterpillar. But it’s not just any caterpillar. It’s an Alice in Wonderland, ‘Let me look you in the eye and ask you some questions’ caterpillar.”

Eventually, I purchased and hung a print of the creature on my wall. A neighbor said, “You might as well have mounted a collection of cockroaches.” I considered her judgment unnecessarily harsh, and said so. “To each her own,” she said.

Over the months, I began to wonder why I never had found a caterpillar. I saw monarchs being raised here and there, and occasionally a friend would find a chrysalis hanging from a lawn chair or a shrub, but caterpillars of any sort evaded me.

Then, in late October of this year, I noticed yellow tape along a roadside, attached somewhat casually to stakes. Suspecting that someone might have marked a milkweed patch, I stopped to explore. When I did, I not only found milkweed plants, I found a group of monarch larvae happily feeding: as plump and adorable as the Big Green Guy.

This one appeared to be sampling a stem.

A second was making short work of what seemed to be an especially tasty plant. At the time, I didn’t notice what appears to be an empty chrysalis nearby.

Focused on eating as much milkweed as they could, as quickly as possible, the group clearly wasn’t interested in posing, but they provided a wonderful hour’s entertainment.

In a recent post on his Learn Fun Facts blog, Edmark M. Law offered this quotation from Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, David Copperfield:

Indifference to all the actions and passions of mankind was not supposed to be such a distinguished quality at that time, I think.
Yet I have known it very fashionable indeed. I have seen it displayed with such success that I have encountered some fine ladies and gentlemen who might as well have been born caterpillars.

Dickens might have sought a different analogy, had he met the Big Green Guy and his friends.

Comments always are welcome.

 

Whooping Crane Candy

A ready-to-eat wolfberry

Carolina wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum), a low-growing plant with somewhat succulent leaves, grows from North Carolina south through Florida, then west into California and Mexico. Along the Texas coast, it thrives beautifully, thanks to a tolerance for salt, drought, and standing water.

Although a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, wolfberry has a four-lobed corolla rather than the five lobes common to most Solanaceae. Some sources say it blooms in April and May; other extend the bloom period from May until October. However, these photos were taken in late November, after some near-freezing temperatures, and even now, moving well into December, wolfberry is blooming and forming new fruits.

A ripening wolfberry, dusted with sand

Typically, the greatest number of fruits are available in October and November: the precise time that migrating whooping cranes begin to arrive on the Texas coast. The bulk of the cranes’ winter diet is comprised of blue crabs, but wolfberries can provide as much as one-quarter to one-half of the crane’s energy needs in early winter.

Often called Christmas berry because of its color, wolfberry also is known as whooping crane candy. Like kids at a Christmas candy bowl, the whoopers can’t seem to get enough of the treat: lucky for them it’s as nourishing as it is tasty.

Humans, too, have made use of the fruit, which is said to have a tomato-like flavor; Native Americans consumed it either raw or dried.

As the plants’ flowers begin to fade prior to the berries’ appearance, they change color, turning a light, pinkish-salmon before their petals become increasingly translucent.

Shading from lavender to a rich, deep purple, their flowers often can be found among stands of silverleaf nightshade: another member of the Solanaceae whose purple blooms linger well into fall.

While flowering, the plants provide pollen and nectar to a variety of bees, flies, and butterflies. At a time of year when winter is beginning to bring a certain dreariness to the landscape, the flowers and fruits of the wolfberry are a welcome and dependable source of color and food.

Comments always are welcome.

 

Autumn Song

In the woods along Bonaldo Creek

 

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day.
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
                                                               ~ Emily Brontë

 

Comments always are welcome.