Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Return of the Police Car Moth (Wannabes)

 For those who remember last July's post on Fireweed that, among other pollinators, featured the Police Car Moth (Gnophaela vermiculata), I can now say that those flashing black & whites were doing more than just helping Fireweed to have a good time, but also indulging in some procreating of their own. The caterpillars already are fairly large and munch, munch, munching away on the Forget-Me-Nots (Myosotis sylvatica). 
 Forget-Me-Nots thrive in the HBG (they have naturalized in the yard), but the Siberian Bluebells (Mertensia sibirica) are only expanding gradually. Unfortunately more caterpillars have been showing up on the bluebells. So, we have been indulging in a bit of natural selection for host plant preference. 
 So far, no sign that the dear (if ephemeral) Siberian Bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost') or inexpensive but persistently attractive Bethlehem Sage (Pulmonaria saccharata ‘Roy Davidson’) have stimulated the caterpillars' tastebuds. But who knows, maybe the mother moths made the choices.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Death of a Mystery Plant

 Saturday 9 June 2007, like many a June weekend in the Home Bug Garden, was a day of planting, transplanting, weeding, and enjoying what sun, flowers, and bugs were in evidence before the usual afternoon clouds, thunder, and rain. Along the well shaded west side of the garage, I found something new and interesting – a tiny seedling with leaves with small, hairlike teeth on their margins. I was very excited because the leaves looked a lot like those of an Epimedium (variously known as Bishop’s Hat, Barrenwort, Fairy Wings, and Horny Goat Weed). In spite of the mostly off-putting common names, barrenworts are graceful plants with attractive foliage and pretty flowers. Moreover, barrenworts are reputed to do well in dry shade – the most difficult spot to fill with plants in any garden. The urge to splurge on epimedia at the local greenhouse was strong, but tempered by the high price, the usual Zone 5 rating (HBG is a Zone 3 garden), and a failed experiment with a West Coast native Redwood Insideout Flower (aka Redwood Ivy) Vancouveria planipetala. Like barrenworts, the insideout flowers belong to the barberry family, Berberidaceae, of which the Home Bug Garden was otherwise bereft.
 Well, what luck, both a new family (those bitten by the collector’s urge will understand this) and a possible dry shade tolerant groundcover! So, I immediately transplanted the frail seedling to the dry shade under the Colorado Blue Spruce in the front and have been babying it along ever since. Attempts to identify the mystery seedling were unsuccessful – even the University botanist would not venture a guess – and it looked like we would have to wait until it bloomed to discover its secret name.
 The seedling survived the winter of 2008 and by 2009 had formed a woody base and stem. This seemed to rule out barrenwort, because these have wiry stems. So, later in 2009, encouraged by the luck my fellow Edmonton gardener NorthernShade Gardening has had with her epimedia, I dropped a dollop of my disposable income at the local greenhouse and came home with a Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' and a Epimedium x warleyense 'Ellen Willmott'. Both were rated for Zone 4 by the optimistic greenhouse, but rather than risk them in the dry shade, I put them in my most protected and moist shade bed. Both barrenworts survived the Winter of 2010 and, although the leaves died off this winter, new sprouts are just coming up now. Meanwhile, the mystery plant kept slowing growing and was about half a metre high today with lots of ciliated leaves each with 2-3 sharp thorns at their base.
 Then Gardening Zone 3b posted on harbouring criminals. I was too busy enjoying the warm, partly cloudy weekend – perfect for planting out – to read blogs. But, good weather never lasts long in Edmonton, and Victoria Day dawned cool (+7 C), wet, and by noon had dropped to +4 (40 F) in the rain. Rather than dwelling on the chance of the temperature dropping a few degrees more and that damned white stuff returning to bury frozen tomato seedlings, I’ve caught up on my blog roll and have discovered that I have been nurturing a Prohibited Noxious Weed – Common Barberry (Berberis vulgaris). Although the leaves are poisonous, the berries are used to make jam in its native Afro-Eurasian range. Unfortunately for barberry aficionados, birds also like the berries and spread the shrub and barberry is an intermediate host of stem rust of wheat (Puccinia graminis). Alas, into the rain and watch out for the thorns.
 A sad end to what had started out as an exciting mystery, but I discovered another criminal lurking in the garden – Bighead Knapweed (Centaurea macrocephala). Also called Giant Knapweed, Armenian Basketflower, and Lemon Fluff Knapweed,
 Bighead is an impressive plant growing about 1.5 m (5 feet) tall and producing numerous bee and butterfly friendly yellow flower heads. It is not uncommon in Edmonton gardens, but Bighead may be new to the list. I grew mine from seed (‘Mystery Perennial Packet’) from what one would think was a reliable source.
 The original Bighead has now spread to a half dozen or so, some forming decent clumps. So, I can see it has the potential to spread and it probably belongs in the Rogue’s Gallery. Unfortunately, Bighead also has a big root and is a bother to grub out. A transplanting spade works better than a weeder.
 A total of 9 species of Centaurea Knapweeds (and Russian Knapweed Rhaponticum repens) are posted as Prohibited Noxious Weeds in Alberta (see the Zone 3b post) and 5 more are listed as Noxious Weeds by the USDA. None of these is Balkan Knapweed (Centaurea atropurpurea), a somewhat creepy plant in bud, but attractive to both people and bees in bloom.
 My first Balkan Knapweed came back from a visit to the Devonian Botanical Garden in 2005. It didn’t bloom until the third year, but now there are a dozen or so seedlings around the yard. I think I will err on the side of caution and grub them out too. I suppose this is a bit bigoted of me, but I'd rather not be the source of a new weed, no matter how attractive and bee-friendly.
 The difference between Prohibited and every day noxious weeds is that the populations of the former are still small and restricted and there is a chance of preventing them from spreading. To quote the AB Invasive Plant Identification Guide: "Plants in this category are either not currently found in Alberta or are found in few locations such that eradication could be possible. Under the Weed Control Act a person has a responsibility to destroy a prohibited noxious weed." Those Noxious Weeds not prohibited are probably here for good. As with the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale F.H. Wigg. ssp. officinale), some day they may fall off the list and be just another interesting or annoying member of the flora.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bumbling with Bombus: Queens & Cuckoos

 It seems to have jumped from winter to summer in the Home Bug Garden. We had three straight days of sun and +20 C temperatures in a row – unusual even in the summer. We may get three more, but the winds are so blustery that one has to hunker down to enjoy the sun. That seems to be true of the bees too: strong winds keep them low to the ground, but fortunately at this time of the year that is where most of the flowers are. The queens of the early emerging bumblebees spent the first few warm days search every nook and cranny for nest sites, but now have settled down to serious foraging.
Actually, this is most likely Bombus perplexus - perplexing indeed
 The queens of at least three species of bumble bee are braving the windy HBG at the moment, all members of the subgenus Pyrobombus. We talked about Bombus vagans perplexus, one of the black and yellow bumble bees, last year when first working out how to be sure we were looking at the apparently threatened Bombus  (Bombus) terricola. They featured in my first Bombus Cartoon. The other Pyrobombus, however, are yellow, orange, and black – and the queens of two of these are both early emerging and very similar in appearance: B. huntii and B. ternarius. I know that workers of both species foraged in the HBG last year – the workers are a bit easier to tell apart – but the only difference I can find between the queens is that in ternarius the black on the thorax extend posteriorly on the scutellum (see Bombus Cartoon Mark II below).
 As we all know, I’m a bit camera-challenged and the wind hasn’t helped a bit, but I’ll offer a couple of blurry Bombus ternarius pictures in support of the identification. At least one smaller queen with yellow followed by three abdominal stripes of orange also passed through – most likely Bombus centralis – but the wind carried her away faster than I could start up my point-and-shoot.
 Lots of smaller hairy bees have also been out and I believe they belong to the genus Andrena – a complex group with lots of species. Along with the Bombus queens, these bees clearly liked foraging at Coltsfoot (Petasites palmatus) and Siberian Squill (Scilla sibirica 'Spring Beauty'), and the Bombus also went after the Striped-Squill (Puschkinia scilloides 'libanotica') voraciously. Tulips, except Tulipa tarda, seem of little interest to the bees and the large Dutch crocus accounted for all but one or two of the crocus visits that I saw (and the smaller crocus out numbered the Dutch crocus by about 20:1). 
 So, I guess I’ll just have to consider the hybrid tulips, daffodils, and smaller crocuses for me and the rest for the bees. However, there was one bee at the squill and coltsfoot that I’m not so sure I was happy to see, although it represented a new HBG record – a species of Nomada
 These wasp-like bees are cuckoos – the females enter the nests of other bees, lay an egg, and their grub eats up all the host bee’s provisions (this is called cleptoparasitism – same root as in kleptomania). I suspect it is the Andrena that will be robbed (blurry below, better one here from a previous May).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

For Madeleine in May

My niece Madeleine is attending her commencement exercises this weekend in Virginia and will be awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree. I'd hoped to have some nice pictures from the garden to post in her honour, but although we have jumped from winter right into summer weather over the last two weeks, the plants have been slow catching up and the last few days have been so windy that only blurs and blasted petals can be captured. Instead I'll post some of my favorite pictures that her aunt took on Vancouver Island over the Easter break. I'll start with two British Columbia natives: the fawn lily above (Erythronium revolutum), a native but doing well in Butchart Gardens, and the salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) endemic in a coastal rainforest patch below.
One native in a garden and one in a forest seems too balanced, so here are two English Daisies (Bellis perennis) from Butchart Gardens. In its escaped, naturalized form, English Daisy is often called by the less prosaic 'Lawndaisy', and for those that like their lawns a solid green or their parks to have only pre-European native plants, it is a noxious weed in both North America and Australia. It reverts to a simple white flower head with far fewer ray flowers in the wild and is very common in Victoria, BC. I still remember my disappointment on learning that the pretty white daisy wasn't native, but a weed in Victoria, Australia.
Well Madeleine I hope the thunderstorms hold off until after Commencement is over, that you have a grand day,  and that you do well by your BA. And, since no HBG post is complete without a bug, here's a mayfly subimago perched on my finger to wish you luck in your new life.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Evil Invaders of Vancouver Island

 Spring seems to have finally come to Edmonton, or at least all the augers seem to say so: the marsh marigolds leaves popped up along with the first crocus blooms (‘Ruby Giant’ Crocus tommasinianus Herbert on 24 April), the rhubarb punched its way through the snow (26 April), the first bumblebee queen was sighted (29 April), sandhill cranes gruked their way overhead (2 May), the first chionodoxa bloomed (May 3), the last of the snow went (4 May), the coltsfoot flowers opened (4 May), the first tulip bloomed (5 May), and the first Andrena bee descended on the coltsfoot (6 May). Even the first migratory songbird, a Swainson’s Thrush, made its appearance at the bubbler in the back (6 May). And surest sign of all, I’m puttering around in the garden again.
 Although the winter was long and harsh, the unusually heavy snow pack gave me some hope that winter mortality would be less than usual. Alas, there is no sign of that and it looks like I may have several open spots to fill where exotic ‘perennials’ have become dead organic matter. One pleasant surprise, however, was the reappearance of one of last year’s experiments – a leafy vegetable that is a perennial in warmer climates, the Turkish Rocket (Bunias orientalis L.), also know by the degustibusnondiputandulatory name Turkish Warty Cabbage. Only one seed in the packet germinated last summer, and the resulting rosette looked sad and shaded under the overgrowing tomato (although this may have allowed it to hide in plain sight from the introduced cabbage white butterflies whose caterpillars ravaged all my other Brassicaceae). The young leaves are very peppery and, other than the coltsfoot stalks (which you can boil like asparagus – but in the HBG, these are for the bees), the only edible item in the Home Bug Garden at this time of year.
 Unfortunately, Turkish Warty Cabbage seems to be pretty vigorous and has naturalized (or become a weed, if you prefer) in British Columbia and much of north eastern North America, so it will bear watching. If seedlings start showing up, I may have to have a feast instead of a nibble. Predicting the potential of a plant or animal from an exotic locality to become established in a new land is one of those mysteries that Science seems to have made little progress in unraveling. Some do and some don’t, but those that do and spread rapidly typically have propagules with high vagility, e.g. tasty berries that birds love, fluffy seeds that disperse on the wind, or wings which do the same as fluff for animals. The seeds of Turkish Warty Cabbage are large and lumpy, so I doubt they move far on their own. In contrast, the European Paper Wasp Polistes dominula (Christ, 1791), is far too vagile, appears to be spreading in many parts of North America, and was the most obvious insect in late April gardens on Vancouver Island (bumblebees being second).
 Mrs HBG and I took advantage of the late Easter break to visit the mother-in-law on Vancouver Island on the coast of British Columbia. We lucked out with two days of mostly sun to one of rain, so most of the time was spent walking through coastal rainforest or visiting gardens (vs watching slugs), but we devoted one morning to the impressive Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. 
 The RBCM has many interesting displays, but the one devoted to invasive species seems more thoughtful than most of its kind. I’m still ambivalent about the false native vs alien dichotomy that I think has poisoned the study of spreading species, but I can largely agree with the first paragraph on this RBCM plaque.
 I don’t like several of the implications of the second paragraph – primarily the removal of ‘humans’ from nature and the use of the emotive ‘alien’ – but at least the aboriginal inhabitants of Vancouver Island are inferred to have been capable of introducing species they liked to the Island. 
 As a practical definition, though, I think the first sentence of paragraph II is okay (using a neutral term such as ‘introduced’), but it is really the introduced species that are able to spread into ‘natural’ habitats that are the problem and these are not the bulk of the species that have been introduced to Vancouver Island over the last 160 years. A good example of this is Butchart Gardens in Victoria – almost entirely given over to ‘alien’ plants, most of which have not moved into the forests and meadows that pre-existed European settlement.
 Here’s a final example for consideration, and one that led to some wry feelings in the HBGardener. As we were leaving Butchart Gardens after many hours of wallowing in alien flowers, we noticed something scampering across a rock wall. To our amazement, it was a beautiful lizard! Lizards are as common as birds in Queensland, but Alberta has none but a horny toad (Phrynosoma douglassii brevirostre) that barely manages to scuttle into the southeastern corner of the Province. We were delighted, but at a loss as to the lizard’s identity. Much to our chagrin, the next day at the RBCM we learned that it was the European Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis Laurenti, 1768): a dozen lizards were released into the wild when a small zoo on the island shut down and now they are scampering around much of Victoria. We were crest-fallen: what we thought was a delightful animal was an evil alien invader.