Archives For September 2015

It is our pleasure to introduce another titan arum (in bloom!), which we have joyfully named “Alice the Amorphophallus.” Given the history below, it’s a name to remember! Alice will be on display in the Semitropical Greenhouse through Sunday, October 4—view what she looks like now on our webcam. 

PHOTO: Alice the Amorphophallus began blooming late at night on September 28, 2015.

Alice the Amorphophallus is caught blooming on webcam at 12:22:39 a.m. today—the Semitropical Greenhouse may smell a bit funky this morning.

When the Chicago Botanic Garden’s first budding Amorphophallus titanum presented itself, we called it “Spike,” since the flower structure, or inflorescence, is also known as a flower spike.

But the true name of Spike (and Alice) is a title that can make you blush, do a double take, or send you running to Google. How did Amorphophallus titanum end up with that name?

First, imagine a world where the same plant was called different names in different languages in every town in every valley in every country around the globe.

It existed before 1753, when the great botanist Carolus Linnaeus brought order to the chaos with his famous work titled Systema Naturae.

His simple system of binomial nomenclature allowed the world to speak the same language when it came to plants. It was no coincidence that the chosen tongue was Latin—the only language acceptable to all (at least in Europe), as its native speakers no longer existed.

ILLUSTRATION: Corpse plant in flower illustrated by M. Smith in Curtis's Botanical Magazine (1891).

Amorphophallus titanum (Becc.) Becc. ex Arcang.—titan arum from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 117 [ser. 3, vol. 47]: t. 7153 (1891) [M. Smith]

Linnaeus created the scientific shortcut of categorizing plants by their flowers and fruit (leaves had already been tried and abandoned). The elegant system caught on, and Linnaeus himself named some 9,000 plants before his death in 1778.

Some of those plant names continued a long-standing practice: using the nomenclature of the human body to label the botanical world.

The Greeks had done it: they chose the word Hepatica (hepar = liver in Greek), as the name for plants with tri-lobed leaves that look rather like a human liver.

The Romans coined the familiar name Pulmonaria (pulmo = lungs in Latin) for the perennial with spotted leaves that suggested a diseased lung.

Likewise, Linnaeus named a genus Podophyllum, because its leaf resembled a foot, and named another Digitalis—and what gardener hasn’t slipped a fingertip into the flower of a foxglove and admired how neatly it fits?

Fast forward 100 years.

A century after Linnaeus, during the great age of plant exploration in the mid-1800s, ships from many countries were crisscrossing the seas in search of riches—including rare and exotic plants.

ILLUSTRATION: Bud shown with male and female flowers of Amorphophallus titanum (Becc.) Becc. - Titan Arum from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 117 [ser. 3, vol. 47]: t. 7153 (1891) [M. Smith].

Bud shown with male and female flowers of Amorphophallus titanum (Becc.) Becc. ex Arcang.—titan arum from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 117 [ser. 3, vol. 47]: t. 7153 (1891) [M. Smith]

One ship brought Italian botanist and explorer Odoardo Beccari to Sumatra, Indonesia, in 1878. There he was rewarded with the sight of a “bunga bangkai” in full flower. Roughly translated, the name meant “corpse flower” or carrion flower (a name also given to the stinky tropical genus Rafflesia). Collecting seeds and a number of corms, Beccari sent his prizes back to his Italian patron. Sadly, the corms perished. But the seeds survived, and seedlings were grown from them—one of those was sent the following year to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (In 1889, the plant flowered, causing a sensation.)

Beccari’s notes from his trip were published in 1879 in Nuovo Giornale Botanico Italiano under the title “L’Amorphophallus titanum Beccari.” In naming the “new” species, Beccari simply added “giant” to the already-descriptive genus name, which translates as “misshapen phallus.”

Jump forward another century and, in 1995, Sir David Attenborough presented a BBC show called The Private Life of Plants. In the episode about flowers, he introduced A. titanum to viewers with a new “common” name: titan arum. Attenborough felt that the Latin name was inappropriate for television audiences.

Today, as titan cultivation succeeds at more and more botanic gardens and academic institutions, it has become popular to personify these giants of the plant world with nicknames. Some have been rooted in botany (“Carolus” at Cornell referenced Linnaeus himself), some steeped in mythology (“Hyperion,” the thinking man’s Greek titan, at Gustavus Adolphus University), some simply named with joy and humor (“Bob,” “Morticia,” “Tiny”).

PHOTO: Early morning visitors to #CBGAlice enjoy a snootful of stench from the blooming beauty.

Early morning visitors to #CBGAlice enjoy a snootful of stench from the blooming beauty.

PHOTO: The flashlight apps of several cell phones light this morning's pollination activities. Dr. Shannon Still wields a paintbrush laden with pollen, brushing it lightly on the female flowers on the spadix.

The flashlight apps of several cell phones light this morning’s pollination activities. Dr. Shannon Still wields a paintbrush laden with pollen, brushing it lightly on the female flowers on the spadix.

PHOTO: Phones and cameras are out in force today to capture the magical titan arum bloom. The square in the back of the flower is the replaced spathe where pollination occurred moments earlier.

Phones and cameras are out in force today to capture the magical titan arum bloom. The square in the back of the flower is the replaced spathe where pollination occurred moments earlier.

We hope you enjoy your visit with #CBGAlice! Please check our website at chicagobotanic.org/titan for info on the bloom. The live webcam will remain on through Sunday, October 4, 2015. 


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I am often asked, “What can kids do to help the Earth?”

There is a standard litany of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” suggestions that almost everyone can tell you: recycle your garbage, turn the lights off when you leave a room, turn the water off while brushing your teeth, and so forth. 

EarthWe’ve been saying these same things for decades. And while they’re great ideas, they’re things we should all be doing. It’s time to give kids a chance to do something bigger. During Climate Week this year, I am offering a different suggestion: Watch dandelions grow and participate in Project BudBurst.

PHOTO: Dandelions.

These happy dandelions could contribute valuable information to the science of climate change.

Project BudBurst is a citizen science program in which ordinary people (including kids 10 years old and up) contribute information about plant bloom times to a national database online. The extensive list of plants that kids can watch includes the common dandelion, which any 10-year-old can find and watch over time.

Why is this an important action project?

Scientists are monitoring plants as a way to detect and measure changes in the climate. Recording bloom times of dandelions and other plants over time across the country enables them to compare how plants are growing in different places at different times and in different years. These scientists can’t be everywhere watching every plant all the time, so your observations may be critical in helping them understand the effects of climate change on plants.

What to Do:

1. Open the Project Budburst website at budburst.org and register as a member. It’s free and easy. Click around the website and read the information that interests you.

2. Go to the “Observing Plants” tab and print a Wildflower Regular Report form. Use this form to gather and record information about your dandelion. 

3. Find a dandelion in your neighborhood, preferably one growing in a protected area, not likely to be mowed down or treated with weed killers, because you will want to watch this plant all year. It’s also best if you can learn to recognize it without any flowers, and that you start with a plant that has not bloomed yet.

4. Fill in the Wildflower Regular Report with information about the dandelion and its habitat.

Common Plant Name: Common dandelion

Scientific Name: Taraxacum officinale

Site Name: Give the area a name like “Green Family Backyard” or “Smart Elementary School Playground”

Latitude and Longitude: Use a GPS device to find the exact location of your dandelion. (Smartphones have free apps that can do this. Ask an adult for help if you need it.) Record the letters, numbers, and symbols exactly as shown on the GPS device. This is important because it will enable the website database to put your plant on a national map.

Answer the questions about the area around your plant. If you don’t understand a question, ask an adult to help you.

PHOTO: This is a printout from the Project BudBurst Website, that asks about the location of the plant and provides places to record bloom times, as well as other comments.

The BudBurst Wildflower Regular Report is easy to use and will guide you through the process.

girl with data sheet

After you find a dandelion you want to watch, record information about the location of the plant.

5. Now you’re ready to watch your dandelion. Visit it every day that you can. On the right side of the form, record information as you observe it.

budburst notebook

  • In the “First Flower” box, write the date you see the very first, fully open yellow flower on your dandelion.
  • As the plant grows more flowers, record the date when it has three or more fully open flowers.
  • Where it says “First Ripe Fruit,” it means the first time a fluffy, white ball of seeds is open. Resist the temptation to pick it and blow it. Remember, you are doing science for the planet now!
  • For “Full Fruiting” record the date when there are three seedheads on this plant. It’s all right if the seeds have blown away. It may have new flowers at the same time.
  • In the space at the bottom, you can write comments about things you notice. For example, you may see an insect on the flower, or notice how many days the puffball of seeds lasts. This is optional.
  • Keep watching, and record the date that the plant looks like it is all finished for the year—no more flowers or puffballs, and the leaves look dead.
  • When your plant has completed its life cycle, or it is covered in snow, log onto the BudBurst website and follow directions to add your information to the database.


Other Plants to Watch

You don’t have to watch dandelions. You can watch any of the other plants on the list, such as sunflower (Helianthus annuus) or Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica). You can also watch a tree or grass—but you will need to use a different form to record the information. Apple (Malus pumila), red maple (Acer rubrum), and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) trees are easy to identify and interesting to watch. If you are an over-achiever, you can observe the butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) bloom times and do citizen science research for monarchs at the same time! (The USDA Forest Service website provides information about that; click here for more information.) 

PHOTO: Two girls are looking closely at a milkweed plant that has about eight green seed pods.

These students are observing a milkweed that is in the “First Ripe Fruit” stage.

For the past two springs, educators at the Chicago Botanic Garden have taught the fifth graders at Highcrest Middle School in nearby Wilmette how to do Project BudBurst in their school’s Prairie Garden. The students are now watching spiderwort, red columbine, yellow coneflower, and other native plants grow at their school. Some of these prairie plants may be more difficult to identify, but they provide even more valuable information about climate.

So while you are spending less time in the shower and you’re riding your bike instead of asking mom for a ride to your friend’s house, go watch some plants and help save the planet even more!


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

“Titan Tim” Pollak here, with some thoughts about Spike the corpse flower as he goes into dormancy. I never thought I’d call myself “Titan Tim,” but Spike has forever changed my life—as he did life here at the Chicago Botanic Garden—during the four weeks he was on display in our Semitropical Greenhouse.

Lyn Skor Quote

Spike brought the nation’s—and even the world’s—attention to the Garden, as we waited for our first-ever flowering titan to open up in all its stinky and colorful glory. The event—and I am proud to call this an event—brought more than 76,000 visitors to see Spike (8,200 people alone on Sunday, August 30, when we manually opened up the flower), making it by far the largest event in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s history.) In addition, there were 948 television and radio stories broadcast and 126 online reports, reaching an unbelievable 173,884,617 estimated people!

I myself did 42 interviews regarding Spike, including television, radio, print, and internet. And I wrote seven blogs along the way, telling the story, history, origins, care, and details about the smell of Amorphophallus titanum, the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence.

During all of the “Spike-mania,” I was often asked if I was getting any sleep. My answer was “Not so much!” Spike became a member of my family, a sort of adopted son that I referred to as “him,” “he,” “mine,” and “ours” in conversation. During those weeks, Spike became my life, 24/7, day and night…and I became “Titan Tim,” for sure.

Julie Ferraro Quote


The power of one plant…Wow!

“When is he going to bloom?” That was the number one question on everyone’s mind, both at the Garden and from visitors. As you know by now, Spike didn’t have the energy to bloom by himself, as we thought he would. (Read the story about it here.)

Nicole Dh Quote

Finally, we decided to manually open the spathe to check on the viability of the male and female individual flowers inside. If healthy enough, we could attempt to pollinate the female flowers with donor pollen from recent titans at the Denver Botanic Gardens and California’s Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. We also wanted to collect the pollen produced by Spike’s male flowers, to preserve some here for the future, to donate to other institutions, and to contribute to global genetic diversity.

We knew we would be giving our visitors a very rare opportunity to see the internal flower structures up close—to observe, touch, feel, and even smell a procedure that has rarely ever been done. What a teaching moment it became! (Spike taught the world about pollination.) At that point, horticulture and science met in the transparency of the public eye. Our horticultural staff had nurtured and cared for Spike for 12 years. Our scientists had long been working to bring attention to the endangered and threatened plant species of the world. And the public was curious and enthusiastic about learning the facts about a “huge, rotten, and rare” phenomenon.

That morning, I experienced the power of one plant—an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Despite the disappointment, Spike was a success: he was a rock star and a hero to the botanical world.

Melissa Perrin Quote


To all of Spike’s Garden friends

To still have people coming by and asking questions well into the week after Spike's spathe was removed was pretty remarkable.

To still have people coming by and asking questions well into the week after Spike’s spathe was removed was pretty remarkable.

The other amazing experience for me was with Spike’s visitors, fans, and “groupies.” He had such a large following, and I often saw some of the same people visit day after day! I heard and received so many positive comments from visitors. People said that Spike was part of daily dinner conversations—that they would converse about when he was going to bloom, how tall he was going to get, and so on. Spike had become a household name! Many of you were devoted watchers of the streaming live cam on our website and on YouTube, and many wrote to say that you saw me every morning checking on him, measuring him, touching him, and smelling him. It was wonderful and humbling, and it made me feel like a proud papa to Spike!

I want to share with you just a few of the many wonderful comments I received via e-mail and in response to my blogs:

From Don H.: “How very cool to experience something so astounding after years of care. I can’t wait to experience it!!”

From Richard F.: “The live cam provides a wonderful tool to watch the flowering progress 24/7. Thank you for this initiative.”

From Chicago Catt: “It’s fascinating. Thank you for bringing this to Chicago!”

From Marjorie R.: “The anticipation is killing me! I’m going to be one of those people showing up at 2 a.m. I have been watching the webcam online every day at 2 a.m. to check on him!”

From Nicole R.: “Tim, I need to know: Are you sleeping with Spike these days? …Please assure us you are there, encouraging it, protecting it, and maybe even hugging it from time to time.”

From Heeyoung K.: “Dear Tim, First of all, I was amazed how you and your team turned Spike’s sad ‘failure’ to bloom into (an) even more wonderful learning experience with heartwarming support from so many people. I would say that was (the most) monumental event that has ever happened to a ‘mere’ plant :).”

From Lynn Q.: “Even though Spike didn’t bloom as we all hoped…the whole ‘Spike experience’ orchestrated by the Garden and all of the specialists working with Spike was just fantastic. I loved learning about these plants through frequent visits and reading the information on the website. Best of all was the opportunity to monitor growth through the live cam: we viewed Spike from time to time at home. Thus, I write to thank you and encourage you on the next efforts with these amazing plants!”

Thanks to all who wrote and reached out to me during Spike’s time on display. From myself and all of us at the Garden, we simply can’t thank you enough.

The silver lining in the story of Spike is that we have more titans to come. Seven other Amorphophallus titanum plants are in various stages of leaf, dormancy, and growth in our production area, and sooner or later another will be on display for you all to come and experience. Keep checking our website for updates on these rare and unusual plants.

The corpse flower will return in the future…and so will “Titan Tim.”


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall is the season to spend outdoor time with the family. With school occupying the weekdays and thoughts of the busy holidays ahead, every autumn weekend counts!

For some families, “Let’s go look at the leaves” works as an autumn weekend rallying cry year after year (Welcome back!). But other families need a little more than color for motivation. Here are our suggestions for some fun fall things to do together at the Chicago Botanic Garden—and what to say to get the kids interested:

PHOTO: Beekeeper Ann Stevens adds bees to a hive this past spring.

Beekeeper Ann Stevens adds bees to a hive this past spring. Find out how those bees did this summer, and get more beekeeping questions answered in person!

“Let’s go meet the beekeepers.”

Harvest Weekend is September 19 to 20. The whole family can head out to the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden for a day full of fun and interesting topics: talk face-to-hood with the beekeepers; sample the apple expert’s varieties and discuss how to plant an apple tree in your yard; learn how to pickle, can, and preserve and how to keep growing veggies into winter; and join in on a honey tasting! There’s fun stuff for little kids, of course, and for foodies there’s a cookbook swap—bring a gently used cookbook and take a “new” one home!

Also that weekend: It’s the final Malott Japanese Garden Family Sunday of the season, a good day for exploring more about Japanese culture (creative kids will dig the gyotaku, or fish prints).

PHOTO: Biking to and from the Garden is better than ever with the North Branch Trail connection, and newly-available bike rentals.

Biking to and from the Garden is better than ever with the North Branch Trail connection, and newly available bike rentals.

“Let’s go for a bike ride.”

Rent a bike on site at the Garden or BYO (bike your own) here via the spiffy new Green Bay Trail linkup and North Branch Trail addition along Lake Cook Road. Park your bike at the Visitor Center or Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, and hike around to see the mums, the first fall color in the McDonald Woods, and the taller-than-your-head grasses in the Dixon Prairie.

Every weekend in September: free, fun activities for your toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary school kids! Bring them to Family Drop-ins under the arbor at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Hands-on activities for fall include making pumpkin prints and playing sniff & guess!

PHOTO: Selfie spot! Gourd Mountain is a great backdrop for your fall photo.

Gourd Mountain returns as the favorite photo op at the Fall Bulb Festival!

“Let’s go see Gourd Mountain.”

Fall Bulb Festival is October 2 to 4. Everybody loves Gourd Mountain, the giant pile of picture-perfect gourds on the Esplanade (holiday photo, anyone?). It’s the centerpiece of Fall Bulb Festival, which combines the always-anticipated indoor Bulb Sale with an outdoor harvest marketplace. Sip a cider while you munch on cinnamon-roasted almonds, or enjoy a glass of wine or beer while you browse the booths. The straw-bale maze is a giggling playground for kids or all ages. Add live music, and brilliant fall color and enjoy the Garden in its full fall glory.

Also that weekend: Take advantage of the October 4 Farmers’ Market to buy freshly harvested fruits, vegetables, and fall crops, with an eye toward canning and preserving. (Did you get your recipes from Harvest Weekend’s cookbook swap?)

PHOTO: Elsa and Olaf know the place to trick-or-treat is Hallowfest!

Elsa and Olaf know the place to trick-or-treat is HallowFest!

“Let’s go trick-or-treating.”

We have three weekends to show off your costumes at the Garden this year!

Come in costume to Trains, Tricks & Treats (October 17 to 18) and HallowFest (October 24 to 25), and bring the dog in costume, too, for Spooky Pooch (read more below)! The Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America hosts Trains, Tricks & Treats especially for toddlers and preschool train enthusiasts, with spooky-friendly decorations and the garden’s famous miniature landmarks decked out in Halloween style. We’ll be handing out small treats and treasures, too—and a Halloween plant to take home! (Admission applies.)

“Things” get a little creepier at HallowFest, as night falls at the Garden: start with scar-y face painting, then check out the bat cave, the haunted forest, the awesome carved pumpkin gallery, and the ghost train at the Model Railroad Garden. Then…dance party! Excellent family photos, right?

PHOTO: Spooky Pooch parade favorite Cerberus (or "Fluffy" to Harry Potter fans) "pawses" for a photo op.

Parade favorite Cerberus (or “Fluffy” to Harry Potter fans) “pawses” for a photo op.

“Let’s dress the dog up!”

Spooky Pooch Parade is on Halloween this year—Saturday, October 31! If you haven’t been to Spooky Pooch Parade yet, you’re in for a “treat!” For two hours only (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.), the Garden throws open its doors to human’s best friends (on leashes) for a truly zany costume contest and pet parade, and one of the most fun and popular days of the year. The competition is stiff—last year’s overall winner was the entire cast of The Wizard of Oz!

Also that weekend: the Roadside Flower Sale is the best resource in town for the beautifully crafted dried flower arrangements, cornucopia, wreaths, bouquets and decorations you crave for the holidays. Dried flowers, grasses, and pods are collected all year long by a dedicated group of volunteers, who spend months designing and crafting the 300-plus items for sale; it’s been a Garden tradition since 1980.

 

See you at the Garden this fall!


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I am sure that most of you know what I am referring to when I say “leap year.” Although this is not a leap year, I am suggesting that we unofficially call 2015 “Lep Year”—“lep” being short for Lepidoptera (from the Latin “scaly wing”), the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. It has probably been a decade or more since I have seen the diversity and abundance of butterflies and moths that I have seen this past spring and summer.

PHOTO: Euchaetes egle (Milkweed tussock moth).

These voracious Euchaetes egle caterpillars were shredding some of the common milkweed plants near the prairie at the Garden this summer.

Lately, the butterflies have gotten the lion’s share of PR. In particular, the monarch butterfly is on nearly everyone’s radar, due to its precarious situation with dwindling wintering grounds and lack of larval food plants—the milkweeds. However, if you compare the two groups, butterflies and moths, the numbers of moth species outnumber the butterflies by more than ten to one in North America! In fact, there is a moth species that is also dependent on milkweeds—the milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle). The caterpillars of this species are black and orange (a similar color combination to the monarch), and they usually occur in large numbers when you find them. The black-and-orange coloration signals to predators not to eat these fuzzy little fur balls.

The main difference between butterflies and moths is that the moths, in general, tend to be rather drab colored and active at night while the butterflies are mostly colorful and active during the day. These are generalities since you can find very colorful moths, rather drab butterflies, and a number of day-flying moths. There are also structural differences most easily seen in their antennae. While butterflies have narrow antennae with club-shaped structures at the end, the moths can have either thread-like antennae that end in a point in females or fern-like antennae in males. The fern-like antennae of the males are used to detect the chemicals, called pheromones, released by the females when they are ready to mate. Some moths can follow these chemical trails for miles.

Sixty percent or more of the diet of some nestling songbirds comes from caterpillars, and these are most certainly moth caterpillars.

Moths are not only extremely diverse in shape and pattern, they also have a wonderful variety of common names that people have come up with to label them. There are sphinx moths or hawk moths, daggers and darts, army worms and prominents, sallows and quakers, owlets and loopers, and marvels and bird-dropping moths. The names go on and on, some attempting to describe the adults and others the larvae.

PHOTO: Cecropia moth caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia).

This brightly ornamented Cecropia moth caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia) will turn into North America’s largest native moth.

It is hard to say which stage of the moth life cycle is more impressive. Although the adult moths are so varied in their shape, size, and patterns, the caterpillars are no less amazing. Take for example the strikingly beautiful brown hooded owlet moth caterpillar.

PHOTO: Brown hooded owlet caterpillar (Cucullia convexipennis).

The brown hooded owlet caterpillar (Cucullia convexipennis) is a stunning specimen to find outside my office.

It would be difficult to find a more attractive critter anywhere, and here it was, right outside my office. Equally impressive are the huge silkworm caterpillars. The Cecropia moth caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia) is almost shocking, not only because of its massive size, but also because of the large orange-and-yellow spiky beads covered in black spots along its back and the smaller turquoise-spiked beads ornamenting its sides.

And who could talk about moth caterpillars without mentioning the infamous woolly bear? These orange and black-banded caterpillars are often consulted to see what the winter will be like. Unfortunately, the banding on the caterpillar has nothing to do with the weather, but at least it has gotten it a lot of attention. The woolly bear eventually turns into the bright orange Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).

PHOTO: Woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella).

Who hasn’t been tempted to touch the woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella)? Photo by By Micha L. Rieser via Wikimedia Commons

PHOTO: Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).

The Isabella tiger moth retains its orange-and-black caterpillar coloring. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons

The high diversity and nocturnal behavior of moths make it not unlikely that you might find a moth or caterpillar you haven’t seen before. The other day, while trimming my rambunctious Virginia creeper vine on the side of my house, I spotted an interesting caterpillar that I had never seen before. As a woodland ecologist I have experience with a lot of caterpillars, so it is always interesting when something new comes along. As it turns out, the caterpillar was the larval stage of an Abbott’s sphinx moth (Sphecodina abbottii). Although this was a new find for me, I still have not seen the adult moth.

Every morning when I come into work, I check the wall outside our building under the light to see if any new moths have shown up during the night. Some of the moths I have spotted this summer are the Crocus geometer, Colona moth, Ironweed borer, large maple spanworm, Ambiguous moth, green owlet, and one of the microlepidoptera, the morning-glory plume moth.

PHOTO: Colona moth (Haploa colona).

Colona moth (Haploa colona)

PHOTO: Crocus geometer (Xanthotype urticaria).

Crocus geometer (Xanthotype urticaria)

PHOTO: Green owlet (Leuconycta diphteroides).

Green owlet (Leuconycta diphteroides)

PHOTO: Morning glory plume (Emmelina monodactyla).

Morning glory plume (Emmelina monodactyla)

PHOTO: Ironweed borer (Papaipema cerussata).

Ironweed borer (Papaipema cerussata)

Most moths do not live for very long as adults. Ironically, some of the largest moth species live the shortest lives. I had the opportunity to see a new species of one of these megamoths for the first time this summer when my wife brought home an Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis) that she found clinging to the window of the school where she works. The very large moths in the family Saturniidae (silkworms and royal moths) emerge either from the soil, in the case of the Imperial moth, or from one of the familiar large cocoons you can find attached to a twig, like those of the Cecropia or Promethea moths. Since these moths do not have functional mouth parts, they are unable to feed, so they live off their stored body fat while searching for mates until they die, usually within seven to ten days.

PHOTO: Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis).

This Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis), had a 5-to-6-inch wingspan, and a body as big as my thumb!


Interested in finding out more? Visit the Moth Photographers Group at mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu or BugGuide at bugguide.net.

Another new species for me was the painted lichen moth. While removing Japanese beetles from my hazelnut shrubs, I spotted what looked like a large firefly. As it turned out, it was not a firefly at all, but rather a moth that mimics one. Since fireflies are toxic to most predators, the moth gets a benefit from looking like the firefly. Another neat trick they employ is a maneuver known as frass flicking. They are able to expel their excrement nearly a foot away from their body. This is important because some predatory wasps locate their prey by homing in on the scent of their droppings.

There are a number of moths—or more accurately, moth larva—that are pests for gardeners. Almost all vegetable growers have run into cutworms at one time or another. Cutworms were given this name because of their habit of cutting off seedling plants in the garden. There are a number of cutworm species native to this country, but all develop into moths later in their life cycle.

PHOTO: Parasitized sphinx moth caterpillar.

The white structures on this parasitized sphinx moth caterpillar are the cocoons of the braconid wasps.

Another familiar larva is the tobacco or tomato hornworm (Manduca sexta). These are the large green larvae of one of our native sphinx or hawk moths. The Carolina sphinx larva is often found on tomatoes. Although they will rapidly chow down on tomato plant leaves, I generally leave them alone until they have had their fill and work their way down into the soil where they pupate to spend the winter. (I find that they rarely put much of a dent in the productivity of my tomato plants.) If you should happen to dig up one of their pupae when turning over the garden soil, they are a dark, shiny brown, pointed at one end, and have what looks like a teapot handle on the side that houses a long, curved proboscis. If you pick them up, you might be startled by the fact that they often times will swivel around at the middle—probably a predator avoidance behavior. Tobacco hornworm and sphinx moth caterpillars commonly fall prey to braconid wasps, which parasitize them. Leaving these parasitized caterpillars in the tomato garden can be an effective method of pest control.

PHOTO: Female gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar).

Female gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar)

A more serious pest species is the introduce gypsy moth. These moths occur in huge numbers and are capable of completely defoliating adult oak trees over large areas. A few years ago, we avoided an invasion of gypsy moths at the Garden when hundreds of thousands of these moths, in Turnbull Woods forest preserve across Green Bay Road in Glencoe, succumbed to a cool, rainy spring.

Join me and take advantage of this Lep Year—check out the yard lights, hedgerows, and flower beds, and see how many moths, caterpillars, and cocoons you can find!


Photos ©2015 Jim Steffen unless otherwise noted.

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