Tuesday, October 27, 2015

curving out petal

curving out petal
unfolds from the heart of a
melancholy crocus 

Last fall I planted half a dozen autumn crocus by the front walk, just inside the gate. In the spring, violets and peonies came and went, iris and roses, and finally asters and goldenrod. Now, in late October, everything has gone to seed. One cold morning, I venture out the front door to be greeted by a solitary burst of violet flame lighting up the dead leaves, more vibrant than the red blueberry leaves at the foot of its pale stem. It looks a bit like saffron crocus, and indeed it is often called meadow saffron, but it blooms in the fall instead of the spring. I can't imagine what possesses the plant to bloom when almost all the pollinators have flown away, retreated into nests or died.

This flower (a member of the lily family, Liliaceae) is as surprising as the surprise lilies, Lycoris squamigera (actually in the amaryllis family, Amaryllidaceae) when they magically "resurrect" in August on their leafless stalks. Both plants are called naked ladies because the blossoms appear long after the leaves have died. Now I recall noticing some narrow dark green leaves that came up in this spot in the spring but produced no flowers. I had forgotten planting the autumn crocus the previous fall. Unlike the tall pink resurrection lilies, autumn crocus are daintier, more delicate. This particular variety, "Waterlily," has unique double petals, like a fairy's tutu.

Autumn crocus may look like saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, whose red-orange stigmas are used as a colorful and flavorful spice, but all parts of Colchicum autumnale are deadly. The leaves, seeds and corms contain colchicine, a poison whose symptoms appear in two to five hours and resemble arsenic, with no antidote. However, properly processed as a drug, colchicine is used for the treatment of acute gout. Interestingly, I recently had a bout of gout. The doctor prescribed allopurinol, which probably contains the alkoloid colchicine. But I opted to use an herbal formula, Gout Resolve, which definitely did not contain any toxins and it relieved the pain and swelling in my toes in two days.

Only one autumn crocus appeared out of the all the corms I planted a year ago. But the single bloom, alone among the dying foliage, is more heart-breakingly beautiful than a handful of companions. 

So fragile and short-lived. After three days of blooming, this morning in a cold autumnal rain the lone naked lady bows her lilac tresses to the ground.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

small black caterpillar

small black caterpillar 
shrouded in silk strands clings
to the top of a dry grass stem 
head raised, not moving

I find first one, then several more small black caterpillars, clinging to the ends of dead grass stems. To my eye they stand out, black against the pale dead grass, like the banded woolly bear caterpillars, black against gray pavement. But these caterpillars are not crawling in search of a place to hibernate. They are not crawling at all. Their bodies are wrapped in silk strands, head arched back. It's as if the larva climbed to the highest place it could find, clutched its multiple feet around the grass stem, raised its head and said, "This is as high as I can go in this earth-bound body. But I want to ascend!"

One caterpillar has choosen a fluffy cluster of goldenrod flowers gone to seed for a resting place. Probably what I'm seeing is not a defunct caterpillar but merely the shed skin of a larva that has molted during its rapid growth.

Another pair, end to end, have chosen the same grass stem. The one farthest out has its head raised in the usual supplicating pose. The other one seems to have been in the act of turning around. Too crowded up here! But alas, it didn't have time to find another stalk to climb before the urge to molt.

I find one chrysalis hanging from the same kind of dry grass stem. Perhaps the little black caterpillar that left its outgrown skin behind is turning into a pupa inside and will emerge as a moth or butterfly.

During an online search for black caterpillar, I only find one that looks like my stem-bound husks. If the match is correct, they may be the larva of the Harnessed Moth, Grammia figurata. If so, I can understand the larva's urge to transform into a moth that can spread its flashy red, black and white wings and fly above the earth.

Monday, October 5, 2015

crossing the gravel

crossing the gravel
a banded woolly bear meets
a sprouting acorn

          I've been seeing more woolly bear caterpillars with unusual banding this year. Usually the Isabella tiger moth larva have about equal bands of obsidian black on both ends and a copper mid-section. The one above is mostly orange with a black head and just a small patch of black on the hind end, whereas the one below has a long black head and distinct black rear end.

          This is the time of year when these intrepid caterpillars migrate in search of a place to curl up and freeze solid over the winter, surviving by producing a cryoprotectant in their tissues. While cleaning up the yard, I often find them rolled into a fuzzy orange ball under a piece of wood. In the spring they will thaw out, feed for a few months and then pupate into a lovely golden moth with black spots and a fuzzy thorax. The moth has only a few days to mate. What a strange life.
          Even stranger is the case of banded woolly bears who live in the Arctic. There is so little time to feed that the larva have to overwinter many times before pupating, sometimes as long as 14 winters. Imagine, 14 resurrections and then only a few days with wings to find your soul mate.

          I am doing my usual zigzag driving on the highway to avoid the "bears" as they cross in both directions. When I go for a walk along our gravel road, I carefully pick up any I see, their heads covered in limestone dust, and move them to a safe spot in the foliage, in the direction they were headed. I watched one for many minutes as it climbed with great determination through the thatch of grass. It climbed the stem of some plant, got to the top and then took some time, waving its head about, before it climbed back down. What a tiring journey it must be, even with all those legs.
          Today I noticed several small black caterpillars, each clinging to the end of a dry grass stem. When I prodded one, it didn't move. One of them had raised its head and died there, frozen in that position. Strange way to die.

          When I stepped back from examining this curious caterpillar corpse, I looked down and saw a banded woolly bear, curled up. They do this when disturbed. I bent over to pick it up and move it to safety, but then I saw a bit of bright green stuff protruding from its underside. I realized to my horror that I must have stepped on the poor thing. All this time, trying to save them from vehicles and here I killed one with my foot! 
          It may seem strange that I would be upset over killing an insect, but so it is with me. If something comes into my attention, it becomes dear to me, no matter how small. To cause its death, whether unwittingly or accidentally, makes me very sad. 
          Unfathomable are the ways of life and death on Earth.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

robed in royal orange

robed in royal ornage
a Monarch butterfly floats 
among star flowers 

The green, black and white striped caterpillar I saw a few weeks ago, in its final instar before going through the mysterious transformation inside a chrysalis, has emerged cloaked in wings of orange, black and white. Floating in a field of wild flowers, this fourth generation Monarch butterfly will soon begin the long journey to sunny California or Mexico. 

Sipping nectar with folded wings, a Monarch displays the beautiful black veins on the golden underside of the wings and the white spots on the black wing edges. Unbelievable that a  journey of over two thousand miles begins with such small sips.

True Monarchs, they are also drawn to the regal plumes of Goldenrod. I hope our wildflower field, surrounded by our neighbor's corn and soybean fields, continues to be a safe haven for these endangered insects. 
          What about next year's caterpillars? I saw almost no milkweed plants this year, traditionally the only food the caterpillars will eat. But I came across a site that shows caterpillars faring well on alternative food. Would you believe it, pumpkin slices and the skins of crisp cucumber! 
          Check it out: http://texasbutterflyranch.com/2014/04/11/milkweed-shortage-sparks-alternative-fuels-for-hungry-monarch-caterpillars/