Sunday, August 25, 2013

My Leaves Got Chewed and I Love It!

A small wave of destruction washed over my yard this week, and I could not be happier! The plants under destruction include Lobelia and Solidago but most of the damage is on cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) since I have a large group of it this year. The agent of destruction?  It is a small Chrysodeixis caterpillar known as a “looper.” 

How could I possibly be happy about this? I’m happy because the birds are happy. In fact, I didn’t even realize what was happening until I heard the wrens calling out as they hopped from plant to plant looking for the caterpillars. The same thing happened last year so I actually was anticipating this and hoping for it!

A wren fishes out the caterpillar hiding in the leaf
Lobelia missing some leaves

What about the plants? Well they have lost a lot of leaves, but the flowers are still there. With the flowers in place, the garden is still beautiful, and the hummingbirds are still visiting them. I am glad the leaves are useful to something! Think about it – these leaves would have just died at the end of the year, why not eat them now? At this point the plants were pretty done with them.

Anole on the prowl for critters like caterpillars

Another hungry fellow was at work as well: a green anole lizard (Anolis carolinensis) was climbing around the stems looking for a bite. Luckily there were caterpillars of all sizes to be found. I found several caterpillars on the blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) getting way too close to the flowers. I plucked them off and moved them to the cardinal flowers that still had plenty of leaves.

Soon the wrens were joined by other birds: a pair of goldfinches and a pair of cardinals stopped by to see what they could find. I could see the flower heads shake as their stems below were vigorously inspected for bug life.

When I walked out the door later, a red-shouldered hawk took off. Apparently it was attracted by the chatter of the smaller birds. Native plants can bring such life to the garden!

This young oak will be fine!

Over by the driveway a few small oaks have had their leaves skeletonized by oak caterpillars. These trees will be fine and the small pellets of poop raining down are just nuggets of fertilizer.

On some of the garden forums I frequently I see people complaining about caterpillars and I see recommendations to spray the plants with chemicals or Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to "get rid of them." Most of the time (and I mean VERY most of the time) these caterpillars are just part of the local native process. We're not dealing with very many non-native caterpillars in Georgia in the average landscape. If you're planning to treat something, please identify it first! Here is a link to a good publication about invasive pests in Georgia.

Have the caterpillars been perfect guests? Of course they haven't, but who is a perfect guest? I noticed that one small lobelia had been chewed completely, including the tiny flower bud. As I walked past the green caterpillar still munching on the bare stalk, I whispered “I hope some bird eats you.”



  1. Your garden is very happy! Love the balanced ecosystem~!

  2. Yay!
    Those people that want the perfect garden... and then senselessly ruin it by cutting the flowers off everything... drive me nuts!

    If you want everything to look chewed up... let the deer do it...

    Glad to see yer caterpillar post!

  3. I have the same caterpillars on my lobelias...didn't have a single bloom on them this year! I had a good talk with the birds....they are having too much fun eating other things. Hand picked about a dozen off the lobelia sticks.(that is all that is leaves, no blooms)

  4. I've got an Iron Weed being enjoyed by some form of small tent caterpillar..looks pretty awful, but flowers still there & lots of leaves to go around. I hope the birds help themselves..If nithing eats a plant, it's not worth growing!

  5. Oooooo, I had something similar down here in Ft. Lauderdale. My coontie plants (native cycads) had several orange/black/yellow caterpillars chomping away. I headed for my spray bottle (cedar oil) but stopped long enough to look on the web to see what they were. Turns out they are Atala butterfly larva that were almost extinct at one point! I allowed them to chew my plants and documented their progress right until the day I saw them fly away one by one. They are beautiful velvet black with iridescent blue, white and bright orange! (Look them up...) They are now my "dragons" and I am the "mother of dragons."

  6. Another little gem, Ellen. You model the ideal gardener, one who facilitates the garden as the ecosystem it wants to be, rather than just an aggregate of plants to be preserved in a way that actually operates against nature.

  7. Wonderful post! Hooray for native plants and critters with full bellies!

  8. Yes, a like minded gardener! Someone in a FB gardening group recently asked if anyone knew what was making the holes in one of her plants, and what she should do about it. I suggested that if the plant was OK, then she didn't need to do anything. I said something like the things you did, about birds needing to have bugs to eat.