Of love and late-summer flowers

Painted Lady butterfly on stonecrop sedum. Painted Lady butterflies are abundant this year.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about love and late-summer flowers. I’m not sure what brought on these musings, but I think it may have something to do with turning the big double nickel last week.

I’m a late-summer flower myself.

I’m also helping my mother sell her home and move into independent living, letting my children grow up and turning my mothering to Monarch caterpillars. I’ve watched the devastation of two hurricanes in the news with alarm, resignation and then love and admiration for those who helped. Plus, I finished listening to the S-Town podcast and read Y is for Yesterday (A Kinsey Millhone Novel), by Sue Grafton, on my birthday.

Whew! I have a lot going on. Please bear with me as I sort out my thoughts. It’s good this blog is called Red Dirt Ramblings, especially today. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and wander with me, okay?

Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed
Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed.

Honestly, I was feeling kind of dismal about the state of the world last week until I steeped myself in prayer and cut more milkweed for my baby Monarchs.

The hurricane coverage and overall media misery were starting to get to me, and S-Town and Y is for Yesterday didn’t help either. As I listened to S-Town, I began to feel like a voyeur. The series took an especially dark turn in the last chapter which made me want to cry for John B. McElmore. I think this opinion piece by Jessica Goudeau in The Atlantic sums my dilemma up pretty well. It does contain spoilers so keep that in mind if you read it. One sentence from the poetry and letters she discussed stood out for me “Probe your own life and past if you must, but you cannot use another person’s trauma without permission for your aesthetic gain.” At the end of the podcast, only ashes remained, along with an icky feeling of crawling through one man’s private angst.

Y is for Yesterday cover.

As for Y is for Yesterday, I bought and saved it for my birthday. For me, it’s a kind of ritual because I’ve read all of her books from the beginning. I met Grafton, and I admire her greatly. After all, I’ve only written one book that’s been published. I don’t want to give anything away in the 25th installment of my favorite detective series, but the ending wasn’t the least bit redemptive. Grafton wrote another book in the series with a similar ending, and it wasn’t my favorite either. While life is messy, novels, especially detective novels, are all about setting the universe back to rights after something throws it into chaos. It’s why people read detective novels. Some of you might argue that things in fictional Santa Teresa, CA, were set right, but I didn’t think so. I did enjoy much of the novel and laughed out loud at Kinsey Millhone, who I’ve grown to love as an old friend.

With dismay, I began to wonder if we’d forgotten how to tell redemptive stories. In our society’s effort to become ever more secular, we have forgotten how to read anything that challenges us, including the Bible. Whether you believe in God or not, the Bible is a great piece of literature with extremely good advice. I would also argue we’ve forgotten how to immerse ourselves in Nature, another great teacher.

Not a Monarch, but instead, a mimic, the Viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus, has a smile on its lower wings that the Monarch doesn't have.
Not a Monarch, but instead, a mimic, the Viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus. The Viceroy has a smile on its lower wings that the Monarch doesn’t have. I think this is the first year I’ve seen a Viceroy in my garden.

After much prayer, I began to see my care for my Monarch caterpillars as a metaphor for God’s love for us. The caterpillars have no idea I’m watching over them. They just eat and poop and do their thing. They’re rather helpless. They can also be quite hard on each other so I sometimes separate them when they crawl too close. When I pick them up–after making sure my hands are clean–immediately, they curl into a C of defensiveness. It’s all they know. I gently place them near some milkweed, leave them alone, and soon they’re back doing their thing. I watch over these creatures as if each one is precious cargo because it is. Monarchs are basically endangered even if it isn’t official yet.

I’m not saying people are like caterpillars. Obviously, not, but being a woman of faith, I see God’s unconditional love to be similar to my care for these small insects that will eventually change into something much more glorious than when they first began. (Click on pictures in the galleries to make them larger.)

There’s a good reason why caterpillars and butterflies are symbolic of metamorphosis and rebirth.

My children, by the way, are completely grossed out that I have cages all over the dining room with caterpillars in various stages and sizes. I keep telling them caterpillars are not gross. In fact, if you run your finger gently across one’s back, it is silky to the touch. Plus, their camouflage coloring is quite beautiful. They blend in with the milkweed. Not so for adult butterflies who live for such a short and glorious time.

As for God’s love, I think butterflies and late-summer flowers are good points of reference. There are many more efficient pollinators out there than butterflies. I’m not sure Nature needs butterflies, but humans do.

When the news, the podcast and my reading became too much for me, I wandered outside into my messy late-summer garden. My favorite flower of the moment is Autumn sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale. I planted smallish plants last fall, and they are glorious this summer. They, along with the still-blooming Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes,’ are much favored by pollinators, and the late-summer bloom is all about feeding the pollinators before winter sets in. I’m still waiting for the asters to bloom in a blue haze, but this year, I’m actually enjoying wild ageratum, Eupatorium coelestinum, a/k/a mistflower, for the first time. I used to hate it because it is so prolific, but it’s a favorite nectar plant of adult Monarchs so I’ve learned to pull as much as I can in spring and enjoy the rest. The same is true for garlic chives, Allium tuberosum, and obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana, which I can’t seem to eradicate. Don’t plant them if you don’t want them until the end of your days. Since I didn’t deadhead much in July, these plants are carrying the garden through early September.

Pretty soon, asters and garden mums will join the other flowers, and the garden will have a kind of rebirth before it dies in late autumn after a killing freeze.

We had a party last weekend, and several of my friends wanted to see the gardens. We walked and talked, and I pointed out butterflies and moths flitting amongst the blooms. My friends were amazed at the beauty of these small creatures like the Hemaris thysbe, hummingbird clearwing moth. These moths dart in and out of the phlox like hummingbirds hence the name. They are one of the best reasons to grow phlox. Need more good reasons? How about the Painted Lady butterflies, Vanessa cardui, which are so abundant this year. Painted Lady butterflies also adore stonecrop sedum, Sedum spectabile, so plant it too.

Hemaris thysbe, Hummingbird Clearwing moth on P. paniculata 'Bright Eyes' phlox.
Hemaris thysbe, Hummingbird Clearwing moth on P. paniculata ‘Bright Eyes’ phlox.

Speaking of hummingbirds, I have a couple of males that check me out every time I go out to get more milkweed. They love the zinnia patch this year and protect it fiercely. They are so cute but so naughty keeping all of the other creatures except wasps on the wing. Bill caught sight of them of them the other day and was charmed by their antics.

Butterflies and late-summer flowers both speak to me of God’s love and also the quick passage of time. Much was made of horology, the study of time, in S-town. It was the best part of the podcast. John B. was a genius who built and repaired beautiful timepieces throughout much of his life. Check out this sundial he built for his friend, teacher, and mentor, Tom Moore. I think McLemore loved people fiercely, but couldn’t accept their love in return.

Like the caterpillars and the late-summer flowers, we bloom and eventually fade away. I just hope we all experience metamorphosis and winged flight before our time is done. The late-summer garden beckons like a lover in the cool evening. Don’t forget to go outside and enjoy it before it too is gone.

Caterpillar rescue

Swallowtail caterpillars say thank you for saving them.

Late summer is butterfly season at Little Cedar. It’s also caterpillar rescue season.

As you probably already know, Monarch butterflies are in trouble, and I believe it’s backyard and community gardeners who will eventually save the day. At least that’s what I tell myself as I bring Monarch eggs and tiny caterpillars indoors every day. It takes commitment, a whole lot of milkweed and trust in the process to bring these tiny creatures to flight. If you’re interested, I can write another post about bringing Monarch caterpillars/eggs indoors and raising them. Just let me know.

But, in the meantime, why don’t you read my friend, Kylee Baumle’s, new book, The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. I know she worked hard on it, and I think you’d like it especially if you want to save Monarchs. And, really, who doesn’t want to save Monarchs?

Cover of The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. by Kylee Baumle.
Cover of The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. by Kylee Baumle.

Today, though, I want to tell you about a caterpillar rescue of another kind–my epic battle to save some Swallowtail caterpillars from a very hungry red wasp–Polistes rubiginosusI think. I don’t claim to be a wasp expert.

I do try to love all of God’s creatures–I really do–but red/paper wasps really irritate me. Maybe, because they’re just so damn mean the hotter the weather gets. I know that’s my excuse.

Monarchs are not the only butterflies laying eggs on various plants in the garden. In my vegetable garden, especially the raised potager, a Swallowtail mother laid about a billion–okay, I’m exaggerating–eggs on three parsley plants. This year, I planted six or seven parsley, many dill and a pot of rue in my garden just for Swallowtail butterflies. If I got a little parsley and dill for my supper, that was good too. I’ve been watching these little munchers for several days now. I could bring them inside, but they seem to have an easier time of it outdoors than Monarchs. Plus, they aren’t as predictable–once they reach chrysalis stage–as Monarch butterflies are. Sometimes, Swallowtails take all winter to become butterflies.

I don’t know which type of Swallowtail laid her eggs. I have many different ones bouncing about the garden. If I had to guess, I would say it’s a Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenesis), Oklahoma’s state butterfly, because of the markings, but that part doesn’t matter. I kept an eye on these little critters because I knew they were going to quickly run out of parsley, and my dill was finished for the year. So, I pulled a few weeds around the bronze fennel in a completely different part of the garden and waited for them to grow too large for their habitat.

Parsley consumed by Swallowtail caterpillars. I'm not going to show you the partially consumed caterpillar. Gross.
Parsley consumed by Swallowtail caterpillars. I’m not going to show you the partially consumed caterpillar. Gross.

Today, I realized was caterpillar moving day. I came outside to find one caterpillar half eaten, so I knew they needed a new leafy residence.

Soon, it instead turned into a full-scale caterpillar rescue.

One of the large swallowtail caterpillars I moved to the bronze fennel.
One of the large swallowtail caterpillars I moved to the bronze fennel.

I was moving them in fives because that’s about all I can handle. I gently pulled them from parsley stalks and took them over to the three, large bronze fennel plants working feverishly to convince them it was their idea to get on the new plant. It works better if I don’t handle them too much. When I made my third or fourth trip, I saw a very large, red wasp circling the area. She buzzed me a couple of times, and I ignored her as I grabbed five more. Usually, I don’t get stung if I’m not near the wasp nest. I knew what she wanted, and she was waiting very impatiently for me to move out of the way.

Then, disaster struck. I came back to find her munching on a large caterpillar. I kept moving more caterpillars hoping she was too engrossed in her meal to come after me. Of course, I didn’t have my camera the entire time. I was too busy to take pictures.

Bronze fennel with finished Phlox paniculata behind. The caterpillars being green yellow and black really blend in with fennel foliage.
Bronze fennel with finished Phlox paniculata behind. The caterpillars being green yellow and black really blend in with fennel foliage. They are much harder to see on here than on the parsley.

After four or five more trips, she was quite irritated with me. She left her meal and buzzed me, but I was really determined she would not win today. She went back to her meal, and I picked up my berry-colored Dramm Touch‘N Flow Revolver Spray Gun, turned it to jet and doused her. You can sure slow down a wasp, especially one not paying attention with a steady and hard spray of water. She crawled out of the bed and stumbled around. Again, I took her out, and I daresay I enjoyed it.

“Take that for all the times I’ve been stung,” I said, “Here’s another spray for all the caterpillars you’ve munched today.”

Red wasp/paper wasp after I sprayed her with water.
Red wasp/paper wasp after I sprayed her with water. See the Swallowtail caterpillar in the upper right corner? I saved it.

I sprayed her long enough to grab three more cats with my right hand in a whole new definition of multitasking.

No, wasp lovers, I didn’t kill the wasp with water. She was soon back searching through the empty parsley stalks looking for more prey, but in the meantime, I’d relocated everyone.

Swallowtail caterpillars relocated on rue.
Swallowtail caterpillars relocated on rue.

A lot of bug-eat-bug happens here but sometimes, it’s about sticking up for the little guys. Today was caterpillar rescue day, and this little caterpillar raised his/her thoracic legs in a fond thank you–at least I like to think so.

Swallowtail caterpillars say thank you for saving them.
Swallowtail caterpillars say thank you for saving them. Caterpillar rescue.