Dec 27, 2013

Happy Holly Days!

Kids, all kids are brilliant and inspiring. They can be so much fun and funny with their eager faces brimming with curiosity. Then they have me pulling my hair out or they are pulling each others' hair out while tripping on bags and shoelaces. I work with children at PS188. Over the past few months we've collected and eaten tons of seeds, gutted pumpkins, sung songs about trees and inchworms measuring marigolds; made leaf-shaped cookies, pricked our fingers on junipers and squished berries. As part of our classes about trees, shrubs, healthy eating, the environment and gardening (without having a garden) we talked about the importance of evergreen trees and shrubs in the winter landscape as habitat and food for non-migrating birds.

Juniper berries are attractive. Cones on pines, spruces and firs are emblems of the winter. However, no plant says Holiday Season like holly. Birds depend on holly and juniper berries and seeds from cones when the ground is frozen or covered by snow as chances of finding insects and worms are slim.

With deciduous trees truly bare and some snow sitting on the ground and rooftops of Coney Island, our lessons become more than just theory. Next spring we will plant Ilex verticillata as part of our habitat-pollinator-eco garden. Ilex verticillata makes the showiest display of berries but Ilex opaca combines berries with lustrous evergreen spiny leaves; all interesting shapes and colors to attract hungry birds. It is the most popular choice for holiday cards with kids.

This New Year may your days be berry and bright and may your life and gardens be filled with joy and happy creatures in flight!

Dec 15, 2013

Dragonflies and Damsels

2013 may have been the year of the cicada but like so many, I missed the show. There were stories of people stepping on hundreds of critters and of others sampling the tasty, high protein delicacy. I managed to come across a solitary crisp cicada in August. Dragonflies however, got my attention. Copious amounts were seen in Coney Island and Massachusetts and on a recent trip to Governor's Island my Julian pointed out the huge numbers flitting about over the lawn area. No obvious fresh water body was close by.

"Kill it! Kill it! It is a stingray. Kill it!" Those were the words of a distressed MTA worker briskly closing the door on one end of the subway car. Guessing the trajectory of the terrorizing insect was impossible and she feared it was heading for her. Passengers shifted their bodies this way and that with their arms shielding their heads. Before a flip-flop could squish it against the window I cupped my hands over the creature. It tried but realized that its jaws that could easily rip prey to shreds were no match for the tough hands of a gardener. All I felt was one painless pinch after which it stayed still until I released it into air as the doors opened on the next stop.

Unlike wasps and bees, dragonflies do not sting or bite, nor do they breathe fire. They have no interest in humans so we should feel incredibly grateful to have one of these beautiful creatures pay us any attention, let alone sit on or near us.

During the days before and after that incident I spied many large dragonflies. Some were dead or lay dying on subway platforms and ramps. Others lay on their backs and needed some help before flying off again. Dozens of dragonflies with pale blue ultramarine abdomens sat on a juniper bush on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. These were smaller than the one on the subway car but definitely larger and more robust that damselflies. I know the difference between the two since my Julian pointed out that dragonflies perch with their wings perpendicular on either sides of their bodies while damselflies rest with their wings held back and together. These blue dragons were just hanging out and soon returned to their perch when I disturbed the bush. I wondered what was so special about the juniper and why were they there with the bay a few blocks to the north. I wondered if the presence of so many was an indication that the ecosystem around Coney Island  and overall ecology of the area were back to normal after Hurricane Sandy. Or was it a sign of some imbalance. At a recent Fern Society meeting at NYBG a member recalled seeing unusual numbers of praying mantises in 2013.  Did the year of the cicada coincide with proliferation of other insect species? What do entomologists and ecologists think is happening?

Dragonflies and damsels are in the order Odonata and are called odonates. They are easily recognized by their large compound eyes, (which can see in all directions) long abdomens and large membranous wings. Eyes and  abdomen are usually colorful and their iridescent wings shimmer as they fly.  The attractive insects also hover and often look like miniature helicopters. Odonates possess massive jaws (odonate is Greek for toothed). A significant part of their lives are spent in ponds or slow moving water as nymphs. Voracious carnivores, nymphs gobble up mosquito larvae and flies and are themselves food for fish and frogs. Ergo, beneficial to humans and ecologically important.
Once they molt into the final stage of their life they become fiercer hunters. Dragonflies and damselflies are the warriors of the insect world. Their ability to fly at high speeds and in different directions, coupled with powerful eyes and jaws make them particularly adept at zoning in on and ambushing their prey. Their wings and legs are attached to a short thorax and are used to snatch and encase the poor target, which usually is clueless until it is too late to escape. 
Male odonates are aggressive, brutally competitive and determined to pass their genes to the next generation. A male will latch on to a female and force her into the mating position often forming a closed circuit, copulating in flight. He may then hold her hostage while she lays the eggs fertilized by his sperm or stand guard as the eggs enter the water. This tactic ensures that a rival male does not scoop sperm out of the female's body and replace it with  his own.

The thought of adding small ponds to my designs and growing plants to attract and encourage  dragons and damsels has popped into my mind. I do think however, that there is a quality about odonates that is much wilder, primordial and purer than the pretty butterflies and fuzzy bees that are regular garden visitors. Dragonflies would much rather hang out in larger, less fussed about green spaces, ogling tasty flies and mosquitoes. I welcome the presence of these graceful warriors at anytime, for even just a few fleeting moments wherever I garden or sit still, even on subway cars.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...