The Nature Corner: Farm Girl, Nature Boy and Black Beauty

Published 6:08 pm Monday, December 3, 2018

by Ernie Marshall

This is a tale about a happy union of opposites. Like Snow White and her unlikely pals the seven dwarves, or Beauty and the Beast? Well, not quite. My story is true, except for some ribbing and hyperbole for garnish and continues to unfold like the beautiful hibiscus blossoms on our back porch, the venue for this drama.

My wife – let’s call her Carolyn because, well, that’s her name – is a gourmet cook, her primary hobby since retiring. Among other things, this means that she wants fresh herbs growing within twenty paces of her stovetop. We keep basil, rosemary, sage, parsley, thyme, tarragon, mint, chives and sorrel on hand for the delicious dishes Carolyn prepares.

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Her husband, Ernie, mostly tends the herbs and the other plants in the yard. His main retirement hobby is all things nature, including a bit of gardening, but not so much as to work up a sweat.  He is something of an eco-crank, so we recycle and compost.  Our casual talk about “Think it will rain?” and “Whose going to the store today?” is spiced with . . .

“Is this recyclable? Which darn bin does it go in?” from Carolyn.

And from me, “Sweet pea what cooking thingamabob is this and what drawer does it go in?”

“It’s called a zester not a thingamabob, for zesting lemon and orange peel, my persimmon pit.  It’s drawer is right in front of you.”

We also try to get along with most of our critter neighbors. But this is where the story really begins.

Ernie loves the porch full of green and growing things and Carolyn loves the fresh herbs. Couldn’t be a better fit of likes and needs, right?

But every garden, beginning with the Biblical one, has a serpent, a sly troublemaker. In this case it is a black wwallowtail butterfly that often visits the herb garden.  It is showy black with red spots and rows of yellow dots, all dressed for the bug prom. A pretty lady, but . . .

Butterflies are among those insects that undergo a “complete metamorphosis,” passing through the life stages of egg, larva, pupa and adult; and as larvae, their active subadult stage, they are caterpillars, nature’s leaf-eating machines.

A little more background is in order for Carolyn.  She grew up on a tobacco farm north of the Tar River in Pitt County and then later married a man who also became a farmer. She finally moved to town a few years ago, after a lifetime of experience as a farm girl. Ah, in the lap of urbanity at last.

If your livelihood is farming, caterpillars are on the list of your sworn enemies (tobacco hornworms probably heading the list), along with drought, blight, hailstorms and a fox in the hen house.

“Caterpillars” are the larvae of members of the insect order Lepidoptera, butterflies and moths.  And their larvae are often agricultural and gardening pests.  They are usually specific as to the plants they feed on, what’s called their “host” plant, so you may miss the bullet – our little Black Beauty turns up her nose at our gorgeous basil plants.  But our parsley plants were right in her crosshairs.

And butterfly larvae are obsessed with eating. That’s all they do all day long, eat and grow and so eat even more. It’s nature’s version of being every day all day at the all-you-can-eat buffet.

And what black swallowtail caterpillars eat are plants in the parsley family and that includes several different kinds of culinary herbs. And believe me they especially like parsley. In a matter of a few days, the caterpillars managed to gnaw that luxuriant stand of parsley downs to a few stubs.  (As incriminating evidence was lots of “frass,” the fancy name for caterpillar poop. Well, why not – if there can be such a thing as a “zester”?)

And I should add, the adult stage, butterflies, are reproduction machines.  All the female butterflies do all day long, between sips of flower nectar, is lay their eggs on our parsley leaves, each egg a tiny yellowish dot due to become a ravenous caterpillar.

When Carolyn witnessed her ravaged herbs, she put on her farm girl scowl, fists on her hips, and declared, “This is war!”

“But think of it this way,” I plead.  “We are raising a crop of beautiful butterflies!”

“What good is that when it comes time to seasoning the meal?”

“Well, it’s sort of like a sunset dear. It’s a beautiful thing. Like the poet John Keats said “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

“When you spend the day working in tobacco, what the sunset means is that the workday is finally over and you get to go home to supper.”

I think I had arrived at a philosophical impasse and holding a losing hand.  Tired and hungry trumps beauty and poetry.

While Carolyn was organizing her troops, I dashed back to the plant nursery hoping they hadn’t cleaned out their gardening tables to make room for roses and mums.

Thank goodness they still had parsley, so I gathered up all I could find – making sure a female black wwallowtail hadn’t found it first – and headed to the register.

As the tattooed teenager checked me out she asked, “Going to start your own nursery are you?”

“No just reinforcements for the caterpillar wars.”

She gave me an odd look perhaps thinking, “Been sniffing too much Round Up maybe?”

Anyway, the new crop of parsley foliates my wife’s office windowsill.  It looks good there and is prospering in the full morning sun and out of Black Beauty’s reach.

So we have a truce in the caterpillar wars. Carolyn’s happy, I’m happy and the butterflies and caterpillars are happy. They inherited whatever might be left of the decimated parsley crop on the porch.

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