Today, June 30th, I saw my first couple of Japanese beetles of the season. They looked innocent enough, a single one on a grape leaf earlier in the day and then another one on a different grape leaf later in the day.
I know they weren’t the same beetle because each one I saw I wrapped in its resident leaf and squeezed hard. Ruthless? Perhaps. But any beetles now could be -- probably will be -- forerunners of hoards to come. What’s more, the more beetles that show up, the more new beetles will be attracted. And last summer’s wet weather provided good conditions for the beetles’ egg-laying in grassy areas, so plenty of young ‘uns might soon be making their way out of the soil. (Then again, last summer’s cool weather might have put a crink in their fecundity.)
In previous summers, I hung beetle traps that drew beetles in by use of a sex attractant. Each day I “harvested” bagfuls of beetles, which my chickens ate. Like most birds, chickens do not relish Japanese beetles. Problem is that traps, even at the far ends of a property, can attract more beetles to an area than they catch, especially if not emptied frequently. And remember, having some beetles around attracts even more beetles.
This summer, the plan is to spray a nontoxic repellant on some of my most susceptible plants: filberts, hardy kiwifruit, and grapes. The material: kaolin clay, sold commercially as ‘Surround.’ Raspberries and roses are also beetle favorites but spraying the latter would ruin the fruits, which are now ripe, and spraying the former would ruin the beauty of the blooms.
Japanese beetles stop feeding to lay new eggs in the ground in August, so the Surround should wash off by late summer and fall, when the filberts, kiwis, and grapes are ready for harvest.
Japanese beetles have cosmopolitan tastes, feasting on more than 300 different kinds of plants; another annual pest, hibiscus sawfly, chews leaves of only one plant, hibiscus. It does sometimes broaden its pallet a bit to nibble on related plants such as rose of sharon, cotton, hollyhock, and okra.
Afflicted hibiscus look ragged but still manage to cough forth a few blooms. You don’t need many blooms to put on a good show because each one is the size of a dinnerplate and, on my plant, at least, fire-engine red. Other varieties come in more subdued pinks and white.
Still, more healthy leaves should make more blooms so I decided to do something about the sawflies this year. As soon as the first holey leaves appeared, I checked for the creepy caterpillars. Handpicking is an option but seemed too tedious so I mixed up a quart of Safer’s Insecticidal Soap, which is nothing more than a specially formulated soap to kill insects. Gardeners of yore used regular old hand soap as a similarly nontoxic insecticide.
One spray, thoroughly applied to the tops and the bottoms of the leaves, thoroughly did in the sawflies. Repeated sprays will be necessary to do in subsequent generations of the insect.
Enough about pests! A flower equally striking as hibiscus yet much smaller is passionflower. I’m not sure what species I have now in bloom because this particular plant was mislabeled when I purchased it (at a supermarket) and there are many species and hybrids of passionflower.
At any rate, the flowers are spectacular. Picture 3 club-like, purple speckled stigmas, backed by 5 yellow anthers, in turn backed by a crown of myriad, thin, deep blue threads, short ones back by long ones, with a white midsection in some of the long ones. Finally set all that intricate beauty against a backdrop of 10 deep purple petals.
All these flower parts are what put the “passion” in passionflowers. Lest any eyebrows go up, the “passion” referred to in the name is the passion of Christ. When Christian missionaries arrived in the Americas, they saw in wild passionflowers the symbolism of the crucifixion -- the 3 nails, the 5 wounds, the crown of thorns, etc. -- and went on to use the plant as a seventeenth-century teaching tool for spreading the gospel.
The passionflower I wanted, and which was spelled out on the plant’s label when bought, was maypop (Passiflora incarnata). This species is native to eastern US and is actually hardy outdoors here. The stems of this species die to the ground each fall, then sprout anew late each spring from overwintered roots. I have one plant and wanted another for needed cross-pollination. Maypop has flowers equally spectacular to the unknown passionflower species. And more: delectable fruits that look and taste just like the tropical passionfruits, the main flavouring in “Hawaiian punch.”
Since I bought the unknown plant I’ve gotten some other maypop plants, so plan on enjoying the fruits of my labor in a few weeks.