Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Goldenrod spider

Getting Buggy about Summer

Justin Evertson

When it comes to insects and spiders (arthropods) in the landscape, many people tend to think of little critters that cause problems and that we wish would go away.  We think of stings, itchy bites, damage to plants/vegetables and the sheer creepiness of so many species.  That’s too bad, because the vast majority of arthropods are either benign or are actually very beneficial to the world around us.  It’s easy to enjoy butterflies, with their colorful wings and fluttering movements.  We should also learn to enjoy many of the other arthropods in the garden.  A few that are worth a closer look include:

Goldenrod Spider.  The goldenrod spider (Misumena vatia) is a type of crab spider that exists throughout North America where it’s typically found waiting for prey on either white or yellow flowers.   What is most fascinating about this spider is the ability of the female to change color from yellow to white, depending on the type of flower it inhabits.  This camoflauge can make the spider nearly invisible. A goldenrod spider can grow to about the size of a dime and is often found on daisies and goldenrod flowers, thus its common name.  

Soldier Beetle.  The soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) gets its common name from a bright red species in England that reminds people of a soldier’s coat.  In Nebraska, the beetle looks quite similar to a lightning bug (and is related to it, but doesn’t “light up”).  Soldier beetles are beneficial in two ways: they are predacious and eat many problematic insects including aphids, and they help pollinate flowers when feeding on nectar.  Soldier beetles are found most often on yellow-flowering plants such as false sunflower, goldenrod and helenium.  They are also quite common on milkweeds.

Red Milkweed Beetle.  Just as its name implies, the red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) is found on milkweed plants, typically the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  It is thought that the beetle, much like the monarch butterfly, gets a measure of protection from predators by feeding on the milkweed plant and thus becoming very distasteful.  The beetle grows to about 1/2” long, possesses distinctive annulate (segmented) antennae and is often found in great congregations on host plants.  Although its bright red and black-dotted markings give it an intimidating appearance, this beautiful insect is completely harmless.

Insects and spiders should not be thought of primarily as things to kill or avoid, but rather should be enjoyed and celebrated.  As summer heats up, take time to explore the fascinating world of the insects around us.  Check out the myriad forms colors, shapes and sizes.  It’s truly an amazing world, and one which none of us can do without. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Native “Blueberry” Deserves More Attention

Blueberries are commonly touted for their nutritional value in health articles, recommended-foods-lists, cooking shows, cookbooks, on and on.  But a very similar Nebraska native fruit is surprisingly unknown and underused.

      Amelanchier species, known by the common names of Juneberry or serviceberry, are beginning to gain popularity as an ornamental landscape shrub—and ornamental they are, with three strong seasons of interest. But even where these shrubs/small trees have been included in a landscape for their ornamental value, few people realize the blueberry-like fruits they bear are tasty and actually “higher in protein, fat, fiber, calcium, magnesium and manganese than blueberries and strawberries” (Montana State University Extension guide).

      In June the branches are covered with clusters of white flowers; the common name serviceberry refers to the fact that they were often used for pioneer burials in early spring when little else was flowering. The flowers are followed by fruits that change from green to red, then turn dark blue when fully ripe. Most years this ripening occurs in June, leading to the other common name of Juneberry, though with this year’s warm weather many of them ripened in early May.

      Birds and other wildlife love the fruits, so they disappear quickly. The fruits are very similar to blueberries and can be used in all the same ways—frozen raw for use later or used fresh in pies, wines, jams or almost any recipe that calls for fresh fruit.

      The waxy green foliage turns beautiful fall colors ranging from yellow to orange to red. Species of Amelanchier range from 10-25’ in height and from single to multi-stemmed. Both the native species and developed cultivars are adaptable and easy to grow as an understory tree, though they prefer a somewhat moist, protected environment as many are native to moist areas along streambeds.

      Though it is still not commonly grown, Jules Sandoz was well aware of its merits. In his 1903 Report of Sandoz Experiment Station, Sheridan County, Nebraska Sandoz wrote “Juneberries are the berry for the northwest. No farmer ought to fail to plant a patch. I have just distributed, free, wagon-loads of plants from my early plantings.”

      Three of the 25 species of Amelanchier in the Northern Hemisphere are native to the state of Nebraska: Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), native to the central and northern portions of the state and growing about 15’ high; shadblow serviceberry (A. arborea), a usually multi-stemmed understory tree common along the banks of the Missouri River; and dwarf serviceberry (A. sanguinea), native to northwestern Nebraska and growing about 10’ in height.