Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tatting Caterpillars

A lacy doily made out of petals of a cudweed
I have crafty caterpillars in my farmyard.  My five sisters inherited our grandma's skill in the fabric arts, so I notice these things.  My grandma used to decorate her fancy sitting room with doilies, so I was surprised to find doilies on the cudweed bush behind the Dipper Ranch barn.

Spilling out of the old pig pen, the bank on which the mysterious farmyard doilies appeared used to be a weedy jungle, a common problem around farm buildings where the soil gets enriched by animal waste.  The pigs are long gone and the pen is falling down, but every year I spend a few sweaty days there pulling out manure-robust mustard and thistle plants.

Mustard plants are common weeds around farm buildings.
I've never gotten the mustard patch completely cleared, other summer duties usually pull me away.  And my imagination gets the best of me on hot afternoons when I hesitate to yank out the towering green mustard plants because snakes could be lurking in the dead stalks piled high at their base, leftovers from the years when no-one was weeding the farmyard.  However, I am making progress and with some of the old stalks removed, I can now brushcut whatever area we cleared by hand in previous years.  One good thing about the tall mustards is that if you mow them when they are blooming, the plants don't seem to resprout like many other weeds.

Plum tree blooming above the barn
California orchardists plant mustard between the rows of fruit trees.  As a cover crop, it grows densely,  has allelopathic qualities that control other weeds, and it attracts pollinators.  Once the Santa Clara Valley, now known as Silicon Valley, used to be covered with orchards.  For a week or two in the spring, fruit trees at the few remaining orchards are covered with delicate white and pink blossoms with a bright yellow skirt of flowering mustard.  Paul Ortega, the former caretaker of this property, was adopted by a family of Santa Clara Valley orchardists, and there are still about a dozen fruit trees in this farmyard.  They are old trees and not very productive except for the walnut trees and the persimmon tree which are still bountiful.  But every few years, one of the leaning plum, apricot, peach, pear or cherry trees surprises me, and this year a cracked and moss-covered trunk provided buckets of pears.

The fruit trees on the Dipper Ranch are old and irregular producers but they are also a historical legacy and a reminder of the people who used to live on this land.  Photo by Debbi Brusco.
Another good thing about mustard is that cattle will eat it.  When the cattle were first brought back to the Dipper Ranch four years ago after a long absence of grazing, the Ortega corral next to Paul's house was a thicket of mustard and thistle plants.  Over time, the cattle have grazed all these weeds down and now the corral is mostly grass.

Certain cattle develop a taste for mustard
The mustard behind the pigpen is not in the grazing pastures, so at first we were tackling it mostly by hand.  This year, I thought about the disappearance of mustard in the corral, so we threw the mustard plants over the fence as we pulled them.  The next day, I noticed the tossed mustards (and any possible seeds on the plants) had disappeared.  So again, I launched the tall plants over the fence and soon a few cattle came by and ate it.  They waited patiently on the other side of the barbwire for me to throw over more.   After that, the cattle would come whenever they heard me thrashing around in the mustard patch, and I consider them our weeding assistants.

Native cudweed plant sprouts up where mustard plants removed.
Last year, a native cudweed plant popped up where I had cleared mustards the previous year.  This year, the cudweed grew into a sturdy bush with a mass of blooms in July.  There are probably 8 species of cudweed (Gnaphalium or Pseudognaphlium genus) in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and they look alike, but I think this is Pseudognaphalium californicum because the leaves clasp the stems and they are generally green colored on both sides.

As I have been slowly ridding the farmyard of weeds, I have discovered native plants coming in.  My neighbor (who incidentally is also a fabric artist) says, "Native plants bring native wildlife."  That brings us back to the tatting caterpillars.  In early August when I was enjoying the scent of the cudweed bush, I looked down and noticed a miniature doily made out of the pearlescent cudweed petals.  I touched it - it was as soft as a pillow.  I looked further and noticed more cudweed doilies on the bush.  What was going on?

American painted lady caterpillar inside its pillow nest.
I carefully poked open a doily to find a colorful caterpillar inside which slowly started tatting its pillow back together again.  Peeking into other doilies, I spotted more black-spined, orange-striped caterpillars spinning doilies out of petals.  Later, I found out that the caterpillars of all of the lady butterflies (Vanessa spp.) create nests to hide from predators, however, only the American painted lady caterpillar (V. virginiensis) has the bright orange bands.

Painted lady inspects coyote scat.
For the rest of the late summer, I frequently visited the cudweed bush to enjoy its scent and delicate caterpillows.  In mid-September, while examining fresh scat in the farmyard, I thought I saw the lady butterfly.  The scat pile first caught my eye because it looked like a bobcat scat with fresh green grass dumped next to a slightly older coyote scat.  As I leaned over the scat to sort out the cross-species messages, a bright orange and black butterfly landed and probed the still moist scat with its proboscis.  I was amused that the spiky caterpillar that wove lacy pillows became a winged adult that sucked poop.  Later, I found out that the butterfly was actually a different but closely related species, the painted lady (Vanessa cardui).

One of Grandma Marie's doilies.
Next year, when faced with the dense but slowly shrinking jungle of mustard plants at the pigpen again, I will just need to look up at the cudweed bush for encouragement.  Removing weeds allows native plants to reestablish and if I am observant, I'll get the chance to see the return of native wildlife some of whom have clever and crafty ways to make a living.

American painted lady caterpillar stitching its blossom pillow back together again.


  1. I always learn something when I come to your blog. Love seeing California through your eyes. From the Sierra Foothills....

  2. Harmony Mom: I'm in the Sierras twice this month. It's fun exploring your habitat zones. Right now I'm thinking about ducks paddling to stir up salmon eggs and picking through grasses for salmon carcasses. Can you guess where I have been?


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