Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Purple Martins and Mosquitoes

The rain and cooler weather have been such a lovely respite from out usual July. Last week we were sweltering, the soil had been transformed by the dry heat into powdered dust, and there seemed that no respite was forthcoming. And yet a reprieve did arrive and from the east, which is highly unusual since we receive our rain from the west. There is no second guessing Mother Nature, and this time we were truly blessed.

As a side effect of the rain we may expect a large influx of mosquitoes so be sure to dump any containers of standing water. While the male mosquito eats nectar, his lady is blood sucking as she needs it to complete the fertilization of her eggs. The eggs are deposited in a small amount of quiet water and it takes but two days for infant mosquitoes to hatch, squiggle about, and begin morphing into adults. Their entire 6 stage process of reaching adulthood takes but two weeks and most species live up to a month or more, with one living over 100 days.

The female mosquito is kind enough to produce a high pitched buzz, alerting that she has found a target. Her proboscis, which is long and needle-like, produces an anticoagulant to allow for blood flow and this chemical is the cause of the swelling and skin irritations following a bite. Mosquitoes are present everywhere on Earth, have a specific territory, and with exception of the newly arrived Egyptian species, most emerge at dusk.

The Purple Martin is a charming member of the North American swallow family with interesting flight habits, shiny steel-blue plumage, and an appetite for the mosquito. The Purple Martin gets all of its food and water while in flight, skimming the surface of a pond, scooping up water in its lower bill… they can consume over 10,000 mosquitoes a day!

Martins are a very people friendly little bird, nesting almost exclusively in man made houses provided for them. Long before the arrival of the first Europeans, Native Americans invited Purple Martins to take up residence by hanging hollow gourds for them. They migrate to Brazil for the winter and return each spring to their home, with the older Martins arriving first and the younger birds arriving two weeks later. For a natural and conservative method of mosquito control, they are simply the best alternative available.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Crepe and Crape Myrtle... one and the same.

As the summer heats up and mirages appear on distant roadways only to disappear as one approaches, it is time for the dazzling Crepe (or Crape) Myrtle to begin her show. This gorgeous shrub will begin blooming now and continue until late fall. The Crepe Myrtle originally made her way into American gardens in about 1750, so it is well established in the Southern parts of the United States. The most common species came from southern Asia and is called “bai ri hong” by the Chinese, meaning “a hundred days of red”. This species has consistently maintained her popularity by gracing both mansions and farmhouses for over two hundred and fifty years.

This stupendous tree has now been hybridized to include every height. There are dwarf Crepe Myrtles small enough for a patio pot and those that resemble small trees which may be planted as a screen or simply a mass of visual beauty. The blooms arrive in clouds of clusters which exude an exotic look. The deeply ruffled flowers, each almost a quarter of an inch and complete unto itself, are bunched in gorgeous tapering cascades which literally cover the tree. The color spectrum is fantastic as well with the traditional red joined by white, pale or deep pink, shades of rose, and the entire spectrum of lavenders from soft to a deep violet.

The bark of this marvelous species is stunning as well. The interest in the bark lies in the fact the rough outer bark curls and peels, revealing an under bark which is smooth and of contrasting color. The foliage remains throughout the fall, changing to a deep red which lasts until the deepest freeze.

The Crepe Myrtle loves it hot and dry and should be watered only during prolonged dry spells. To maintain flowering throughout the Summer it is recommended that you cut back the spent branches just above the bloom thus causing the tree to produce a new one. Many people trim their Crepe Myrtles quite low in the early Spring to control and maintain their shape and since blooms appear on this years growth, this does not affect the flowering. It is a matter of personal taste whether you wish to have a shrub or tree… however every garden deserves the beauty of at least one lovely Crepe Myrtle.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Year of the Frog

We have the rain to thank for the resurgence of the frogs with every kind from jumpers to bull frogs seemingly everywhere this year. The last time they were seen in such great numbers was 1993 when they appeared after the spring flooding along with hundreds of tiny painted turtles. They were also notably prolific in 1983, the year we gave tadpoles as favors for a June birthday party. My friend above, Mr. Toad, has lived here for over 20 years.

It is good to see them making a come back, especially since frog populations have declined dramatically since the 1950s… the reasons are entirely environmental. The earliest fossils indicate frogs existed 125 million years ago so they are a mirror of the environment. Oxygen is dissolved in an aqueous film on a frogs skin and passes from there to the blood and for this reason the skin must remain moist. Unfortunately this process can mainstream toxins into the bloodstream which is part of the source of their decline. Also their eggs are subject to water pollution and no adaptation may protect them from man made poisons.

A true amphibian, frog eggs are laid and fertilized in the water and it is in the pond that young hatch and begin to morph. They appear first as tadpoles then gradually change into young frogs by losing their tail, losing their gills, developing lungs, and finally developing their fabulous hind legs. There are differences between frogs and toads, even though the toad is part of the frog family; the toad has adapted far better than his cousin, the frog.

The frog insists upon a pond to lay her eggs however the toad is not particular and may lay eggs in a standing puddle. The hind legs of a true frog are highly unusual and better suited for leaping than walking; the hind legs of a toad are shorter and well suited for hopping. A toad is not dependant upon water, has warty skin, and a shorter more muscular face. He also has survival tactics against predators which the frog lacks. A toad may inflate his body, play dead, or secrete an unpleasant tasting chemical through a gland behind his eyes. The smooth skinned frog has only the ability to leap long distances away from predators. It is a myth that toads may pass their warts to humans; the warts belong to them alone. The tiny toadlets (baby toads) hiding among the flowers this month are harmless and make adorable playmates for the day… remember to release them by evening.

The males of the family have the voice and will begin their evening song during mating season. From the deep baritone of the Bull Frog to the sweet squeak of the little jumpers, their song is familiar to nightfall and highly anticipated by all who love an evening serenade. The frog hibernates in winter and tends to stay in the same home-place for the duration of their life. Some species may live up to 40 years so you may well see your old familiar friends in the garden for decades.