Tender spring, weather tantrums and the scarlet scourge

The pasque flower is much later this year.

Wind rocks the lilac in the background as the squall picks up power.

Now we come to the tender time of spring. All the leaves are still in their infancy, dotting tree branches like confetti and letting the blue sky slip between, painting the leaves with flashes of silver where the sun hasn’t already claimed them for gold. The grass is a newly minted green, each blade bright with expectation. Everywhere is the colour of flowering trees and shrubs: apples and crabs and double flowering plums. The scent of chokecherry blossoms mingles with the perfume of lilac which is heavy on the air; their purple clusters just now bursting open. Last spring, people arriving in Winnipeg said the city smelled of lilac.

A sun shower pelts rain across the pavement, intensifying its colour. A sudden squall blows up. The old cottonwood bows to the wind but it is too strong for the Chinese elm on the corner. The wind rips off weak branches which snap with a shriek like pain, several limbs hurtle to the ground, while another mighty arm is caught in mid fall by the remaining tree, an ugly raw wound where it snapped is exposed to the sky; yet the same wind barely strips leaflets off a neighbouring tree. The wind is sudden and violet like a child’s temper tantrum, then all is over and the world is a sunny place again.

The Siberian elm lost three of its branches to a sudden gust of wind. The moody sky turned sunny right afterwards.

In the garden, the fernleaf peony is already done – it is so dry that this tough little plant barely had the strength to open its blossoms, which were small and tired looking even when they first unfurled. The tulips, however, those that survived the constant pruning by the rabbits and the lack of snow cover all winter, are bright and healthy. They prefer it dry. The daffodils, too, are growing in thick clumps and the lilies are all up, so far unscathed by the scarlet scourge, the red lily leaf beetle, which has been terrorizing lily growers  this spring after a virulent outbreak last summer.

Diligence seems the only cure, whether it’s by handpicking or direct application of noxious substances at every stage of their development. It is a discouraging battle. Each female lays up to 450 eggs a season in ragged rows along the underside ribs of lily leaves, a dozen or so at a time. They are orange and about half the length of a grain of rice. Six days later, they hatch into voracious feeding machines that can strip a plant of its leaves over night, leaving only a barren stem that soon turns brown.  They feed now for 24 days, gradually building up a coating of frass – their own excrement – to discourage predators and protect themselves from the sun.

Then, gorged on your lily, leaves, buds, blossoms and all, they drop to the ground and bury into the top half inch or so, or even just under debris, to pupate for another 20 days, when they emerge as the scarlet winged adults that are so lovely yet so evil to the lilies and begin the cycle all over again. Disturb the soil beneath your plants now to get rid of some of the aestivating grubs.

The lily leaf beetles are tricky little devils, too. They know how to emit a squeaking sound by rubbing body parts together when they are pinched or threatened to startle predators and squeamish gardeners. This is perfectly described as “stridulation”. Their other clever habit is to commit “thanatosis“, commonly known as playing dead. They become still, fold up their legs, wings, and antennae, then they fall to the ground upside down so it is hard to see them. Wiley beetle pickers know this trick and carry a pot of soapy water with them on a beetle hunt, holding it under an affected leaf so that the perpetrator will fall into the water and drown.

Adult beetles can be killed by direct contact with methoxychlor (now banned) and rotenone (being phased out in Canada and the US). Rotenone comes from the roots of certain plants, including jicama and derris root from China. Carbaryl, still sold under the trade name Sevin, and malathion are also toxic to the bugs but both also affect bees.

The beetles come from Europe, North Africa and Asia. They were first discovered in North America in Montreal where they probably arrived via a shipment of lily bulbs.  Their natural enemy is a parasitic wasp that is attracted to the frass that disgusts birds, but this saviour has not yet reached our shores.

Nor is it likely that we will see relief soon. Government web sites call the beetle a “minor” pest.

Hmmm. I wonder what the folks at Neepeawa’s Lily Nook would say to that!

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7 thoughts on “Tender spring, weather tantrums and the scarlet scourge

  1. pommepal says:

    The Siberian elm photo looks like a painting by Constable. Beautifully descriptive writing

  2. Beautiful post. Those dreaded lily beetles arrived in our part of the UK just last year. We had never suffered at all before then.

  3. I loved your descriptive writing at the start of this post. Our peonies are just beginning to come up.. I hope we avoid some of these pests!

  4. Diana says:

    Our gardens are just starting to come alive and we are already at war with the lily beetles. Have been squishing/drowning about 6-8 a day. We hope to keep the damage to a minimum this year.

  5. […] posts:  Tender spring, weather tantrums, and the scarlet scourge.   (The Gardening Canuck) Rate this: Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailPinterestPrintLike […]

  6. Granny says:

    Yup, if memory serves me well, you are correct, the little devils arrived via Montreal, when they had their first “Les Floralies,” a big floral exhibit. I forget the year. Your poetic perspective offers an interesting contrast with the voraciousness of these creatures. As troublesome as they are, what a fascinating creature in many ways. Tiny enough that we can crush them in a second, yet a part of us is utterly terrified of approaching. Nature is both poetic and powerful.

  7. […] posts:  Tender spring, weather tantrums, and the scarlet scourge.   (The Gardening […]

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