The Maw of Doom

The last thing a caterpillar sees

Youngest offspring and I found a nest of newly hatched Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in one of my hanging baskets.  When we made clicking noises, they opened wide for dinner.

Carolina wrens are notorious for building nests in inappropriate places.  I have found nests under the lid of our barbecue grill and, repeatedly, in open bags of potting soil.  In comparison, a hanging basket is a surprisingly good choice, even if the chicks run the risk of being flooded whenever I water the plants.

The chick’s mouth kind of reminds me of a Pleurothallis flower.

Favorite garden tool: Opinel No.8 grafting knife

Among the many things that the French do with greater style and elegance than anyone else, I would list the crafting of pocket knives.  Over the years, I have accumulated a small collection of French knives and am fond of them all, but the one that is currently seeing the most use is my most recent purchase:  an inexpensive grafting knife made by Opinel.


Like the classic Opinel No.8 pocket knife, the grafting knife has a beechwood handle and virobloc, a steel collar that twists to lock the blade open or closed.  The classic Opinel has a carbon steel blade, but in a concession to the amount of water that it will encounter in the garden, the blade of the grafting knife is stainless.  The wooden handle is gently curved to accommodate the blade, and it fits most comfortably in my hand with the edge of the blade facing towards me.

For the price (approx. $25), this is the most useful garden tool I own.  I don’t graft, but the knife makes short work of any light pruning, trimming, or flower cutting in the garden.  Since the blade is usually facing towards me, a pulling motion feels most natural.  The curved blade slices cleanly through fibrous stems that tend to be mashed or mangled by secateurs that aren’t perfectly sharp (and the knife is a lot easier to slip in a pocket than a pair of secateurs).  It is also ideal for slicing open plastic bags of potting soil, cutting twine or rope, and harvesting vegetables.

Two minor modifications will make the knife even better.  The wooden handles of Opinel knives tend to swell when wet, making the blade tight, so I always dip a new Opinel in linseed oil (after removing the virobloc) to make the handle more waterproof.  While I have the virobloc collar off, I stretch it slightly with a pair of pliers so that it fits more loosely and can be twisted easily with a push of my thumb.  If the collar becomes too loose, it can be tightened again by squeezing with the pliers until the fit is perfect.


Giant corpse flower

Amorphophallus titanum ‘Peter Grande’

This week, a corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) bloomed at Plant Delights nursery in Raleigh.  Conveniently, blooming coincided with the nursery’s summer open-house.

Just a few years ago, the blooming of a corpse flower at a botanical garden would have been recorded by CNN or the national newspapers. Artificial propagation has made the species reasonably widespread in cultivation, but blooming is still an exciting horticultural event.  I had never before been privileged to see an A. titanum inflorescence.  It was impressively large, and although the stench was not as strong and pervasive as I expected, it definitely smelled like old road-kill.  The smaller Amorphophallus konjac in my garden have a hint of sewer in their fragrance, but this was pure carrion.

After paying our respects to ‘Peter Grande,” we did a little shopping.  The rain was coming down in sheets, so we cut short our browsing and came away with only a Penstemon murrayanus and a Hemerocallis altissima.  The baby A. titanum seedlings were tempting, but I managed to resist.  Maybe next time.

A. titanum seedlings for sale at Plant Delights

For more details on ‘Peter Grande’, see Plant Delights’ Titan Page.

Mole cricket


While driving down our lane, I noticed a large, dark insect scuttling across the dusty gravel.  It proved to be a mole cricket.  As a child, I used to catch mole crickets in our garden in southwestern Iran, but I haven’t seen one in decades.  This was like meeting an old friend.

There are several mole cricket species in the southeastern U.S., including some introduced species that are agricultural pests.  I think this may be the native Neocurtilla hexadactyla (northern mole cricket), but I let it go instead of collecting it for definitive identification.