Predatory beetles

As I was taking an early evening walk around the garden yesterday, a sudden flurry of movement drew my eye down to the mulch.  I poked around and uncovered a beautifully camouflaged little insect.  It was a rove beetle, probably Platydracus maculosus, the first I have seen in the garden.

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rove beetle (Platydracus maculosus?)

Rove beetles are predatory beetles with a very unbeetle-like appearance.  They have short elytra (wing cases) which leave the abdomen exposed.  Some species (there are about 63,000 species total) will curve the long abdomen when threatened, giving the appearance of a scorpion.

While Platydracus maculosus may be beautifully camouflaged, it isn’t the most beautiful predatory beetle that I have seen in my garden.  That accolade belongs to Calosoma scrutator, the fiery searcher.

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fiery searcher (Calosoma scrutator)

C. scrutator is one of the largest ground beetles in North America, and its alternative common name, caterpillar hunter, tells you all you need to know about its preferred prey.

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Smaller and more common than C. scrutator, but equally fierce, is Cicindela sexguttata, the six-spotted tiger beetle.

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six-spotted tiger beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)

I often see these little beetles patrolling sunny paths in the garden or our concrete driveway.  When approached, they usually fly a short distance, looking rather like a shiny green wasp, before landing and running rapidly away.  As a child, I learned the hard way that tiger beetles can bite hard.  If you must catch one to show your friends, put it in a jar.  Don’t hold it cupped in your hand.

The strangest of our resident predatory beetles, stranger even than a rove beetle, is the railroad worm (Phengodes species).  Males have large, feathery antennae and wings that extend beyond the elytra, making them look a bit like a fly or a moth, but it is the females, also called glow-worms, that are really weird.  The females are larviform (looking like a large larva) and have an elongated, segmented body lacking wings.  Each segment has a pair of bioluminescent spots, so in the dark the railroad worm resembles a train with glowing windows.

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female railroad worm (Phengodes species)

Railroad worms specialize in preying on millipedes, which they superficially resemble, and when disturbed they roll up, just like a millipede.

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Keep your eyes open.  Every time you go into a garden, there’s a chance you’ll see something you have never seen before.

Six on Saturday #53 (April 18, 2020)

This week started with the screech of a tornado warning emanating from every iphone in the house. We scrambled out of bed, turned on the TV, and saw that the putative tornado was a few miles southwest of us, tracking northeast.  Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, we got the kids up and took shelter with the spiders in the crawl space.   Luckily, the storm broke apart before reaching us, so after a few minutes we were able to go back in for breakfast, a little soggy from the rain but otherwise unscathed.  Strong winds the rest of the day stripped most of the remaining flowers off the dogwoods but did no other damage to the garden.

After the storm on Monday, the rest of the week has been sunny and dry, though cool–we flirted with frost on Wednesday and Thursday morning, but even the volunteer tomato seedlings that are sprouting in the vegetable beds were unaffected.

1. Myrmecocattleya Memoria Louise Fuchs

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In the greenhouse, Myrmecocattleya Memoria Louise Fuchs is perfuming the air.  This orchid is a primary hybrid of Myrmecophila tibicinis, famous for its hollow pseudobulbs inhabited by ant colonies, and Cattleya bicolor, a very tall and spindly Brazilian biofoliate species.  This particular plant is actually the product of self-pollinating a first generation Myc. Memoria Louise Fuchs, but under the rules of orchid nomenclature, it retains the same grex name. Its pseudobulbs are relatively short and stout, like those of its Myrmecophila parent, while genes from C. bicolor have shortened the inflorescence.  Both species tend to have clustered flowers, but this plant has inherited fragrance and rich purple color from C. bicolor, and nicely crisped petals from M. tibicinis.  All in all, a good result of hybridizer’s efforts.

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2. Rhododendron cf. periclymenoides

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I featured this deciduous azalea in a Six on Saturday last April, but the flowers then were not at their best.  I am almost sure that it is R. periclymenoides, the native pinxter flower.  I now have a second plant on the other side of the house–an R. alabamense that I purchased from a reputable source last autumn has also bloomed out as R. periclymenoides.

3. Rhododendron austrinum (Florida flame azalea)

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Another North American deciduous azalea. This plant was in one of my earliest blog postings, but it is so lovely I couldn’t resist showing it again. The early butterflies love it.

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4. red azaleas

Wolfpack Red

Next up, two evergreen azalea hybrids.  Above is Rhododendron ‘Wolfpack Red’, one of the CarLa hybrids resulting from a collaboration between horticulture departments at North Carolina State University and Louisiana State University.  This clone is named for the NC State Wolfpack, whose colors are red, white, and black (but predominantly red).

Below is an unlabeled hybrid that I bought several years ago at Costco.  I really like the color of this plant–its red is at the orange end of the spectrum, unlike most red azaleas which have hints of pink or magenta.  I may try propagating it this year, but my success rate with Rhododendron cuttings is not high.  Maybe air layering would be better?

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5. Narcissus ‘Thalia’

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Narcissus ‘Thalia’ is a century-old hybrid that was recommended by Scott Ogden in Garden Bulbs for the South (Timber Press).  This is my first year growing it, but I really like the gently nodding white flowers.  I hope it comes back next year.

6. Epimedium ‘Stoplights’

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I keep falling for pictures of spidery Epimediums in garden catalogs, and when they bloom I am always surprised by how tiny they are and how brief the flowering season is.  This one is no exception.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Windmill palm tree

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Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chinese windmill palm

Today is Palm Sunday.  The current “stay at home” order prevented us from attending Sunday service (our church met online using Zoom instead), but I have nevertheless been thinking about palm trees.  The palm fronds that give this Sunday its name were presumably cut from Phoenix dactylifera (date palm), a middle eastern species that could not survive a North Carolina winter.  If you want to grow a palm tree in your piedmont garden–to add verisimilitude to your Palm Sunday decorations, for a tropical look, or just to impress your neighbors–there’s only really one choice.

No, not dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor).  Although that native of the coastal plain is perfectly hardy in the piedmont, its trunk is entirely subterranean.  For a palm tree, with a tall trunk, you want Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chinese windmill palm. T fortunei probably has a native range extending from the Himalayan foothills of India to Japan, but its long history of cultivation makes tracking its original habitat tricky.  It is usually rated hardy to USDA Zone 7, although there seems to be some variation in hardiness among different cultivars.

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I planted a single T. fortunei seedling about ten years ago, and the trunk is now about six feet (1.8 m) tall.  It is growing at the southeast corner of the house, so it is sheltered from the prevailing northwest winds in winter.  To the east and south are tall pines and deciduous trees, so the palm gets about four hours of direct sun and bright shade for the rest of the day. When it was very small, I sometimes insulated the trunk and crown with burlap and pine straw in winter, but it is now too tall for that to be practical.  Temperatures below about 8-10 F (-13 C) burn the tips of the fronds, but 5 F (-15 C) nights during two winters did not cause any permanent damage.

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Last year, the tree produced its first inflorescence, and this year it has multiple inflorescences with thousands of flowers.  T. fortunei is dioecious–male and female flowers occur on different trees–and my tree appears to be male.

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