Monday, July 28, 2008


The other day I was moping, so I went out for a walk in an desperate attempt to find some therapeutic green space, and look what I found:

Serviceberries! There was a huge, sprawling patch of them, filling of the weedy ditch of a potholed street in a shady part of town. There were more than I could possibly eat. I grabbed a handful off the first patch of trees, but then as I kept walking there were more and more and more. I wonder if you can make serviceberry jam. I've never made jam before. But now I guess I know where to find enough serviceberries for it.

I suppose I should have been more careful and not eaten berries growing right off of the street like that, since plants absorb car exhaust and other pollutants, but it's not a very busy street, and anyway with serviceberries it is kind of hard to resist. As with many wild (uncultivated) fruits, the seeds are large and noticeable, but the flesh is sweet and lightly puckery, somewhat reminiscent of cherries, to which they are related.

A bit later on my walk, I unexpectedly wound up on the Superior Hiking Trail, and I found a huge patch of thimbleberries, too. Thimbleberry plants, anyway, only one ripe berry. There's no picture of that because I popped it in my mouth as soon as I saw it.

I have for years been meaning to expand my knowledge of wild foods, and I really should get on that. It's so nice to run across these happy surprises, like free snacks on the trail, especially on sad days when you really need it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

pupation station

Speedy was getting so big so fast that we had to get ready for her to pupate (ahead of schedule, of course, because she is Speedy). I made up a nice dish of soil (because sometimes they burrow in the dirt) and stuck three sticks in it (because sometimes they do it on sticks or other vertical surfaces). I made a point of collecting a variety of sticks, a thick one, a thin one, and a rough-textured one, so that she could take her pick. See how nice of a set-up I made for her?

And you can also see in that picture that she was having none of it. That blob in the upper right corner is Speedy, hunkered down and ready to pupate, and choosing to do it on the blinding bright orange terrarium lid instead on of the nice sticks and dirt that I got for her.

I guess whenever I raised monarchs when I was a kid, they never spun their chrysalis on the sticks I gave them, it was always on the side of the jar or on the mesh covering on top.

Because of the angle, it's hard to get a decent picture of the chrysalis. Usually they are either green or brown, depending on their surroundings and what would be better camouflage. Last year, of our three that made it to adulthood, the two who pupated higher up on the sticks had brown chrysalids, and the one who pupated closer to a bunch of parsley had a green chrysalis. So when I saw that Speedy was getting ready to pupate on the bright orange terrarium lid, I was excited to see what color her chrysalis would be. Which is better camouflage for blaze orange?

Apparently she couldn't decide either. Her chrysalis is brown on the bottom (the side closer to the terrarium) and bright green along the back (the side facing open air).

Now we wait and see if she can actually hatch successfully hanging upside down and sideways like that (I removed the sticks and parsley, so she has room to spread her wings). She officially pupated on the evening of the 18th (when nobody was home to watch, of course) and since she is Speedy she'll probably hatch in a few days.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

local strawberries... finally

I wouldn't say that my parents were early proponents of the local foods movement, but they did teach me a few things: local strawberries are the best kind of strawberries (supermarket strawberries are acceptable only in a very dire emergency) and supermarket sweet corn is not even worth considering but fresh-picked local sweet corn is food of the gods.

We had such a cold and wet spring that the harvest this year is 2-4 weeks behind schedule, so it's still way too early yet for sweet corn, but now finally (finally finally finally!) there are local strawberries. (There may have been some last week; I didn't get out to the farmer's market.)

I work at a grocery store, and when the slightly damaged produce gets culled off the sales floor, it become available for staff. Lately there have been a lot of California strawberries, which a lot of my coworkers are excited about because, hey, free strawberries. But I have been resisting, because I knew that local strawberry season was just around the corner.

And, oh, it was so worth the wait. I stupidly only bought one quart, and had to force myself to not eat the whole thing in one sitting as soon as I got home from the farmer's market. Now this means I have to stop by the Saturday market before work, and go back next Wednesday, too, and on and on until they run out, so that I can gorge myself on local strawberries to make up for the other eleven months of the year when I have to make do with supermarket strawberries, or no strawberries at all.

In the vegetable kingdom, color is indicative both of flavor (usually sweetness) and of nutritional content. This is why local strawberries, which are a deep, luscious, juicy red through and through, taste so much better than supermarket strawberries, which are usually a pale pink or even white or green in the middle. That also means that local strawberries have more vitamin C, lycopene, and other nutrients than supermarket berries. The only advantage of supermarket berries is that they travel well (they are picked underripe and then ripened/reddened artificially—yup, even organic berries). My local strawberries today got slightly banged up in the 15 block bike ride home from the farmer's market. But that's okay; they'll be gone by the end of the day.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

molting action pix

I finally managed to catch Speedy when she was molting, and I got a few crappy pictures through the plastic terrarium. This picture was taken when she was still in the process of inching out of her old skin.

When they're freshly molted, the head and lighter parts of the body are pale and colorless, and it takes a few minutes for their face to turn black again.

In this picture, the old head capsule is still stuck to her face. She got the rest of the way out of her old skin, waggling her butt a little to make sure she was free, then took her old head
in her hands and turned it over and examined it, all Hamlet-like, before tossing it to the bottom of the terrarium. She rested and meditated for about half and hour, then went back and ate her old skin before moving on to the parsley.

She's a big, fat instar 5 now. In a few days she'll start getting ready to pupate.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Speedy Papilio

Well, I meant to document our swallowtail's progress more thoroughly on my blog here, but Speedy is just zipping through her instars way faster than our swallowtail charges last year. Or maybe it only seem faster because this is our second year with swallowtails, so we're old hands at it now, or because this year we only have one and not six to worry about.

But, wow, she's gotten really big really fast. When we brought her inside she was just in her first instar, and just last night she molted into instar #4. Here's a few photos.

Instar #2, mostly just bigger and fatter than instar #1:

Instar #3, bigger and fatter still:

And then, wham!, in instar #4 she's suddenly stripy:

I don't know if you can quite tell from this photo, but while she no longer has the big, obvious white sash around her middle, the corresponding area is still slightly paler than the rest of her.

She's got one more instar to go as a caterpillar, then she'll spin her chrysalis. In instar five she'll be (again) bigger and fatter, and the stripes will be more prominent and the little spikies she still has in I4 here will smooth out.

I haven't been around to actually see her molt, which is a shame because it's a neat thing to see. First they loosen their head capsule and knock that off, then they accordion scrunch themselves out of their old skin, and then after resting for a moment they turn around and eat it. Hey, waste not want not.

If you look in the background of my photos here, you can also see how much parsley she's been eating, since she's on the same stalk of parsley in every photo. There were three full leaflets when she started out in I2, and as of this morning she's eaten one and a half of them (she also ate close to a full leaflet from the stalk that she hatched on). Gardeners sometimes refer to this critter as "parsley worm" and dispatch it with other pests. Black swallowtails are under no real danger as a species, and while I'll admit that a lot of them could do a number on a garden, that's still no reason to wantonly kill pollinators.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

it begins again

We found a black swallowtail caterpillar on the parsley today.

Just the one. Last year we had six. We left two of them outside (they both died) and brought four inside (one died). So now we're kind of morally obligated to bring in any caterpillars we find and try to raise them.

Duluth is on the northern edge of their range, and while the species is not by any means a rare butterfly, they're not super-common around here. And yet this is the second year I've found them on my parsley. I wonder if the species has some intergenerational memory where they return to the spot where their ancestors hatched to lay their own eggs. (Our butterflies last year would have laid eggs again after we released them, and those caterpillars would have overwintered as chrysalides and hatched the following spring, and then those butterflies would have laid the eggs that this new caterpillar hatched from.) Now I want to go poke around other people's gardens in town and see what I can find.

One thing we have determined is that hatch date very likely corresponds with daylight hours. This one that we found today is maybe two days hatched... last year we found them as eggs, and they hatched on June 30. Last year's spring was dry and hot, and this year it was cold and rainy, so it can't be weather related.

This one so far seems lively, and has been crawling around and eating a lot. She hasn't got a name yet (last year we had all girls, so, ya know, I'm just assuming.) There will be updates as events warrant.