Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Even a tropical storm can't take down King Elmer

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On July 17 and 18, King Elmer was treated once again for Dutch Elm disease. This tree is thought to have been growing on Summer Street since 1765, the year Lanesborough was incorporated, and the famous phrase, "Give me liberty or give me death," was uttered by Patrick Henry referring to British Rule.

Less than a month later Tropical Storm Isaias inundated The Berkshires taking down many trees considerably younger and bringing down one of this State Champion's major limbs. James Neureuther, of thLanesborough Tree and Forest Committee, wrote me the following day: "King Elmer suffered damage during the Tuesday Isaias Storm. A major limb at the 75 foot level was blown over and is currently resting on another major limb. The limb that [fell] is about 22 [feet] and 24 [inches] in diameter, so it is the equivalent of a large fallen tree hanging up in the canopy. Ron Yaple [of Race Mountain Tree Services] was contacted and assessed the situation yesterday, early afternoon. Chief of Police, Tree Warden, DPW Head, and Head of the Selectmen are all aware, as is the town manager. Ron Yaple will have a tree crew and his 90-foot spider lift on sight by 7 a.m. tomorrow, Friday, to begin setting up. King Elmer will be fine when all is done but probably will have lost some his 107 foot height."

I was able to stop by later in the morning as the major cleanup was underway and in time to watch the trimming of the damaged part showing the weak part allowing the breaking point. The consensus is the Champion will survive.

READER QUESTION

Q I have a milkweed garden for butterflies in Pittsfield for monarchs especially. This year, I have several milkweeds with the pointed leaves and a few butterflies around them but no caterpillars at all. Last year, I had them, but none at all now. What I do have are the small orange and black bugs and very tiny yellow-orange things in leaf crotches and near tips of the plants. Can this be the reason there are no baby monarchs?

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Sharon, Pittsfield

A This year I have dozens of milkweeds in our gardens; the ones "with the pointed leaves" are probably swamp milkweeds and for the past two years have been excitingly productive. I spent a couple years trying to get both common and swap milkweeds to grow, finally they are true to their name, "weeds." Last year, my wife Susan spent considerable time weeding the flower (I called it pollinator) garden, until this year where most of the plants are perennial, and I decided to hide tomato plants among the flowers. Well, back to last summer when Susan was weeding, she called to me, "There is a monarch caterpillar on one of these weeds." It was a 6-inch swamp milkweed sprout. It proved to me that caterpillars prefer tender leaves, and the glut of milkweed seeds, both common and swamp, were self-germinating.

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That said, with all the milkweed, neither of us have seen a single caterpillar! So, I began researching one occurrence this year, and abundance of orange and black bugs and tiny orange aphids; both are deterrents to caterpillars.

MILKWEED BUGS (Oncopettus sp.)

The first to show up this year was the milkweed bugs, and apparently are two different kinds. We have the smaller species. And this year, there are hundreds, maybe thousands. They damage the milkweeds by eating the seeds and soft plant tissue. One source I found says it will also eat eggs and small caterpillars.

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And, like Japanese beetles, we have begun to knock the bugs into a jar of soapy water. I do not want to suggest insecticidal soap wash regardless of how careful you are with rinsing. For our monarch production this year, I fear that it is too late. My fault for not staying on top of the situation.

And, having watched them mating, I will not win the battle, as females lay up to 2,000 eggs in one month. No matter how many I drown.

OLEANDER APHIDS (Aphis nerii)

For the past couple years I found these tiny yellow/orange scourges on just the swamp milkweed in late August, This year, I began seeing them in July, They apparently do not visibly damage the plants, though monarch do not lay their eggs on infested plants, and the aphids do damage the seeds.

I have begun to crush them by the hundreds, and have tried spraying them with a garden hose, Hold the plant and use a fine, high pressure stream. I suppose a spray bottle with a little detergent added will also work. Next year, I am going to plant onions and marigolds among the milkweeds to repel the aphids. They have been shown to repel aphids and reduce their numbers. Again, we will see. And as we regularly eat bananas, I am going to put the peels around the most infected plants. And this afternoon, I am going to remove the tops of the plants most infected and bag them for the trash. The growth season here is close to being over, anyway.


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