Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Syrphid flies on Sweet Alyssum

Where's Waldo?
I’ve been spending a little quality time with ‘Blushing Princess’ and ‘Silver Stream’ recently. Just to see for myself. Does Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima) really attract more syrphid flies than other flowers, as researchers have written?

You’ve seen them, those miniature yellow jacket lookalikes that are always hovering about your flowers. Some call them sweat bees, but the fact is, there is an actual bee (family Halictidae) that claims that name. Hoverfly is a more apt nickname for the tiny fly (family Syrphidae). Beating its wings at a furious pace it hangs in the air above favored flowers and, alighting on a blossom, sucks nectar, tail bobbing slowly up and down. The hover fly is not interested in your sweat.

All that hovering about serves the female well when it comes to providing for her unborn offspring. She scouts the landscape for plants that host promising colonies of aphids, and deposits her eggs, one by one, nearby. And this is the good part: a single syrphid fly larva will eat hundreds of aphids.

And yet, as intimate as I am with aphids (we have similar tastes in lettuce) I have never seen a syrphid fly larva. At about 1 cm long they’re certainly visible. And they are undoubtedly populous, judging by the number of adults hovering around. So I have to conclude that I am not terribly observant. This is a good reminder that, no matter how much we might think we know and how observant we think we are, most of the action goes on unseen, under our noses. 

One thing I know is true: the answer is yes. A few syrphid flies visit catmint in passing, and one or two seek out arugula flowers. Coreopsis holds minor appeal and spiraea is fairly popular. But the winner, hands down, is Lobularia maritima ‘Silver Stream.’ 

Go syrphid fly larvae, Go!

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Digitalis purpurea. My new love. Finger flower, Fairy bell, Fox glove. The fanciful labels given to this stately beauty evoke whimsical images, but she is rather too dignified for silly nicknames. My garden is rich with white and purple spires. A bumblebee vanishes into one spotted hood-shaped bloom and wiggles out, butt first, only to make its joyous way into another.

Foxglove performs brilliantly for those who are sensitive to the cycles of the natural world, and also for those who are oblivious to nature’s ways. The clearing outside my mother’s home in the Adirondacks was lush with hay-scented fern and foxglove every July. Scoffing at the herds of deer that lounged on the thin grasses, the acid soils that limited gardening possibilities, and the 280 inches of annual snowfall, the steadfast pair created a spontaneous scene that any gardener would be proud to replicate. The chemicals in foxglove’s leaves can kill, as deer evidently know. Deadman’s bells, some call the charming hoods. My mother sensibly chose to grow a mini crop of kohlrabi in a planter high upon her deck railing rather than fight the wild world for the sake of a tomato or rose. Meanwhile in her clearing, foxglove faithfully returned year after year in the brief moment that is summer in the north country, unbidden and underappreciated. 

Seldom seen in manicured yards of turf and mulch, foxglove does not take kindly to landscape crews that descend en masse to perform “spring cleanup” in late winter. She also does not tolerate Mr. Neat (who lives in every neighborhood). Clipping the stalks of finished flowers before they have the opportunity to fulfill their function is a sure way to banish the beautiful foxglove. But the gardener—or slacker—who allows the tiny seeds to scatter themselves at will on bare ground, and then waits for the seedlings to show themselves before putting down a reasonable layer of mulch (or not) will be rewarded handsomely the following year as rhythmic spires elevate the merely pleasant to the dazzling. A small indulgence for such a big return.

She is so easy to love.