We had an unusual visitor to our garden last week. A very unique moth landed on our garage door and with a little bit of research we determined it to be a rusty tussock moth (Orgyia antiqua). It had a lighter colored strip across the folded wings and two white spots that looked like eyes. The females are wingless and spend their short lives attached to her cocoon where she lays her eggs. The caterpillars emerge in early spring and start feeding on a wide range of deciduous trees like birch, oak and willow, and shrubs like huckleberries and roses. The caterpillars are active between May and September when they progress to the adult stage. Since the adults do not feed, they have a very short life span. The females lay their eggs on their cocoons placed in the branches of a host tree and the eggs winter over until the following spring.
But as interesting as this little moth was, I was more taken by the fact that it was named by Carl Linnaeus, the Father of Modern Taxonomy, in 1785. That took me by surprise because although I knew Linnaeus had given Latin names to most of our plants and animals in the late 1700’s, I never thought about all those insects he named as well. And to make it even more relevant, Linnaeus named the rusty tussock moth two years before Captain Robert Grey sailed into Tillamook Bay.
So these little moths have been around for at least 235 years, and no doubt centuries before that.
Sometimes we are so caught up in our day-to-day lives that we fail to look at the myriad of life forms that surround us. And if you want an exercise to take your mind off of pandemics, tourists, and protests, I have a great one for you.
Find a comfortable spot in the garden. One where you can place a chair and sit quietly for an hour. It can be in sun or shade, your preference, as long as you can relax and just observe. If you have a spider web in your field of vision, that’s even better because they are always interesting to watch. Look at the ground around you. If you look long enough, a troop of ants or beetles will walk across your site line. Perhaps a rubber boa or a garter snake? They are harmless and eat lots of insects and slugs. Or maybe you will see a hummingbird flying by to check you out. House flies, butterflies, wasps or – if you are lucky – bees will stop by. Some creatures are more curious than others and by sitting still, they will come to you.
We are used to attracting birds to our gardens, and place feeders and baths to accommodate them. But by placing a flat dish with some sandy mud in it, you can bring butterflies.
A water source on the ground is good for drawing toads, too. Toads can be invaluable to keep down slugs and insects in the garden. So placing an old, cracked terra cotta pot upside down over some organically enhanced soil will give them a perfect spot to burrow under and hide during the heat of the day. But remember not to use commercial lawn or garden fertilizers or insecticides around your toad houses because the chemicals they contain can be deadly to toads. (As I was researching for this column, I found out so much cool information on frogs and toads that it will take up an entire column. So watch for that one in a couple of weeks.)
Besides watching for garden visitors, be sure to listen as well. I find closing my eyes removes a lot of distractions. What do you hear? I guarantee it will include bird song, but what else? Rustling in the fallen leaves will indicate a creature slipping by. Maybe a chipmunk or squirrel. If its evening, you might hear crickets or even feel the bats swoop by. That’s using all your senses.
Mostly, by taking some time in the garden to do nothing but observe the miniature habitat that surrounds you, you will come to appreciate your own personal world a little more. Not a bad thing in these uncertain times.