Posts Tagged Eastern Red Cedar

A Most Welcome Visitor: Juniper Hairstreak

Juniper Hairstreak enjoying Swamp Milkweed

In my region of central North Carolina, it has been a very sparse year for butterflies and moths. The local lepidopterists (folks who study this group of insects) suspect that an especially severely cold winter followed by a wet early spring may be responsible for the dearth of this insect group. This is not just bad news for those of us who enjoy watching colorful butterflies drift in clouds from flower to flower. It is very bad news for the ecosystem, because myriad species of animals — most especially nesting birds — rely exclusively on the larvae of this group (caterpillars) to feed their young. Caterpillars are the perfect baby bird food — packed with protein and other key ingredients that insure that chicks grow quickly to fledgling stage, where they become less vulnerable to predators. In fact, caterpillars are the only food parent birds of familiar species such as Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Chickadee, and Carolina Wren can use; their chicks require the specific nutrients in those proportions to grow and fledge.

The well-known classic, Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson warned the world about what happens when insects disappear from ecosystems. The banning of DDT saved our birds that time. A more recent classic, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy, details specifically which species of insect rely on which species of native plants. The list is long and alarming — at least to me — because many species of insects rely exclusively on only one species of plant to feed their larvae. If that plant species is unavailable, the insects that rely on it cannot complete their life cycles. If the host plant species becomes widely unavailable (as species of Ash trees are becoming now, due to devastation by the non-native Emerald Ash Borer), insects that rely on those species will disappear.

This head-on view of a Juniper Hairstreak illustrates the “hairs” for which it is named.

I was delighted to spot this fresh-looking Juniper Hairstreak dining on Swamp Milkweed in my pollinator garden yesterday. This small butterfly is often overlooked, because of its soft green color, but it is relatively common in the Piedmont region of North Carolina because its larval food plant — Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is also relatively common. On my five acres, we are lucky to have a number of 40-foot mature specimens. They provide shelter for birds and other creatures, their bluish “berries” (actually cones) are beloved by Cedar Waxwings and other birds, and their sturdy shade and deep green color make this evergreen species well-suited for any landscape. If sited where air flow can stagnate, a colorful fungus that uses this species as an alternate host can appear, but I solved this issue in my yard simply by limbing up the trees to permit better air circulation.

References tell me that male Juniper Hairstreaks linger on branch tips of their host tree until a female is attracted. Females lay single eggs on the tips of branches, which eventually hatch to become very well-camouflaged caterpillars similar to the one in this link.  I’ve never seen one on my trees, but then again, I’ve never gone looking for them either.

But the presence of this fresh-looking specimen on my Swamp Milkweed yesterday tells me that my Red Cedars have been playing host to green caterpillars that have likely been helping to feed the three broods of Eastern Bluebirds reared by the ambitious parents that nested on my property this year.

In a world so filled with darkness these days, the appearance of this petite green butterfly gives me at least small hope for my planet’s future.

Long may you and your kind reign, little one.

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Of Junipers and Slimy Orange Fingers

Cedar-Apple Rust in spore-dispersal mode

I had never noticed Cedar-Apple Rust in nature until we moved to our current home over 22 years ago. At that time, the front door was guarded by two 40-foot-tall Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). Their looming presence darkened the entry and kept a creaky wooden walk slimy with algal growth, due to the minimal air circulation permitted by mis-matched azaleas huddling beneath the cedars.

After a few warm spring rains, those front Cedars suddenly sprouted alien-looking bright orange growths that were slimy to the touch. Botanists refer to the dangling fruiting bodies of this stage of Cedar-Apple Rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginiae) as tentacles, but to my eye, they are more like fingers reaching out to slime any unsuspecting folks who approach too closely. The growths are cold and gelatinous to the touch, and, well, kind of gross.

This fungus completes its life cycle by alternating between two host plants — Eastern Red Cedar and members of the Apple family. The Apple family is enormous, including everything from Quince to Crabapple and Serviceberry. In my yard, I think the alternate hosts for the fungus were the sad-looking Crabapples that the previous owner had planted near the driveway, not far from the giant Junipers.  The Crabapple leaves were covered in orangy spots, which I realized were the fungal growths in their Apple guise. The Crabapples tended to lose most of their leaves by mid-summer; they never bloomed well either.

After I realized what I was dealing with, we cut down the sick Crabapples. To increase air flow, we limbed up the Eastern Red Cedars, which previously had branches nearly to ground level. By the next year, the orange slimy fingers of spring were less abundant. And when we performed a major landscape overhaul to the front entry — removing those two Junipers in the process — evidence of Cedar-Apple Rust almost disappeared.

But we have a number of other large Eastern Red Cedars growing in our yard. They were here when we moved in, and I love these trees. Not only do they smell wonderful (their heartwood is what cedar chests are made from), they provide year-round cover for birds and other wildlife — and an important food source. The bluish-white berry-looking fruits on the female trees are beloved by many birds, including Cedar Wax Wings. These fruits aren’t actually berries. Junipers are conifers; the fruits are mature cones. But the birds don’t care about botanical distinctions; they just enjoy the feast provided by blue-cone-laden 40-foot trees.

This year’s humid, unusually warm April seems to have awakened quite a number of slimy orange fungal fruiting bodies. Spores travel far on winds, so they could have come from any Apple-family member in a neighbor’s yard. And when I added Serviceberry trees to my yard, I knew I might exacerbate the Cedar-Apple Rust. So far, I haven’t noticed an impact on them, but I’ll be keeping a close watch as the humid summer progresses.

If you want to grow Apples in the southeastern Piedmont, your best bet is to plant varieties that are known to be resistant to Cedar-Apple Rust and other fungal diseases. Personally, I find most fruit trees to be more trouble than they’re worth in my climate. Constant vigilance is required to protect the trees against disease and insect damage. Frankly, I just don’t have the time to watch them closely enough.

And by not needing to worry about protecting Apple trees, I can enjoy the gelatinous orange fingers of spring that adorn my big Junipers. They’re actually kind of cool — in a slimy, horror-film kind of way.

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