Posts Tagged periodical cicadas

Farewell Until 2024

A deconstruction of Periodical Cicadas

I warned you they were coming here. I showed you proof of the invasion of the red-eyed monsters (aka, periodical cicadas) here. And I showed them to you at the height of their emergence in my yard here. Today, a month after their initial emergence in my yard, I am happy to report that the prolonged mating frenzy of the periodical cicadas is winding down.

The most obvious signs of their decline are the body parts scattered across the yard — a single wing here, a severed head there. Every morning for the last three days, I’ve been sweeping dead cicadas from my back deck, which is shaded by a mighty Northern Red Oak. Yesterday’s body count was ten; this morning’s was seven. Accompanying the cicada corpses are proof that the females’ egg-laying is done — small severed oak branches litter the deck and ground. I’ve read that female periodical cicadas are especially fond of young oak twigs, and my backyard evidence confirms this.

I’m not worried about damage to this oak. It’s about 100 years old and 85 feet tall with a trunk diameter too big for two adults to embrace and touch hands. It can accommodate a little pruning by the female cicadas.

However, I am steamed about what they did to one of my prize young deciduous magnolias. Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’ is not a native species, but the description of its stunning early pink flowers was enough to persuade me to buy one about eight or nine years ago. For economic reasons, I buy very small, bare-rooted plants, and my Diva did not respond enthusiastically to transplanting, nor did it like being enclosed by a wire cage — a necessity to prevent deer predation.

However, Diva began to come into her own after her area was enclosed by deer fencing and we could remove the cage. She didn’t bloom this year, but I had high hopes for next spring — until the cicadas destroyed those hopes. For reasons known only to a fertile female in egg-laying frenzy, one of the periodical cicadas chose to deposit her eggs three feet down from the top of Diva’s leader branch.

A leader, for those who may not know, is the central branch of a tree — the one that shoots up straight and tall and from which lateral branches sprout. A strong central leader branch helps create a tall, straight, healthy tree. Diva had a nice leader branch before the cicadas killed it. A few days ago, I noticed it dangling from the top (about 9 feet up) by a shred of bark. Wonder Spouse cut it off cleanly for me (he’s taller than me), and I photographed the carnage before removing it. Three feet of the top of Diva’s leader branch, dead:

Diva’s severed “head”

The cicadas also killed several lateral branches of my gorgeous Ashe Magnolia, but — knock wood — it seems to be mostly intact. I’m hoping that the diminishing high-pitched thrum of the periodical cicadas and the increasing number of ant-covered cicada bodies strewn across the yard mean that Diva’s fate will not be shared by other beloved woody specimens. Another couple of weeks should tell the tale.

They won’t be back until 2024, which suits me fine. By then, my woody specimens should all be large enough to withstand damage from the female periodical cicada’s ovipositor. By then, Wonder Spouse and I will be well into our senior years; perhaps the perspective of increasing age will mellow our annoyance with the mating enthusiasm of these red-eyed monsters.

Leave a comment

Beauty and the Beasts

A few days ago when the first Periodical Cicadas Brood XIX made their appearance in my back yard, I was intrigued. They were a novelty, something to photograph that you don’t see every day. However, yesterday morning when I stepped onto my back deck, I was greeted by hundreds of freshly emerged cicadas. They covered the deck rails, the flooring, and even the walls of my house, thusly:

The emergence decorates my walls

Yesterday afternoon when I realized that my Ashe Magnolia (Magnolia ashei) was beginning to open its numerous flower buds, I went to get a few photos, only to discover that the cicadas liked my Ashe Magnolia as much as I do. Here’s the lovely tree — about 15 feet tall — from a distance yesterday afternoon:

Ashe Magnolia tree about to open its flower buds

It was littered with larval shell carcasses, like this:

Do they like the big leaves?

Still, I wasn’t too creeped out. The leaves of this tree are enormous; I figured they could handle supporting these newly emerged creatures until they were ready to fly higher and begin their eerie thrumming calls.

Quite a few newly emerged cicadas were on the back deck again this morning. But as I watched a fat Gray Squirrel devouring one with gusto, I thought, “Maybe this isn’t so bad; maybe the wildlife will keep this emergence under control.”

From my window, I noticed that the Ashe Magnolia flowers were more open this morning, so I ran out to take a few shots … insert horror movie soundtrack here:


They’re not eating the flowers or the leaves, but they are marring the regal beauty of the flowers. For comparison, I looked at another nearby deciduous magnolia — Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) growing about 60 feet from the Ashe Magnolia. My Bigleaf Magnolia didn’t bloom this year, but its leaves are even larger than those of the Ashe Magnolia.

Can it be that the sweet perfume of these flowers is attracting all these red-eyed monsters? I have no idea, but I do know it creeped me out to see my lovely tree overtaken by these invaders.

Here’s a shot that gives you a sense of the size of the leaves and flowers of Ashe Magnolia:

Have mercy!

And now that I have grossed you out, let me tell you briefly why I love this native Magnolia. Many botanists consider Ashe Magnolia to be a subspecies of Bigleaf Magnolia; instead of calling it Magnolia ashei, they call it M. macrophylla, var. ashei. I imagine only a DNA analysis of the two will settle the debate, and I don’t really care.

I can tell you that Ashe Magnolia’s leaves and flowers do very much resemble those of Bigleaf Magnolia. However, Bigleaf Magnolias can grow to great heights, and they tend to be unenthusiastic about blooming until they are quite tall.

Ashe Magnolia, on the other hand, blooms when it is small; mine first bloomed when it was only four feet high. Its growth habit is usually described as shrubby, and it does produce a number of side branches that make it resemble a shrub, sort of. It is supposed to top out at about 20 feet, but I have a feeling mine may grow higher than that. Now that mine is 15 feet tall, it is blooming spectacularly. Instead of single flowers, many branches sport two-bud or three-bud flower clusters. It’s a Magnolia flower bonanza, and each flower is at least six inches across, usually more!

I would be remiss if I didn’t attempt to describe the fragrance. It is sweet, but not as cloying as M. grandiflora. I much prefer the scent of Ashe Magnolia. Its flowers are not as many-petaled as M. grandiflora, but it is still unmistakably a classic Magnolia family flower.

Here’s a final close-up of an open flower — no cicadas in sight — so that you can appreciate why I love this deciduous Magnolia so much:

So lovely

, , , , ,

1 Comment

Wetland Preacher: Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Wetland Congregation

The native wetland at the edge of our property gets more gorgeous every day. As you can see in the above photo, the Cinnamon Ferns and Atamasco Lilies are still magnificent. They serve as a fitting congregation for the latest additions: Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum). The Jacks are in front in the above shot — their three-part leaves make them easy to spot. Someone decided that their unusual flower structure (a spadix), which is surrounded by a leaflike hood (a spathe) looks like a preacher sitting in his pulpit, hence, Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

Their other common name is Indian Turnip, because Native Americans ate the underground tubers. But don’t just dig one up and take a bite, please! Raw tubers are full of calcium oxalate crystals, which will burn your mouth like fire. Native Americans knew that cooking the tubers cancelled this effect, rendering them acceptable as vegetables.

My references tell me that Jack-in-the-Pulpits need constant moisture and at least medium shade to be happy. And, if you want them to set fruit (a festive cluster of red berries), the plants need to be well fed.

Periodic flooding of my wetland by the adjacent creek takes care of nutrient deposition for me, and my wetland remains at least damp except during the direst of droughts. A high canopy provides shade. My Jacks are responding by multiplying with enthusiasm.

I’ve got both forms — the green form:

Jack-in-the-Pulpit, green form

And the purple-striped form. Note the deep purple stem on this form:

Jack-in-the-Pulpit, purple form

The split is just about even between the two forms in my little wetland. Both are nice, but I think the purple form is quite an eye-catcher. If I were going to move some to other moist areas in my yard, I’d probably move the purple form. Although it is easier to simply spread the seeds where I want them. I’ve done this in a few spots. I sprinkled red berries in the late summer/early fall when I noticed them (they’re hard to miss), and now I’ve got Jacks preaching in spots where I had no Jacks previously.

This native wildflower is common in wetlands up and down the eastern side of the United States, and I think it’s under-appreciated.  If you’ve got a consistently wet, shady spot in your yard, I encourage you to consider planting some Jack-in-the-Pulpits.  Preaching the gospel of wetland significance is their speciality, and I think it’s a message that can’t be heard often enough.

Cicada Update

I told you yesterday here about the emergence of the first wave of periodical cicadas. This morning, my backyard, which has a protected southern exposure, was teeming with hundreds of emerging cicadas. It’s hard not to think of the movie, Alien, when you spot one just beginning to push itself out of its larval shell, as in this photo:

Here they come

That’s what the cicada at the top of the photo is doing. The one below is dangling from the husk of its former self as it dries its wings. I’m expecting the eerie humming to commence very soon.

, , , ,


Emergence by Dawn’s Faint Light

Early Arrival

I warned you they were coming here. At first light, I stepped outside to breathe exceptionally humid (for late April) air — the air mass that helped create the devastating tornadoes in states to my west and south yesterday and overnight. The air feels wrong this morning — too thick, the winds are too strong, the red lines on weather radar — too terrifying. So, of course, this is the morning that the Periodical Cicadas — Brood XIX — are beginning to emerge.

A half dozen of them — sluggish as they tried to dry new wings in damp air — were perched on the railings of our back deck — and on the floor — and on the side of the house. My pictures are less than ideal because it was still fairly dark.

One of the new arrivals even left the shed skin of its former self attached to a rail post here:

Abandoned Larval Shell of Cicada

Here’s a shot of two of them. One is on the wall of the house, the other sits atop the deck railing:

They will soon be everywhere

The hum I described in my earlier post has not yet begun. They are still pulling themselves out of damp ground, struggling out of their larval skins, and drying their new wings.

Later today, the sun will return, and the humidity will drop as the unstable air mass that wrought so much destruction is replaced with spring-sweetened air once more.

It’s almost as if the cicadas have returned now to keep me feeling unsettled, to remind me how quickly the natural world can transform itself. As I stand outside over the next weeks, outnumbered by thousands of humming insects, I will be unable to forget how very small I am. And that’s probably a good thing.

They'll be watching...



Brood XIX: Return of the Red-Eyed Monsters

I read in my local paper yesterday that it’s time for another emergence of the 13-year periodical cicada common to my region — North and South Carolina. The last emergence of this species was 1998. I remember it well. I thought extra-terrestrials had landed their spaceships just out of sight and did not turn off their engines. I had never before heard such a high, loud, continuous hum.

I could hear it in the house with the windows shut tight. To my ears, the sound was almost as bad as if someone were perpetually scratching fingernails on an ancient slate blackboard. Periodical cicada calls are not remotely similar to the lazy thrumming of our annual cicadas — their song just vibrates humid late-summer air, lulling sticky bodies into uneasy slumber. The periodical cicada calls are different; they penetrate your brain and jangle your nerves. And then the bugs appear — everywhere.

I had never seen so many of one kind of insect at one time in my life. They covered every bush, the steps of my house, the fence. My young lab mix was delighted, dancing and leaping as she snapped up as many of the slow-moving cicadas as she could. Fortunately, the cicadas aren’t poisonous, but the vet still encouraged us to lock the dog inside the house until the cicadas dispersed a bit more into the environment.

If you live in a suburb without much forest cover — or a city — you probably won’t hear these short-lived sonic disrupters. If you live in North or South Carolina, I encourage you to take a trip to the countryside in late April/ early May, when the cicadas are predicted to emerge. You will never hear anything like the sound of gazillions of these red-eyed insects humming their love calls.

But if you live in or near forests that have remained undisturbed for the past 13 years, prepare yourself. Gardeners may want to take preventive measures to protect any young trees or shrubs with relatively small stems. Adult females lay their eggs in these thin branches. The larvae soon emerge, drop to the ground, and dig in for another 13-year development cycle. In my yard thirteen years ago, a young dogwood didn’t survive the massive egg-hole drilling that the periodic cicadas subjected it to. Branches broke and dropped, leaving a sad, injured tree that I eventually removed.

This time around, I’ve got many more shrubs and young trees with branches likely to be deemed ideal by the female cicadas. When I hear the high-pitched hum begin, I’ll be covering many of these smaller woody plants with a spun garden fabric that will deny access to these insects. The good news is that the entire life cycle only takes four to six weeks.

This late spring, my landscape will likely be haunted by high hums and white-fabric-covered shrubs. At least I know the haunting will be temporary, and won’t return for another thirteen years.


%d bloggers like this: