I ran across lots of critters in my work in the yard yesterday. Spiders and beetles were out in force, and I also encountered this striking white and black caterpillar crawling on an old birch tree stump.
My rule in the garden is to look — and photograph, where warranted — but don’t touch. I let the creatures go their own way unimpeded. In this instance, that turned out to be a wise policy, because according to the ever-useful University of Maine Cooperative Extension website this particular caterpillar is a Hickory Tussock caterpillar, and those white hairy tufts can cause a powerful and very itchy rash, especially for kids who can’t resist picking up things like caterpillars. The U of Maine also cautions people to be careful not to come in contact with them when raking leaves in the fall.
The Hickory Tussock caterpillar loves hardwood trees, like birch trees, and will be spinning its cocoon in the near future, using leaf debris and its own white hairs. The caterpillars then produce tiger moths, which are pretty common up here.
There’s a little crab apple tree in the side yard of our place in Stonington. I feel sorry for it. The tree seems to struggle and has never produced fruit or flowers during the time we’ve had the place. It has remained small and spindly despite my best efforts to help it grow. I’ve tried watering it liberally, and I’ve driven those tree fertilizer spikes into the area around the tree to try to give it nutrients. Unfortunately, it remains stunted. It may just be that the rocky soil isn’t good for a tree.
This year, a kind of white discoloration appeared on some of the leaves on the tree. In trying to figure out what it was, I learned something kind of cool about the University of Maine. The U of M Cooperative Extension offers the services of a plant disease diagnostic lab that will test any sample you send and let you know what the problem is. You just clip off some leaves that show the problem, put them in a plastic bag, give them your name and address and email information, and send the sample off to Orono, Maine for analysis.
We took advantage of the service to send in some clippings from the little tree for examination and testing. Yesterday we received a report from one of the scientists working at the lab — about a week after we sent it off. That’s pretty impressive, and much appreciated.
The news about our little tree was bad and good. The bad news is that the tree now has to deal with a fungal condition called venturia inequalis, which is commonly known as “apple scab.” It’s not exactly an attractive name, but then fungal conditions typically don’t get lyrical monikers. According to the report, “apple scab” is common on apple trees that have not been bred for resistance to the fungus — so now we know that the little tree lacks good breeding, in addition to its other issues. The good news is that the condition isn’t fatal, or even all that serious. The diagnostics lab scientist does not recommend fungicide, and simply recommends raking and disposing of the leaves after they drop from the tree this fall. And a University of Massachusetts website identified in the diagnostics report says we can hope that the tree will be better next spring.
So we’ve learned something neat about how the University of Maine serves the surrounding community, and confirmed that our little tree’s bout with “apple scab” means it has another challenge to contend with. And now we can only hope that the little tree, like everythingelse, will be better — much better — in 2021.