Toasted To Perfection

Wherein I Light Up A Voracious Swarm of  Tent Caterpillars With a Flaming Can of Whoop-Ass.

When viewed without an  understanding of their dining habits or that larger context of the apocalyptic damage left in their wake (in this case, just off camera), this tight little cluster of tent caterpillars looks almost pastoral, kind of serene, maybe even beautiful. Such cute, fuzzy little creatures. Not!

I’m uneasy with the notion of using poisons in my garden, uneasy about their manufacturers and that powerful corporate temptation to fib about the actual science of a product for the sake of its bottom line. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has proven true again and again, recently, in the name of market share and profits, and almost always lubricated by some cutesy, animated, bad-bug TV commercial with smiling, high-fiving fake-homeowners and promises that ‘you’ll be the envy of your neighborhood.’ I’ve seen enough of the unintended consequences of many garden products to be leary. I mean, doesn’t it stand to reason that if I poison whatever little out-of-control critters are currently chewing up some beautiful, beloved plant in my garden, that I will also be poisoning the songbirds I’ve worked so diligently to attract, those very garden partners that serenade me with songs and generally feed on such bugs, raise their families on them, and most of the time keep their populations in balance?


This past week I had to (reluctantly), open up a can of whoop-ass on a voracious family of tent-caterpillars that had crossed the line, having grown far past the ability of any songbird family to reign them in.

As you can see from the video, they had begun to make a damaging spectacle of themselves that no reasonable gardener could continue to ignore and rather than let the problem grow or resort to that tempting siren song of ‘Better Living Through Chemistry,’ I opted for an orchard ladder, my trusty Felco pruners and a small, propane torch. Game on, Larvae Breath!

Click to Enlarge and see all the crispy detail.

Ultimately, I did end up needing to cut out one small section of branch (about 18 inches long), that was so net-tented and chewed up that I thought it probably beyond recovery, but with the rest of the tree I simply gave a good toasting to each cluster of caterpillars, believing that in the long run the tree would recover faster, dropping those burned needles in time and then regrowing new ones in their place.


And yes, I was tempted to taste one of these barbecued little morsels, just for aesthetic and educational purposes, and yet, somehow resisted. Hmmmmmmm. I wonder, might you have snacked on one with me if given the option?



January 18, 2014: “There was something profound about the light today, the tint of it, warm and yet cool, a haze that seemed as if it might be practicing to become fog, someday, but was perhaps still not quite up to the task.”


Today’s visit to the Weyerhauser Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden moved me a long, long way toward recovery from that strange, lingering malaise I’ve felt toward rhodies after decades of witnessing their torture and abuse, via those tens of thousands of spindly, garish-flowered, root-weevil-infested, mass produced, Home Depot-looking specimens I’ve driven past, each demeaningly planted right next to the bare concrete foundations of thousands of pastel-painted, cedar-sided, seventies-vintage, split-entry homes and bungalows in Northwest suburbia. There, I’ve said it.

“Ohh, thank you, thank you,” I whisper, “you wonderful garden creators, you amazing plant collectors and you painstaking gardeners who have each labored so carefully to create and maintain this wonderful botanic sanctuary! Visiting your garden is like being invited to bite into a dozen, no hundreds of different hued and shaped, delicious, amazing, old school, classic apples after years of mealy, flavorless, zombie-like, red delicious.”

20140118-DPP-609s What a wonder! What a humbling, quieting experience to walk through this botanical masterpiece, painted with more than 700 species of rhododendrons from all over the world, to see them clustered together and mingled with myriad other woodland plants upon a forested canvas, especially here in the chill and oft-rainy Northwest, in mid-January. What treasure to share this space with a large, confident, thick winter-coated coyote (Thank you Mary for making sure I didn’t miss him silently crossing that dew-laden meadow), and with those expansive, fragrant, backlit witch hazel trees (see the yellow one in the photo below?), in full pungent bloom, and practically no one else in the entire 22 acre preserve. Every one of my awed senses swirled and sighed in grateful overload.


The air was hazy and cold, but the low-angled sun found ways to weave its cheering rays between the tree trunks and to pierce the winter-lush vegetation, warming pools of pungent, forest air and warming our faces, as well whenever we stepped into one of them. I surrendered, quite happily, dozens of appreciative gasps and muffled chuckles of recognition and delight, and I also discovered a new plant crush. Rhododendron arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum (below). Who knew?


20140118-DPP-634I suppose it could have been the combination of that romantic light and the chill of the thick, witch-hazel-pregnant air. Or maybe it was something they put in the water fountain, but I’m telling you, Rhododendron arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum shot an arrow deep into my awareness today, looking like a million bucks with those long, elegant, jewel-toned leaves and their mysterious, dark, matte, cinnamon undersides, all strangely aglow. Va va Voom! And hooray for January, when we’re not so blinded by the beauties of  lush rhododendron blooms and other flowers that we can concentrate on their exquisite, if much quieter foliage!

For those of you who’ve never been, or if you just haven’t been lately, I highly recommend this botanic wonderland of gravelled paths and earthy smells to help realign what you 20140118-DPP-613sthink you know and feel about rhododendrons, and maybe, just maybe flush some of those scraggly, sick-rhodie visions from your own tortured consciousness, as well.  The eight dollar admission fee seems a worthy investment in oneself, even in January, especially when you consider the costs of developing and maintaining such a magnificent, world-class collection and keeping it open to the public, year round.

And as a total, extra super bonus, be sure to allow time to take in the wonders of  the adjoining, Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection which is mind bogglingly beautiful, wonderfully educational, and free.

Take the 320th Ave Exit off I-5 between Seattle and Tacoma, and follow the signs.