More than once in my life, I’ve thoughtlessly interfered with a plant, critter or bug I was unfamiliar with instead of first learning about them.
Many years ago, after growing up in Wisconsin, I was unacquainted with a twisty sort of tree flourishing beneath the power pole at my new home in Virginia. The house had been vacant for some years before I arrived, so I reasoned the untamed vegetation spread on its own.
A full 8 months pregnant, I marched right out there with my pruning saw, hacking each 15-foot tree off at ground level. I figured it was better to sacrifice the young trees before they grew into the electric wires and before I fell in love with them.
Pleased with my day-long effort to cut, drag and stack the brush, I was atop the huge pile, stomping it into a manageable mass to burn, when a neighbor – a fourth-generation Virginia tobacco farmer – happened to stop in. I assumed his perplexed look centered on my precarious position and safety.
Oh, it’s OK, I said. My doctor says me and the baby are perfectly healthy. This is not stressful, I added, hoping he would not consider me frail or reckless.
“No, I was wondering,” he asked, “How come you cut down all your dogwood trees?”
In the eight years I lived there, I kept hoping a few would sprout back, but they never did. Although I felt awful for a long time, I had yet to learn a lesson.
Most recently, when moving to the Ozarks, I was pleased to meet the lovely catalpa tree. This beauty grows to about 90 feet with heart-shaped leaves as big as a pie pan. To top it off, the tree showers us with sweet-smelling flowers in late May.
Whoever first thought of scattering flowers on the lawn for June weddings surely had a catalpa tree in the yard. The display and aroma go on for weeks.
Well, you can imagine my alarm when black-and-yellow striped caterpillars showed up by the thousands overnight chewing voraciously on three front-yard catalpa trees. Their munching and accompanying droppings could be heard 30 feet away on calm evenings. I’ve seen many wonders in my life, but never anything such as that.
Once again, I plunged ahead, shooting that hot stuff straight up into the trees, splattering the fiery red water everywhere, even soaking the soil beneath the fully grown trees. The caterpillars rained down. I stepped on them and sprayed them some more, until there was not a live caterpillar anywhere.
That was two years ago. Last year, no worms returned, and still none this year.
Earlier this month, however, a smaller tree that was not among the group in the front yard bloomed for the first time. A week later, the 20-foot tree was plastered with caterpillars. But, instead of brewing up some pepper spray, I Googled the situation and discovered – to my horror – the catalpa sphinx (worm) and tree have coexisted for thousands of years.
Like many things in nature, the tree and worm depend on each other. The host catalpa tree is the only plant the worm eats, which it can devour to naked branches without harming the tree. According to Stephen L. Peele, curator of the Florida Mycology Research Center, catalpa trees are sometimes completely defoliated three or four times during a single summer, yet survive. No other tree could withstand this.
“They always come back. They always look healthy,” says Peele. “I have tried to understand the possible symbiotic relationship between the worm and the tree. There surely must be one.”
I eagerly contacted Peele, who has researched the worm for years, wrote a book about them and even started a newsletter (The Catalpa Farmer) about them. He said he has tried to force the worms to eat other species of tree leaves or other food. The little buggers turned up their shiny black noses and declined.
“I always thought it was important to find something else to raise the worms on, so that people who didn’t have catalpa trees could still raise the worms and have them for fishing,” Peele said. “I never was able to solve this problem.”
Many fishing enthusiasts actually propagate catalpa trees just to harvest the worms, which quickly reach 3 or 4 inches and are considered the best natural catfish bait. The worms can be frozen for months to use for fishing. They are easily harvested by shaking them from the tree onto a tarp, much easier than locating nightcrawlers with a flashlight.
“One catalpa worm could be cut into 3 to 4 sections to make as many pieces of bait,” Peele wrote in an article about the trees’ and worms’ decline in America. “The worm’s skin is pretty tough, so it is not easy for the fish to just ‘peck’ it off the hook, like they can a cricket. Fact is, you catch several fish on the same piece of worm bait.”
Another benefit: The worm dung fertilizes the tree – and everything else under its canopy. One of my tomato plants within worm-dropping distance is now a foot taller than its brothers.
Only two weeks after emerging, our worms retreated underground to pupate as only about 1/4 of the tree leaves remained. Without my meddling, the catalpa tree will return to its full vigor and another generation of worms will be born.
Another amazing thing about catalpa trees is that cuttings that are 3 to 4 feet long, or longer, have an incredible 80-percent survival rate when planted a good foot or more into the ground. Strip off all the leaves and water daily until new leaves have a good start. Plant in full sun in an area that has good drainage.
“Sometimes a few look like they have taken,” Peele said, “but don’t come back the following year. That’s the test. When you see the cutting come back to life the following year, you know you have a new healthy tree.”
Peele is gathering information on the status of catalpa trees and worms in America. He said the worms and trees may be disappearing unnoticed and approaching “endangered” due to deforestation and intentional or careless spraying of herbicides and insecticides. I feel somewhat responsible.
The Transcontinental Railroad had a hand in eliminating trees, however, as much of the track across this country was made of catalpa wood, prized for its ability to last for long periods. Trees also are harvested (and stolen) for their wood for furniture making.
If you have knowledge concerning the status of catalpa trees and worms in your area, Peele wants to hear from you. Have trees been cut in your area? Did there used to be trees? Did there used to be worms? Please send whatever information to: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or, FMRC, PO Box 18105, Pensacola, FL 32523.
Also, if you send the Florida Mycology Research Center a donation (any amount) to support this work, they will send you five catalpa tree seeds. In 10 years, you should have your own mystifying mob of catalpa worms.
Photos by Linda Holliday of catalpa blossoms, young worms and worms one week later.