Sunday, October 04, 2015

Leave the leaves alone... no more

Leaf art -- that's what I have come to call it.

In the last couple of months, the sight of heavily munched-on leaves became more common around our garden -- ubiquitous almost. Admiring the pretty lavender hibiscus blooms, I noticed quite a few leaves with jagged patterns; every morning while waiting patiently for signs of new yellow hibiscus buds to show up in the nearby pot, the number of chomped up greens seemed to increase. I was accustomed to seeing half-eaten leaves; for some time, Oleander Hawk-moth and Vine Hawk-moth caterpillars made the chichirica and a las cuatro plants their home and main source of sustenance. I even made a few of them my pets, keeping them in jars and regularly giving them a stash of greenery for their meals till it was time for them to cocoon. Eventually they transformed into marvelous winged beauties.

But this time it was different. It was like whatever was responsible for the uniquely fashioned foliage plodded on with gusto. The result was almost like art -- munching here and there, never staying on the same spot for long, hence the punctuated surfaces and interestingly irregular edges. It was partly amazing, partly exasperating. Though leaves naturally grew a certain way, who said they had to stay that way, especially when some tiny creatures were designed to feed on foliage?

Even the Dona Aurora wasn't spared from the "bullet-riddled look". At the same time I noticed that too many hairy caterpillars were showing up in our garden. There they were, crawling on the leaves of nearly each of the half dozen potted plants. A swipe of the coconut tree frond mid-rib broom (okay, let's just call it by its usual name -- walis tingting) yielded three or four higad at a time from the santan hedge. And, they weren't simply resting, snoozing, or anything unproductive like that -- most of the time they were eating away, jagged leaves and flower petals presenting the evidence! I therefore concluded that controlling the population of the "backpacker caterpillars" -- the name with which I've come to refer to them as they looked like they carried backpacks -- for the time being was called for.

"Higad lang po 'yan. Hindi nagiging paru-paro," chirped one of the street kids who stopped by our gate, hanging around me as I took snapshots of some plants and being jolted when a backpacker caterpillar reared its hairy body from the santan hedge, almost touching his fingers. "Namaga nga po itong kamay ko nung umakyat ako ng puno ng bayabas tapos nahawakan ko bigla," the little boy added, stretching out his hand to reveal the subsiding inflammation on his right palm.

So, potential skin allergy trigger, plant destroyer, imminent invasion, and non-winged future as a moth or butterfly -- could all these and a potential infestation not point to a need to eliminate the hairy crawlies? I don't know what technically constitutes an infestation but getting to observe several of these little backpackers everyday seems to come close! So, I set to work: I took pictures (I was still fascinated by their atypical physical features) then proceeded to (gulp!) kill each one that I spotted among our plants. This went on for about a week...

A little backpacker and an even tinier one (frankly, I'm not sure if it's an offspring, sibling, or a mere appendage/shed "fur") under a bougainvillea leaf)...

... another one that was making its way around the pots...

A bunch of them that I gingerly picked off with a stick from the foliage (lest one of them give me a taste of the venom from its backpack should my hand accidentally touch the prickly tufts on its back)... and that was it. Till now I haven't seen a single one of these backpackers in our midst.... which I have come to regret after making a discovery three days ago:

The "backpacker caterpillar," I learned, is called the Tussock caterpillar, which -- after cocooning -- becomes a Tussock moth.

Yellow tussock moth

After coming across the discovery online, I felt crestfallen. I've killed about a dozen of them already... I told myself. All those potential moths, gone. Well, I learned two things that day: first, those backpacker caterpillars don't remain caterpillars all their life but become moths; second, always verify your information. Maybe I should let that little boy who hurt his hand from a higad also learn two things like I did if I should ever run into him again.

Oh, there's a third thing I learned (or more accurately, was reminded of) that day: God made everything with a purpose in mind. I've yet to find out if Tussock moths are pollinators, but even if it turns out they're not, is that the gauge we ought to use in determining the importance of their existence?

At around this time, I was also reading a booklet that centered on Laudato Si, Pope Francis' latest encyclical.  And after the vital discovery concerning the backpacker caterpillars, the Pope's words as contained in the booklet "Laudato Si: An integral ecology for contemporary man" -- a Documentation Service publication -- resounded with me:

84. Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God's love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God (...) 

85. God has written a precious book, "whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe". The Canadian bishops rightly pointed out that no creature is excluded from this manifestation of God: "From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe. It is also a continuing revelation of the divine" (...)

So, little backpacker caterpillars, you are again most welcome in our little garden. Now I am not about to allow our home to be infested with hairy, creeping creatures; for now, though, let's just say I appreciate leaf art enough to let those caterpillars live out their gustatory tendencies to leave artistic marks on our plants for more unconventional foliage.

The tiniest Tussock moth caterpillar I've seen so far


ignored_genius said...

This post made me scratch my back. hehehe

sunnyday said...

Hehehe :-D Good thing I didn't use all the close-up shots I have in my files.

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