The Naturalist's Journal

The curving flower clusters of the Gooseneck Loosestrife, an Asian native that has made a home in American gardens, attract an abundance of insects. Some, such as the striking Great Golden Digger Wasp are primarily hunters

 

If you still remember your Latin, you’ll recall that omne trium perfectum translates to “everything that comes in threes is perfect.” Of course, “perfect” does not necessarily mean perfectly wonderful and, more often than not, the so-called “rule of three” refers to a complete set of utterly awful events: to wit, classic country style, my dog died, my wife took the truck, and then I got COVID-19. From ancient times to now, bad things are supposed to come in threes.

But a trio of recent events in the Naturalist’s life would suggest that maybe it’s time to stop expecting misfortune to be tripartite. Perhaps, just perhaps, it could be the opposite.

So it came to pass, beginning one recent morning last week when I stopped by my daughter’s home to examine her flower garden. From past experiences, I knew that it would be filled with newly blooming Gooseneck Loosestrife, an Asian native that is often too aggressive for its own good but has the genuine virtue of attracting a myriad of pollinators to its profuse and pretty, gently arching blossom spikes filled with small white flowers. When Lysimachia clethroides begins putting on its show in early- to mid-July, I often camp out by the Loosestrife patch to patiently await the arrival of one of my favorite insects: the Hummingbird Moths. At this time of year, we’re likely to spot two species, both belonging to the Clearwing, or Hemaris, group of the Sphinx moth family. But I must have been a bit early for either the Hummingbird or Snowberry clearwings, so I had to content myself with looking at other insects, all of them remarkable in their own way... and remarkably photogenic. In short order, I’d “collected” a pair of bumblebee species, a thread-waisted wasp, a Great Golden Digger Wasp, a couple of different Skipper butterflies, a flower fly, a Feather-footed Fly, an iridescent fly, and a rather punk looking dipteran. Almost all of these would require further study to be positively identified—the only insect I knew right off the bat was the digger wasp, whose red and black abdomen is the sure-fire field mark of Sphex ichneumoneus—and then there was something else, something I’d never seen before.

At first glance, it looked rather like a hummingbird moth, in that it had relatively clear wings and it seemed to be inclined towards hovering, although not nearly as much as is mesmerizingly obvious among the Hemaris clan. It was also quite striking in appearance, particularly its orange abdomen that was marked with a row of handsome black dots down the middle. The curve at the ends of its antennae seemed to put it into the Skipper camp, but a scan of my Skipper field guides yielded no such butterfly.

With nothing obvious, I did what any self-respecting... and befuddled... naturalist would do: I started to Google combinations of every key-word identification characteristic I could think of. Happily, on this, the first of the good things trio, I hit taxonomic nirvana. What I had “captured” was the adult of a Squash Vine Borer. Sadly, I was more than familiar with the larvae of Melittia cucurbitae, which burrow into the lifelines of zucchinis and butternut squash plants and, too often, lead to an early death. I’d just never seen the adult delivery systems of these squash family plagues.

To be sure, the good news in the identification department was not good news for my daughter’s vegetable garden, but—here’s that Latin again—Praemonitus praemunitus, which is to say, forewarned is forearmed. This time-honored advice applied to food growers, and, as was about to become obvious, it was also applicable to insects bent on avoiding becoming dinner.

Clearly, I should have passed on the message to a Long-horned Beetle that goes by the name of Strangalia luteicornis and became a key player in the second part of the perfectum trilogy. This slender, spotted insect frequents our hydrangea blossoms, but because it was paying more attention to food and the prospect of sex—never a good combination when wariness is required—the beetle missed the looming presence of disaster in the form of a less-than-benign bumblebee mimic known as a Robber Fly in the genus Laphria.

You snooze, you lose—I don’t know how to translates this in the Ancient Tongue—and in an instant, the ferocious predator had unerringly snagged the hapless luteicornid, injected it with neurotoxins and digestive enzymes, and was now sitting calmly on a hydrangea leaf, where it enjoyed dinner and, I hope, the Naturalist’s first laphrid photo op of the year.

That was Good Thing Number Two (for the documentarian and the Robber Fly, but not, of course, for the prey item).

The completion of the Omnes Trio was, I would soon discover, waiting for me in my e-mail in-box. A good friend had spotted a mysterious fern in the depths of an old quarry at the TriTown Forest Preserve I wrote about recently, and her call for identification assistance was answered with two of the best words in any language: Field Trip. Despite having too much to do at home, I opted to join both the discoverer and the über-botanist Doug McGrady on a mission. The intrigue, said Doug, was that the fern might have been a Green Spleenwort, a species not known to reside in our area. Indeed, Doug noted that according to the authoritative Go Botany website, Asplenium viride is “a rare species [found primarily on] calcareous and serpentine rocks and ledges in Maine and Vermont.”

After close inspection, Doug remained unsure of the plant’s identity—he’s currently consulting a Higher Authority—but after examining other interesting plants, among them White Avens, a yellow-flowered beauty known as Agrimony, a deliciously aromatic native mint called pennyroyal, a plethora of other ferns, the botanist had another item on his must-see-as-long-as-we’re-in-the-neighborhood agenda: a treasure that goes by the Latin name of Adlumia fungosa. The Allegheny Vine is a none-too-common climbing member of the Poppy family with delicate, maidenhair-fernlike leaves and drooping, small, pale pink to white flowers. The plant was named for the American Revolutionary War hero John Adlum, and, for reasons I haven’t been able to discern, the species designation means “spongy.”

It might as well have meant, “You’ll really have to search for this one in the darkest and steepest of hollows.” But Doug, guided by experience and his cell phone, knew exactly where he was going, and, without mishap, his followers were soon looking at the flowering vine.  While I’d never seen one before, I knew the name well. Years ago, when one of my younger brothers was looking through my dog-eared copy of the Peterson Field Guide to the Wildflowers, he happened on the description of the plant... and promptly announced that Adlumia fungosa was the silliest name he’d every heard. The genus and species combination became a certain way to get us all to crack up over any of our strange and obscure pursuits, particularly those least likely to engender positive results, as in, “You really think your banjo picking is going to get you to Nashville? How Adlumia fungosa of you.”

But here, in the flesh, was the genuine item. Adlumia fungosa actually lives!

And, blessing of blessings, the Rule of Three still holds. In botany and in life, omne trium remains perfectum.

A Note to Readers

Just so you know, the trio recently became a quartet when, starting on the evening of July 15, I spotted Comet Neowise (technically, C/2020 F3), a splendid visitor from the outer reaches of the solar system that comes into the neighborhood every 6,800 years or so. It has been a spectacular sight, and if you haven’t seen it yet, check out Bob Wise’s splendid viewing advice at Sky and Telescope magazine’s website—skyandtelescope.org/astronomy-news/comet-neowise-dazzles-at-dusk/—then get outside, starting around 10 p.m., and find the area near the Big Dipper. Prepare to be in much-needed awe and joy.

 

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