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Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

This Q of The Week first aired on radio and TV on Halloween of a very scary year: 2020, or as Daniel Defoe didn't exactly phrase it, "The Year of the Plague". When I tried to figure out something new to do for this Halloween, I kept coming back to this article as the one to beat. Eventually I stopped beating myself up and decided to use it again. Scary stuff--and important information for homeowners and gardeners to know.

Q. Just last week, Linda in Rock, West Virginia emailed us a photo and the missive: "I found this on a rose bush in my backyard yesterday. I was picking spent flowers off with my bare hands and thought this was one of the rose hips; but when I picked it up it was squishy and looked like an alien or a WWE wrestler! Turns out that it's a Saddleback; a caterpillar that apparently has a vicious sting. Luckily it didn't sting me. Yikes!!!"

A. Yikes indeed, Linda! As you can clearly see, this caterpillar looks like something from a nightmare that would have kept Rod Serling up at night. But those crazy colors and false eye on its back are there to serve as a warning to predators that says 'Don't even think about it. I would be a worse meal than a mouth full of yellowjackets.' And hopefully, a warning to us as well.

As the University of Florida notes in a Bulletin on the pest, this "slug caterpillar" has a voracious appetite for plants "but is encountered most frequently as a medically significant pest", which can't be good. Found from New York all the way down to Florida and West to Kansas, Indiana and Texas, the final larval stage (before they morph into a moth) is covered with hollow spines that "inject intruders with hemolytic and vesicating venom, secreted from nearby glands, that cause direct tissue damage. The spines are capable of breaking away from the body and remaining embedded in contacted surfaces." Lovely.

The Bulletin continues: "The venom can cause a systemic condition called acute urticaria...severe symptoms may include migraines, gastrointestinal [problems], asthma complications, anaphylactic shock, rupturing of red blood cells and hemorrhaging."

The researchers end by suggesting that the best tactic is to avoid the beast; thereby gardeners, children and other living things should know what it looks like. If you are stung, they note, your first job is to pull out the spines as they are still pumping venom into you. Then apply ice to the area, take a couple of Benadryl and have someone else drive you to the emergency room or nearest Doc in a Box.

Oh; and the researchers somewhat gleefully note that this monster is only Number Two in the Stinging Caterpillar parade. Even worse may be the reaction should you ever touch a 'puss caterpillar'. Unfortunately, this larval form of the Southern flannel moth does not have a fierce and scary aspect. In fact, it looks a lot like a Star Trek Tribble; a soft cuddly creature that in its final (and most deadly) phrase before becoming a moth could pass for a plush toy. The University of Florida Bulletin on this creature (they seem to have an obsession with stinging caterpillars) explains that the name "puss caterpillar" is likely in reference to the caterpillar's resemblance to a cat with its soft fur and tail. Ahhh; how cute.

Found in about the same range as the Saddleback, stings from this innocent looking creature can cause a variety of symptoms, including headache, seizures, muscle pain and convulsions. It can also shoot its fecal pellets through the air.

And you thought Asian Hornets were bad.

We move on to scary plants.


Q. Kathleen in my old hometown of Philadelphia sends us a photo and writes: "Do you know what this is? I can't seem to find any information on it. Am I accidentally growing blueberries?"

A. Once again, the picture is worth a lot of words.

Although the berries on the 'pokeweed' plant are pretty much the same color, blueberries are always round, and pokeweed berries always have a flattened shape. Blueberries are delicious and super-food nutritious, while pokeweed berries (and the rest of the plant) are poisonous.

And I don't know anyone who's ever been lucky enough to have a blueberry plant 'just show up'. But pokeweed is all over the place 'thanks' to the fact that birds are immune to the toxins, while people, dogs, and livestock are not. Small amounts will make adults violently ill for several days. Large amounts (or even small amounts in small children) can be fatal, with death being caused by respiratory paralysis.

It's Native to North America (hey--a native plant; it must be good!), and the young shoots (never the root) are harvested very early in the Spring in some regions (especially down South) to make 'poke salad'. Even this use is dangerous, as the greens must be repeatedly boiled and rinsed to make them safe to eat. (The New York Times calls it 'the Vegetarian's Puffer Fish'.)

And yes, these are the same greens referred to in the hit song "Poke Salad Annie", where the gators eat her granny.

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