Leave Those Catalpa Worms Be

Reader Contribution by Linda Holliday
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More than once in my life, I’ve interfered with a plant, critter or bug I was unfamiliar with instead of first doing my research.

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?”

So, the flowering trees, growing no more than 20 feet or so, were intentionally planted there, bursting with white blossoms in springtime and bright red berries all winter. And I murdered them.

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.

Then, 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.

So, 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 can be heard 30 feet away on calm evenings. I’ve seen many wonders in my life, but never anything such as that.

I did what I thought any all-natural gardener would do. I mixed up a batch of cayenne pepper and crushed garlic for the garden-hose sprayer.

Once again, I jumped right in, 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.

Two weeks ago, however, a smaller tree that was not among the group in the front yard bloomed for the first time. The 20-foot tree is now coated with caterpillars. But, instead of getting out the pepper spray, I did some online reading and discovered – to my horror – the catalpa sphinx 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.”

Fishing enthusiasts even propagate the trees just to harvest the worms, which grow to 3 or 4 inches and are considered the best natural catfish bait. The worms can be frozen for months to use for fishing.

“One 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.

I noticed this morning that the worms are retreating underground to pupate as only about 1/4 of the tree leaves remain. Without my meddling, the catalpa tree will return to its full vigor and another generation of worms will be born.

Peele is gathering information on the status of catalpa trees and worms in America, which may be disappearing unnoticed. He says they may be approaching “endangered.” I feel somewhat responsible.

If you have knowledge concerning the status of catalpa trees and worms in your area, Peele would like 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: peele@frontier.com, floridamycology@cs.com or, FMRC, PO Box 18105, Pensacola, FL 32523.

Photos by Linda Holliday of catalpa blossoms, young worms and worms one week later.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.