Monday | October 23, 2017
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Science fiction and other wonders from the garden

By Russell T. Nagata

University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Komohana Research and Extension Center, Hilo

There is a saying that truths are stranger than fiction and it may be true in your garden, but only if your take the time to look. Science fiction writers have a vivid imagination that highlight something insignificant and create a big deal about it. Increase the size of an insect a few thousand time or have lily plants that dine on meat (including humans) and is capable of locomotion are sure to raise a few hairs on the back of your neck. Things that can makes us afraid — or wonder if it could be true and at the same time provide that personal interaction — are sure to delight. Remember the cult classic of the late ’70s, “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”?

By being a keen observer in the garden, many wonderful seeds of ideas can be planted and incubate until that prize-winning story is written. The basic premise of parasitism is a recurring plot and always makes for a good science fiction plot. In almost any garden you can find aphids being parasitized by tiny wasp. A wasp egg is laid into an aphid where it hatches and grows until it pupates. By this time, the aphid is nothing more than the hard exoskeleton that has dried into a round, tan colored bump which is referred to as a mummy.

When the wasp develops to an adult it cuts a small round exit hole in the mummy and emerges to continue the cycle. Have you ever observed the final stages of a tomato hornworm infested by parasitic wasp larva. After numerous larva develop within the living caterpillar they burrow out of the caterpillar’s body and spin cocoons in which to complete development. The tomato horn worm is alive and being a large caterpillar, hundreds wasp larva may live in a single caterpillar. The cocoons can be found hanging from the caterpillar and the caterpillar resembles the powder wigs worn during the 1700s by heads of state. Since science fiction tend to embellish the story line, make them larger than life, have plenty of blood and guts, a scary location and you have a story worth reading about or a seating grabbing movie that will have you looking behind you for a long time. Does the movie “Alien” come to mind? As we have seen, almost any insect will do just fine; ants, moths, beetles and even earthworms to name a few.

The greatest thing you can do in your garden is to take the time to look to see what is going on. Perhaps you might see what looks to be a major street with bumper to bumper traffic, but realize its ants flow back and forth on their set paths to accomplish their work of finding food. Maybe you will see a battle here or there, maybe a war zone, a garden is almost never devoid of action or interesting patterns of nature. The geometric designs of a flower, fruits, or plant have stimulated the best mathematical minds in developing computer model systems to explain a natural design. While looking at insects is very interesting in their variations, their eggs can be just as interesting. The geometric placement of ornate stink bug eggs form an interesting pattern, while those of the lace wings on their graceful stalks appear delicate, but look out when it hatches.

With the help of a good hand lens, digital camera, or other mobile digital device capable of enlarging plant or insect structures, an interesting new world appears before your eyes. When magnified, the iridescence of flower petals and their brilliant colors seem to jump out at you. You can also observe the trichomes on stems, leaves, and flower parts which appear as hairy structures and are important in plant defenses, especially against insects. Break a few and volatile chemicals are released warding off insects and in some cases leading to outright death of the insects. Up the magnification using a simple microscope and another new world appears. Individual leaf cells are laid out as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and can be as simple as a toddler’s nine-piece puzzle to highly convoluted shapes. Stomata are also visible using a microscope and are important in gas exchange or “breathing” in plants and sort of look like two elbow macaroni facing each other with a hole between them.

Many books and storied have a theme based on the garden and its plants especially children’s book that teach work ethics, mobility and life. A few that comes to mind are the “Little Red Hen,” “The Giving Tree” and “The Gardener.” Who can forget the message that the Little Red Hen conveyed to the reader or listener, “unless you pitch in and help, you will be left out when the good stuff comes.”

Personally I like the garden to explore and find what it wants to “tell me.” It’s the adventure to go into the unknown that gets you to go back time and time again. Go to the garden and look, listen and feel. Looking is not the quick glance, but the careful observation. Close your eyes and listen to the mild buzz of the honey bees or the droning of the carpenter bee. You are not alone in your garden, take the time and get to know your garden neighborhood.

For more information on this and other gardening topics, please visit the CTAHR electronic publication website at HYPERLINK “ or visit any of the local Cooperative Extension Service offices around the island. I can be reached at


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