Gardening is full of surprises, especially for a novice like me. I became a Master Gardener in Washington County in April 2009. This is also my first year “seriously” growing food. For the past three years in Keedysville I grew a few cherry tomato plants and herbs. Prior to that, as an apartment dweller in Bethesda, I unsuccessfully tried to grow numerous potted rosemary and basil plants on the sunniest windowsill that I had.
Earlier this month, while examining the four flat-leaved parsley plants growing in my new, very sunny, square foot garden (4’x4′ raised beds following the “All New Square Foot Garden” method of Mel Bartholomew), I was startled to see a caterpillar.
My first reaction was, “You don’t belong on MY food! I’m going to pick you up and squish you under my garden clog!” Fortunately for the crawling creature, I’m not yet used to touching caterpillars, and I wasn’t wearing gloves. The bug was saved by my second reaction–curiosity.
It reminded me of another caterpillar I’d seen last July in my native garden. It was so striking I sent its photo to my Master Gardener friend Marney Bruce, who promptly identified it as a Monarch caterpillar.
Annette Ipsan, Extension Educator at the Maryland Cooperative Extension (MCE), Washington County, identified the first caterpillar. It had also shown up in the curly parsley we’re growing at the Washington County Demo Garden, and is a Black Swallowtail (unsurprisingly, it’s also known as “parsleyworm”). We think the weird one may have been an early instar–one of the younger growing phases–of the Black Swallowtail; though perhaps not, because it may be too large. Can you identify this guy?
Key lessons I learned from my experiences:
- It’s not very easy to identify caterpillars, but it sure is easy to lose track of time while trying! I didn’t know there are so many different kinds of swallowtail caterpillars, or instars, or plants they use as hosts. More about Black Swallowtails here and here. Note that these caterpillars can also feed on carrots, fennel and dill.
- Since I’m growing food using solely organic methods, the mother butterfly felt safe to lay her eggs on my parsley. As long as the critters don’t eat it all and leave enough for us humans, I’ll gladly share the bounty! (A few years ago, as my husband shucked corn I’d bought directly from a local farmer, he was startled to find a gray worm-like creature happily nibbling on the corn. I told him, “Cut off the tip with the worm, throw it in the compost bin, and let’s eat the rest. If this corn is good for the worm, it’s good for us.” And it was.)
- If I carefully wash my homegrown food, I’ll have delicious veggies that will be much healthier for my family than the (take a deep breath before reading this!) pesticide-sprayed-imported-from-other-continents-wilted-looking-tastes-and-smells-like-plastic stuff from the supermarket.
Having discussed the critters chomping on my parsley, here’s how we enjoy it:
- A handful mixed with salad greens, used as a condiment. Especially good with homemade vinaigrette. (Even better if the salad includes ripe homegrown thinly sliced tomatoes!)
- Finely chopped as a final garnish on a heaping plate of pasta with any kind of tomato sauce, or any kind of sauce built with olive oil and garlic. By the time the plate reaches the table the fresh parsley has warmed and wilted, and its essential oils are at their maximum potency.
- If you’re harvesting more parsley than you can normally use I recommend Tabbouleh, a flavorful and nutritious Lebanese salad I’ve enjoyed since my childhood. The parsley can be at center stage as in this recipe, or more ingredients can be included.