Science fiction and other wonders from the garden


“Truth is stranger than fiction,” is an old saying that may be true in your garden, but only if you take the time to look.

Science fiction writers use their vivid imaginations to increase the size of an insect a few thousand times or invent mobile lily plants that dine on humans. By being a keen observer in the garden, many seeds of ideas can be planted to incubate until that prize-winning story is written.

The basic premise of parasitism is a recurring theme that makes for a good science fiction plot. In almost any garden, you can find aphids being parasitized by tiny wasps. 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 bump referred to as a “mummy.” When the wasp develops into 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 horn worm infested by parasitic wasp larva? After numerous larvae develop within the living caterpillar, they burrow out of the host’s body and spin cocoons in which they complete their development. The tomato horn worm is alive, and being a large caterpillar, hundreds of wasp larvae may live in a single host. The cocoons hang from the caterpillar which then resembles a powdered wig worn during the 1700s by heads of state.

Embellish your garden-inspired tale with larger-than-life creatures, blood and guts, a scary location and you’ll have a story worth reading or a movie that will keep audiences at the edge of their seats. Does the movie “Alien” come to mind? As we have seen, almost any insect will do: ants, moths, beetles and even earthworms.

The greatest thing you can do in your garden is take the time to look at what is going on. Perhaps you will notice what looks to be a major street with bumper-to-bumper traffic, but realize it’s ants moving back-and-forth on their set paths to find food. Maybe you will see a battle here or there, maybe a war zone, a garden is never void of action or interesting patterns of nature. The geometric designs of a flower, fruit 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 they hatch.

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 jump out at you. You can also observe the trichomes, hairy-looking structures, on stems, leaves and flower parts, which are important in plant defenses. Break a few and volatile chemicals are released warding off insects and in some cases causing their death.

Increase the magnification, using a simple microscope, and another new world appears. Individual leaf cells are laid out as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Stomata are also visible. These are important in gas exchange or “breathing” in plants and look like two elbow macaroni facing each other with a hole between them.

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

I like to explore the garden to find out what it wants to “tell me.” It’s the adventure 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 honeybees 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, visit the CTAHR electronic publication website at ctahr.hawaii.edu/Site/Info.aspx or visit any local Cooperative Extension Service office around the island.

Nagata can be reached at russelln@hawaii.edu.