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Q: Every spring I fall in love with petunias and geraniums. I fill up pots and planters in my backyard with them, and enjoy them for a month or so. Then the caterpillars arrive and reduce them to shreds. I hate using pesticides and usually spend hours picking the little beasties off the plants for the rest of the summer. I finally resorted last year to a pesticide the nursery recommended specifically for caterpillars, but even that didn't stop them. Do you have any advice on how to keep these flowers healthy, or shall I just give up on them?

-- Dani Lichtman,


A: Your plants have been taken over by a pest known as the tobacco or geranium budworm. Interestingly, the caterpillars (larvae) often take on the coloration of the flowers they consume. I am reluctant to recommend insecticides because they are such a bother to apply and several repeat applications, a week or ten days apart, are often needed to control an insect pest infestation. Organic products, incidentally, may be just as toxic as inorganic ones. A commonly recommended product for budworm control is Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterial preparation in powder or liquid form that kills budworms by causing a lethal infection in their digestive tract. I would consider planting something different this year in the soil where you usually plant geraniums and petunias since the brown moths that budworms become lay their eggs in the earth and pupate there. You always have the option of planting in hanging baskets and other containers suitable for display of your favorite flowers. Incidentally, geranium budworm is quite similar to corn earworm, a pest that has been known to gobble up ears of corn in certain Valley gardens.

One of my favorite plants in the Valley is the ponytail palm at the northeast corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura Boulevards in Studio City. Owing to the swollen base of its trunk, this exotic looking species (Beaucarnea or Nolina recurvata) is also known as bottle palm or elephant-foot tree. Botanically, it has no relationship to palms but is, in fact, a close relative of yuccas and agaves.

The Studio City ponytail palm, which seems terribly stressed, will not strike you as beautiful. Its glory is in its unique appearance and remarkable staying power. Its swollen trunk stores water so that it can go for months, if not years, without irrigation. When thriving, its leaves can reach five feet in length while remaining no more than 3/4 of an inch wide. The leaves hang down on all sides of a branch, producing its ponytail look.

Ponytail palm can grow in almost any exposure, as long as its soil drains well. Mature specimens survive a frost. It can take considerable sun and a fair amount of shade as well. The Studio City plant, around fifteen feet tall, is growing on the hottest corner of the intersection, since it receives southwestern sun, which scorches. Its habitat in the Zapotitlan Desert of southeastern Mexico is unique. This desert is actually a dry, scrubby forest stuck in the middle of the tropics. It is separated from the Gulf of Mexico to the east by the Sierra Madres, which create a rain shadow in which Beaucarnea and many other unusual, xeriphytic plants -- found nowhere else on earth -- make their home.

Having observed this ponytail palm for years, its current condition represents that of many local plants on account of the dry winter we just experienced. If you do not have a sprinkler system but, instead, have planted a garden that relies on winter rain and an occasional hosing down, you will understand what I mean. Even native plants look better after a wet winter. Although the Studio City ponytail palm looks down, do not count it out. In its Mexican habitat, it has been known to survive for several hundred years.

Ponytail palm is kin to some of the most astonishing species in the plant kingdom, including dragon trees and tree grasses. The dragon tree (Dracaena draco), native to the Canary Islands, can live for more than a millennium. Its many branches grow out from a single point on the trunk and, together with its rounded canopy, give it the uniquely finished look of a botanical ice cream cone. Considering their desert habitat, tree grasses (Xanthorrhea and Dasylirion species) have an unusually soft appearance. They also live for centuries, while seldom growing more than a few feet tall. Tufts of leaves sprout from one or more points along the trunk. There are some fascinating tree grasses growing in the park adjacent to the Sepulveda Gardens near the corner of Hayvenhurst and Magnolia in Encino.

TIP OF THE WEEK: Beaucarnea is not only suitable for garden use, it's an excellent container plant since it can be left unattended for long periods of time, much like a cactus, without needing to be watered. And Beaucarnea is a favorite species of indoor plant enthusiasts.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 28, 2007

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