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Caterpillars at the Nursery

November 8, 2023


The nursery at the Holden Arboretum takes care of a great number of species.  One polyhouse alone currently contains between 300 and 400 species and cultivars. Among all these plants, a great many are native to Ohio, and the rest often offer benefits to butterflies and moths, such as nectar. During the growing season, I try to keep track of the pollinators and other insects that flit in and out of the polyhouses, container area, and lath house. Listed below is a sampling of caterpillars found here in 2022.  I selected these six caterpillars in particular as they highlight some of the ways that caterpillars defend themselves from predators, and are less commonly-known than, say, the monarch caterpillar.

Coleodasys unicornis, unicorn prominent caterpillar. Disguising itself as a bit of dead leaf on a serviceberry in July. These cryptic caterpillars feed on a range of shrubs and hardwoods, and eventually develop into a rather plain-looking gray moth.
Geometridae sp., a twig-mimic inchworm. During July, doing yoga on a serviceberry leaf in one of our polyhouses. Twig-mimic inchworms usually span the distance between two stems of a woody plant; this one may have been feeding. Given that twig-mimics all look like twigs, they are not very easy to tell apart.
Acharia stimulea, saddleback caterpillar. Feeding on American mountain-ash in the container area in August. This distinctive and threatening larva feeds on a variety of plants. Its defenses are not just for show; brushing up against this caterpillar is about as painful as a bee sting, with the added benefit of inducing nausea. Ask me how I know. The adult is not especially showy, just fuzzy, and brown.
Synchlora aerata, wavy-lined emerald caterpillar. Adorning itself with mountain-mint flowers in the cold frame during August. This species disguises itself with pieces of whatever plant it is feeding on. The caterpillar is not especially large and can be difficult to distinguish from surrounding living plants without careful examination. It eventually develops into a light green moth.
Ctenucha virginica, Virginia Ctenucha caterpillar.  Clambering along a blade of grass near the nursery in September. Larvae of this species are variable in appearance. They are supposedly not harmful to touch, unlike other hairy caterpillars shown here, but I am not planning on testing that anytime soon, as they still look like they would hurt.  The adults of this species are pretty in an understated way, with a yellow face and iridescent blue body hidden beneath unpatterned brown and black wings.
Lophocampa caryae, hickory tussock caterpillar. Resting on a crabapple leaf in the container area. October. Although these caterpillars are non-venomous, their tufts are painful in the same way as the glochids found on prickly pear cacti and can cause significant dermatitis. They feed on hickories, as their name suggests, but also on other hardwoods.
M Onion

M Onion

Nursery Plant Propagator Grower

M Onion joined HF&G Nursery in May of 2022 as our propagator. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Botany from Kent State University that same year. While at Kent State, M worked in their display greenhouses growing and caring for plants. M has a strong interest in and knowledge of plants, especially native species. For years she has been propagating native plants at home. M and her partner recently purchased a home, and they are excited to have a place to grow all the plants she has been propagating instead of giving them all away.

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