Jul 23rd, 2013

Finally, a Reason to Love the Sweet Gum Tree

by Jonah Holland, PR & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Luna moth caterpillar

I’ve always said that if I’d known the trees in my back yard were sweet-gum trees, I would have never bought my house. The previous owner, had carefully picked up every single prickly gum ball from the yard and mulched very carefully so that there was no evidence.   When we moved in and saw that 6 of the 10 or so trees in our back yard were sweet gum trees, and that our that our kids would not be able to run in the yard bare feet as I’d imagined, I told myself  it would be fine.  After all, at least we had trees — a bit of a mini-forest in suburbia, unlike many of our neighbors who had none.

When my kids were 2 and 6, still in that seeking-to-please stage where they relished any job with responsibility,  I’d send them out with a bucket from their sand toys and tell them to bring me back as many prickly balls as they could find.  Later, when they were no longer enamored with the task, I offered them a nickel for each one.  And finally, we resorted to the family raking them on a regular basis, and using our now-8-year-old boy to stomp them down, standing in the trashcan like a human tamper.

So when I walked into the Butterflies LIVE! exhibit yesterday and saw a new display case filled with sweet gum branches, my jaw dropped. What where they doing in here? And then I saw it….the most beautiful lime-green caterpillars ever! They were climbing all, eating the leaves.  Turns out, Luna moths use the sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) as a host plant. It’s not the only tree the caterpillars will  eat, but it’s one found commonly here in the Richmond area.

The timing  of the addition of the luna moths to our Butterflies LIVE! exhibit is perfect too. Did you know that this week is National Moth Week? It is!  Look for some surprise appearances of other moths in the near future too. Be sure to tune into the Garden’s Facebook page — we’ll let you know when these guys transform into beautiful Luna moths.

And finally, after 8 years of living in my house, I have a reason to be grateful or the  sweet gum trees in my back yard.  Also, me and my kids have something else to look for in my backyard besides those prickly gum balls!Luna moth caterpillar


Jonah Holland is Digital Content Manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where she has worked for 14 years overseeing social media, the blog, and the website. She is also a mom, yogi, open water swimmer, gardener, and seeker. She's been known to go for a walk in the Garden and come back with hundreds of plant photos, completely inspired to write her next blog post.

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