Garden Detective

Mystery plant, bug have readers wondering

Amaranth, an ancient grain regaining popularity, has a distinctive red head with hundreds of seeds.
Amaranth, an ancient grain regaining popularity, has a distinctive red head with hundreds of seeds.

I have watched this plant grow by the side of Highway 16. I’m most curious as to what it is. I can’t find it online. Could you identify it for me?

Jackie Fowler, Sacramento

Judging by the snapshot you included with your letter, that’s an amaranth, an ancient grain with a distinctive red feathery head. Several varieties can get fairly big (4 to 8 feet tall), including Amaranthus cruentus and Amaranthus hypochondriacus. Both of these upright varieties are nicknamed Prince’s Feather.

Native to Mexico and South America, amaranth became a staple for Aztecs, Incas and other early Americans. Archaeologists have found seeds in tombs dating back more than 1,500 years.

As a grain, amaranth is regaining popularity; it’s highly nutritious. This plant family includes several striking ornamental varieties with evocative nicknames such as Love-Lies-Bleeding and Hopi Red Dye.

Because it’s not frosthardy, amaranth is usually grown as an annual in our area. The example you saw most likely was “planted” by a bird.

In the last month or so, we have had a serious infestation of leaffooted bugs on our tomatoes, which have ruined a lot of them. In many years of raising backyard tomatoes and other vegetables, we had never encountered them, and it took some research to identify these pests – large, quick, and stinky, if you mess with them. They fly. I understand these bugs are common in other parts of the country, but never saw them here before. They are also persistent because in spite of our efforts to clear them out, there is a new crowd of them back at work every morning. It has been a tough year for the garden in general as we have tried to reduce the amount of water, and the plants may be already stressed by that. Although the plants look healthy, the tomatoes have been smaller and fewer. I am wondering if others also have been disappointed with their tomato crop this year, and I’m particularly curious if others are finding these strange and slightly alarming-looking predators showing up for the first time.

Jay Tinsman, Carmichael

You are not alone. Leaffooted bugs have made appearances in several Sacramento gardens from midtown to Carmichael. They are scary-looking, but mostly a nuisance.

According to University of California’s integrated pest management program, three species of leaffooted bugs are native to our area with Leptoglossus zonatus the most common. These bugs, which reach about 1 inch long at maturity, attack fruit, nuts, fruiting vegetables (such as tomatoes) and ornamentals. They are closely related to stinkbugs and, like their cousins, emit an awful odor when squished.

These bugs have sucking mouthparts that can extend half the length of their bodies. They poke holes through the fruit’s skin to suck the juice out of the tomato or pomegranate (another favorite target). The damage often is just cosmetic, but a large infestation can ruin the fruit.

Young leaffooted bugs are the easiest to catch. Fully mature adults are good fliers and can travel far, but the nymphs are less mobile. They can be vacuumed off plants (use a hand-held vacuum dedicated to this purpose) or handpicked, but make sure to wear gloves to avoid their odor. Or take a paintbrush and knock them into a can of soapy water.

Adults typically overwinter in weeds, barns, sheds, woodpiles and palm fronds or find cozy spots in citrus, evergreens or under peeling tree bark. In spring, they’ll re-emerge and lay as many as 200 eggs over a two-month span. The eggs hatch within a week and the nymphs mature in five to eight weeks.

To help assure that you don’t see these pests again, clean up around your garden. Eliminate or mow to the ground any weeds in or near your raised beds. Remove nearby woodpiles. Check under the bark of eucalyptus, juniper or cypress – all favorite hiding places. Also, pick up any fallen fruit; these leaffooted bugs have been known to huddle all winter inside the cull of a pomegranate.

For more information on leaffooted bugs, check out the UC pest note devoted to this pest. You can find it online at http://ipm.ucdavis.edu/.

GARDEN QUESTIONS?

Questions are answered by master gardeners at the UC Cooperative Extension services in Sacramento and Placer counties. Send questions to Garden Detective, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Send email to h&g@sacbee.com. Please put “Garden Detective” in the subject field and include your postal address. To contact UC Extension directly, call:

Sacramento: (916) 875-6913; 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday

Amador: (209) 223-6838;

10 a.m.-noon Monday through Thursday; email ceamador. ucdavis.edu

Butte: (530) 538-7201;

8 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. weekdays

Colusa: (530) 458-0570; 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays; website: cecolusa.ucanr.edu

El Dorado: (530) 621-5512;

9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Friday

Placer: (530) 889-7388;

9 a.m.-noon on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays or leave a message and calls will be returned; website: http://pcmg.ucanr.org/Got_Questions//

Nevada: (530) 273-0919;

9 a.m.-noon Tuesdays through Thursday or leave a message

Shasta, Tehama, Trinity: (530) 225-4605

Solano: (707) 784-1322; leave a message and calls will be returned

Sutter, Yuba: (530) 822-7515; 9 a.m.-noon Mondays and Tuesdays and 1-4 p.m. Thursdays

Yolo: (530) 666-8737;

9-11 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, or leave a message and calls will be returned

More online

To read past Garden Detectives, go to sacbee.com/gardendetective

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