I wish you could have seen our tomato plants last week. They were like images straight out of a Miracle-Gro commercial — like the photos you see in the seed catalogs delivered to the house just after Christmas and New Year’s Day. Of course, I took photos of them and emailed a few of them to family members noting, “In three weeks, we are going to be up to our ears in home grown tomatoes. I can’t wait.” That was then.
This is now. I worked out of town for three days last week. I finally returned home before dark on Thursday afternoon and walked out to my garden to check the progress of our little vegetable plot, but instead of zen, my blood pressure shot up. Where once lush, green, leafy plants stood, embellished with dozens of dangling tomatoes, I was shocked to find spiny, stripped stems and half-eaten fruit.
“Gene! Gene!” I yelled to my husband who rushed over expecting to see a snake. “Help me find them.”
“Oh no!” he said as he saw the state of our prized tomato plants.
This is not our first rodeo, and together, the two of us scanned the plants looking for the dreaded hornworms — the nemeses of every tomato farmer in the South. We carefully surveyed the crime scene in search of the perpetrators. Though destructive, hornworms are quite incredible creatures. First, Mother Nature gave them the absolute best camouflage. They are exactly the same color as the tomato leaves which makes it darn near impossible to find them sometimes. You can be looking right at one and not see it — like searching for the Invisible Man.
Second, these ravenous worms can wipe out a row of tomatoes faster than you can say Jack Robinson — faster than a minnow can swim a dipper. They eat and poop. Eat and poop. They get plumper and plumper and plumper as they eat everything in their sight. “I found one,” I said, plucking it off one of the stems. It was as big as my index finger and squirmed around in my palm like a miniature wrestler on a wrestling mat. Finally, it righted itself on its five sets of feet and began nibbling on the skin of my hand. I watched yellowy-green fluid run across the long lifeline wrinkle that crosses my palm. I picked off six of the twirling, rubbery worms from my tomato plants that evening. I can never kill them. They are just doing what they know to do — survive. I walked down the hill about a quarter mile from our house and cast them out into a field for a bird to feast upon. At least they have a fighting chance down there.
But their presence has taken a psychological toll on me. I know there are more out there. In fact, I heard one munching one of my plants yesterday, but I never found it.
“Hornworms found our tomato plants,” I told my mother on a phone call over the weekend, disappointment in my voice. She laughed, but not because the hornworms are destroying our plants. Mom laughed at a memory that popped into her head.
“When we were growing up, hornworms would get on the tobacco plants in our field,” she began her story. “Leon and I would pick them off and stick them down the back of Gloria’s shirt, and she’d scream and dance around like she was crazy.”
As Mom relayed the story, I could see a younger version of my aunt — barefooted and jumping around in the big leaves of the expansive tobacco field that surrounded my grandparents’ farmhouse on Hub Jarriel Road, screaming for Mom and Uncle Leon to get the hornworm off of her. I can see my Uncle Leon continued from page
bent over in laughter and amusement. He was such a prankster.
After a quick Google search, I realized tomato and tobacco hornworms are closely related species that look similar. Tomato hornworms are the larval stage of the five spotted hawkmoth (Manduca quinquemaculata) and tobacco hornworms are the larval stage of the Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta). Given the worms’ brilliant green color, you’d think the moths would be green, but nature doesn’t work that way. The moths are a brownish gray color with markings.
The hornworms eating our tomato plants are actually tobacco hornworms — the identifying feature being that tobacco hornworms have a red horn (that little spike that sticks up like Alfalfa’s hair on the Little Rascals) on the backs of their bodies. Tomato hornworms have a black, gray or blue horn.
We’ll still have a bountiful harvest of ruby red tomatoes next week, but the hornworms have kind of rained on my parade. I must remain vigilant and continue to monitor the garden for these hungry critters, who’ve made me feel like the Wicked Witch of the West. I gaze out my window toward my vegetable garden, point my finger at my tomato vines, and whisper softly, “I’ll get you my pretty! That’s a promise!”