The real life of the praying mantis

We’ve been seeing a lot of praying mantids (or mantises, whichever you prefer) around the Haddington gardens lately.  While weeding and mulching with Temple Occupational Therapy  students recently we discovered one in the perennial bed at the Annex. It sat calmly on my hand for some time.  St. John’s Community Services volunteers discovered another in the Rose Garden that not only perched upon gloved hand but seemed to turn its head to look at each person in the group!

Weed whacking at the Conestoga Garden a couple of weeks ago, we disturbed another that was hiding in the grass, sending it flying to safer, quieter territory.

We’ve even seen egg cases like the one below. Because of the mantid’s reputation for getting rid of pests in the garden, we always leave them for springtime hatch-out.

Praying mantids are indeed predatory carnivorous insects with voracious appetites, enjoying a diet of flies, moths, caterpillars, crickets, cockroaches, beetles, grasshoppers and even bees and wasps. The small ones, newly hatched out, eat mites and aphids. Fully grown, they sometimes catch and eat frogs, small rodents and even hummingbirds!  Because they are cannibalistic, females often biting the heads off males during mating and babies often eating each other while in search of their first food, they are solitary. No wonder!

Handling praying mantids with gloves is definitely the way to go according to Misako, UTC’s office manager. Once bitten by one, she reported that it left a nasty triangle-shaped, bleeding wound!

Of the 1800 species of mantids, there are 30 native to the U.S. but in Pennsylvania we have two types, neither of which is native.  Interestingly, the first Chinese mantis was reportedly noticed in Mt. Airy in 1896!  One theory is that it hitchhiked a ride on some plants brought in from China and Japan by a nearby Germantown nursery. The other species here is the European one, introduced in the U.S. in 1899 to control insect pests.

Other interesting facts: mantids are the only insect with the ability to turn their heads 180 degrees; they’re kept as pets particularly in China where some very exotic types are available; they eat mostly harmful insects but occasionally the beneficial ones, whatever they can find to appease their huge appetites!

Just for fun, check out M.J. Raupp’s bug of the week column about mantids and the war against stink bugs (complete with a video of a munching mantis) at:

Peppers or UFOs?

Everyone’s been wondering about the odd shaped peppers growing at the Farm. Que calls them mutants and Skip says they’re Martian peppers. Not only do they look like flying saucers but they’re growing on plants that are as big (and as wide!) as azaleas.  The farmers – Ryan, Q and Raheem aren’t quite sure how they got there.

Trying to figure it out, I typed in “odd shaped peppers” at a google search. Looking through the images our mystery pepper was indeed there!  Turns out it’s called Chapeau de Frade which means nothing in French or more correctly Chapeu de Frade which means “the friar’s hat” in Portuguese. Not surprisingly it’s a native of Brazil.

One of the online seed catalogs says: “This may be one of the most unusual peppers you can grow. Each 3-4 foot plant  sets dozens of these UFO-shaped fruits at a time. They are 2-3 inches in diameter and turn from lime green to yellow to red orange. The flesh is mild and sweet. The heat is in and around the seeds.” And another mentioned, “The plants produce 30 to 50 extremely weird, 3 or 4 flat winged, wrinkled, almost flying saucer like pods. The flesh of each pod is thin athough crisp to taste and they mature from green to red in approximately 90-100 days.” The Latin name is Capsicum baccatum var. pendulum.

It looks like there are two varieties – one mild and one pretty hot.  We must have the mild one because even the flesh around the seeds is only very slightly tangy. We’ve been crunching on them ourselves and offering them at our Neighborhood Foods  stand at the Rittenhouse Market where everyone is loving the shape and the taste.  When (and if) they turn red will they have some heat?

Ryan says he’ll save some seed for next year as they’re so unusual.  They seem to be extremely drought tolerant and reportedly set fruit in the hottest of weather – just the kind of plant we need if next summer is as hot as this one!