I discovered a surprise in my garden last weekend, and with a little research and a little more searching of the garden, my surprise has turned into pure delight.
Delight, I have found thee, and thy name is Ootheca.
As I was walking around the garden with our Brittany Spaniel, or more accurately as I was being pulled around the garden by our manic Brittany Spaniel, the bright winter sun caught the structure pictured to the right just enough to make it sparkle and catch my eye. It was attached to a cane of the winter-bare red stems of 'Therese Bugnet', one of my longest-grown rugosa hybrids. I was examining the rose closely to see how its structure was revealed by its temporary lack of leaves. And there it was, a pale brown, misshapen honey-comb-like structure that looked like it would flake away weightless at the slightest touch.
Isn't it marvelous that, on a visceral level, all gardeners will instinctively recognize this thing, this unplantlike structure, as something related to or made by an insect? What otherworldly factor does it have that says "not mammal," "not plant," and "not natural," and leaves us at "insect"? That single certitude was enough to start me off in the right direction to investigate and determine to my joy that it was an ootheca, an entirely new term in my vocabulary. "Ootheca" (pronounced ˌō-ə-ˈthē-kə) is derived from the latinized "oo", meaning egg, and Greek "theca", meaning cover, literally translating to an "egg case." From my brief research, I quickly learned that only a few creatures, primarily cockroaches, the praying mantis family, and mollusks, create proteinaceous oothecae to provide protection for the embryos of the next generation. And since I was not near a stream, nor did I feel it likely that a cockroach would have climbed up my rose bush to lay this thing, I concluded that it must be from one of the 1800 worldwide species of the Mantis order, best known by the collective "praying mantis" moniker.
Now, the question might be, which Mantis? There are websites available to aid in the identification of these egg capsules, but with literally hundreds of possibilities and complicated by the fact that I don't have a PhD in insect identification, I'll probably never know the exact species present on my roses. It is enough for me to know that they are present, biding their time, in my garden. To a gardener, finding evidence that future generations of praying mantis will inhabit and protect your garden is a blessing equivalentto finding gold flakes in a stream in your backyard.
After searching more rose bushes and then over the rest of my garden, I found numerous other examples of oothecae around the garden. One of the more curious is the smaller and more symmetrically neat structure pictured at the left and below, found perfectly placed in the ear canal of a concrete greyhound statue. Another mantis species, or something else?
Despite finding Internet instructions to raise the little critters by hand however, my curiosity does not extend to trying to hurry along Mother Nature. I'm quite content to await the chitinous inhabitants of the garden as they appear in their own good time, secure in the knowledge that it's all part of the life cycle of my garden.