By Debra Eschmeyer
There’s something about caring for a tomato plant that brings out every nurturing instinct in me. I am literally in constant motion during peak season, in a long, choreographed dance of pruning, irrigating, mulching, deworming, and finally, harvesting — my own version of tomato salsa.
But there may be another living being that likes tomatoes more than I. Actually, a lot more. This vagabond in my garden not only dines on the fleshy fruit, but also on the leaves, as he clings camouflaged on the curvy vines! I suppose it’s not really a fair competition, because this is his sole means of fuel until he burrows into the ground to morph into his next phase of life as a moth.
So should I pardon the ephemeral life of the wryly named tomato hornworm?
I think not! He has the audacity to arrive every July, lusting for lush Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, Valencias, and Striped Germans to partake with no invitation in the fruits of my work that I have nourished and invested in since March. No sirree, this colorful green intruder pays me no respect for the feast I have cultivated. His gluttonous ways are consuming the potential of future salsas, sauces, and soups! Known formally as Manduca quinquemaculata, tomato hornworms are the larvae of hawk or sphinx moths. The last larval stage is the most destructive: once the worm reaches 3-4 inches, the worm consumes more than 90% of the total combined foliage, which can be death to a tomato plant.
I’ve become obsessed with finding evidence of the manduca’s mighty appetite: tiny piles of brown or green droppings is a quick sign of their surreptitious presence, followed by the emaciated vine — stripped of leaf and budding blossom. And if you get close enough to the plant and slightly wiggle the leaves, you will hear their warning call. A shrill “schtick, schtick” resonating through the thick jungle of tomato leaves exposes their presence. Then the plump, insatiable worm will appear: the meal, and the masquerade, over.
Plucking their tightly grasped hooks off the vines, I drop them into a bucket of water. Other generals in the tomato wars have taken a more adventurous life-cycle approach: fried green tomato…hornworms. For now, I am going to pass on eating the chlorophyll critter and consider its capture from the camouflage-friendly canopy another tomato saved — and another battle won in the Worm War.
Debra Eschmeyer is the marketing & media manager of the National Farm to School Network and the Center for Food & Justice; she also works a fifth-generation family farm in Ohio, where she raises organic heirloom fruits, vegetables, and chickens.