14 Nov 2016

Live fast, die young – Atlas moths are very rock and roll

Bruce Langridge

“Bruce, you’ve got to come down here”.

This is Carl Holmes, our ace horticulturalist who has overseen the transformation of our Tropical House into the crowd puller that is Plas Pilipala. He’s on the Garden’s walkie talkie and he sounds excited.

“Are you going to tell me about the Atlas moths Carl?” I’d already seen a Facebook picture of one of the world’s biggest moths and picked up on a vibe around the Garden that something special was happening.

“Yes, they look amazing and I want everyone to know they’re here.”

A few minutes later I found a gathering of gardeners in Plas Pilipala, stood around a tree stump. At first I couldn’t see what they were ooing and ahhing about but then my eyes focused on this enormous moth, static but with an occasional twitch, drawing attention to the snake head like tips of its wings.

“You’ve got to see the cocoon.” Science student Sean gently pulled open the atlas moth’s previous home, a huge silk cocoon with an opened chrysalis case inside. “There’re a lot more of these due to hatch out in the next two or three weeks,” he added whilst showing me a cocoon hanging from a tree that looked like it might hatch today.

He told me that the Atlas moth comes from the tropical forests of south-east Asia, that they have no mouths and have to mate and lay eggs before they die in just 5 days.

All a bit rock and roll, live fast, die young.

The sight of a striking yellow hibiscus caught my eye too. “How are the plants doing Carl?” I asked.

“I’m getting excited by another giant, the Myrmecophila orchid.”

“The what?”

“It sends out 5 metre long flowering spikes and I’ve noticed the plant’s putting on growth, getting ready to flower.”

It’s good speaking to Carl as he shows me things I might not have spotted like the cocoa and vanilla plants, gathering strength before they flower and produce tasty seeds. I could tell he was proud of the bananas and papayas which are producing fruit, and of the display of exotic orchids that greet visitors as they first walk into Plas Pilipala.

I was aware that this year has been a steep learning curve for Carl and the team, as Plas Pilipala only opened in July.

“You must feel exhausted from all the work you’ve done this year Carl.”

“I am.”

“So it’s time to slow down and recuperate now eh?”

“Yes sure. I was thinking we should get some quail in here though.”