Coral bells coming under a nighttime snack attack

Coral bells coming under a nighttime snack attack

Tracey FitzgibbonQ. Something eats the tiny flower blossoms off my coral bells (Heuchera) – one day the pink flowers are in all their glory, and the next day all that is left is a stem. Suspect it happens at night because I notice the blossoms are gone first thing in the morning when I’m out refilling the birdbath. Is it birds, squirrels or insects? Any ideas on how to prevent this? The coral bells are planted in a walled backyard in the NE Heights. – S.B, Albuquerque

A. My first thought was snails. They would enjoy munching those tender small blooms very much.

Next I thought, some sort of ground-dwelling caterpillar that, like you think, comes out at night to do its feeding.

You don’t mention seeing any chewed up leaves or glistening trails left behind like snails usually leave. Nor mention of any small black knobby stuff – that’d be caterpillar poop – collected on the leaf surfaces, so I’m not sure in the least.

I suggest that once the coral bells throw up another bloom stalk, you make a point of going out late at night with a flashlight in hand to see if you can find the offender. I’d make a point to go out several times once the bloom stalks are showing to identify your pest.

If it’s snails, there are several treatments for them that are quite safe. First, find a shallow dish – at least 2 inches deep and 4-to-6-inches wide and plant it. What I mean is, I want you to dig a depression so the dish rim is sitting at soil level. You don’t want any of the surrounding soil to fall into the dish and you want it set very near the coral bells.

Once you have the dish set to ground level, fill the dish with beer. The beer will be a far better attractant than the tender blossoms, since snails like to “belly up to the bar.” Get the “trap” set before sunset, as the day cools, and after you’ve watered – because you don’t want the beer diluted – and then first thing in the morning check the “trap” for any dead-drunk snails. It’ll be yucky, but dispose of the dead in a coffee can and reset the trap the next night for a continued hunt.

Also consider investing in diatomaceous earth in powder form and liberally sprinkling it close to the base of the plants. The diatomaceous earth is classified as an abrasive dust, meaning most any pest that crawls through it gets deeply scratched, causing such pests to desiccate, and in turn die.

The diatomaceous earth would maim any earth-dwelling caterpillars that crawl through it on their way to the plants.

In one reference book I own, it suggests dusting the plant leaf surfaces, too. And since whoever is making their way to the blossom stem would, in theory, have to use the leaves as the way to get to the blossoms, they’d get treated.

You can also spray the plants with a ready-to-use pesticide spray containing pyrethrin. Any pest chewing on freshly applied pyrethrin will expire. Know that the pyrethrin must be applied at dusk and be fresh in order to get a good hunt using it. The “active” part of the spray degrades rapidly in the sunlight, so you want the pesticide to be fresh.

You also wondered if it could be squirrels. Perhaps cover the plants with a good sized bucket each evening, making sure to uncover faithfully early every morning (so the plants don’t cook) to see if it might be a nighttime forager eating the blossoms. Not a good look I know, but necessity is the mother of invention at this point.

First I’d go out at night wearing a headlamp and carrying a flashlight to aim and identify the offender. That way you’ll know how to proceed in your hunt for the pesky offender.

Happy Diggin In.

Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to


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