Post #G21-040: A male problem.

Posted on July 8, 2021

Hang your (slowly rotating plastic) head in shame.

The issue

I’m having a bit of a male fertility problem these days.  I wake up in the morning, look down, and see … nothing.

It’s the heartbreak of B.D.

Blossom Dysfunction. I have no male squash blossoms in my garden.

This has been going on for some weeks now.  Given that I have about a dozen summer squash, this isn’t just the occasional random imbalance between male and female flowers.

I’ve found scant mention of this problem (no male squash blossoms) on the internet.  A lack of females is commonly discussed, as that typically happens when the plants just start blooming.  But prolonged absence of male flowers is unusual.

The sum total of internet wisdom on this issue is that it might be due to insects. Or birds.  Or mammals.  In fact, the only thing the internet absolutely rules out is Jewish space lasers, since it is well known that those only remove the calyx and leave the stamen scarred but otherwise untouched.

And since I can’t be entirely sure who the culprit is, I’m just going to have to try a few things and see what, if anything, works.

The symptoms.

Something is removing the entire male flower bud.  I’m left with a cleanly-sheared stalk where the male flower should be.  The flowers aren’t falling off — they aren’t sitting on the ground below.  They haven’t been gnawed off, as if by insects.  They are just gone, as if something took them in one gulp.

I can see that the plants are still forming male flowers.  I can see tiny to nearly-mature male flowers on several plants.  It’s just that all of them get eaten before they flower.

This happens overnight.  I’ve been carefully studying my remaining male flowers, and those flower heads are disappearing sometime between sunset and when I first get to the garden early in the morning.

This year, I’ve staked my summer squash and continuously prune off the lower leaves.  So the flowering head of the plant sits well off the ground, under a canopy of leaves, but exposed from below.

The possible culprits

I think I can rule out insect damage.  Insects just aren’t that neat, they don’t remove the bud on one sitting.  And, I’ve sprayed spinosad all up and down the stems (for squash vine borer), which should kill any chewing insects forthwith.

What I’m seeing is perfect, untouched male flower buds disappearing cleanly and entirely, overnight.  Insects just don’t have the housekeeping skills to do that.

It might be some mammal.  I have both chipmunks and squirrels.  But I’ve never seen either one in the raised beds with the squash.  And in my experience, neither of those are very neat eaters, either.

If the squirrels had gotten them, high up on the squash plants, they’d  have snapped off some leaves, broken the flower stems, spoiled some female flowers, and so on.  Then left half the uneaten male flowers, and dropped a load of squirrel poo, just to show they were doing it mostly out of spite.

So there isn’t enough random, mindless, needless damage and mess in this case.  I think that rules out squirrels.  And although the chipmunks are certain agile enough, it’s hard to believe they could get in and out and otherwise leave no trace.

Birds are my best guess, and right now, my bet is on a juvenile cardinal that I saw exiting my raised bed early this morning.

No teeth, so they nip things off whole.  Or slash a tear in them.  Which fits the damage that I’m seeing.  They’d take an entire bud at once.  And birds are early risers, explaining the overnight disappearance.  Based on what I saw this morning, they are foraging in my garden before I’m typically up.

They are plenty agile enough to get at those blossoms.  Last year, when I grew a bunch of sunflowers, I observed something I would not have guessed was possible:  Cardinals can hover like hummingbirds (Post #G17).  Briefly, at any rate.  And by staking these up and opening up the entire underside of the plant canopy, I’ve given them access to the entire flowering head of the plant.

Finally, birds are known to eat flower buds, particularly when other sources of food are scarce.  Here’s one reference that says so (note the focus on cardinals),  and here’s another one.  And I found one internet thread where, in fact, lack of male squash blossoms was due to one cardinal who had developed a taste for them.

The treatment.

To cut to the chase, although I haven’t caught them in the act, I think I’m losing my male squash blossoms to birds.  Specifically to juvenile cardinals.

My first thought was to leave the plants alone and just keep the birds off.   Bird netting always seem to result in my having to free some birds that get stuck in the net.  So I decided to try the full range of “bird scaring” devices.  Hence the sad and totally ineffective owl at the top of the post.  Along with the shiny “bird scare tape”, and, not shown, the cheesy rubber snakes in the garden bed itself.

All of which my local cardinals cheerfully ignored.

So now I’m down to putting physical barriers around the individual flowers.  Luckily, I only need one male flower a day.  So I don’t have to protect every male bud on these plants.

My first device repurposes the wire cages from my failed “bee proof” sticky traps (Post #G21-032).  I just squeeze them into shape and drop them over the developing male flower buds.  They will certainly ruin the male bud when it flowers, but the pollen will still be inside, ready to be harvested and used.

My second device is just a fine cloth bag, fixed over the male flower bud.  It’s a bit of tulle (open-weave fine cloth), held around the male flower stem with a bit of velcro-like plant tie.  Plausibly, if I do that right, the flower will be able to open up with that arrangement.

I have that all set up in my garden.  I’ll report back tomorrow on whether either approach seems to solve my case of Blossom Dysfunction.