Q. I went away for three days and when I returned all the leaves were stripped from my jalapeño plants. Do you know what did this?
A. Leaves stripped from vegetable plants is usually because of their tomato hornworm. Tomato hornworms are large caterpillars with the spine sticking from their rump. They can come in a variety of colors but we usually see green ones.
They are voracious eaters and can remove leaves from plants at an alarming rate. They also leave behind a lot of large feces that could be confused with mice.
They select only tender tissue and may leave behind more woody stems because they are not as delectable. When plants are very young and tender, they will consume the entire plant.
You do not see them during the day because they hide and come out to forage at dusk and during the nighttime. To find them, go out at dusk with a flashlight or in the early evening hours.
Another interesting way to find them is using a black light, the same way to find bark scorpions. Hornworms shine with an eerie green iridescence under a black light.
Your plant will recover but you don’t have much time left for pepper production. When leaves are removed this stimulates the plant to produce new leaves from existing buds in the crotch or axil of the leaf. The problem is now the plant will focus on producing new leaves first rather than flowers and fruit.
Protecting your plants from these creatures is easy to do by going out at night and removing them by hand. Protect plants with sprays of Bt or Spinosad which are considered organic controls. Just about any vegetable insecticide will control them as well.