Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Candle in the Wind

As I mentioned the other day, I attended the annual fall plant sale at the USF Botanical Gardens over the weekend. I braved the heat and came home with several treasures, including the subject of today's post: the Candlestick Cassia (Senna alata).

This unusual tropical plant was unknown to me until I started doing some volunteer work at the MOSI Bioworks Butterfly Garden. There, I learned that if you want to draw sulphur butterflies and their caterpillars to your yard, you need cassia plants. Christmas Cassia is definitely popular with sulphur caterpillars, but it grows into a fairly large shrub, and My Florida Backyard just doesn't have the space. I have been able to start a few Sicklepod Cassias, and hopefully more will grow from seed by next summer. And now I have my Candlestick Cassia.

You can see where the name comes from - the blooms are tall spikes of brilliant yellow. This one is just starting to open, and within a week or so, the spike will be a large cluster of golden flowers... a color irresistible to many butterflies.

Research tells me this plant is native to the tropics worldwide - a surprisingly large range for a single plant. It is hardy to zones 10 and 11, and will die back to the ground in a frost. Since I only have the one plant, I may try to cover it if we get one of those nasty cold snaps in January, but perhaps El Nino will spare us any of those frigid nights this year (fingers crossed)? If it does die down, it should readily reseed itself, so I'm not too worried.

It's a very striking plant, and not one that everyone would admire, perhaps. Butterfly gardeners are known to seek out the unusual, though - we'll even let things others consider weeds grow freely, just for the joy of seeing an adult nectaring or a caterpillar chomping away on the leaves.

Speaking of caterpillars, I've already spotted an egg or two on my cassia, probably from Cloudless Sulphurs (see that white blurry thing on the new green leaves?). As always, wasps and ants are quick to spot these as well and carry them off, so I wasn't surprised earlier today to stroll out and find the eggs gone and no caterpillars in sight. I'm hoping that as I establish more cassia plants, higher numbers of caterpillars will increase the survival rate of some. We'll see. In the meantime, I'm excited about the new residents in My Florida Backyard, and I can't wait to see the visitors they may bring!

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