Saturday, October 31, 2009

Grim Grinning Ghosts

I suppose there are those who would find many of the creatures in My Florida Backyard creepy or spooky. After all, we've created an environment that welcomes spiders, bugs of all kinds, lizards, frogs and toads, and even bats. Throw in a witch and a mummy and My Florida Backyard is ready for Halloween year-round.

We even have ghosts - of a sort. At least, that's what Zebra Longwing butterfly caterpillars remind me of. Their bodies are stark white, cluttered with little black spots and studded with black spikes. They even have delightfully spooky little faces, with eyes and what seems to be a grinning little mouth.

And when they transform into chrysalides - well, then they're just downright freaky looking, even with their beautiful gold accents. I mean, they look like they have ears - how weird is that?

And they move! They're not the only chrysalides that move, but no one seems to get quite as feisty in sleep mode as these guys do. They flip around like crazy if you disturb them, undoubtedly in an attempt to scare off predators. Truly, they seem to be the superfreaks of the caterpillar world.

Their butterflies are beautiful, but even they have some kind of scary behavior. Males are so eager to mate with females that they won't even wait for them to emerge from the chrysalis. According to Kristen Gilpin, curator of the MOSI BioWorks Butterfly Garden, "Male Zebras will even break into the pupal case to mate with a female... before she even emerges. If you set several zebra longwing chrysalis into the flight cage you can always tell which ones contain females... the males swarm around them pushing each other out of the way. Kinda creepy actually."

We concur, Kristen, but we love our state butterfly anyway. There's room for all sorts of ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night in My Florida Backyard - Halloween or not!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

One Piece at a Time

It's been unseasonably warm here in My Florida Backyard, and we haven't been getting as much outside time as we might like. We're getting all the moist heat of the summer with very little of the beneficial afternoon rain. Temps are running 5-7 degrees among normal, with days approaching record highs of near or at 90. Still, it beats snow, sleet, and nasty north winds, so we're trying not to complain - much.

Still, I try to get out each day for at least a little stroll around the yard, to check on everyone and plan maintenance and improvements for when the weather finally cools off. Today, I was pleased to notice that the new Mexican Petunia plants I started a few weeks ago are doing well.

I've written my thoughts about Mexican Petunia before - the only way it belongs in a Florida-Friendly yard is if you use a sterile cultivar. That is, of course, what we have, so the plants don't spread unless we want them to. You might think that means that when I want new plants, I have to buy them, since these plants produce no seeds. Fortunately, Mexican Petunia has to be one of the absolute easiest plants to start from cuttings.

In fact, "start from cuttings" makes the process sound more complicated than it is. All I did to start this new set of plants was to break off a piece of an existing plant at a joint, where it forms a sort of square. Then, I used a stake to make a narrow deep hole and shoved the "cutting" down into the soil. I watered them in well, and watered them once a week or so - when I remembered.

They looked a little wilty for the first day or two, but now they're beginning to establish roots and starting to thrive. By this time next year, my new plants should be reaching the heights of the older ones, creating a nice border between our property and the neighbors - all at no additional cost to me.

Mexican Petunias (Ruellia brittoniana) are both a blessing and a curse to Florida gardeners. They're easy to grow, produce flowers during much of the year, and are readily available at any local nursery - that's good. But the non-sterile cultivars produce seeds and spread at a prodigious rate; they can easily choke out other plantings and become impossible to eradicate - that's bad. So once again, I have to say - if you want them, look for those marked "sterile cultivar". It's the only responsible thing to do.

P.S. There is a similar native plant out there, by the way. Just this weekend, I was able to buy a very healthy looking Wild Petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis) at my favorite native plant nursery. It only grows to about 12 inches, as opposed to the 5-6 foot range of the Mexican Petunia, and the purple flowers are a bit smaller. They are just as attractive to butterflies, if not more so, and serve as a host plant for Buckeye butterfly caterpillars. If you have the chance to buy Wild Petunia instead of Mexican Petunia, you should certainly do so.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sweet Pea

I recently discovered a patch of Hairy-Pod Cowpea growing near My Florida Backyard. The cowpea is technically just outside our boundary, growing under a stand of pine trees along the lake, but you can certainly see it from My Florida Backyard, so I think it counts.

Anyway, I was pleased to find this native Florida wildflower here for a variety of reasons. First, it has a delightfully descriptive name. The pods are indeed hairy, as you can see below, and the seeds that grow inside the pods are a type of pea. This plant is in fact a member of the pea family, which includes the more familiar soybeans and chickpeas, among many others.

Hairy-Pod Cowpea is a vine, and will climb up trees and other objects in the wild, or be trained over a trellis in cultivation. The yellow flowers are intriguingly lovely, another reason to enjoy this Florida native.
But perhaps the best reason of all, the reason that certainly excited me the most, is that the hairy-pod cowpea serves as a host plant for several species of butterfly, including the Long-Tailed Skipper, a frequent visitor to My Florida Backyard. These caterpillars are leaf-rollers, like the canna skipper, so finding one is a little like opening a very strange birthday gift.
When they're very small, the caterpillars cut portions of the leaves to roll over themselves. As they grow larger, they "stitch" the leaves of the cowpea together to make a shelter big enough to hold them safely. This caterpillar was cozied up inside two cowpea leaves held together with strands of silk.

Because this patch of cowpea is outside the boundaries of My Florida Backyard, in an area technically owned by the HOA, there's always the chance that the maintenance crew could mow or spray the area. Fortunately, our neighborhood is participating in the Hillsborough County Adopt-A-Pond program, so I'm going to post some "Restoration Project: Do Not Mow" signs in the area and hope for the best!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Purple Haze

The last few days have been a case of "Be careful what you wish for..." here in My Florida Backyard. Last week, the temperatures were far above normal, with highs in the 90s every day. This weekend, the first real cold front of the season pushed through - and I mean cold! (Florida cold, anyway.) The stiff north wind made it feel more like January than October, with the high on Sunday reaching only 66 - a new record. The low last night was 48, breaking a record that has been around since 1927.

While we were shivering, we found time to enjoy one of the best displays nature has to offer in October in Florida - the "purpling" of the Muhly Grass.

Muhly Grass is one of our favorite Florida native plants. Similar to more-readily-available fountain grasses, it's an ornamental grass that grows to about 3 feet by 3 feet. Most of the year, the fronds are deep green, but in October the purple plumes rise above the body of the grass. By late in the year, the feathery purple fronds fade to a soft light brown as the seeds ripen and are released. Until then, the bright color is a lovely addition to the gardens.

Perhaps Alice Walker says it best:

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.”

Don't worry, Ms. Walker - we certainly notice it here in My Florida Backyard!

P.S. A cool fact - in areas like Charleston, SC, Muhly Grass is called sweetgrass, and has been used for centuries to weave baskets. When we visited a few years ago, we saw women sitting outside the famous St. Michael's Church selling these baskets to passers-by.

Friday, October 16, 2009

You Gotta Make Your Own Sunshine

It's been a rare gloomy day here in My Florida Backyard. The first strong cold front of the season (which brought our unfortunate northern neighbors their first taste of the "s" word*!) is preparing to push through, and we awoke this morning to heavy showers. Though the rain was spotty, it lingered throughout the day, along with fairly heavy cloud cover. I saw the sun here only once, for a couple of minutes - a rare occurrence indeed in Florida.

Fortunately, the native swamp sunflower was putting on a glorious show, creating sunshine where there otherwise was none.
I bought this plant just for fun at Wilcox Nursery (my favorite place for native plants) last spring. It was about 12 inches tall then, and I planted it just to see what it would do. What it did, of course, was grow like crazy all summer, and then begin to bloom just about the time the calendar said autumn had begun. This is another one of those great native plants that you can basically just stick in the ground and let alone to do its own thing.

Gloomy days are an uncommon happening in Florida, but when they do occur, it's nice to know My Florida Backyard can provide us color and cheer until the sun returns!

*The "S" word is snow, of course - the dirtiest word I know!

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!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch

This weekend, the USF Botanical Gardens held their annual fall plant sale. At 10:00 a.m., when I was standing in line waiting to get in, the temperature was already 90 degrees, with humidity making the air so thick that it was hard to breathe. I was on a mission, though, and with sweat dripping in my eyes, I plunged inside to find one or more of the following: pipevine, cassia, wild lime, and paw paw. These are all butterfly larval host plants that I desperately want for My Florida Backyard, and they are all fairly hard to find.

An hour later, I emerged victoriously, carrying a Candlestick Cassia and a Dwarf Paw Paw. (I also had a red and white bleeding heart vine and a sweet almond bush, but that's beside the point. Isn't everyone susceptible to impulse buys?) The paw paw especially was a treasured find - only one vendor at the entire fair was carrying them, and she was a specialist.

I was barely inside the sale before I found the small booth for Pietro's Paw Paws, owned by Terri Pietroburgo. Terri lives in Leesburg, in the middle of the state in "lake country", and started her business because she herself had trouble finding paw paws for her own garden. I told her I wanted to grow paw paw to draw Zebra Swallowtails to my garden - they are the only host plant for these amazing butterflies - but that I'd heard they could be very tricky to grow considering they're a Florida native.

Terri helped me pick out one of the best dwarf paw paws (better suited to our small yard, as it will only grow to about 3 feet) and gave me a sheet describing the planting process. She even walked me through it, so when we planted our precious paw paw in the butterfly garden this evening, we felt comfortable following the very specific instructions.

The trick to paw paws is understanding they have a very deep tap root. While they may grow about a foot above ground during a growing season, their tap root can grow down to five feet or more. In other words, when you pick a place to plant a paw paw, you better be sure, because you're not going to be able to move it later. So, step one was digging a narrow deep hole in the right location - the paw paw can take full sun to full shade, although it flowers best in sun. We chose a partially shaded spot.

Paws paws must also have well-drained soil - this is perhaps the most important thing. The paw paw in the pot was actually planted and grown in sand. We happened to have some sand handy, so we back-filled the hole with sand about two-thirds of the way up, and the topped it off with some dirt. Terri made a point of telling me that it is very important not to add any kind of fertilizer; paw paws are delicate and easily burned. Even organic fertilizers should be avoided. We use very little fertilizer, though I do often add organic bone meal or blood meal to new transplants, so I was glad Terri shared this with me.

Before setting the plant in the hole, we had cut off the bottom of the pot with a knife, and split the pot on either side, again per Terri's instructions. Once the hole was filled with sand and dirt, we carefully pulled out the pot, one side at a time. This ensured that the fragile roots were not disturbed at all, giving the plant a better chance of establishing itself. We had watered the plant in the pot before planting so the sand would hold together, so there was no need to water it again.

Usually, once a native plant is in the ground, you can just water it for a few weeks to get it established and then ignore it. Paw paws, it seems, require a little bit more. We need to monitor the soil moisture every other day for the first six months, keeping it moist but not soggy. The foliage needs to be protected from full sun for the first year, so as the sun shifts position in the sky, it may be necessary to provide additional shade for the leaves. Terri provided lots of useful details, so I'm hopeful we may be successful.

If you're wondering why we're taking all this trouble for a rather nondescript looking plant, then you've never seen a Zebra Swallowtail butterfly. Click here for some pictures of this amazing creature and its caterpillar. It's a little late in the year to hope for eggs now in My Florida Backyard, plus I'd really like the plant to become established before caterpillars start munching on the leaves. This is a case where patience will be a virtue, so we'll just have to wait for our hoped-for payoff. Stay tuned!

P.S. Check back in the next few days for a post on my other fantastic find, the Candlestick Cassia!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No Man's Land

My Florida Backyard is a small suburban lot, with only about 10 feet between houses on either side. On the south side of our house, we have our paver walkway lined with Mexican Petunia and annual flowers. It's also where the rain barrel resides, and it leads directly around to the back porch and back door. We visit the south side of the house on a regular basis.

However, the north side of the house is a bit of a no man's land. We rarely walk around that way; our kitchen windows face out onto it, but since they also look directly into our neighbor's windows, the blinds are often closed for privacy. Still, when you don't have much space, you hate to leave any area unplanted, so our side yard to the north is the perfect place for some wild shrubs, including:
We chose all of these bushes because they met several criteria. First they tolerate partial to full shade, and even thrive in it. Second, they attract wildlife, with blossoms or berries or both. And third, they are native and require little to no maintenance - perfect for a side of the house we rarely visit.

My favorite of these shrubs is the American Beautyberry. This fast-growing, drought-tolerant, cold-tolerant bush has showy purple berries for a good portion of the year. Beautiful though they may be, they don't seem to tempt the local birds as much as I thought they might. They sort of seem to think of them as a "last resort" kind of berry - if others are available, they'll eat them first. Even mockingbirds, ravenous and territorial as they are, generally ignore these lovely berries. That's fine with me, though - I get to enjoy the splash of color just outside the kitchen window, where they provide a bit of a screen from the neighbors.

So I guess the moral of the story is - a good Florida-Friendly wildlife gardnener should use all the space available to them. Even if you don't see it much, the local fauna will appreciate it (and maybe your human neighbors too)!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dancing Queen

A few weeks ago, we found this Queen butterfly ovipositing on our milkweed. We were particularly excited, because Queens are rare visitors to My Florida Backyard, and to have one laying eggs was even better.

To protect these precious eggs from the hungry wasps, ants, and lizards, I quickly plucked them from the milkweed and brought them inside. A few days later, one hatched successfully:

Even at this very tiny stage, you can tell it's a Queen caterpillar and not a Monarch because of the third pair of "spikes" in the middle of the body. As the caterpillar grows and passes through later instars (stages), the differences between the two caterpillars become more pronounced.

This shows a Queen on the left and a Monarch on the right:

Within about a week, the caterpillar had finished chowing down on milkweed and had reached maximum size:
She went to work creating the silk pad to which she would attach herself, preparing to hang head down and transform into a chrysalis.
A Queen chrysalis is pretty much identical to a Monarch chrysalis - that beautiful waxy green flecked with gold. In about a week, the butterfly emerged and we released her in My Florida Backyard.
Her right forewing seemed just a little bit crumpled, even after several hours basking in the warm sun (a "lucky wing", perhaps?). Still, when the time came to fly off, she seemed to do just fine.
Yesterday afternoon, as I gathered some milkweed to feed a few remaining monarch caterpillars, a Queen butterfly danced around my head in the afternoon sun. Was it the same one I'd released into the breeze a few days ago? She didn't hold still long enough for me to get a good look, so there was no real way to tell. Still, I like to think she had come back to the garden where her mother had laid the egg that produced her, perhaps to lay eggs that would produce the next generations.

Life always seems to find a way in My Florida Backyard.

Zebra Crossing

Lately, zebra longwings have been hanging around My Florida Backyard, and this morning we finally managed to get a good picture.

Our state butterfly seems to particularly enjoy the nectar of the native blue porterweed, and lay their eggs on passionvine. We've found several eggs on ours, and are looking forward to raising a few caterpillars. Watch for pictures soon!