Friday, December 31, 2010

It's Just Another New Year's Eve

My Florida Backyard celebrates by watching fireworks in every direction...

Thanks for dropping by throughout 2010... we look forward to seeing you in 2011!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dewdrops in the Garden

My Florida Backyard suffered a pretty hard freeze this week, and the gardens took some fairly serious damage. Fortunately, before the freeze, we happened to get some pictures of the Duranta erecta, often called Golden Dewdrop.

This is a very common shrub in warmer regions. It's native to Central America, but does not seem to be invasive in Florida (unlike places like Australia and Hawaii, where it's considered a noxious pest). It's very easy to find at nurseries all over the state, often under the cultivar name "Gold Mound" or "Cuban Gold".

Duranta has a lot of value for the wildlife gardener. Like most shrubs, it provides shelter and cover for smaller animals. The shrub frequently has both flowers and berries at the same time. The light blue flowers are a draw for butterflies, and they're followed by orange berries enjoyed by songbirds. (Note that these berries are toxic, and children and small animals have been killed by eating them, so you may want to avoid planting this in areas where kids or dogs play.)

Duranta can grow up to 20 feet tall and wide, but you can easily keep it under control with vigorous pruning. It generally sustains damage during a heavy frost, so we take advantage of that time to prune it back, sometimes by as much as half. This allows it to grow back more fully and compactly, perfect for the small butterfly garden where it's located. We just completed that annual pruning in My Florida Backyard, as a result of the freeze, so we're glad we grabbed these pictures to share with you before the dramatic haircut!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

White Christmas

There's no snow in My Florida Backyard this Christmas (thank goodness!), but that doesn't mean we're not having a White Christmas...

Merry Christmas from our backyard to yours!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees

 Just in time for Christmas, the holly berries in My Florida Backyard are starting to turn red. Our holly is one of the few plants on the property that was here before we were - it's located on the west side of the house in front of a bedroom window. We feel reasonably sure it is a Burford Holly (Ilex cornuta 'Burfordii'), which is native to Asia. Fortunately, it's not considered invasive in Florida, so we were able to leave this 15-foot shrub in place without any guilt.

Florida has several really great native hollies, including Dahoon Holly (Ilex cassine) and Yaupon Holly, which has the superb Latin name Ilex vomitoria. Given the choice, we would have planted either of these natives instead of the non-native Burford, but beggars can't be choosers. Our holly berries are popular with mockingbirds in the neighborhood - several years ago a male became very territorial in this bush and even began attacking his own reflection in the nearby window to protect his food source. Interestingly, it appears that holly berries actually benefit from cold - they apparently soften and become milder in flavor after a few freezes, making them even more delectable to birds.

Oh, and just for fun, here's a picture of the little live tree we have on the porch in My Florida Backyard. The big (fake) tree is inside, but we just can't resist having a live tree to smell and enjoy during the holidays!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Everything's Coming Up Roses

Wow, the Knockout Rose by our front door is happy! Although Knockouts can withstand the heat of a Florida summer, they're much happier when the cooler weather sets in. We gave ours a shot of fertilizer a few weeks ago and covered it during the freeze last week to protect the buds, and it's really paying off!

Oh, and the bees are enjoying it too...

Roses in winter... just one more reason we here in My Florida Backyard couldn't imagine living anywhere else!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Moon

It's been nearly 400 years since a total lunar eclipse took place on the night of the winter solstice (the last one was 1638), so we just couldn't imagine sleeping through it in My Florida Backyard. Mother Nature cooperated with perfectly clear skies, and although the temperatures dropped into the mid-40s, the absence of any wind made the night pleasant if chilly.

Although you can enjoy an eclipse without any special equipment, taking pictures of it is a lot harder. Our camera isn't really fancy enough for any fantastic shots. However, by using a tripod and taking some long exposures, we captured a few pictures we thought were worth sharing. This one is really the best, taken not long after the moon was fully eclipsed by the earth's shadow. As anticipated, the moon took on an amazing orange-red hue.

Here's a collage of a series of shots taken as the eclipse began (first shot around 2 a.m. EST) and proceeded to almost fully eclipsed (last shot in this series around 3:15 am EST). For a really great explanation of the stages of an eclipse, visit this page on

It was astonishing how dark the night grew as the eclipse took place. We stepped out earlier in the evening to enjoy the full moon itself, and it was so bright out one could read a newspaper in the moonlight alone. Stars in the sky near the moon seemed to disappear in the bright moonlight. When the eclipse was total, though, the darkness returned and stars in the sky seemed vivid in contrast. The fully-eclipsed moon is in the upper right of this long-exposure photo, showing as a bright disc with an orange tint. Orion stands in the bottom-center, almost seeming to reach toward the glow the moon leaves behind.

Another long-exposure shot of the fully-eclipsed moon and nearby stars:

Pictures from our puny camera can't do the eclipse justice, and neither can words. Last night's event was an experience worth losing a night's sleep for, and the perfect way to welcome Winter to My Florid Backyard.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Whiter Shade of Pale

With the temperatures back in the 70s, it's beginning to feel a lot like Florida again, and we couldn't be happier! We took advantage of the sunny afternoon to plant a recent new acquisition: a white Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea).

We're written of our love of salvias before - they're easy to raise and nearly all are butterfly nectar sources. Salvia coccinea is a Florida native, and we have it in red, light pink, and hot pink as well as our new white version.

S. coccinea is moderately frost-tolerant. Ours all made it through the cold temperatures early this week, but it's fairly close to the house and probably received some radiant heat as a result. Fortunately, if it's killed back to the ground, it will generally grow back, and it re-seeds readily. Once you have some established in your garden, you can be sure you'll continue to have it year after year, although perhaps not in exactly the place where you originally planted it!

Although you'll rarely find it in mainstream nurseries, S. coccinea is easy to find at any native plant nursery. Red is the most common, and is very popular with butterflies and even hummingbirds. If you can find the pink and the white, they're lovely additions to any Florida butterfly garden, and we're so pleased to have all three now in My Florida Backyard!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Shelter from the Storm

With the low here in Tampa Bay forecast at a ridiculous 29 degrees tonight, we spent the afternoon covering some of the most vulnerable plants in My Florida Backyard with all the spare sheets, blankets, and towels we have on hand.

It's always a little difficult to decide what to cover - we certainly can't cover everything, nor would we want to. Many of our plants are natives that can stand frost or even a freeze, but plenty of our residents, native or not, still can't take the temperatures in the forecast for the next few days.

So, first we cover vulnerable plants that have wildlife value. For instance, Gulf Fritillary butterflies are some of the hardiest of Florida's flyers - they're almost always the first ones you'll see venturing out when the sun warms up the afternoons above 65 degrees or so. So, we wanted to save the passionvine to allow them to continue laying eggs. We also covered some milkweed for the monarchs, and some New Gold lantana to provide nectar plants once the freeze is over.

Then we covered a few plants that just look so happy and healthy right now that we couldn't stand to lose them. The Knockout Rose by the front door is loaded with new growth, buds, and blooms, so we hope the radiant heat from the house and the sheet we covered it with will keep it robust through the cold. The Yellowtop (Flaveria linearis) is budding out again after being cut back a few weeks ago, so we covered that as well. And the pipevine (Aristolochia elegans) by the kitchen window is so green and full, we couldn't help trying to protect it.

Will they survive? Who can say. We covered the plants during the warmest part of the afternoon, when the ground could provide as much radiant heat as possible. All the sheets and blankets are draped down to the ground, keeping the heat inside, and pinned or secured to keep them from blowing away. And that's all we can do. Optimism and old sheets are cheap, so we give our plants all of both that we have, and then hope for the best!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming...

...from tender bud has sprung.

 It came, a floweret bright...

...amid the cold of winter, when half spent was the night.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Java Jive

Since it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas everywhere you go, it makes sense that some of the plants in My Florida Backyard are putting on their Christmas colors as well. The holly berries aren't red yet, but the Wild Coffee is making up for it very well.

Wild Coffee has one of the best scientific names ever: Psychotria nervosa. This Florida native evergreen shrub has tiny white flowers leading to berries that deepen to a dark brownish-red.

 Wild Coffee does not like the cold (we'll have to cover it ahead of the chilly temps expected here over the next few nights), and is generally considered hardy to zone 10. This shrub can grow four to ten feet high in the wild, but here in My Florida Backyard, it tends to stay much smaller. It died back to the roots in last year's terrible cold spell, and has recovered to about two feet by two feet now.

Wild Coffee berries aren't used to make the coffee you buy at Starbucks - that's Coffea arabica.  However, the berries have a lot of wildlife value for birds and small mammals, and butterflies will nectar at the flowers. It's a nice ornamental in full sun or part shade, and prefers moist well-drained soil. You can find it at most native plant nurseries - we bought ours several years ago at Wilcox Nursery in Largo.

With the holidays fast approaching, it's nice to see that the plants in My Florida Backyard are getting into the spirit of things. We'll highlight more seasonal favorites over the next few weeks, so be sure to check back for more holiday colors!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wear My Ring Around Your Neck

Winter brings migratory birds to My Florida Backyard from up north. About a month ago, the Yellow-Rumped Warblers appeared at the feeders again, and more recently, Ring-Necked Ducks made their appearance on the lake once more.

Ring-Necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) are diving ducks - they submerge their entire bodies when diving below the surface for food. Our year-round mallards and muscovies are part of the group known as dabbling ducks, who generally feed at or just below the surface.

As with most birds, the males have the more striking black and white markings, while the females are more drab and brown. The name "Ring-Necked" may seem misleading, as the ring around the beak seems much more obvious. However, the species does have what is described as a chestnut-colored ring around the neck which is visible at very close range. Early scholars identifying the bird would have worked with preserved specimens that could be examined closely, and the neck ring would have been easier to see.

The Ring-Necked Duck is a fast flier, and undertakes longer migrations than many other ducks. It spends summers in the far northern U.S. and Canada, where it breeds. It winters mainly in the Southern U.S. and Mexico, but has been observed as far south as Costa Rica. Fascinatingly, a very tiny but regular migratory population is regularly observed in Western Europe.

The Ring-Necked Duck gathers in fairly small flocks on freshwater lakes and ponds, and we're so glad the lake in My Florida Backyard is one of those. When we see these visitors return, we know the cooler season is here, and we welcome them both!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Penny Lane

Another hidden gem in My Florida Backyard is in bloom for the first time since we planted it in the spring: Florida Pennyroyal (Piloblephis rigida).We purchased this Florida native wildflower during a trip to All Native nursery in Fort Myers, and though it was blooming then, it stopped during the summer's intense heat and has only recently started up again. It spent the summer growing and spreading to about 3 feet wide, though staying about 8 inches tall.

The foliage of this plant has a smell almost like mint crossed with sage, but the flowers have a sweet scent all their own, matched only by their delicate beauty. This plant was rather overshadowed all summer by the nearby Yellowtop (Flaveria linearis), but we recently cut that back and allowed the Florida Pennyroyal to shine.

Florida Pennyroyal (also sometimes called Wild Pennyroyal or False Pennyroyal) shouldn't be confused with several of its close cousins with similar common names. All belong to the family Lamiaceae, but are distinctly different. Mock Pennyroyal (Stachydeoma graveolens) is found in only a few counties in the Florida panhandle, whereas Florida Pennyroyal is found only in peninsular Florida. American False Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) is found in the Northeastern U.S. but not as far south as Florida. And the most famous Pennyroyal of all, Mentha pulegium, is native to Europe and parts of Asia. It is this pennyroyal that has well known medicinal applications throughout history, beginning with Pliny the Elder in Roman times.

Our own meek little Florida Pennyroyal is a delight in a butterfly garden, and we're glad to put the spotlight on it once again in My Florida Backyard.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Lavender Blue

Another of fall's purple blooms has arrived in My Florida Backyard - this time it's the Climbing Aster (Aster carolinianus). We've been watching the buds form over the last few weeks, and the first flowers finally opened a couple of days ago.

A. carolinianus was first documented in South Carolina in 1788, hence the scientific name and its other common name, Carolina Aster. In the wild, it's found in freshwater wetlands along the banks of streams, rivers, and lakes. It can grow in drier conditions, as it does in My Florida Backyard, but needs supplemental watering during dry seasons to thrive.

It has a delicious soft fragrance, and draws butterflies and other pollinators while in bloom, generally from mid-November through December. It blooms best when it gets plenty of sun, although it will flower in partial shade as well. The flower buds are a deeper purple, and the flower itself fades slowly from lavender to nearly white before it dies.

The nice thing about Climbing Aster is that, unlike some other climbing plants, it's pretty easy to control. It won't take over a garden like some vines will. Plant it where it has room to spread, provide a trellis, fence, or shrub for support, and cut it back as needed to fit within your garden.

Like most natives, Climbing Aster can be hard to find outside of native plant nurseries. We bought ours at the Sanibel-Captival Conservation Foundation native plant nursery last spring. It's worth the search, though, because this is a native that needs little attention and brings wonderful fall color to any Florida garden.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thankful Heart

Today, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, we give thanks

For flowers that bloom about our feet;
For tender grass, so fresh, so sweet;
For song of bird, and hum of bee;
For all things fair we hear or see.

Happy Thanksgiving from our backyard to yours!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Don't Know Much

Once again, a faithful reader has been able to help us identify a mystery plant in My Florida Backyard. The other day, we posted a picture of the plant below and asked for help, and Carolyn from The Longleaf blog was able to help us out. Our mystery plant is.... West Indian Sage (Salvia occidentalis).

This is the part where we generally tell you some interesting facts about the plant. Our internet searches, though, turned up pretty skimpy results. Here's what we know: this plant is native to Mexico and Central and South America, including the West Indies (as you might have guessed). It's not native to Florida, though it is generally considered to be naturalized, and is often thought of as (no surprise here) a weed.

Other than that, the only interesting fact we could find was that Charles Darwin documented this plant during his trip to the Galapagos Islands on the HMS Beagle in 1835. This wasn't the first time the plant was documented in the New World, though - that honor belongs to botanist Olaf Swartz, who gets credit for naming the species in 1788. (Occidentalis is Latin meaning "West", and is used in this case to describe species from the Western hemisphere.)

So, that's all we know about Salvia occidentalis. We don't know much, but we know we love the pretty little flower, and that may be all we need to know.