Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What is This Lovely Fragrance?

Even with the odor of the Gulf oil spill drifting into the Bay area, the air in My Florida Backyard is full of sweetness these days. So sweet, in fact, that it would be nice if Smell-o-vision had ever taken off, so we could share it with you. Since we can't, here are some nice shots of the two blooms providing the most fragrance in our little slice of the world.

The passionvine (Passiflora incarnata) flowers are providing part of the scent explosion:

which seems especially strong at night.

“To be overcome by the fragrance of flowers is a delectable form of defeat.” 
- Beverly Nichols

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Who Will Buy My Pretty Flowers? (Part Three)

As mentioned the other day, we recently took a little field trip and visited several new native plant nurseries along the way. This is the third of three posts detailing those nurseries and the plants we bought there.

On our way to visit The Butterfly Estates in Fort Myers, we made one last stop at a native plant nursery. It was a darn good thing we had GPS, because this place was tricky to find for out-of-towners. All Native Garden Center* is near one of the airports, so not exactly in the most scenic part of town, but of all the nurseries we visited on our travels, this was by far our favorite.

We knew we were in luck when we pulled in, because a supplier truck was parked outside and new plants were being unloaded. Special areas were set up with butterfly nectar and host plants, and all plants were clearly labeled with names and growing needs. We'd only looked around a few moments when a nursery worker approached to ask if we were looking for anything in particular. When I asked for wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), which we hadn't been able to find anywhere else on this trip, her eyes lit up and she ran to bring me some, fresh off the truck (that's it on the left, planted in a shady spot under a tree, where it will do best). When I told her I was a butterfly gardener, she immediately began to show me other plants I might want or need, telling me her own experiences with the plants and asking what might work in my yard. Before long, we had loaded up a cart, and could have bought much more if we hadn't had to schlep it all back to Tampa.

So, what did we get, aside from the wild petunia? Well, first we found some Scorpion Tail (Heliotropum angiospermum), a very cool member of the heliotrope family. It's not a big plant, growing to a maximum of 2 feet, but its delicate little flowers are very attractive to the smaller butterflies like blues and skippers. It does well in sun or shade, and is fairly drought-tolerant. We planted ours in the butterfly garden.

The next plant was one I was not familiar with, but the nursery worker assured us was a natural in a butterfly garden. It's called Yellowtop (Flaveria linearis) and is really more of a zone 10 plant, but we decided to give it a try since we've had reasonably good luck with zone 10 plants before (not this past winter, of course), and we can just plan to give it a little protection if we need to. Even if it does die back in a freeze, it should re-grow from the roots, so it seemed work the risk.

When it blooms this summer and fall, the bright yellow flat-topped flowers will attract butterflies by the barrelful, so we planted it in the butterfly garden. It can grow 2-4 feet tall, and likes full to partial sun. It reseeds readily, so hopefully we'll have more of these plants by next year. We'll post some pictures of it once it starts to bloom.

Our helpful All Native employee also suggested we try some pennyroyal (Piloblephis rigida). This drought-tolerant wildflower blooms year-round, and will tolerate a light frost, though it may die back to the ground in a heavier freeze. The flowers are a light lavender and are attractive to butterflies, so this was another addition to the butterfly garden.

Our final purchase was a bit of an impulse buy. We had been discussing how much we loved silver buttonwood for its silvery leaves, and the All Native worker showed us some Sea Lavender (Argusia gnaphalodes), also called Sea Rosemary. The photo doesn't do it justice - the soft foliage of this plant almost seems to glow silver in the sun. It is a coastal plant, growing wild on sand dunes from Central Florida south, so it is very salt tolerant (not that that's an issue in My Florida Backyard), and can grow several feet tall given the opportunity.

If the beauty of this plant weren't enough to get us, the fact that it's rare and endangered certainly was. It's very difficult to find, both in the wild and from plant nurseries, so we really couldn't pass up a chance to bring this unusual native to our own yard. We planted it in a full sun spot in the backyard where we can admire the silvery leaves up close.

And that wrapped up our native plant shopping. All of the nurseries we visited were nice, but All Native was the best. The staff was helpful, the plants were healthy, and the selection was great. Prices were a little high, but no more so than other native plant nurseries - these sellers and growers don't have the high volume that allows other nurseries to keep prices down. Still, we always feel the extra cost is worth it for native plants; we have a much higher success rate with them, and it feels good to know My Florida Backyard is helping to restore some native habitat for the native wildlife.

* Tip: If you visit All Native's website ( - how cool is that?), use Internet Explorer as opposed to Firefox or another browser.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Who Will Buy My Pretty Flowers? (Part Two)

As mentioned the other day, we recently took a little field trip and visited several new native plant nurseries along the way. This is the second of three posts detailing those nurseries and the plants we bought there.

Whenever we visit Fort Myers, a trip to Sanibel Island is an absolute must. The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is worth the trip alone, not to mention the great shelling along the beach. This year, we added a new "must-do" to our trip when we visited the Sanibel-Captival Conservation Foundation nature center and walking trails. SCCF is dedicated to keeping Sanibel and Captiva islands as much like nature intended as possible. They have removed invasive plants, restored wildlife habitat, and perhaps most importantly, educated the folks living on these islands about the right way to treat their environment.

As part of educating the public, SCCF has established a very extensive native plant nursery. They propagate their plants themselves, as you can see when you visit the shade houses, and so are able to provide healthy, happy plants that are perfectly adjusted for life on the islands. The plants are well-labeled and described, and the staff was on hand for questions. Many plants were available in smaller, more affordable sizes, as well as larger specimens for those looking for instant garden gratification.

We made just one purchase here: a Carolina or Climbing Aster (Aster carolinianus). As the name implies, this aster is a climber and can reach 12 feet tall with adequate support. It recovers very quickly after a frost, and is a prodigious late-season bloomer. Butterflies love to visit its light purple blooms when other wildflowers have started to fade. It is an champion climber but lacks the tendrils that make other vines like passionvine so hard to control. In My Florida Backyard, we planted it along the fence in a mostly sunny spot and provided a trellis to support its growth. It's pretty small now, but it won't be long before it begins to climb and thrive.

There was still one more native plant nursery to visit during our travels, so look for our next post when we buy out the store at All Native in Fort Myers!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Who Will Buy My Pretty Flowers? (Part One)

As mentioned the other day, we recently took a little field trip and visited several new native plant nurseries along the way. This is the first of three posts detailing those nurseries and the plants we bought there.

 Between Tampa and Ford Myers, just east of Sarasota, is one of Florida's gems:  Myakka River State Park. It offers a 7-mile drive that winds through the park along the river and lake, meaning you don't even need to get out of your car to spot wading birds, alligators, deer, and more. Of course, there are plenty of trails, including one leading to a tree-top canopy walk, as well as all the other amenities you'll find at state parks.
Just north of the park on Myakka Road is Florida Native Plants, the kind of place that's tucked away so well you have to know it's there in order to find it (thank you, GPS!). Set in a beautiful area with the park nearby and farmland all around, Florida Native Plants is a lovely little nursery with a good selection and reasonable prices, bearing in mind you pretty much always pay more for native plants.. The staff was friendly and helpful, and all the plants were well-labeled and described (I refuse to buy a plant unless I know what it is and what it needs to grow well).

We made two purchases at Florida Native Plants: a wild lime tree and a starry rosinweed. Wild lime (Zanthoxylum fagara) has been on our wish list for quite some time, as it serves as a host plant for the gorgeous giant swallowtail butterfly. It's a manageable little tree with a moderate growth rate; we plan to keep it more the size of a large shrub in our yard by some judicious pruning. It grows best in full sun, so we planted it in the front yard where it will have room to spread a bit. It's tiny now but can grow to about 10-15 feet in Central Florida. This is a wonderful native plant to add to your gardens, as long as you're aware that it's not a tree you want to get up close and friendly with - like all citrus trees, wild lime protects itself with very sharp little pricklies all over the branches.

Our other purchase, starry rosinweed (Silphium asteriscus), is a member of the aster family. Sometimes called tall rosinweed, this native wildflower resembles a sunflower when in bloom. It grows about 2-3 feet tall and is very drought-tolerant. It's a great nectar source, so we planted ours in the butterfly garden. It doesn't look like much now, but this perennial should start to bloom before too long, so we'll provide pictures when it does.

So, that wraps up the first installment of our native plant shopping. Look for part two tomorrow, when we visit the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Give a Little Bit

Today is officially Earth Day - the 40th anniversary, as a matter of fact. According to Wikipedia, "Earth Day is a day designed to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth's environment", and thousands of events are taking place across the country as people spend a day focusing on the natural world and our human responsibilities to it.

I'll be spending Earth Day 2010 at my "garden away from home" - the MOSI BioWorks Butterfly Gardens. I spend several days a week volunteering in the gardens and working with the Butterfly Flight Encounter, and this Earth Day, I'll be helping out as over a dozen volunteers come to help with a massive planting in the gardens and tree grove.

If you've never been to the gardens at MOSI in Tampa, they're definitely worth a visit. The Historic Tree Grove contains trees from famous locations, such as the Fort Matanzas Red Cedar and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Sycamore, and many of the gardens beneath are themed to match the trees - for instance, plants with medicinal applications are planted beneath the Clara Barton Red Bud. You can learn much more about the Historic Tree Grove by clicking here.

In addition to the historic and themed gardens, all of the gardens are designed with butterflies in mind. Both nectar and host plants are in abundance, and it's a rare stroll through the gardens that doesn't result in the sighting of a variety of butterfly species. BioWorks rears and displays native butterflies all year long, and visitors can get an up close look in the Flight Encounter experience.

For me, the butterflies are the best part of the volunteer experience. Nearly everything I've learned about butterfly gardening is due to my time at the BioWorks Butterfly Gardens and the amazing woman who runs the show. Kristen has an unbelievable knowledge of native plants, local flora and fauna, and gardening in general, and she's happy to share it with guests and volunteers alike. If you can't make it to MOSI, you can still benefit from Kristen's knowledge by visiting her blog, Lepcurious: Tales From the Butterfly Garden.

If you do live in the Tampa area and have some time available, MOSI BioWorks is always looking for new volunteers. If you don't get enough of getting your hands dirty in your own gardens, Kristen is always looking for garden assistants. Click here to learn more or to contact Kristen to offer your time.

So, that's where I'll be this Earth Day. What about you?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Back Home Again

We spent the last few days on vacation visiting some other wonderful Florida backyards, including that of Thomas Edison in Fort Myers:

It's always satisfying to return to My Florida Backyard, though. Before we even began to unpack, I was out the back door into the gardens, checking to see what had happened while we were gone...

The cleome began to bloom:

The little paw paw continued to grow like crazy:

And the first generation of monarch caterpillars took over the milkweed!

We never travel without checking into native plant nurseries along the way, and this time we discovered three new and great ones. We brought home a variety of new native plants, including wild lime, rosinweed, pennyroyal, yellowtop, aster, wild petunia, and sea lavender. Over the next few days, as we plant our new residents, I'll be posting more information on both the plants and the nurseries where we found them.

Visiting other areas can be a real inspiration for gardeners. Many neighborhoods in the Fort Myers area show a strong commitment to Florida-Friendly and wildlife gardening, and we came home with some new ideas and a lot of enthusiasm for continuing the work we've done so far in My Florida Backyard. Vacation's over - time to get back to work!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

That's Good, That's Bad

For several years, My Florida Backyard has been trying to identify the mystery tree in our front yard. This week, we finally succeeded - by following our nose (it always knows!).

It turns out our tree is a Camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora). While there are plenty of good things about it, there is one major downside - this tree is a Category I invasive tree in the state of Florida. If we were really responsible and dedicated to Florida-Friendly gardening, we'd get rid of it.

But we're not going to.

First, a few facts about the Camphor tree. It's native to East Asia and was brought here to be cultivated for the oil it produces, which has medicinal properties (something you know if you've ever put Campho-Phenique on a mosquito bite or cold sore). Farmers found it wasn't really commercially viable here - the tree only grows half as tall as it does in its native region, and China and Japan had really cornered the market already anyway. The tree gradually shifted to being sold for residential use, and now you'll find some in most neighborhoods throughout the state. It is a deciduous tree, but it does not lose its old leaves until it's already grown new ones, leaving you with a pretty mix of new spring green and older growth dark green leaves for a few weeks, as shown in the picture. At the same time it produces new leaves, it begins to flower, followed by a profusion of black berries later in the year. A very easy way to identify this tree (and one we finally thought to try after several puzzling years) is to crush and smell the leaves - the camphor odor is unmistakable. In the warmer months, it serves as a host plant for the beautiful Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.

So what's all the fuss about? Camphor tree is very invasive in Florida, which means it has escaped controlled cultivation and is known to be pushing out native plant species needed by our native animals. If you're committed to native Florida gardening, you really shouldn't keep it in your yard - the seeds are easily spread by birds to other areas. According to the Center for Aquatic and Invasive plants, in nearby Polk county the camphor tree is pushing out the native Florida jujube (Ziziphus celatus), relegating it to endangered status. As responsible gardeners trying to make our yard as native as possible, we really should remove this tree.

But... Our tree was probably planted when the house was built, about 25 years ago. It's well-established and provides much-needed shade on the west side of the house. To remove it and plant a new tree would leave an ugly gap that would take many years to fill. Plus, though we've never seen a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly in My Florida Backyard, it's quite possible they use the upper branches to lay eggs out of sight of the puny humans.

So, we're going to live with the guilt, and with the camphor tree, at least for now.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Don't Fence Me In

My Florida Backyard occasionally experiences pest problems - specifically pests with two legs and no concept of property line boundaries. I'm speaking of course of some of the neighborhood children, who sometimes like to use the gardens in our yard as their own personal short cuts. While we're definitely not the old, cranky "keep off my lawn" kind of people (we really don't care if kids run on the little bit of grass left in the front yard), we definitely don't like it when careless kids trample our precious plants.

So, we've decided to try a bit of a physical barrier in the part of the yard that receives the most unwelcome traffic. We wanted a fairly low-cost solution, and we didn't want something that would block our own view of the lake, so we went with this resin "snap-together" fencing from Home Depot. It's just  high enough that you can't step over it easily, but unobtrusive enough that we don't notice it much.

It also has the advantage of serving as support for one of our new additions, purchased at the USF Spring Plant Sale this past weekend.

This new resident is a Dutchman's Pipevine, specifically Aristolochia trilobata. We've been wanting some pipevine in My Florida Backyard for quite some time now, as they serve as a host plant for both Pipevine Swallowtails and Polydamas Swallowtails. With any luck, we'll have some caterpillars on this vine this summer.

A. trilobata is a neat vine, with its shiny tri-lobed leaves and crazy interesting flowers (see below) that explain the "pipe" part of the name. It will die back to the ground in a freeze, but recovers well once the weather warms up. We were pleased to find such a healthy, full plant for sale, because it won't take a few caterpillars long to chomp the leaves up pretty well.

We've only had the new fence up a few days, so it's hard to say if this will completely stop the unwanted kid traffic. But if nothing else, it provides a great low trellis for a vine that should add a lot of wildlife value to My Florida Backyard, and that's something we can feel good about.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Babies on our Block

The first official duck babies of spring have arrived - and boy, are there a lot of them!

By our count, this proud mama duck has TWENTY babies! They're at least a few days old, judging by their size, so she's been doing a very good job protecting them from the predators that ravaged last year's baby ducks.

We'll keep you posted on their progress!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Little Fish in a Big Pond

Spring is most certainly here, and the animals in and around My Florida Backyard are making the most of it. While birds are building nests in the trees overhead, fish are doing the same in the pond nearby, and we managed to grab a pretty decent picture of one the other day:

One of the interesting things about fish who build nests to spawn is that it is often the male who does the hard work. He first builds the nest by choosing a good site and then swimming in circles, fanning out the sandy bottom with his tail and fins. When the nest is ready, a female deposits her eggs, which the male then fertilizes. After that, the female takes off, leaving the male to guard the nest until the hatchlings emerge. It's surprising how many instances of male-heavy parenting take place in the natural world!

P.S. We're not entirely sure what kind of fish is pictured above - if you know, please do drop us a line in the comments.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Brand New Life

"I think that no matter how old or infirm I may become, I will always plant a large garden in the spring. Who can resist the feelings of hope and joy that one gets from participating in nature's rebirth?"
~Edward Giobbi

On a day when Christians around the world were celebrating rebirth, My Florida Backyard had plenty of life re-awakening as well. We were especially pleased to find that two of our new additions from last fall survived the chilly winter and are beginning to show signs of life at last.

As part of the Hillsborough County Adopt-A-Pond program, My Florida Backyard received a young bald cypress tree last fall. As all cypress trees do, it lost its needles when winter started, and we've been waiting and hoping to see new growth for the last month or so. Today, the re-birth was easily visible against the brilliant blue sky (above) and water.

The other plant we've been anxiously watching is our dwarf paw paw, which we planted last fall in an attempt to lure zebra swallowtail butterflies to the garden. Long after all the surrounding plants began to show spring green, this little twig in the ground remained brown, though a light scratch into the bark showed green beneath. Today, at last, we noticed new growth at the tips - the paw paw is reborn!

Spring has inspired poets and artists for thousands of years, and it's easy to see why. Every day brings a new surprise, a new triumph over winter, and hearts in tune with the rhythm of earth can do nothing less than rejoice!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Buzz Buzz Buzz

As if the warm temps weren't indication enough that spring has finally arrived, today My Florida Backyard is enjoying the sweet scent of citrus blossoms with every breeze that blows through. We don't have any citrus in our gardens but many of the neighbors do, so every deep breath we take outside is full of the intoxicating scent.

Our front garden is contributing to the party, though, because the holly bush is in flower. Holly saves its showiness for the red berries and shiny leaves, and the tiny little blooms give off only a light fragrance that you have to be very close to notice.

It was when I was poking my nose into the holly to enjoy the smell when I realized that the whole bush seemed to be buzzing. Upon closer inspection, I realized that while the scent might be light to human noses, it was clearly a beacon for the honey bees, for nearly every blossom had an inquisitive fellow poking around for nectar.

At a healthy distance, bees are fascinating creatures that every gardener should have true respect for. After all, bees provide something like one-third of the pollination needed for edible plants, which is why the recent decline in honey bee populations is something to be concerned about. Since 2004, honey bees have been dying off at an alarming rate, possibly due to the widespread use of pesticides intended to control other insects. This is yet another reason My Florida Backyard avoids pesticides, except when spot-treating fire ant mounds.
Gardeners should welcome bees to their yards. Of course, as with nearly all wild creatures, it's best to give bees a wide berth and let them do their thing. As my mom used to say, "If you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone." Unless honeybees have decided to colonize your attic (in which case you should probably seek professional help!), just enjoy the busy buzzing of the bees as they help our gardens grow and thrive!