Sunday, May 30, 2010

Your Smiling Face

Whenever I see ducks in My Florida Backyard, I can't help but notice that they seem to be smiling at me. This always brings to mind the classic scene from A Christmas Story, where The Old Man explains to the kindly Chinese cook that the family is laughing at the beautifully cooked duck laid out in front of them because, "It's smiling at me!" (That scene doesn't end well for the duck.) At any rate, take a look at these duck grins and tell me you don't see it too!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Suburban Beauty

The blooms of May continue, as the American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) bushes on the north side of the house begin to flower.

I wrote about our beautyberry bushes last fall, when I discussed the various shrubs that grow on the north side of our house. It's a good time to point out that the beautyberry bushes are one of the few plants in My Florida Backyard that seemed to love the cold winter this year. They are much fuller and bushier, especially after a hard pruning in late February. Beautyberry bushes can get rather leggy and scraggly looking if you aren't pretty stringent with a pruning in late winter, but ours are doing well and have almost doubled in size and fullness since last fall.

Beautyberry flowers and the subsequent berries grow at the junction where leaves meet stem. The blooms are not particularly fragrant or showy, and don't seem to be be a big nectar draw like some others, but they're very pretty up close.

This native shrub is a real trooper and one of our personal favorites. It's a shame these aren't more widely available outside native plant nurseries; it's extremely difficult to kill and grows in a wide variety of conditions. If you're looking for a low-maintenance shrub with a natural feel, you can't miss with American Beautyberry.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pretty in Pink

We can never really decide which color of flower we love best in My Florida Backyard. The happy yellow of sunflowers and voilas, the cheerful red of honeysuckle and tropical sage, the deep blues of salvia, the soft purples of asters and passionflowers... we love them all. One color we can never pass up, though, is a bright vivid pink, the kind that catches the eye and makes you say, "Oh, what is that? It's so beautiful!"

Hence the addition of two new plants to My Florida Backyard, both recent impulse buys at Lowe's on a sunny afternoon. The first is Skullcap (Scutellaria suffrutescens), a native of southern Texas and Mexico. It's a fairly small plant that is very drought-tolerant once established. It prefers full sun, and is frost-tolerant, so in zone 9 it is evergreen and requires very little care.

Skullcap is a perennial herb, and has a history of medical applications. The tiny tubular flowers appear all summer long and are attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds.

The other new resident is Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri), a must-have for any butterfly gardener. We actually already have some, but the plants are still in the seedling stage and haven't produced any flowers yet. While we wait impatiently for them to bloom, this new addition provides instant gratification.

Gaura is native to the Southeastern US, and comes in many varieties. Some species of gaura have nearly white flowers, and others are the brilliant pink of our new resident. It's a wildflower, and can grow 2-4 feet tall and wide. It loves full sun, but grows well in partial shade too. This was one of the first plants to recover in the MOSI butterfly gardens this winter after the hard freeze, and the flowers are a constant draw for butterflies.

Leigh Hunt said, "Colors are the smiles of nature". My Florida Backyard is full of the cheerful grins of red, orange, and yellow and the sweet smiles of pink, purple and blue. It's impossible to pick a favorite, and we wouldn't even want to try!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Someone to Watch Over Me

It's baby duck season, and the best mothers are those who know how to protect their offspring. They keep them close along the lake banks, find them safe places to sleep at night, and watch over them always.

This mallard mother and her babies stopped by My Florida Backyard this afternoon. We threw out a little cracked corn, as we sometimes do for duck babies, and the mother stood watch while the babies dined.

We see many duck mommies with only one or two babies who survive to this age, but this mother duck clearly knows what her job entails. She has six babies well on their way to maturity, and it won't be long before they're on their own. Well done, Mother Duck!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

At Last

My Florida Backyard is pleased to announce the arrival of its first sulphur caterpillar! After many months of trying to lure these little lovelies to the yard, we've finally succeeded:

I found this small Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar on the Winter Cassia (Cassia bicapsularis). This and Candlestick Cassia (Cassia alata) are the current sulphur hostplants in My Florida Backyard. We are also starting some Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and Sicklepod Cassia (Cassia obtusifolia) from seed to provide even more enticements for sulphurs.

For more on cassia plants to attract sulphurs to your own backyard, see this great post at Tales From the Butterfly Garden: The Cassia Family @ MOSI. Happy Caterpillar Season!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Stop! In the Name of Love!

Although it seems to be a little late this year, the Simpson's Stopper (Myrcianthies fragrans) is finally in bloom! We have three of these native shrubs in My Florida Backyard, and over several years these have proven to be one of our favorites. They are hardy to about 25 degrees, so they made it through the hard winter with only superficial damage to outer leaves. This is a nice shrub for areas ranging from mostly sun to full shade, and we have two that grow well on the north side of the house, where they receive only small amounts of sun. In the fall, they provide nice deep orange berries the birds seem to appreciate.

Apparently we're not the only ones who think the showy little blooms are great - today I found that one of our stoppers was covered in love bugs doing the things that love bugs do (namely, eating and mating).

Floridians are plenty familiar with lovebugs (Plecia nearctica), and depending on where you live, you may even dread the season for the damage it does to your car's front grill. They're interesting little creatures though - very single-minded and successful. They spend their larval stage in grassy areas eating dead vegetation, helping to keep the thatch under control. In May and September, they hatch en masse and immediately get to work.

Adults eat the nectar of blooming plants, and obviously the Simpson's Stopper was quite the draw this year - kind of like a singles bar for bugs. These bugs don't waste time, as their life spans are only a few days. In fact, they find mates almost immediately upon hatching, and stay connected until their deaths. The female will even drag the dead (and still attached) male around until she's ready to lay her eggs. This romantic(?) activity has given them their common name - lovebugs.

Whether you love them or hate them, they are certainly a quintessential Florida sight this time of year!

Monday, May 3, 2010

When the Bloom is on the Sage

The calendar says May, but the hot and humid temperatures say that summer has arrived in Florida. It seems just yesterday we were shivering around the space heaters as we endured the unusually cold winter, but that's definitely behind us now. Due to the surprisingly high amount of rain we got in April, the plants are thriving, including the pink, red, and blue sage we have in the butterfly garden.

Sage is also commonly known by its scientific genus, salvia, and there are many types and colors available. We particularly love tropical or scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea), as it is native to Florida and incredibly easy to grow. Tropical sage tolerates light frost and reseeds itself readily, popping up in random places that you don't remember putting it. Butterflies and hummingbirds love its year-round blooms, and gardeners love the fact that it needs almost no attention to thrive once established.

Despite the many great features, you'll generally have to look to native plant nurseries to find this gem - the red salvia offered at most big box stores is actually Salvia splendens. Salvia splendens is a very nice bedding plant, and will bloom happily until a frost, but it does not draw butterflies like the native tropical sage. We learned this last year when we planted a whole row of it, thinking the red flowers would be a magnet for butterflies. I guarantee you, it was not.

However, you may be able to find Salvia guarantica at big box stores, and it's definitely worth planting in a butterfly garden. I purchased several pots at Lowe's the other day of a cultivar called "Black and Blue Salvia". Though this sage is not native, it does well in Florida gardens and draws butterflies like crazy. It is frost-tender, so will die back in the winter, but easily grows back from the ground. It also reseeds readily, so this is another plant you can buy just one or two of and allow to spread throughout an area.

Another blue sage you may come across is Salvia farinacea. It's native to Mexico and Texas, and grows well in Florida. I recently started some of this from seed, a cultivar called Blue Bedding from Burpee. Starting sage from seed is very economical - and easy! Even those of us who don't have much luck starting plants from seed can buy a packet of sage seeds and do pretty well with it.

One other sage you may have noticed lately without even knowing its name is Lyreleaf Sage (salvia lyrata). This wonderful native wildflower is out in droves right now on the side of the road and in ditches. If you see a tall field of purple when you fly past at 60 miles an hour, there's a good chance you're looking at Lyreleaf. If you're lucky enough to have some growing near you, you can gather seed and sow it in your own garden (don't try this on private property, though!) - like all sages, it grows easily from seed.

There are many more kinds of sage out there; many of them are wonderful in a butterfly garden, and nearly all work well in Florida gardens. Do remember to avoid Salvia splendens if you're looking to attract butterflies - it won't do you much good. The other varieties mentioned above are essential to a Florida butterfly garden, and we love having them in My Florida Backyard!