Sunday, June 27, 2010

When Giants Walked

When we added Rue to our garden last week, it was with the knowledge that it was a great host plant for several of Florida's largest butterflies, the Black Swallowtail and the Giant Swallowtail. We've raised Black Swallowtail caterpillars in My Florida Backyard before, but we haven't had host plants for Giant Swallowtails before this year. In the spring, we planted a Wild Lime tree, but it's very small and one or two Giant ST caterpillars would defoliate it in a few days. So adding Rue gives us a faster-growing host plant that will allow us to support these interesting caterpillars.

Giant Swallowtail caterpillars are masters of defense. They use a variety of measures to protect themselves from predators, including living on very hostile host plants. The thorns on citrus plants are natural protection, and rue contains oils that can cause irritation. Of course, in our opinion, their best defense is their appearance. Looking like a shiny pile of bird poo makes you awfully unappetizing, don't you think?

If that doesn't work (and I'm not sure why it wouldn't), Giant Swallowtail caterpillars also have an osmeterium, a set of little fleshy horns that they project when feeling threatened. The osmeterium contains a foul-smelling substance that basically says, "Not only do I look disgusting, I smell disgusting, too." It's easy to tell when you've irritated a Giant Swallowtail caterpillar by the stench that fills the air.

When they're ready to pupate into chrysalis, the caterpillars "assume the position" by spinning their silken pads and suspending themselves with a thin thread across the middle. This fellow decided to do so on our garage door, so we had to move him before we could open the door without squishing him. (Kind of a waste of all those defensive caterpillar moves, huh?) The chrysalis looks similar to the caterpillar in coloring, but also has the dry look of a dead leaf, allowing them to continue to blend in well when they are most vulnerable.

From ugly caterpillar to one of the most beautiful of butterflies, Giant Swallowtails add so much pleasure to My Florida Backyard. We're thrilled to have discovered rue, the host plant that helps us support their entire life cycle!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Amazing (Herb of) Grace

We all love great bargains, and My Florida Backyard is no exception. Recently, we got a great "gift with purchase" - plants that came with caterpillars already on board!

We've been on the lookout for some nice Rue (Ruta graveolens) for the butterfly garden. In addition to being an attractive plant with an interesting medical history, Rue is a great host plant, attracting both Giant Swallowtails and Black Swallowtails. Want some proof? Our rue plants came with a few caterpillars of each kind - free!

If you look closely at the picture above, there are two Giant Swallowtail caterpillars (the ones that look charmingly like bird poo) and two Black Swallowtail caterpillars. The second Black ST is very tiny, and shows the variation of this caterpillar in its earlier instars. (For more on Black ST caterpillars, see Cats in the Cradle and Time Changes Things. Look for more details on Giant Swallowtail caterpillars in a future post.)

Rue is also commonly known as Herb-of-Grace, and was originally found in Europe and Northern Africa. It has long been cultivated around the world, and is extremely well-suited for the Florida garden. It loves hot dry conditions and sandy soil - we've got plenty of both! As a culinary herb, rue has pretty much fallen out of favor - it has a strong bitter taste that most people don't care for, although some Mediterranean cuisines still use it. Like most herbs, it also plays an important part in folk medicine.

The really wonderful thing about Rue is that it is fairly fast-growing, and easy to start from seed. This allows the casual butterfly gardener to provide a host plant for Giant Swallowtails without the need to wait for a citrus tree to grow large enough to sustain a population. Although we're still pleased about the Wild Lime we planted earlier this year, it will take a while for it to grow substantially. Rue provides more instant gratification.

One caution - when combined with sun exposure, the oil from the Rue plant can cause skin blistering in some individuals (including, apparently, yours truly), so be careful when handling until you know how your skin reacts.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Back on My Feet Again

Six months after the Freeze of 2010, we declare the hibiscus fully recovered as it finally blooms again!

"The wonderful thing about nature is its resiliance."
-Mike McDaniel

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Shop Around

As promised, here's the post about the plants we bought last weekend at the USF Butterfly, Herb, and Native Plant Sale. We really enjoyed this sale, because the plant vendors there were focused on exactly the types of plants we want for My Florida Backyard. It's also not nearly as crowded as the Fall and Spring sales, although it was very hot.

We seemed to do well with sages at this sale, as they are both an herb and a great butterfly attractor. We picked up a beautiful Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) and 3 Mexican Sages (Salvia leucantha) for just $1 each. Though neither are native, they're certainly Florida-Friendly and draw butterflies like crazy. At the same vendor, we bought a rather ambiguously labeled "Meadow Sage", shown below. This plant did not have a scientific name listed, but we couldn't resist the delicate purple blooms (plus, it was also only $1!). If anyone knows specifically what this plant might be, please do let us know.

At another vendor, we were drawn to this Verbena bonariensis by the Giant Swallowtail stopping to take a sip. You can't go wrong when you let the butterflies lead you to new plants for the butterfly garden! This plant, sometimes called Tall Verbena or Purpletop Verbena, is not native, but has naturalized here in Florida. It's a drought-tolerant perennial that re-seeds readily, so we look forward to having more of these in years to come.

That same vendor also had some wonderful Cat's Whiskers (Orthosiphon stamineus), which we've been told are very attractive to hummingbirds. This plant is native to Asia, and may die back in a frost. We decided to take the risk, as hummingbirds are rare visitors to My Florida Backyard and we'd really like to draw them in. This plant seems to need quite a lot of water, which is something we generally try to avoid, but we're going to give it a try and see how it goes.

As for Florida natives, the only one we picked up at this sale was a Dotted Horsemint (Monarda punctata). This native bee balm is another great butterfly attractor when in bloom. It has been very droopy in the hot afternoons since we planted it, but it's supposed to be fairly drought-tolerant once established. We'll post some pictures of the neat flowers once they start to appear.

All in all, it was a pretty successful trip. The USF Botanical Gardens themselves are lovely to visit in all seasons, so if you're in the Tampa area, you may want to check them out.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Just a Little Sunshine

The Yellowtop (Flaveria linearis) is finally beginning to bloom! This is one of the plants we bought back in April at All Native Garden Center in Fort Myers, and we're so pleased to finally see the flowers. They're not showy, but we were told that butterflies love it, so we look forward to seeing if this is true.

Speaking of buying plants, we went to the USF Butterfly, Herb, and Native Plant Sale last weekend and picked up a few new residents for My Florida Backyard... look for a post on them soon!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Who Am I?

We're pretty familiar with our butterfly caterpillars in My Florida Backyard. We know what plants to expect them on, and what the more common ones look like. If we come across one about which we're unsure, we can always look it up in our favorite caterpillar ID book: Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants. This book not only has great pictures of caterpillars, but it lists host plants and the butterfly caterpillars who use them.

Moth caterpillars, on the other hand, pose more of a problem. Many moths host on a variety of plants, so it can be difficult to narrow down based on the plant where you find them. There are a huge variety of moths, and most are only active at night, so it's rare to actually see them ovipositing, which is another easy way to ID them. So, these caterpillars are a mystery to us right now:

We discovered these caterpillars eating some pink Swamp Milkweed (Aesclepias incarnata 'Cinderella') we've been trying to start from seed. We've been picking off all the monarch cats and transferring them to tropical milkweed (Aesclepias curassavica) to give the incarnata a chance to get started. That's when we found these fellows.

A little while later, we found some eating some bean leaves too. What the heck kind of caterpillar eats beans and milkweed? We have no idea, but one of the easiest ways to find out can be to raise them in captivity and see what they turn into. So that's what we're doing. We've brought a few in and are raising them in a rearing tank, to see what might happen. They're really interesting little creatures. They feel soft and almost velvety and in bright light, you can see a red and white stripe down the side of their reddish-brown bodies.

So, if you happen to know what these little guys are, please let us know. Otherwise, we'll just keep feeding them and see where their life cycle takes them!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Be Our Guest

A hard-core butterfly gardener looks at plants in a different way than other gardeners. For instance, when we dropped a dozen bean seeds into the ground a few weeks ago, the crop we were hoping for wasn't green beans... it was caterpillars. Among others, long-tailed skippers use beans as a host plant, and we're proud to announce our first crop has arrived.

Last season we found some of these fellows on some hairy-pod cowpea growing wild near our yard, but cowpea can be tricky to start from seed, so we went with standard green beans in My Florida Backyard to provide a host plant for this species.

Long-tailed skippers are leaf-rollers. Very small caterpillars eat in from the edge of the leaf to cut a section to roll around themselves. They do this by spinning a bit of silk that shrinks when it dries, curling the leaf in. When they're bigger, they simply use the same method to roll up the entire leaf around them. This gives them a safe place from which to eat while protected from predators. Pretty clever, huh?

Of course, this clever behavior causes farmers and most gardeners to view this caterpillar as a pest. Understandable, if your goal is a crop of yummy green beans. But in My Florida Backyard, a crop of caterpillars makes us perfectly happy!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A View to a Kill

My Florida Backyard is host to all the activities of nature. We see mating and fighting, work and play, birth and death, on a regular basis. Death is part of the circle, from wasps carrying off caterpillars, to hawks picking off ducklings one by one. A lover of nature must accept death as natural and essential, even when it's difficult to watch.

The clamor of crows is common in our backyard. They like to gather in the pine trees nearby, seemingly in the hundreds, and they're never silent when they do. Still, the noise this afternoon seemed louder than normal, and when went to the back window to watch, crows were circling and swooping in a way we hadn't seen before. Finally, we saw the red-shouldered hawk standing in the yard, being dive-bombed by the crows one by one.

It wasn't until the hawk flew off that we realized what was causing the commotion - his flight was hindered by the freshly-killed crow he was carrying in his talons. In fact, if you look closely at the picture above, you can see the crow in the grass beneath his tail. The other crows continued to dive at him as he flew, their desperate cries for their fallen brother louder than any we'd ever heard.

The hawk was forced to drop the crow before he made it very far - it was really too heavy for him to fly with. He perched in a nearby tree for awhile, assessing the situation, but eventually flew off, leaving the dead crow behind, where it will undoubtedly be found by vultures before long.

Even when it isn't pretty, the behavior of wild creatures is fascinating. We're constantly reminded of the huge amount of life present here in our little corner of suburbia, and we're grateful for the chance to see wildlife in action on a regular basis in My Florida Backyard.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Lo, How a Rose is Growing

Back in March, My Florida Backyard planted its first rose, a pink double Knock Out. We'd been hesitant to plant roses, especially in Florida, because they generally require a great deal of care, and one of our basic rules is to avoid plants that might require excessive pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizer. We were assured, though, that Knockout roses are easy to grow, and it turns out that was certainly true.

Here's the rose when planted in early March:

And here it is now:

By comparing it to the bricks on the wall behind it, you can easily see how much it's grown. By our measurements, it's now about 2.5 feet tall; it was about a foot tall when we planted it. And the growing season is just getting started! Other than some rose fertilizer spikes and the occasional dead-heading, we've done nothing to it, and it looks great. We can certainly add Knock Out roses to our list of Florida-Friendly plants!

The bush to the right of the rose is a Silver Buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus), a really wonderful Florida native with beautiful silver foliage. Our two buttonwoods are planted on the west side of the house where they get a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily. This native is salt-tolerant, so you often see it along beaches and in coastline landscaping.

Buttonwood, unfortunately, doesn't like frost. It's generally considered hardy to Zone 9b. Being close to the house, ours have never shown any damage before, but we all know this past winter was very harsh. One of our buttonwoods took very serious damage and is only just now recovering. Several branches had to be cut off to the ground, but new growth is beginning to show and we expect the bush to rebound. The other took damage to the leaves, but the wood itself seemed to be spared. It has now put out new and beautiful foliage and is doing well.

So, like most everything in a Florida summer, our rose and buttonwoods are growing like crazy. We love to watch life thrive in the summertime in My Florida Backyard!