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.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Blue's Clues

Continuing our exploration of the weeds in My Florida Backyard's little scrap of lawn, we discovered two lovely little blue flowers. One of these we were able to find in our Wildflowers of Florida Field Guide, but the other is another mystery that we're hoping our readers might be able to help out with.

Here's the one we know: Commelina diffusa, also known as Climbing Dayflower or Creeping Dayflower. As you might guess, the blooms on this non-native wildflower bloom for only one day. It grows along the ground, rooting at the stem nodes and often forming mats, causing it to be difficult to uproot once it's started. In its native Asia, it's grown as an herb and used as a diuretic and fever-reducer. Here in the U.S., it's generally just considered a weed in cultivated lawns, but since our lawn is really just the few scraps of grass we haven't turned into gardens (yet), we don't mind this little invader, whose blooms are delicate and lovely up-close.

Our other little blue bloom is somewhat similar, but we can't find it in our book or online. Any thoughts on this new mystery wildflower in My Florida Backyard?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is That Your Final Answer?

A few weeks ago, we posted a picture of a mystery wildflower from My Florida Backyard:

Since then, we've come up with two possible answers. One was suggested by a reader (Thanks, Marti B!), while the other comes from our own research. Both seem valid possibilities, so we thought we'd post them both and let you weigh in.

Contestant #1 is Lespedeza striata, known as Common Lespedeza or Japanese Clover. This non-native was brought to the U.S. as a food crop for foraging animals like cattle, but quickly established itself as an invasive weed of lawns and gardens. The picture to the right is from the Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide, and it's this picture that makes us a little uncertain about identifying our mystery plant as L. striata - the pattern on the leaves just doesn't look quite right. However, other pictures we've found show very similar-looking flowers, and the size and other characteristics seem right. Click here for more pictures of Contestant #1 from
Contestant #2 is Desmodium triflorum, generally known as Creeping Tick Trefoil. This one is also a non-native, and the picture on the left (from Wikipedia Commons) caught our eye because the flowers seem almost identical to our mystery wildflower, and the leaves also seem like a closer match. Another common Desmodium species in Florida is D. tortuosum (Florida Beggarweed), which serves as a host plant for several kinds of skipper butterflies. We can't find any information to indicate whether D. triflorum can also serve as a host plant..

So, distinguished judges, there are the two contestants. Take a look for yourself, and if you have an opinion, let us know in the comments. And be sure to tune in later this week, when we'll present another mystery plant from My Florida Backyard's very weedy lawn!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Teenage Dream

Muscovy ducks are a common sight in My Florida Backyard. This summer's last crop of ducklings has now grown into "teenage" ducks - they're in that awkward in-between stage where they have some adult feathers mixed in with their baby down, and they seem a little long and lanky.

Muscovy ducks are native to Central and South America and were introduced purposely to Florida in the late 1960s as an ornamental species. They thrive here in great numbers, becoming a nuisance species in many communities where their prodigious droppings cause messes on land and degrade water quality.

Part of the problem with muscovy ducks is due to the fact that humans often feed them, especially those with ducklings. This is certainly the case in and around My Florida Backyard, where our neighbors frequently throw them bread. (Side note: throwing bread to birds is a lot like feeding kids starchy snacks all day - it's unhealthy. If you have to feed the ducks, try cracked corn to more closely simulate their diet in the wild.)

A major ecological impact of concern about muscovy ducks is that they interbreed with native species, including the Florida Mottled Duck (Anas fulvigula fulvigula), diluting the gene pool. This is frequently the case when native and introduced species mix.

Regardless, muscovy ducks are most likely here to stay in Florida. Their unusual appearance certainly does add interest to the landscape, and their ducklings are downright adorable. They can be annoying (like when they perch on our birdfeeder and clean out all the seed in a matter of minutes), but they're a regular part of My Florida Backyard, so we accept what we cannot change and and enjoy them for what they are.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Can't Help Myself

As butterfly gardeners, we're always watching to see which nectar plants make the biggest hit in My Florida Backyard. It's been our experience that milkweed (Asclepias curassavica and A. tuberosa) is one of the biggest draws - the tall blooms have been visited by every type of butterfly we see in the yard, not to mention the larval value for monarch and queen caterpillars. The second biggest draw? Lantana, in all its forms and colors. And unfortunately, that's a bit of a problem.

The lantana most commonly sold at nurseries (Lantana camara) is not only non-native, it's considered invasive in Florida. It's listed as a Category I invasive exotic species by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, meaning it's known to be "invading and disrupting native plant communities in Florida". This species is native to the American tropics (and no, Florida is not in the tropics), but has actually managed to spread nearly world-wide due to its popularity in the nursery trade. It's nearly impossible to eradicate in climates with minimal frost impacts - it thrives on fire and benefits from being cut back to the roots.

(Wondering why you should care about invasive plants in Florida? Click here to learn more.)

Another species of lantana also commonly sold in nurseries is known as Trailing Lantana (Lantana montevidensis). We have it in purple, white, and yellow (often sold as "New Gold" in nurseries) in My Florida Backyard. It's not listed on the invasive species list at this point, and it's still very popular with butterflies, so it might be considered a better ecological choice in a Florida-Friendly butterfly garden.

Florida's native lantana is Lantana depressa, often called Pineland Lantana. We have a couple of plants in My Florida Backyard that we've been told are L. depressa, but the more we read about "The Lantana Mess", the more we wonder if it really is. Apparently, introduced lantana species have hybridized so extensively with the native species that some scientists theorize you can't really find pure L. depressa these days. The species shown below, which we were sold as L. depressa, is most likely actually a L. camara hybrid called 'Cream Carpet'. Bummer, because it sure is pretty.

So, what's a butterfly gardener in Florida to do? Assuming you don't want to omit lantana species from your garden altogether (and we just don't, even if we should), you can take a few steps.
  • Familiarize yourself with lantana species by reviewing the guide found in the very informative article The Lantana Mess, by Roger L. Hammer. Knowledge is power!
  • It doesn't hurt to ask nursery staff if they happen to know if the lantana they offer is sterile. Many of the cultivars are so hybridized that they no longer produce viable seeds, and can be planted safely in a controlled environment. The "New Gold" lantana is considered by many to be just such a species, making it a better choice in Florida gardens. 
  • The trailing lantana species (L. montevidensis) are not on the invasive species list, so look for low-growing plants with white or purple flowers and leaves that smell fairly unpleasant when crushed.
  • If you already have L. camara plants in your garden, help control the spread of this invasive species by removing the berries before they can be carried off by birds and small mammals.  Dispose of these seeds in your regular trash, as opposed to what you put out for yard waste collection - yard waste is often recycled and used as mulch, so putting the berries into this collection will only spread them further. (Bear in mind that the berries are very toxic when unripe, and should be kept away from children and pets.)
We try hard to avoid doing damage to Florida's fragile ecosystem in Florida, but we have to admit we can't imagine our butterfly garden without lantana. So, we compromise by following the tips above to keep our lantana in check while also keeping our butterflies happy!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

There Grew a Little Flower

"What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wildflowers of Florida Field Guide (Field Guides (Adventure Publications))We don't have a lot of lawn in My Florida Backyard - it provides little wildlife value and requires too much maintenance. The little bits of lawn we do have are speckled with what others might call weeds and try to eradicate, but we call wildflowers and treasure for their beauty.

We recently reviewed a new book by Jaret C. Daniels called the Wildflowers of Florida Field Guide. When flipping through it, we saw many of the wildflowers that grow in our lawn at different times of year, and decided to see how it could help us identify the ones growing there now.

On pages 172-173, we found the Florida Tasselflower (Emilia fosbergii), a non-native that has naturalized throughout the American south. This showy little flower is great for bees and butterflies, and incredibly beautiful up close.

Another find was Creeping Wood Sorrel (Oxalis corniculata) on pages 304-305. This little yellow-flowered native is often confused with clover due to the shape of its leaves, which fold up in the mid-day sun. It's worth noting that during the recent drought, the patches of lawn colonized by Creeping Wood Sorrel remained an attractive green when the nearby turf grass turned brown and dry.

Tropical Mexican Clover (Richardia brasiliensis) was on pages 238-239, and is another non-native that's naturalized throughout Florida. Despite the name, it's not actually part of the clover genus (Trefoil), and isn't from Mexico - it's from South America. Regardless, the little starry white flowers are delicate and deserve some up-close admiration. It's shown in the picture below with an unidentified purple flower we'll discuss later.

We already knew the scientific name of the native plant on pages 284-285: Bidens alba. We've learned to call it Spanish Needle, although Daniels refers to it as "Romerillo". We have a real love/hate relationship with Bidens. It makes a wonderful nectar plant for butterflies, but the barbed seeds are really unpleasant to deal with. We generally allow them to thrive in a few areas of the yard where we don't need to walk too frequently.

One of the most wonderfully named plants is on pages 228-229: Arrasa Con Todo (Gomphrena serrata). Loosely translated from Spanish, it means "destroys everything", which seems a little hyperbolic. This non-native definitely invades lawns in Florida, though, and is generally considered a nuisance.

Of course, no field guide can ever provide all the answers. One of the prettiest little flowers in our lawn doesn't seem to be in the book. In the wide world of nature, we've learned that sometimes you just have to ask for help, so... do you recognize this tiny little flower? Let us know in the comments if you do.

So, the Wildflowers of Florida Field Guide was 5 for 6 in My Florida Backyard today. We consider this a pretty good track record, and look forward to taking it on the road with us to help us identify (and perhaps collect seeds from) wildflowers in the field. In the meantime, we're glad to have it as we put names to the little flowers that we refuse to call weeds.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

You Hit the Spot

Recently, My Florida Backyard has been visited by a moth that seems to be a little out of its range: a Spotted Oleander Moth (Empyreuma affinis). Like all Lepidoptera, they don't really like to hold still for pictures, but we managed to snap a few to help us with identification.

The Spotted Oleander Moth is part of a group known commonly as Wasp Moths (taxonomic subtribe Euchromiina). Although they resemble wasps in shape, they do not sting or bite - though most predators probably don't realize that. They are diurnal, meaning they fly during the day, unlike many other moths which are nocturnal.

The Spotted Oleander Moth is native to the Caribbean region. It's only been found in Florida for the last 30 years or so, and is seen primarily in the Keys and South Florida. We could find only one other reported sighting in Central Florida, and it was as recent as last month. Perhaps this species is starting to populate further north?

As its name suggests, the caterpillar of this species feeds on Oleander (Nerium oleander), a non-native flowering shrub frequently used in landscaping across the state. We don't grow any oleander in My Florida Backyard, but there's plenty of it in the neighborhood, and the relatively frequent sightings of this insect lately lead us to believe there is a breeding population locally.

A similar and more prevalent species in Central Florida is the Common Oleander Moth, also known as the Polka-Dot Wasp Moth (Syntomeida epilais), whose caterpillar is often considered a pest on oleander due to its habit of defoliating the plant very quickly and efficiently. The Spotted Oleander Moth is considered less destructive, probably because it is less common.

If you've noticed the Spotted Oleander Moth in your Central Florida yard, let us know in the comments. We're interested in finding out how prevalent this species is becoming in the area.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Glory Hallelujah! After the driest October in recorded history (we haven't seen a raindrop in six weeks), My Florida Backyard finally got some rain today! Here are some shots of our residents and visitors enjoying the little fall of rain...

Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar (Agraulis vanillae):

Today's rain was just some gentle soaking showers off and on, but there's more rain in the forecast over the next few days. The residents, visitors, and caretakers of My Florida Backyard can't wait!