Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Seeds of Promise

Whatever the thermometer may say, the shortening days and dates on the calendar tell us fall is here. Plants know it too, and those that peak in the summer months are now putting out seeds to ensure they'll be around next summer. This is a great time to gather seeds you may want to share with friends (and vice versa) or for those plants you want to spread to a new location in the garden. Here are some of the seeds we've been gathering:

Some of our favorite My Florida Backyard native wildflowers have grown and spread prodigiously from seed alone, especially Blanket Flower (Gaillardia). Starting wildflower seeds is a little different (and much easier) than starting seeds of the more cultivated plants. Wildflower seeds can simply be sown where you want them, as long as you do it at the right time of year (December is great in Central Florida) and provide them adequate soil conditions for growth. For great information on sowing wildflower seeds and also a fantastic source to buy seeds you haven't been able to get your hands on, visit the Florida Wildflower Growers Cooperative website.

What wildflowers do you love to grow from seed? Do you have any "secret" seed sources you're willing to share? Come on, spread the wildflower love!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blue Tail Fly

My Florida Backyard teems with the circle of life, and though we love to observe creatures as they go about their daily business, there can be benefits to finding one whose time is done. It provides the ability to safely observe them up close, admiring details you might not see when they're in motion.

The other day, we found this massive dragonfly dangling from an old spiderweb and took the opportunity to get some great pictures.

Dragonflies are one of nature's "beneficial insects", as they dine on pesky mosquitoes and other little bugs. They seem to come in endless colors (hot pink is our favorite) and sizes, and this was one of the biggest we'd ever seen, part of the group we like to call "747 dragonflies". We felt privileged to have a chance to examine it up close.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I'm a-Rolling

The butterfly life cycle consists of four distinct stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult. On any given day, we find examples of all these life stages in My Florida Backyard, and we've experienced each of them up close as well, from the laying of eggs to the emerging of a fully-formed butterfly from chrysalis. In general, the showy adult stage is considered to be the most beautiful, but we would argue that often a chrysalis is just as lovely, if not even more so.

Case in point: the Canna Skipper (also known as the Brazilian Skipper). Last summer, we documented the leaf-rolling behavior of the caterpillars, and now we have some beautiful shots of the chrysalis that results when these little guys finally satisfy their monstrous appetites.

The delicate green hue and dainty black spots are rather unexpected, to say the least. The butterfly itself is a fairly nondescript brown and white. Canna skipper caterpillars are some of the, well, less-beautiful caterpillars, to say the least. They're transparent, so their gut is visible. You can actually watch it move as the caterpillar digests its food. It's not for the squeamish, quite frankly.

The chrysalis makes up for the possible "ick" factor of the caterpillar. Note the brown tube extending from the left side in the above picture - it actually houses the developing proboscis of the butterfly. The whole thing is firmly wrapped in a bed of silk that draws the leaf closed around it. This makes it reasonably safe from predators during this very vulnerable time.

Canna Skippers are understandably regarded as a pest in many gardens. They do serious damage to the leaves of cannas, although they don't seem to affect the flowers. A dedicated wildlife gardener might consider having one patch of canna for display, and another especially for these creatures. You can easily transfer the caterpillars once they appear. Otherwise, watch for the white eggs on the leaves and scrape them off when you see them. This will keep your damage to a minimum while limiting the need for pesticides.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Too Shy

One of our favorite vines in My Florida Backyard is the Passion Vine. It's easy to grow (almost too easy), serves as a larval host plant for several butterflies, and has amazing flowers. Till now, we've grown the native Passiflora incarnata with its stunning purple flowers. We also started some P. incarnata "Alba" from seed this year, which has amazing white flowers, but it has yet to put on any blooms - we're being patient.

We were also fortunate this year to get our hands on some Passiflora suberosa, another native Passion Vine. More commonly known as Corky Stem Passion Vine, it isn't showy and vibrant like its cousins. Instead, the flowers are tiny and delicate, easily missed but so worth the discovery.

Corky Stem Passion Vine tends to grow best in the shade or partial shade. Because of this, it's often preferred by Zebra Longwing butterflies when they lay their eggs. Early fall is generally when Zebra Longwings start to appear in My Florida Backyard, and we hope to see some soon laying eggs on this simple little vine. (Gulf Fritillaries and Julias will also use this vine as a host plant.)

We got our Corky Stem as a cutting from a friend, as you almost never see them in nurseries. It was easy to grow from a cutting - we placed it in water until roots showed, then kept it in most soil while it began to grow. When it seemed strong and healthy, we transplanted it outside. You can also grow this vine from the seeds of the berries - see this site for more info.

All the native Florida Passion Vines have a place in a wildlife garden, although its true that they can become pretty aggressive if allowed to. Generally, however, once they start to grow and Gulf Fritillary butterflies discover them, nature will easily keep the balance. Beware the non-native Passion Vines, though... the red-flowered Passiflora coccinea is from South America and the leaves are toxic to our native caterpillars, even though the butterflies will sometimes lay eggs on them. Stick to the natives, and you'll draw butterflies by the dozen for your reward!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hide and Seek

"...and my mo-ther says that you are It! Close your eyes and count to 10, and I'll go hide."

"OK, I'm ready! Come find me!"

"You're never gonna find me. I'm the master of hiding!"

"Wh-what? You found me? I guess you're better at this game than I thought."

"This is no fun. I don't wanna play anymore. I'm going home."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Wearing of the Green

Lizards of all sizes are very common in My Florida Backyard. With the exception of the very occasional skink, these lizards are all anoles (pronounced ah-no-lee). Generally, as in most of Florida, our yard is overrun by the exotic Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei sagrei), a species accidentally introduced from Cuba and now much more successful than its arguably more beautiful cousin, the native Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis). But today, a Green Anole was showing off in the late morning sun.

Note that his tail is slightly duller than his body - anoles shed their skin in pieces... and then often eat it for the minerals it provides. Actually, there are quite a lot of interesting facts about the Green Anole. For instance, they're not always green. They can turn brown if they need to blend in. They also tend to be green if the temperature is above 70, and brown when it's cooler, so in winter it can be more difficult to tell them from the Brown Anole. Additionally, when two males fight for a female, the winner takes on an even brighter shade of green, while the loser turns brown. (Is brown the color of shame or sadness in the anole world?)

Lizard eggs are a common sight to most Florida gardeners, as you come across them buried a few inches down in sandy soil. If you do find them, it's best to just recover them and let them hatch (it takes about 60 - 90 days). You'll be rewarded by teeny little baby lizards that generally seem to be all eyes and tail in the beginning. This little fellow is a male, because he's lacking a white stripe down the back, but he's probably still young, because he hasn't yet developed a crest on his head and back.

The native Green Anole is cold-tolerant and can be found as far north as Tennessee. The Brown Anole, also called the Cuban Anole, is not cold-tolerant and lives mainly in peninsular Florida. Some said this past harsh winter would take a large toll on the Brown Anole population, giving the Green Anole a chance to make a bit of a comeback, but we haven't seen any numbers or studies yet to support that assertion. At any rate, Green Anoles are still relatively rare in My Florida Backyard, and we always enjoy the chance to see one up close!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor of Love

My Florida Backyard generally celebrates Labor Day with a complete lack of actual labor, but we did get outside for a few minutes today to do the best kind of yard work - planting some new residents we picked up on a quick trip to Wilcox Nursery in Largo the other day. Our original intention was to buy some more Muhly Grass to add to the front yard, but we changed our minds when we found a wonderful selection of Elliot's Lovegrass instead.

Elliott's Love Grass (Eragrostis elliottii) is a Florida native grass. It's incredibly drought-tolerant once established, and very easy to grow in sandy soils. The stems come in a variety of colors, making it a grass worth appreciating up close.

It also produces lots of seeds in late summer and fall, making it a draw for wild birds. It grows to about 2 feet by 2 feet, making it somewhat smaller than the Muhly Grass and White Fountain Grass we already have in the front yard, so the collection of the three works together well.

And that was more than enough work for this Labor Day. We were even content to let nature water in the new plantings with a rainstorm just after dark. Why work harder than you have to, right?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Doing What Comes Naturally

Late summer seems to be skipper season, and My Florida Backyard is full of Long Tailed Skippers. We caught this female laying eggs on some type of legume plant that's growing along the fence.

For more information on Long Tailed Skippers and their caterpillars, see our previous posts: