Friday, October 29, 2010

A Review: Wildflowers of Florida Field Guide

We use a variety of books to identify the residents and visitors in My Florida Backyard. There are lots of guides to choose from out there, so we thought it might be helpful to tell you about some of the ones we like best. This is our first review, so if there's information we left out that you would find helpful in future reviews, please tell us in the comments.

If you're a butterfly fan, you may already be familiar with the work of Jaret C. Daniels, an entomologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Though in the past his books have focused mainly on butterflies, his new guide is a handy little reference to Florida wildflowers that we highly recommend. Its small size makes it perfect for tucking in a backpack on a hike, and the simple format ensures you can quickly find the information you're looking for.

The book begins with a short introduction to wildflowers. It explains strategies for identifying wildflowers, such as understanding leaf type and attachment, flower type and cluster, and fruit. The icons used in this section are then used throughout the book as the various wildflowers are detailed.

The pure genius of the book, like others published by Adventure Publications, is the way in which it is organized: the wildflowers are broken down by flower color, shown in colored tabs along the side of the pages. When you use this book in the field, you can quickly locate the section where you're most likely to find your plant. The large and detailed pictures are all on the left-hand side, with corresponding information on the facing page.

If you're not completely sure you've identified the flower correctly from the picture, the detailed written descriptions of flower and leaf should help you, along with the bloom time, range, and habitat. For each flower, its native/non-native origin is noted as well.

We have just a few minor quibbles with the book. It would be nice to know if non-natives were considered invasive in the state; you don't want to take time to collect seed from a plant that you really don't want to welcome into your yard. It would also have been helpful to have icons indicating each plant's wildlife value (nectar plant, fruit for birds, etc.). However, this is a field guide, meant to be sleek and portable, so the level of detail is understandably limited.

Our biggest complaint is the lack of a scientific name index (perhaps it was eliminated to save space?). We've learned over and over that common names, especially of wildflowers, can be confusing and contradicting. The ability to look up plants by their scientific name would have been well-worth a few extra pages in the guide.

Overall, though, this book is a really useful little guide to a sometimes overwhelming and baffling subject - Florida wildflowers. We've used it multiple times in the few weeks since we bought it (look for an upcoming post identifying some of the wildflowers in our lawn), and consider it to be well-worth the money. We give it: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Orange and Black

Now that the weather up north is cooling off, Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies are returning to My Florida Backyard in droves. In the hottest months of summer, monarchs and many other butterflies aren't seen quite as frequently, as it's just too hot for their cold-blooded bodies. Now that cooler temps have arrived (this week's unseasonal heat wave notwithstanding), the monarchs are haunting the milkweed again.

The migration of monarchs to Mexico each winter is well-known. However, Central and South Florida have a year-round resident population of monarchs, as our weather doesn't generally get cold enough to make migration necessary. You'll find them nearly every month of the year, although they're more common in spring and fall months when the weather is best for flying.

Milkweed is the key to bringing monarchs to your yard. Adults nectar on the flowers, and females lay eggs on the plants so their caterpillars can consume the leaves. There are many varieties of milkweed available for sale, but in Florida you're most likely to find non-native Tropical or Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), as seen in these pictures. You may also find Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), which has bright yellow flowers but tends to wilt a bit during the hottest parts of summer. There are other species of milkweed native to Florida, but you'll rarely find them for sale.

With Halloween just around the corner, it's nice of the monarchs to drop by and bring a little holiday color to My Florida Backyard!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Morning Glow

We're not really morning people in My Florida Backyard - evenings are more our speed. However, some mornings are worth getting up for, and this was one of them. The soft haze and filtered light brought an almost unearthly glow to the blooms of our favorite Florida fall foliage - the Muhly Grass.

If you're a fan of ornamental grasses, Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is one you simply must have. A foolproof Florida native, Muhly Grass is green and full most of the year, drought-tolerant and happy in full sun or part shade. For about six weeks each fall, though, Muhly Grass puts on an amazing display as it goes to seed.

Some would argue that these seed fronds are pink, and in fact this species is commonly called Pink Muhly Grass. However, an up-close look reveals that the true fall color of this plant is purple.

This is a very overlooked Florida native that should be more readily available outside native plant nurseries. You'll find it planted in medians and even parking lot dividers at places like Lowe's, but the big box nurseries are more likely to offer fountain grass species (Pennisetum) instead, some of which are beginning to appear on the invasive plant lists.

Muhly Grass is wonderful for wildlife. Planted in groupings, it creates shelter for small creatures including butterflies, who like to hang from grasses in a rainstorm or at night for protection. Songbirds love the seeds produced in the fall, and may even pluck dead stems to use in building their nests.

Muhly Grass gives us reason after reason to fall in love with it season after season. Every year, we await the "purpling of the Muhly Grass" with delight, knowing that in My Florida Backyard, it represents the very best Florida has to offer in the fall.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Deep Purple

According to The Foliage Network, fall color up north is reaching its peak in many places. The "leafers" are no doubt out in full force, admiring one of nature's most spectacular shows. It's always around this time of year that some relative from up north asks if we don't miss the changing of the seasons down here in Florida. And once again, we explain that seasons do indeed change here, although in perhaps a more subtle way. As our days grow shorter and the rainy season ends, our plants and trees offer changes of their own, some of which of just as showy as the changing leaves up north.

When we think of fall color in Florida, we think of purple. One of the first to show this regal hue is the American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), a really terrific Florida native. In the spring, this shrub has delicate pink flowers, which yield clusters of brilliant purple berries in the late summer and fall.

This is a popular bush with native plant gardeners, because it's very easy to grow and nearly any native plant nursery carries it. Ours grow happily on the north side of the house and require little attention from us. We prune them pretty heavily in late winter to encourage bushier growth - when you leave them to grow naturally they get quite leggy, which can be a great look in a wilder landscape.

A few interesting Beautyberry facts:
Beautyberry is just the first of the purple fall foliage in Florida. Tune in next time when we feature our personal favorite, just now reaching peak purplitude*. Any guesses what it might be?

*OK, not a real word, but you get the idea, right?

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Scorpion King

Back in the spring, we picked up a Scorpion's Tail (Heliotropium angiospermum) during a trip to All Native Garden Center in Fort Myers. This little plant has turned out to be one of the great successes of the butterfly garden this summer, growing to about 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide and flowering non-stop.

Scorpion's Tail is wonderfully drought-tolerant once established, and seems to tolerate all kinds of soil and light conditions. Ours is in the butterfly garden, which has eastern exposure, and it has flourished. It's a prolific self-seeder, so we expect to have lots of little Scorpion's Tails to spread around My Florida Backyard in years to come.

Scorpion's Tail has tiny little blooms that are perfect for tiny little butterflies, like the Dainty Sulphur and Ceraunus Blue. Up close the flowers are delicate and lovely, with creamy yellow centers.

An interesting note - in looking up this plant online, we found there are actually several plants that seem to be called by the common name "Scorpion's Tail". One is also a member of the Heliotrope genus, and has the scientific name Heliotropium amplexicaule. Another is usually called "Prickly Scorpion's Tail", is found in the Northeast U.S. It has the scientific name Scorpiurus muricatus, and belongs to completely different family (Fabacae). It just goes to show that taking the time to learn scientific names can be very beneficial to gardeners, especially those looking for native or unusual species.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Paper Chase

Seeing one creature attack and devour another is never easy, no matter the size. Whether it's an egret gobbling up a lizard, or a  hawk snatching duckling from under its mother's beak, the circle of life is disturbing... and fascinating.

Today's featured predator is the paper wasp. Wasps are a beneficial insect in the garden, keeping other insects in control, especially flies and caterpillars. This is all well and good, unless of course you happen to like caterpillars, in which case it can be a little demoralizing to watch wasps picking them off one by one.

The paper wasp below was finishing up a monarch caterpillar feast when we found him. He'd made a bit of a mess, and was surrounded by partially digested milkweed from the caterpillar's gut.

You can easily see that this was once a monarch caterpillar - the yellow and black stripes are still present, along with the long black tubercules from its head.

Though this seems to be a gruesome sight, there's a softer side to the story. Adult wasps get their own sustenance from nectar. When they feed on caterpillars, what they're really doing is storing up food to take back to the nest, where they'll regurgitate the partially-digested caterpillar to feed the wasp larvae.

So, the wasps won this battle. However, on milkweed nearby, we spotted at least 5 other nearly full-grown monarch caterpillars, and dozens of eggs. The wasps are just filling their part in the circle, keeping caterpillar and butterfly populations in check. Nature is a delicate balance, and My Florida Backyard is glad to be part of the scales.

Note: While wasps can be aggressive, this one was too busy chowing down to be concerned with our camera. Still, you should always take precautions around wasps of any kind; you never know when they might turn on you.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Drink With Me

With the coming of October, suddenly fall's beautiful weather has arrived in Florida. Floridians are beginning to open doors and windows closed since May, step outside and stretch their legs, wander through their yards and gardens... and realize the weeds have taken over. No doubt many will spend this weekend outside, taming the wilderness once again and finding the gardens they love once more.

In honor of this first great weekend of Florida fall, My Florida Backyard offers an easy project for when you need to take a break from weeding and other chores. Sit down for a few minutes, pull all those Spanish Needle seeds off your clothes, and make plans to build a Butterfly Puddling Area in your garden.

What's Puddling?
 Most  butterflies feed only on nectar, which is essentially like drinking sugar water all day long. To boost fertility, male butterflies require other nutrients, like salts and minerals, that nectar can't provide. These nutrients can be found dissolved in water, but landing on or close to a lake or stream is pretty risky for these little creatures. Instead, butterflies will land on a patch of muddy or sandy ground and drinking the water there in relative comfort and safety. In Florida, sulphur butterflies are especially common puddlers, and will even occasionally land on humans to sip their sweat on a hot and humid day. (We speak from experience!)

Belly Up to the Butterfly Bar
Building a simple puddling area in your own yard is a great way to encourage butterflies to visit. This project can be as simple or detailed as you desire; here's what to do.

  • Choose a Location: Ideally, you want to locate your puddling area near butterfly plants in your garden already. If you have a spot in your yard that stays a little wetter, you may want to locate it here. Place it somewhere convenient for observation as well; ours is located in the butterfly garden off the back porch.
  • Choose a Container: Florida soil is generally very sandy, and doesn't retain moisture at the surface for long. It's best to use a shallow container of some sort to contain the puddling area. We've used both a terra cottta saucer set directly on the ground as well as a low, shallow birdbath. Anything you have on hand will do, if you're not picky about looks - we've seen butterflies puddling in the water left in an upside-down Frisbee!
  • Provide Landing Spots: Fill your container with dirt or sand. If you use dirt, avoid potting soils with fertilizers or other additives - butterflies can be pretty sensitive to chemicals. It's best to just dig up some plain old Florida dirt. You may also choose to place some flat rocks in the container, although it's not necessary unless the water is too deep.
  • Keep Moist: Without rainfall, your puddling area will likely dry out in the sun each day. Fill with water (we prefer to use rain water from our rain barrel when possible) until the surface is wet. 

  • Be Patient: It might take awhile for butterflies to discover your little oasis, but they should come around eventually.
And there you go... an easy, no-sweat project for the beautiful weekend ahead. Go on, take a while to pamper the local wildlife - the weeds will still be there when you're through!

*Special Note: We did not take the above picture of puddling butterflies. We found it on the web, and we're not sure who took it or where it was taken. Sure is cool, though!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Flowers are Red

We love salvia in My Florida Backyard, and the butterflies love it too. Back in June, we bought a lovely little Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) plant at the Butterfly and Native Plants sale at USF, drawn by the sweet smell of the crushed leaves (hence the name) and the promise of bright blooms to come. It's grown like crazy all summer long, and now that the shorter days are here, it's finally started to flower.

Pineapple Sage is what's known as a "short day plant", meaning it doesn't begin to flower until it receives a certain amount of uninterrupted darkness (that amount differs by plant and region). Now that the nights are longer than the days, Pineapple Sage has begun to put on its showy red blooms, reputed to be very attractive to both butterflies and hummingbirds. It's native to the highlands of Mexico, where a study found it to be one of three plants most visited by hummingbirds.

It will continue to flower throughout the fall and winter, unless a hard freeze kills it to the ground, in which case it should grow back from the roots. Pineapple Sage is very easy to propagate from tip cuttings  - in fact, several branches of ours grew along the ground and developed their own root systems, and we were able to divide them and plant them on their own very successfully. Like many plants, it flowers best with regular watering, but tends to be pretty drought-tolerant once established.

Autumn brings lots of great things to My Florida Backyard, and the blooming of Pineapple Sage is just one of them. Over the next few weeks, look for more posts highlighting the plants and animals that tell us fall has arrived. In the meantime, we're wondering - what says "Fall in Florida" to you? Tell us in the comments!

Monday, October 4, 2010

I Don't Wanna Fight

It's no secret that we garden for wildlife in My Florida Backyard. Every living thing (with the notable exception of fire ants) is welcome, and we generally don't worry about holes in leaves that show something has been finding the sustenance it needs in our garden.

However, we recently decided to try growing some vegetables for human consumption, starting with peppers and zucchini. Things were going well, until we realized the leaves of the zucchini were being skeletonized with a vengeance:

Within a few days, our once healthy plants were nearly eaten to the ground. A little searching and we were able to follow the frass right to the culprits:

We're not sure exactly what kind of creature this caterpillar will turn into; most likely some kind of moth. There were more than a dozen doing very serious damage, and we need to figure out how to control them if we want to have any success with our zucchini at all. Considering we've spent the last few years trying to lure all kinds of caterpillars to the garden, the irony of the current situation is not lost on us.

And here's where the challenge of being an organic and wildlife-friendly gardener comes into play. We could probably use some kind of pesticide like Seven on this plant alone without really affecting the other plants nearby, but there's always the danger of run-off, plus we don't really like the idea of putting poison onto foods we want to eat someday. Insecticidal soap is generally our go-to in these situations, but the caterpillars are leaf-rollers, so a general overall spraying of the plant isn't effective.

We're left with just one solution - diligence. We'll need to check the plants every day or two for these caterpillars, and pick them off when we find them. It's not the easiest way to garden, but it's the only way we really feel comfortable with in My Florida Backyard.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Right Here, Right Now

The first glorious days of fall have arrived in My Florida Backyard. The morning and evening temperatures have begun dropping into the low 70s and upper 60s, and sitting outside is once again a pleasure. This evening is a delightful one to be spending on the back porch, and we thought we'd try to share a little of it with you.

The picture really doesn't express the peacefulness of the scene, or the amount of nature and wildlife that's present. Every few minutes, a splash on the lake indicates a duck or two coming in for a landing. Two tri-colored herons are fishing along the shore, and occasionally the hoarse cry of one informs the other one that he's getting a little too close for comfort. A mother Muscovy duck herded ten ducklings down the lake a few minutes ago, and overhead a flock of ibis flew south, no doubt headed for their rookery for the night.

The breeze is soft and cool at last, and the air smells fresh. The sky is cloudless, slowly deepening from cream to the color of ashes-of-rose, and the sound of cicadas in the distance has just begun. Moths are beginning to nectar on the white pentas and lantana in the garden, which seem to take on a glow along with the sky. Soon the evening star will appear, and the great blue heron standing still as a statue on the far end of the lake will take to the sky, off to bed along with the sun.

There's nothing particularly exciting, nothing new, nothing unexpected. It's just the peace of one of the first cool evenings after a long hot summer, and the promise of many more evenings like this one to come. Every moment is different, and every moment is the same. Right here, right now, there is no other place we'd rather be than My Florida Backyard.

P.S. The cat agrees.