Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Flying Dutchman

When Calico Dutchman's Pipevine (Aristolochia littoralis) flowers, you really can't miss it. The blooms are the size of dinner plates, and up close the smell is fairly unpleasant. Still, the blooms are fascinating in color and shape.

Honestly, we probably shouldn't have this vine in our yard. A. littoralis is invasive in Florida (it's currently on the FLEPPC Category II list). We keep it around for the Polydamas Swallowtail caterpillars to feed on. However, because it's from South America, it's actually toxic to the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars who also can accidentally lay on it.

Fortunately, it's easy to tell the eggs of the two species apart, so by watching the vines carefully for eggs, we can remove the red ones of the Pipevine ST to the native A. tomentosa that we also grow. (Polydamas eggs are yellow.) If you're not willing to take the time to do this, it's probably best for butterfly gardeners to eliminate A. littoralis from the yard to avoid harming our native butterflies.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Down to Earth

A few years ago, the National Wildlife Federation published a great article called “How Green is Your Garden?“, encouraging gardeners to consider the carbon footprint of their gardens. (Did you know a garden could even have a negative effect on the environment?) She offered six tips for reducing your garden’s carbon footprint, and I was inspired to spend some time examining those tips and deciding if they were too difficult for an average gardener to implement.

Below, you’ll find the six tips along with a brief summary of my thoughts on implementing these tips in an average garden. For a detailed look at each tip, click the links to read my original posts from 2009. Happy Earth Day!


Tip #1:
Reduce the size of your lawn. Better yet, consider eliminating it entirely.

There's definitely an initial investment of time in changing your water-hungry lawn to a greener garden. However, down the line, your payoff is very rewarding indeed! Our lawn maintenance is almost zero during the winter months, and during the summer months, it takes only 10 - 15 minutes a week. Take the time to do some up-front work, and reap the benefits in the long run.

Tip #2:
Use hand tools instead of power equipment.

Although tools like a classic reel mower may take a little more exercise and cause some Beaver Cleaver remarks from neighbors, today’s models are easy to maintain and operate. If you’ve reduced the size of your lawn as suggested in tip #1, then this tip becomes pretty easy to implement. Plus, hand tools like rakes are a heckuva lot cheaper than leaf blowers.

Tip #3:
Choose materials with low-embodied energy.

The most difficult part of this tip is probably the research involved. Just remember to consider the total amount of energy involved in manufacturing the materials and transporting them to your yard. Choose materials like wood or crushed shell over concrete bricks or solid cement. Ask questions to find out where and how materials are made, and choose locally when possible.

Tips #4 and 5:
Emphasize woody plants that capture more carbon than fleshy herbaceous species. Plant trees and shrubs where they will block winter winds and provide shade in summer.

The key here is to remember that “woody plants” doesn’t have to mean trees. In a small lot, you may not want to plant many more tall trees than you already have. However, you can choose shrubs or woody plants that provide the same benefits. Plan your plantings to help your house conserve energy, sit back, and enjoy! (Don't forget - you can get 10 free trees with an Arbor Day Foundation membership!)

Tip #6:
Minimize, or better yet eliminate, the use of fertilizers and pesticides on your property.

Most Florida-Friendly plants will need minimal fertilization to thrive in our sandy soil, but when fertilizers are necessary, choose natural over synthetic. Depending on where you live, these may not be available locally, involving a little more work combing the internet. As for pesticides – many of the bugs in your garden are beneficial. Fire Ants? Don’t get me started on Fire Ants. Try a natural killer and spot treat only when you find them rather than putting down a broadcast killer on a regular basis.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Down in Brazil

It's no secret that we have a bit of a salvia obsession in My Florida Backyard. Butterflies just love it, and so do we. I've become a collector, in fact, unable to pass up a new salvia when I see it. A few weeks ago, at the USF Botanical Garden Spring Plant Sale, I picked up a new one I'd never seen before: Salvia vanhouttei.

This salvia is native to Brazil, and is actually a variety of Salvia splendens, which I'm not normally fond of because it has no nectar value. However, this variety seems to be a little less "tamed" than nursery stock, and reviews on the web note that it's attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.  The color is just beautiful, so it seemed to be worth a try.

Like many kinds of salvia, it's recommended for full sun, but since zone 9 is the high end of its range, it's more likely to benefit from some afternoon shade. So far it's thriving along with the pineapple sage, salvia farinacea, and meadow sage that are in the same bed. It's a little slice of butterfly heaven, right in My Florida Backyard.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Prettty Visitors

Spring is rapidly heating up into summer here in My Florida Backyard, with afternoon highs reaching 85 and higher most days. It's ideal butterfly weather, and today we saw a couple of our favorite springtime visitors.

Buckeyes (Junonia coenia) are some of the first butterflies to appear in the spring in Florida, and we've been seeing them regularly in the gardens since mid-February this year. Before too much longer, they'll start to head north for the summer, as our Florida temperatures get to be a little to much for them by June.

Another common spring visitor is the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). They're about the same size as the Buckeye, and lately they seem to be everywhere! Red Admirals are one of those butterflies that have the ability to land and pretty much disappear from sight, as their underwings are colored perfectly to blend in with their surroundings.

We've been enjoying these perfect spring afternoons in My Florida Backyard, knowing that before long the sultry heat of summer will keep us indoors a little more. It's wonderful to share the gardens with butterflies enjoying the spring sunshine as well!

Thursday, April 14, 2011


The African Iris is beginning to flower close to our front walkway, and they keep slowing me down as I try to head to or from the car - I just have to stop and admire the lovely blooms!

African Iris (Dietes iridioides) is - as you might imagine - native to Africa, where's its generally known as Fortnight Lily, though it really is part of the Iris family (Iridaceae). It blooms starting in spring and periodically throughout the summer, generally with about two weeks (a fortnight) between flushes of blooms. Unlike other irises, flowers appear and reappear on the same stem throughout the season, so don't cut them back after blooming.

In some areas, like Southern California, African Iris is sometime said to be invasive due to is rhizomatus nature and tendency to spread. Here in Florida, that's generally considered an advantage, as the plant can be divided every few years. In fact, that's where we got ours - from a friend who was dividing some. In soil, it seems to grow to best advantage in dappled shade. In water, it can withstand more sun and will grow taller.

The exotic blooms only last a day or two, but come back regularly all summer long, while the green foliage adds nice texture to the landscape. We're always looking for new, interesting, and low-maintenance blooms for the front yard, and African Iris fits the bill well for us.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dens of Yarrow

We were pleased in recent weeks to note the return of our red yarrow, which we first planted last year. Yarrow is a spring plant, putting on new growth and flowering from April through June in Florida. After that, it tends to die back, but if left alone should return the following spring to draw butterflies to its nectar-laden blooms.

Yarrow is a plant with a long history, as its very descriptive botanical name implies - Achillea millefolium. Yarrow has long been noted for its ability to staunch the flow of blood, and Homer tells us that Achilles carried it onto the battle grounds at Troy to treat wounded soldiers. The Chinese consider it to be lucky; the Saxons wore it in amulets for protection, and medieval witches were said to use it in incantations.

My personal favorite legend about yarrow is the belief that you could determine your lover's devotion by poking a yarrow leaf up your nose and saying, "Yarroway, yarroway, bear a white blow: if my love loves me, my nose will bleed now". Since yarrow is known to irritate the nasal passages, it would often cause the person's nose to bleed. (Personally, I'll stick with daisies and "she loves me, she loves me not...")

Yarrow's medicinal properties have been well-documented, but that's not why we grow it in My Florida Backyard. We love it for its ability to draw butterflies, and to thrive in very poor soil. In fact, yarrow needs well-drained but otherwise poor soil to thrive - otherwise it's susceptible to mildew and root rot. While the white-flowered version is well-known, there are many colors available, including reds, pinks, and yellows. they love full sun and tolerate drought very well. It can be divided very few years as it spreads.

There's something really fascinating about growing a plant with a history dating back thousands of years. Once carried onto noisy battlefields, yarrow now blooms peacefully in my garden while butterflies drop by to drink the sweet nectar. Times have changed, but Achillea millefolium blooms on in My Florida Backyard.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Turtle Power

Recent rains have raised the level of our lake dramatically - in fact, after the eight inches of rain we got in just three days a few weeks ago, the water was well up over the banks and we were considering building an ark. The animals of My Florida Backyard didn't really seem to mind, though, especially the ducks and the turtles. In fact, the turtles have been taking advantage of the high water level to climb out on the banks for some sun.

The turtle on the left is a Florida Softshell Turtle (Apalone ferox), whose carapace (or shell) is almost leathery in texture - very tough but flexible. Softshell turtles are pretty large, topping out around 30 inches, and have very long necks. They are amazingly fast on both water and land. They're shy around humans, so if one is up on the bank when you approach, you're likely to see it shoot back into the water at an almost alarming speed. Florida softshell turtles are carnivorous, with a diet made up of fish, frogs, and even ducklings. Over the last few springs, we've had a female soft shell turtle emerge onto land in our backyard to lay eggs - click here for details and video.

The other turtle is a Red-Bellied Cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni), another very common Florida freshwater turtle. This turtle is an herbivore, helping to keep lakes clean of algae and other plant matter. This turtle spends much of its time on land or on logs, basking in the sun. We frequently see them swimming along in the lake with just their heads poking out - so fun to watch.

Living on a lake gives us such a wide diversity of like to appreciate in My Florida Backyard, and turtles like these are great examples of those treasures.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bird and Squirrel

My most recent post over at the Birds & Blooms Blog has been very popular. We've been discussing how to keep unwanted squirrels away from bird feeders, and it seems everyone has an idea. Won't you click here to drop by the post and offer some suggestions of your own?

While you're there, take a look at some of my other recent posts, including information on native species like Baltimore Orioles and Monarch butterflies, and weekend projects like installing a rain barrel and creating a "living wall" with air plants. There's a lot available there - I hope you'll come by and check it out!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Heaven Scent

Ask people to name the flowers of spring, and you'll inevitably hear daffodils, tulips, lilacs, and so on. Florida's spring brings different blooms, and in My Florida Backyard, the bloom that means spring is Confederate Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides). We have a whole wall of it growing along the north side of the porch, and for the few weeks it's in flower, the scent dominates the neighborhood.

We planted our Confederate Jasmine three years ago when we added the latticework to the porch. We needed a drought-tolerant vine that would grow in mostly shade, as this side of the house faces north. We also preferred a vine that would be evergreen, so it would look good in the cooler months of winter as well. Confederate Jasmine fit the bill perfectly.

Confederate Jasmine is not a true jasmine, and despite the name, is not native to the U.S. - it's actually from Southeast Asia. It gets the name "Confederate" from the fact that it grows best in the part of the country that was once the Confederacy. In other parts of the world, it's more commonly known as Star Jasmine.

Whatever the name, the scent is just as sweet, and we love having this bloom signal the true start of spring in My Florida Backyard!