Thursday, October 27, 2011

Purple and Gold

Northern autumns mean colored leaves blazing the hillsides. Here in Florida, autumn comes in with plenty of color too, and the height of it is just beginning. My Florida Backyard is full of the purples and golds right now that make a Florida autumn special.

The muhly grass (oh, the muhly grass!) is at its peak right now. We write about it every year, because we wait for it and love it just as much every year. What an amazing native grass!

The Winter Cassia (Cassia bicapsularis) is beginning to bloom too. After spending the summer being visited by bright yellow sulphur butterflies to lay eggs, the cassia seems to takes its inspiration from them, putting forth gorgeous gold flowers that will turn the caterpillars a brilliant yellow as the fall progresses.

There are plenty of other fall colors around the yard (Beautyberry and Carolina aster to name a few), but they'll have to wait for another post, because the purple and gold of the muhly and the cassia are all we really seem to need today.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't Be Shy

Here in My Florida Backyard, we're lucky to live on a stormwater drainage pond, part of a huge stormwater management system designed to prevent flooding and filter out contaminants before they can drain into the groundwater. This pond also adds a wetland aspect to our environment, bringing in wading birds, alligators, and water-loving plants we wouldn't have otherwise. We love to check out the shoreline for new sightings, like this cute little wildflower we found the other day.

We pulled out our Wildflowers of Florida Field Guide and found it on the first page of the "yellow flowers" section. It's Shyleaf (Aeschynomene americana), a native plant found in wetlands throughout Florida. It grows about 2 feet by 2 feet, in a rather feathery fashion that reminds us of Partridge Pea.

In fact, both Partridge Pea and Shyleaf are in the Pea Family (Fabaceae), as you can pretty easily tell by looking at the flowers, and by the fact that it spreads by seeds from pods. It prefers moist soil, so it's often found along the edge of lakes and rivers. As you might have guessed from the name, Shyleaf folds up its leaves when touched, and it's a host plant for the Barred Yellow (Eurema daira) butterfly, a fairly small pale yellow butterfly with a green caterpillar.

It's always fun to find a new plant in and around My Florida Backyard, and when it's a native wildflower, that's even better. When you keep your eyes open, you never know what you might find!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Flowers are Red

As we work to rehab the gardens after the long humid days of summer, we've been adding new plants here and there. One of our new additions to the butterfly garden is a small shrub called Peregrina, or Spicy Jatropha (Jatropha integerrima). It has interestingly-shaped shiny green leaves and delicate small red flowers that butterflies love.

Though small now, this shrub has the ability to grow up 10 feet tall. We'll probably keep it trimmed to 3 - 4 feet, encouraging it to grow wider instead of taller. Spicy Jatropha is native to Cuba and Hispaniola, and is sensitive to hard freezes, though it will re-grow even if killed to the ground. We will most likely cover it if any especially cold weather threatens.

This is a popular plant with butterflies, especially zebra longwings. The little flowers are less than an inch across, but very beautiful up close. All parts of this plant are toxic, so don't plant if you have dogs that like to chew on your shrubbery, and be careful when pruning as those with sensitive skin can have reactions to the milky sap.

Though we try to focus on native plants in My Florida Backyard, some carefully chosen non-natives are fine in any garden. This plant doesn't really show any signs of being invasive in Central Florida, so we can plant and enjoy it in good conscience!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Georgia on My Mind

Last spring, we bought a neat little native wildflower from Wilcox Nursery over in Largo. We were intrigued by the yummy minty smell at the time, and the promise of hordes of tiny flowers in the fall. Well, fall has arrived, and the Georgia Calamint (Calamintha georgiana) has delivered the promised buds and blooms, the sheer number of which are hard to appreciate in this photograph.

Up close, the flowers resemble those of Florida Pennyroyal (Piloblepis rigida), another native member of the Mint family (Lamiaceae). The flavor and smell of mint from the foliage has a bit of savory spice to it, which is most likely why its other common name is Georgia Basil. Some write of using this plant as seasoning or for teas.

Our plant is fairly small still, though it's said to grow 2 feet high by 3 feet wide. This species is actually not really found in the wild this far south, though it's common a little further north, including (as you might guess) Georgia. Here in Florida, it's only found in a few counties in the extreme north. It does well here, though, and apparently can be propagated by cuttings if they're kept sufficiently moist.

Though this small plant hasn't put on a whole lot of new growth in the last six months, it seems to have established itself well. It's said to be deciduous, so the small needle-leaves will apparently fall off during the winter. In the meantime, we're in peak flowering season, which will last a couple of weeks. Bees, small butterflies, and tiny nectar-seeking ants seem to be loving it, and so are we.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sneak Peak

Fall colors and new plants are starting to arrive in My Florida Backyard, and we've got a bunch of good posts coming up... .just as soon as we have to time to write them. In the meantime, here's a little sneak peak at a couple of fall favorites who seemed ready for their close-ups. Can you ID them?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

'Tis Autumn

At last, fall weather has arrived. The days are still plenty warm, but the nights are generally cooler, and good breezes have made working outdoors pleasant again. We spent the weekend cleaning up the backyard and putting in a few new plants. We love to hit the markdown rack at the Lowe's garden center, where perfectly good plants that just need some love are often available at a bargain. This week, we found some Mexican Sage that just needed to be cut back and watered well (more on that in another post) along with some wonderful Anise Hyssop plants.

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) isn't a true hyssop but, like the Agastache rupestris we planted last spring, it's a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). The tiny flowers attract bees and butterflies by the dozens, and humans enjoy the licorice scent of the foliage.

Anise Hyssop is native to the northern part of the U.S. and Canada. That makes it perfect for growing in Florida in the cooler months. If we cover it from hard freezes, we should have it right through spring. It likes sunny spots for best flowering, and will need a little supplemental watering during the driest spells. Cutting back the flower stalks after they bloom will help encourage further flowers. Northern growers note that this plant re-seeds prolifically, but I don't expect that to be too much of a problem here, as it is unlikely to survive the hot wet summers.

At the butterfly garden where I work, Anise Hyssop is one of the biggest draws for butterflies. Here in My Florida Backyard, we were especially pleased to get these plants because they were marked down to half-price ($5 each for plants in 2.25 gallon pots) even though they seemed to be in perfect condition. They were a fantastic bargain and are helping to replenish the butterfly garden as we head into the wonderful months ahead.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Big Bird

We welcomed the first cool weekend of the fall with a lot of yard work and a surprise visitor. As we sat on the bench in the backyard planning what we wanted to accomplish, a flash of red in the nearby pine trees caught our eye. A loud hammering sound quickly clued us in to the woodpecker nearby, but we were surprised to find it was a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), which we've never had the pleasure of seeing around the yard before.

Pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers in Florida, and get their name from their red cap of feathers. In Latin, pileatus meant "wearing a felt skullcap" (seems sort of an oddly specific word, when you think about it). Incidentally, in case you've ever had trouble pronouncing the word, the preferred pronunciation is "pie-lee-ate-ed", although "pill-ee-ate-ed" is also fine. In both pronunciations, the accent is on the first syllable.

Male and female Pileated woodpeckers can be differentiated by the head. Males have an extra splash of red below the eye (click here to see). Our visitor was lacking that patch, so she was a female. Both forage for food in the same way, by excavating rectangular holes in the bark of trees to find ants and small insects. They make holes so large that other birds come to feed there as well.

Though we've seen Pileated woodpeckers in other places, having one visit My Florida Backyard was very exciting. Somehow, we feel a little more acquainted with a species once it visits us at home. It was a wonderful way to ring in the first weekend of fall weather, and made the hours of weed-pulling ahead seem that much more pleasant.