Butterfly Sage: bees love it, too!

Hmm...Let's see whether there's any nectar in this here Cordia globosa flower.

Birds love it.

Bees love it.

Maybe even educated fleas love it.

But butterflies probably love it the most.

What is it? Why, butterfly sage, of course. I’ve written before about the merits of this plant variously known as butterfly sage, blood berry, bonbon rond, guérit-tout, gout tea, Curaçao bush, and more. All these names, and many more, according to Dan Austin, refer to this Florida-native shrub with the shaggy leaves, white flower heads, and red fruits, Cordia globosa.

Mockingbirds are so partial to the abundant red berries and its densely branching habit that pairs will stake them out as nesting places and defend them against all comers. (The berries aren’t particularly ornamental, though, because they’re so small.)

Cordia globosa. Boca Raton, FL, September 6, 2015.

Cordia globosa. Boca Raton, FL, September 6, 2015.

Honeybees are on the flowers from dawn till dusk.

And even though it’s not a larval host plant for any butterfly that I know of, it’s one of the best butterfly nectar plants around, particularly for the smaller butterflies like the Fiery Skipper and the smaller blues and hairstreaks. In my yard, the following species have been seen on it (hit the links to recent photos for some species; the other species listed are ones for which I’m confident that I had photos before the hard-drive crash of Thanksgiving 2014):

  • Atala Blue (Eumaeus atala)
  • Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa)
  • Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (S. martialis)
  • Cassius Blue (Leptotes cassius)
  • Ceraunus Blue (Hemiargus ceraunus)
  • Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius)
  • Fiery Skipper (Hylephila philaeus)
  • Monk Skipper (Asbolis capucinus)
  • Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
  • Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia)
  • Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
  • Queen (Danaus gallipus)
  • Great Southern White (Ascia monuste)

In addition to the ones listed above, I’m fairly certain that several other butterflies who frequent the yard also enjoy it, to wit:

  • Little Yellow (Pyrisitia lisa)
  • Barred Yellow (Eurema daira)
  • Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole)
  • Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)

Heck, even dragonflies love it:

Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Boca Raton, FL, March 19, 2015.

Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Boca Raton, FL, March 19, 2015.

One of the reasons it’s such a good butterfly (and bird) plant is that the leaves and branches are stiff enough to support the weight of larger butterflies, but its flower clusters (inflorescences, to be technical) are shallow enough to allow short-tongued species to reach in:

Cassius Blue butterfly with a face full of Cordia globosa flower. Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

Cassius Blue butterfly with a face full of Cordia globosa flower. Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

In fact, the flowers are so small and so inviting that they also attract the tiny halictid bees in the genus Lasioglossum chalcid wasps in the family Chalcidae, which seem to enjoy crawling around inside small flowers like Richardia, Lantana, and Cordia. Of course, when butterfly meets wasp, there’s sometimes a bit of a standoff.

And that’s what I found just the other day in the photo sequence below. In this first shot, the butterfly (a Cassius Blue) has just landed on the flower head and hasn’t yet probed it. The wasp appears to be playing a game of hide and seek, or perhaps peekaboo:

Hmm...Let's see whether there's any nectar in this here Cordia globes flower.

Butterfly: Hmm… Let’s see whether there’s any nectar in this here flower. Wasp: Hmm… Let’s see whether I can scare the nectar out of that butterfly!

Yup. But I'm not sure I want it now!

Butterfly: Better unfurl that proboscis and find out! Wasp: Better not!

Better unfurl that proboscis and find out!

Butterfly: Yipe! You can keep your nectar! There’s plenty of other flowers on this bush! Wasp: You’re darn tootin’!

The first shot was taken about two seconds before the second and third ones, which were taken at “the same time” according to my camera’s info. If you look closely at the sequence of photos, you can see the butterfly backing away between the second and third shot after almost getting a proboscis full of wasp! I didn’t get close enough to verify through the lens, but I’m pretty sure the wasp has a self-satisfied smirk on its face.

And, in case you were wondering about the Cole Porter reference that started this post, here’s a picture of a pair of Cassius Blues enjoying the convenience of the butterfly sage plant in one of the most fundamental of ways:

Cassius Blue pair enjoying the butterfly sage. Boca Raton, FL, August 30, 2015.

Cassius Blue pair enjoying the butterfly sage. Boca Raton, FL, August 30, 2015.


Austin, D. 2006. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis.

Osorio, R. 2001. A Gardener’s Guide to Florida’s Native Plants. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

My baby blolly, after four years: boy or girl?

Blolly (Guapira discolor) in fruit. Boca Raton, FL, August 21, 2015

Four and a half years ago we moved into a new house. This involved a lot of new things: first, and most importantly, of course, a new baby boy. Happy, shiny day. Also, relatively easy to determine the sex (baby humans have dangly bits).

Baby plants, though, don’t have such obvious markers of sex. For example, right around the time we were moving into our lovely new home with our lovely new baby boy, I was planting a lovely new garden. And I put in a lovely little tree called a Blolly (Guapira discolor).

As with most plants, though, unless you’re lucky enough to catch it in fruit or in flower, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a male, female, or both. (Plants that are both male and female are called dioecious; plants that are one or the other are monoecious. Flowers that are both male and female—that is, they bear both male stamens and female pistils—are called “perfect.”)

And when plants are young, they’re not likely to bear either fruit or flower, particularly the slow-growing trees like the blolly.

Like humans, the blolly tree is dioecious, which means it has separate male and female plants. (Unlike humans, though, it’s usually the female plant that carries the dangly bits.)

Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find a good picture of either male or female flowers of this plant, so I’ve never known whether my little tree was a boy or a girl. And it’s important to know, because when you have dioecious plants, if you want to ensure that they bear fruit, you need to have both male and female in relatively close proximity so pollination can occur. (Anyone who’s read this blog knows that I have a whole host of busy pollinators to make that happen.)

Trouble is, blolly flowers are so darn small that even when I see them, I can’t see whether they have stamens or pistils. (And I’m such a hands-off naturalist that I don’t even try to dissect them myself; perhaps something to consider?) So it would be really helpful to have a picture or a description of male and female flowers, so I could know which blolly to plant next: male, or female?

The paucity of flower pictures has a reason. My two native plant guides that discuss this tree (Huegel 2010 and Osorio 2001) give a clue as to why pictures of the flowers are hard to find. They each say something to the effect that “the small greenish flowers are inconspicuous” (Osorio) but that the flowers are followed several months later by “clusters of 1/3-inch bright red fruit. . . that rarely last long as they are eaten quickly by birds” (Huegel).

Here are the only flowers I’ve seen on this plant, captured back in April of this year; I’d have to agree that they are indeed “inconspicuous”:

Blolly (Guapira discolor) in bloom. April 13. 2015. Boca Raton, FL.

Blolly (Guapira discolor) in bloom. April 13. 2015. Boca Raton, FL.

From that photo, can anyone tell me whether they’re male or female?

Knowing what I know now, I can: they’re female. How do I know? Well, here’s what they turned into:

Blolly (<em>Guapira discolor</em>) in fruit. Boca Raton, FL, August 21, 2015

Blolly (Guapira discolor) in fruit. Boca Raton, FL, August 21, 2015

Showy red fruits indeed! And those dangly red bits would seem to indicate that I have a female blolly.

Here’s a picture of a seed:

Blolly (<em>Guapira discolor</em>)  seed. August 27, 2015.

Blolly (Guapira discolor) seed. August 27, 2015.

However, here’s the hard part—I still don’t know whether my blolly is male or female! Why not?

Because the blolly, I’m told by my nursery lady, can actually change from being dioecious to monoecious when its counterpart isn’t available. Intriguing, no?

Given that bit of information, I just had to find out more.

I have to warn you: If you’re looking around on the web and trying to find out more about how plants change sex, good luck. There’s a lot of noise and not much signal. All of my search engine results are cluttered with people asking how to change their marijuana plants from male to female. I did find this summary of an article in Oecologia from 1980 that seemed like it might at least present evidence that such changes are not uncommon, although it doesn’t sound like it goes into specifics on how the change occurs.

So I emailed Rufino Osorio, the man who seems to know everything about Florida native plants, and here is what he told me:

If a label must be placed on your plant, here are two such labels that you can use:

If your plant is female, and it produced a few male flowers that pollinated a few female flowers leading to fruit production, then your plant is subgynoecious (having female flowers with a few male or perfect flowers).

If your plant is male, and it produced a few female flowers that got pollinated by the male flowers, then your plant is subandroecious (having male flowers with a few female or perfect flowers).

Note that these labels do not apply to blolly as a species. They apply only to your plant. As a species, blolly is dioecious. And blolly, as a species, does not stop being dioecious simply because a few individuals might occasionally deviate from strict dioecy. It’s just like people—human beings, as a species, are not described as albino simply because an occasional human being is born with the complete absence of melanin.

In order to test the “basic” sexuality of my plant, I’ll have to wait until I see more flowers, find out whether they’re mostly male, mostly female, or all male or all female, and proceed from there.

Yay, homework!


Huegel, C. 2010. Native Plant Landscaping for Florida Wildlife. Gainesville: U of Florida P.


Osorio, R. 2001. A Gardener’s Guide to Florida Native Plants. Gainesville: U of Florida P.

Senna and sulphurs

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.

This spring I overhauled the front part of the front yard, getting rid of some scraggly dune sunflower and replacing it with some more long-lived plants. (Not that dune sunflower is bad or short-lived, but I have it in many other areas of the yard as well, and it needs frequent cutting back to keep it looking nice.)

I put in some of the usual suspects with lovely little flowers: beach creeper (Ernodia littoralis), blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), and a few actual wildflowers (a wild petunia, among others). I also put in three (count ’em, three!) little plants on which I pinned some rather high hopes: Bahama senna (Senna mexicana var. chapmanii).

Chapman's or Bahama Senna (Senna mexicana). Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015

Chapman’s or Bahama Senna (Senna mexicana). Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

These are also called dwarf senna, so I suppose I shouldn’t count on them to grow very large, but the pictures I’ve seen of them in my plant guides show some tremendously flowering plants, with big yellow flowers dominating the scene. That one lonely bloom in the picture above was supposed to be just the first of many. Hasn’t worked out that way; once the blooms that were on the plants when I brought them home from the nursery were gone, there were no more. Rufino Osorio’s guide mentions that they flower most profusely in autumn and spring, so perhaps a long period of summer dormancy isn’t anything to worry about.

But they also never seemed to grow. Whenever I went out to look at them, I saw snapped-off new growth, as if the plants were just too brittle for our breezy locale. I checked for insect damage but could never find a culprit, even though I know that several lovely yellow butterflies use these as their larval host plants (which was one of the reasons I’d brought them into the garden, after all.)

Recently, however, as I was out pulling weeds after several months of heat-induced procrastination, I noticed what I’d probably just been overlooking for the past few months: a big, bright green and yellow caterpillar munching contentedly on the leaves, practically denuding the branches it was on:

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.

The bright blue outlines around the black spots, combined with the yellow racing stripe on a green body are distinguishing characteristics of the lovely Cloudless Sulphur butterfly, an insect whose devotion to its larval host plant is reflected in its taxonomic name: Phoebis sennae.

This caterpillar, despite its bright colors, just blends right into the leaves and stems of the host plant. It’s the same kind of camouflage enjoyed by some parakeets. Take a look at them out of their natural setting (on a telephone wire, for example) and you’d wonder just how in the heck they could ever conceal their bright green colors. Why haven’t they all been eaten by predators? But then you watch an entire flock of them just completely disappear into the green-leaved canopy of a large tree and it hits you: their camouflage is just perfect for where they evolved.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself after months of apparent obliviousness to these quite large caterpillars trimming my bushes so effectively.

Here’s what this lovely young rascal will eventually turn into:

Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Here’s another shot of a different larva, from the top (I just love the symmetry of the spots and the “wings” of the senna leaves):

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana. Top view.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana

And a different adult:

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, August 12, 2015

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, August 12, 2015.

We have lots of butterflies here in south Florida. And if we plant pretty little plants that they enjoy, we can enjoy even more of them!

Tabebuias flower more than once

Tabebuia aurea flowering for a second time this year. June 28, 2015. Boca Raton, FL.

After over four years in our “new” house I’m still learning things. This morning I noticed that our Tabebuia tree out front is flowering for a second time this year. It had a reasonably good flowering season back in April, and here it is at the end of June:

Tabebuia aurea flowering for a second time this year. June 28, 2015. Boca Raton, FL.

Tabebuia aurea flowering for a second time this year. June 28, 2015. Boca Raton, FL.

I hadn’t seen that before. Who knew?

Diverse lawns in south Florida

Cheesy-toes (Stylosantha hamata) providing a nectar meal for a Dainty Sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, May 7, 2015.

Earlier this spring I started reading yet another book on gardening in south Florida. This one, by James Kushlan, with photos by Kirsten Hines, is called Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens. It came out last fall from the University Press of Florida. I didn’t order it at first, because I already have tons of books on gardening in Florida: gardening with native plants, butterfly gardening, gardening for wildlife, gardening with groundcovers, hardcover, softcover—you name it, I’ve got a book on it.

But, as often happens, a month or two ago I ran into a spell where I didn’t have much to read, so I ordered it and went straight through it when it arrived. And I’m glad I did, because it reminded me of a couple of concepts that I’d lost sight of during my recent replanting: the value of a diverse lawn, and the importance of keeping some areas of the yard free of mulch (about which, more in a later post). On the diverse lawn:

Lawns are desirable in almost any garden to provide unobstructed vistas, separation of planting areas, dramatic transitions, paths and walks, and open places for backyard activities. Showing a tidy bit of lawn out front, adjacent to the neighbor’s tightly manicured lawn, might ensure neighborhood or municipal peace. Lawns are important for birds, too, but what birds do not need are fields of monocultural sod grass. Of all the ways bird gardening differs from other gardening, the diverse lawn may be the hardest to get used to given that so much time, energy, and money are customarily spent tending a typical South Florida sod lawn, and heavy pressure from neighbors and the community is usually at play as well.

What birds do need are small patches of diverse lawn. Diverse lawns are composed of many species of short plants, encouraged by infrequent mowing at high wheel settings. These lawns provide a diversity of insects, fruits, and seeds at staggered times.

A diverse lawn is crucial for wildlife gardeners, because pollinators depend on some kind of flowering plant being in bloom every day of the year. With a normal lawn, a sod monoculture that’s always mowed so that it never flowers (St. Augustine grass has lovely flowers), and that’s weeded to make sure no diverse flowering plants can get established, the homeowner is dependent on flower beds and any shrubs or trees to carry the entire burden of providing nectar and pollen. Or, as more frequently happens, such yards remain biological deserts—pleasing to the eye, perhaps, of those who are used to our imported craze for lawns that look like they’re tended by flocks of sheep, but utterly devoid of anything that might attract a butterfly or a bee:

The typical beginnings of a barren monoculture.

The typical beginnings of a barren monoculture.

The bird gardener, though, wants to attract these insects, because they are what attract birds to the yard. A truly diverse lawn in south Florida will have, without the gardener even lifting a finger, the following “weedy” insect-attracting plants (and these are just in my yard; the “selection” varies from place to place):

Spanish Needles (Bidens alba), nectar source for almost any butterfly and larval host plant for Dainty Sulphurs:

Strymon istapa (Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak), Boca Raton, FL, March 28, 2013.

Strymon istapa (Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak), Boca Raton, FL, March 28, 2013.

Trefoils (Desmodium spp.), larval host plant for Gray Hairstreak, Dorantes and Long-tailed Skipper butterflies:

Trefoil (Desmodium sp.). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Trefoil (Desmodium sp.). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Wireweed (Sida acuta), a nectar source for many insects and the larval host plant for Gray Hairstreak, Columella Hairstreak, and Tropical Checkered Skipper butterflies:

Wireweed (Sida acuta). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Wireweed (Sida acuta). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.


Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum), nectar plant for many butterflies and larval host plant for Great Southern White, European Cabbage White, and Checkered White butterflies:

Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum providing nectar for a Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum) providing nectar for a Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa). Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Cheesy-toes (Stylosanthes hamata):

Cheesy-toes (Stylosantha hamata) providing a nectar meal for a Dainty Sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, May 7, 2015.

Cheesy-toes (Stylosantha hamata) providing a nectar meal for a Dainty Sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, May 7, 2015.

Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa), a beautiful low-growing mat-forming weed with pink flowers:

Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Dayflowers (Commelina spp.), a winding, climbing, grasslike plant related to the spiderworts:

Dayflower (Commelina sp.). Boca Raton, FL, May 12, 2015.

Dayflower (Commelina sp.). Boca Raton, FL, May 12, 2015.

The sticky-seeded “tarvine,” Boerhavia diffusa, also known as Red Spiderling for its flowers and its sprawling, long-legged growth habit:

A common weed in Florida lawns and gardens, Boerhavia diffusa. Boca Raton, FL, May 20, 2015.

A common weed in Florida lawns and gardens, Boerhavia diffusa. Boca Raton, FL, May 20, 2015.

And all of this without even trying!

A trip to the native plant nursery or a meeting of the local FNPS chapter can net the bird/wildlife gardener more flowers, like Powderpuff Mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa):

Or Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea):

Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea) providing a nectar meal for our state butterfly, Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia</em). June 28, 2012.

Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea) providing a nectar meal for our state butterfly, Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia). June 28, 2012.

All of these plants (except maybe the last) can be mowed at the homeowner’s convenience, to keep the diverse lawn, while functioning like a weedpatch, from looking like one. As Kushlan reminds us, “A diverse lawn need not look like a knee high, unkempt vacant lot. It needs to be mowed regularly to keep it as a lawn, but at a high mower setting.”

In fact, if you leave an unmowed patch, even the typical St. Augustine grass sod will send up beautiful flowers:

St. Augustinegrass flower

St. Augustinegrass (Stenotaphrum secundatum). Boca Raton, FL, May 22, 2013

Why not give it a try?


Kushlan, J. and K. Hines. 2014. Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens. Gainesville: UP of Florida.

Sweat Bees, or, spring is happening…

Sweat bee, Agapostemon splendens, Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

…and the bees are buzzing with excitement. I was out in the yard at lunchtime, as usual, and I noticed more than the usual activity around the flowerbeds in front. There were these little yellow blurs zipping from flower to flower in the Gaillardia1. These are among the prettiest flowers in south Florida, although I must be honest, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When I brought my native plant book to my son’s preschool to show to the director, one of the native Floridians who had been there for decades burst out “that’s a weed!” To which my response was “what better type of flower to plant in an area with lots of preschoolers than a weedy, hardy, one?” It didn’t carry the day, though, and there are no beautiful Indian Blanketflower plantings at the preschool. Oh, well. Sure is ugly, right?


Where was I? Oh, right. Out in the front yard, trying to figure out what these little yellow blips were. There were at least two, but I was never able to focus on them long enough for a picture. They would zip crazily along their patrol beat, skipping from flower to flower, alighting ever so briefly to find it empty and move on before I could so much as twitch my shutter finger. I wound up turning in circles trying to draw a bead on one of them but had to give it up after a few futile attempts.

Soon, though, I noticed a much calmer, green-colored blip that resolved into a bee digging for pollen all across these little plants. You can see how successful she’s been by how puffy and yellow her legs are:

Sweat bee, Agapostemon splendens, Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

Sweat bee, Agapostemon splendens, Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

She was working hard, keeping her head down and doing her best to ignore that little yellow blip buzzing around, but after a while it became impossible: as soon as one of the blips noticed her, it plunged down at her and appeared to be trying to carry her off! Earlier I had been trying to figure out whether these yellow guys were some sort of robber fly or hunting wasp, but this interaction narrowed down the possibilities enormously: it must have been either territorial aggression or an attempt to get down to business.

A minute or two later when one of the yellow blips finally settled on one of the flowers, perhaps to rest and reconnoiter a little bit, I was able to suss it out to my satisfaction. I zoomed in with my lens (not literally, of course, since it’s a fixed focal length macro, but…) to reveal this:

Sweat bee, Agaspostemon splendens male (note the lack of pollen-carrying hairs on the legs). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

Sweat bee, Agaspostemon splendens male (note the lack of pollen-carrying hairs on the legs). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

The attacker was none other than a male A. splendens looking to, ahem, get busy. I wasn’t able to get pictures of any of the attacks, but this node over at bugguide.net should give you an idea of the general nature of the proceedings, should you care to follow the link. Kudos to photographer Tim Lethbridge for that work!

I’m surprised, in retrospect, by how yellow the blips of the male bees on their patrol flights appeared; their thorax looks green in the pictures. I think, though, that it must give off a bit of a gold highlight which, combined with the yellow and black stripes on the abdomen as opposed to the green and black of the female, is probably responsible for the great difference in GISS.

According to Eric Grissell (2010: 220), sweat bees are “the most behaviorally complex of all the so-called solitary bees, ranging from solitary to communal, semisocial, and primitively eusocial.” Grissell provides some good information for the amateur taxonomist as well: the term “sweat bee” is a bit of a simplification, since this family includes entire groups of bees that aren’t all that interested in alighting on our arms and trying to drink up our sweat. (Although to be fair, many bees in the genus Lasioglossum reportedly do exhibit this behavior, although I’ve not witnessed it personally.) He calls the bees in the genera Augochlorella, Augochlora, and Agapostemon ” ‘little green bees’ because they have no common name and they are little and green.”

I also have to give props to the Xerces Society for the accuracy of their description of the genus: “a fast-moving metallic green blur over summer flowers is probably an Agapostemon.”

These bees are generally solitary nesters in bare soil, so it’s important to remember to leave some bare patches here and there if you want to encourage them.


Grissell, E. (2010). Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in the Garden. Portland: Timber Press.

Mader, E., Shephard, M., Vaughan, M., Black, S., and LeBuhn, G. (2011). The Xerces Society Guide to Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies. North Adams, MA: Storey.

New backyard plant: Willow Bustic

On the first day of spring 2015 (that was March 20 for those of you who still aren’t keeping track of the seasons and astronomical events) I planted a new tree in the side yard out front: a Willow Bustic, Sideroxylon salicifolium. (Although take that taxonomic name with a grain of salt; apparently the tree is a taxonomic nightmare, with a list of synonyms, or former classifications, a mile long.) Its slender growth habit and fragrant flowers make it the perfect tree for that difficult area in the small area between the driveway and the neighbor’s ficus (sigh) hedge. No pictures yet, because it’s a new planting and will take a while to develop. This entry is “for the record.”

It flowers all year, and according to the Institute for Regional Conservation it is a nectar plant for various Florida butterflies, including the Florida duskywing (Ephyriades brunneus) and red-banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops), neither of which have yet been recorded in my yard. The duskywings are tough to ID, though, so maybe if  I comb through my photo logs and look at all the “Horace’s Duskywing” shots one will turn up…

Craig Huegel calls it a good food plant, with “small white flowers” that bloom for a several-week period between February and May, followed by many 1/4-inch purple black fruit in the summer. So it’s both a nectar source for butterflies and other pollinating insects in the early part of spring when nectar is scarce, and a food source for birds in the summer.

Here you can see the flower buds getting ready to do their thing. The tree was planted in March with the flower buds already on it, so it’s not like this photo proves that the tree loves my yard or anything, but it’s still kinda nice:

Willow Bustic (Sideroxylon salicifolium) flower buds. Boca Raton, FL, April 2, 2015.

Willow Bustic (Sideroxylon salicifolium) flower buds. Boca Raton, FL, April 2, 2015.

Huegel says that it’s also a larval host plant for another sphinx moth, the Ello sphinx, which is nice. Of this large moth family (that is, the moths are large AND the family, Sphingidae, is rather species-rich as well) I’ve seen Xylophanes pluto, Enyo lugubris, and Manduca sexta in the yard already, and I’m looking forward to another chance at Erinnyis ello, which I found feeding on the buttonwoods I had to take out earlier this spring.


The  genus name, according to Austin, comes from the Greek sidero, iron, and xylum, wood. So Willow Bustic belongs to the genus of “ironwoods” (not to be confused with another Florida native, Black Ironwood, Krugiodendron ferreum, whose specific epithet is Latin, not Greek, for “ironlike”; the genus name honors a botanist named Krug plus the Greek word dendron, “tree.” So the Black Ironwood is “Krug’s tree”). The specific epithet (salicifolium) means “willow-leaved.”

As you might guess from that derivation, the wood of this tree is rather strong and heavy, making damage from windstorms “unlikely” (Haehle and Brookwell).

In case you’re interested, here’s the list of taxonomic names that this tree has gone by in the past:

Synonyms of Sideroxylon salicifolium from plantlist.org.

Synonyms of Sideroxylon salicifolium from plantlist.org.


Austin, D. 2006. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Haehle, R. G. and Brookwell, J. 2004. Native Florida Plants: Low-Maintenance Landscaping and Gardening. Lanham, Md.: Taylor Trade.

Huegel, C. 2010. Native Plant Landscaping for Florida Wildlife. Gainesville: U of Florida P.

New backyard plant: Beach Creeper

Beach Creeper (Ernodea littoralis) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, March 28, 2015.

My front yard is a problem. It faces south, and it’s very hot and dry. The soil is sandy, and because much of the front yard is reclaimed from a time when the street was wider, there’s a lot of crushed limestone under that sand layer, making for tough digging: those loosely compacted rocks are just a few inches below the sand in most areas. Most of the plants I put out there shrivel up and die because I’m not going to get out there and hand water them year-round. That’s just not something I’m going to do. Sure, I’ll water plants in (2-3 months of daily at first then every other day hand watering), but after that, they’re on their own. So I need plants that are used to hard times, hot weather, and dry conditions.

You can bet that the following description of Beach Creeper (Ernodea littoralis) in Rufino Osorio’s Gardener’s Guide to Florida’s Native Plants made me sit up and take notice:

Beach creeper is a tough, indestructible groundcovering shrub restricted to coastal sites in sandy or rocky areas.… When happily situated, it may cover fairly sizable areas, and it is being recommended as a groundcover for hot, dry, difficult areas.

I mean, how much more perfect can you get?

So when my landscaping consultant came down for her biannual maintenance over at mom’s (the old house), I asked her to swing by my place and make some recommendations for the site. She allowed as to how Ernodea might do really well here, and I was not slow to take up the suggestion.

I immediately began hoeing away, clearing the weedy patch of dirt of its remnant mix of turf, mexican clover, Virginia pepper, and wireweed (to mention only the most dominant species). After that it was just a matter of deciding how much of what to plant where, getting the plants, mulching the beds, watering them in, weeding every day, and constantly trying to see what needed to be done next. No problem, right?

As it happens, I decided to put in seven little creepers out there, and now I’m waiting for them to start creeping around. Until then, there are only a few flowers and a few small golden fruits to enjoy:

Beach Creeper (Ernodea littoralis) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, March 28, 2015.

Beach Creeper (Ernodea littoralis) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, March 28, 2015.

Beach Creeper (Ernodea littoralis fruit. Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

Beach Creeper (Ernodea littoralis) fruit. Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

I’ve planted them in a group out near the mailbox where there’s absolutely no shade anywhere, so I’m really hoping they live up to their reputation as tough, drought resistant, “indestructible.”

One of the common names of this plant in the Bahamas is “cough bush”; according to Austin in the Turks and Caicos and Out Islands, people boil the leafy branch tips into a tea to treat cough. (According to the Leon Levy preserve website, though, this plant is “not used in the Bahamas medicinally,” so I’ll let you decide whom to believe.) The staff at Leon Levy and Roger Hammer (in his new book) both agree, though, that this plant is an excellent butterfly and hummingbird attractor. Hammer recommends using it in a hanging basket, though, if you’re trying to attract hummingbirds; it’s too low to the ground for them otherwise.

Behind these tough plants that may or may not work if you have a cough, and that you should hang in a basket if you’re trying to attract hummingbirds, I’ve put in some more new plants, trying to turn that old gumbo limbo I put there last year into something of a focal point. So in addition to the Beach Creeper out by the street, I also have a pair of Button Sage (Lantana involucrata) and a lone Blue Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis).

Those guys are supposed to like things a bit moister than the Beach Creeper, so I may continue “watering them in” longer than I will the Ernodea. Which means daily sessions with the hose until the rains kick in sometime in late May. I try to do those early enough in the morning that the heat hasn’t kicked in yet; we’re in the hot but dry portion of our dry season, waiting several more long weeks (7 or so by my count) for the rains to arrive.

That new group of plants in its mulch bed looked so nice, I couldn’t stop there. I now had to try to reclaim that whole strip of yard that had grown somewhat weedy since the Royal “Pain”ciana came down. So there’s another new planting bed that I put in for the new focal tree of the landscape: the Jacaranda caerulea that I wrote about earlier this month. In this bed I’ve planted three Bahama Sennas, two more Blue Porterweeds, and a lone Wild Petunia that my nursery man threw in for “free.”

Here’s a picture of what the new planting beds look like (mouse over the image to see the labels):

New plantings, April 2015 (mouse over the image to see the labels, or if you can’t do that, click here for the labeled version. Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

You can see that, even though the remnant turf is dried and unsightly, the new planting beds give the landscape a nice, defined look, making all that hoeing, mulching, watering, and weeding worthwhile. And in a few weeks, once the rains kick in, I’ll be able to give up the daily waterings. (Stopping those sessions might actually lead to problems, though, since it’s during the watering sessions that I notice the incipient weeds sprouting up. If I’m not out there every day in the cool of the morning, I might have a much bigger battle with the weeds than I’d like!)


Ernodea seems to derive from the Greek ernos, “sprout,” “shoot”; makes sense given the growth habit (“stems widely spreading, with a tendency to arch to the ground”). Littoralis means “of the shore,” again sensible for this coastal plant.


Austin, D. 2006. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Hammer, R. 2015. Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies in Tropical Florida: A Companion for Gardeners. Gainesville: U of Florida P.

Osorio, R. 2001. A Gardener’s Guide to Florida Native Plants. Gainesville: U of Florida P.

New backyard plant: Bahama Jacaranda

Jacaranda caerulea just leafing out. Boca Raton, FL, April 2, 2015.

One of my favorite memories of my decade spent at UCLA was seeing the huge trees with all the purple flowers and the flowery name: Jacaranda. They were scattered all over campus, in front of the library, in the courtyard outside a classroom I was in a lot, in the sculpture garden, near the top of the Janss steps, etc. They were all, I’m fairly sure, the predominant species available in the nursery trade (Jacaranda mimosifolia, also known as J. acutifolia), which comes from South America and is perfectly suited to the climate in southern California: dry summers and cool, wet (well, wettish) winters. It flowers for a couple of weeks a year and the trees are truly something to behold during that time. Here is a lovely one from the VA cemetery in Westwood:

Flowering Jacaranda tree. Westwood, CA, April 4, 2015. Photo courtesy of Jan Kolstad.

Flowering Jacaranda tree. Westwood, CA, April 4, 2015. Photo courtesy of Jan Kolstad.

There’s a beautiful one in the front yard of my father’s house in Southern California as well, but I don’t have a picture of it—yet.

Here in south Florida, though, the climate’s too hot and wet in the summer for those trees to really thrive. Don’t get me wrong—they’re available, and when properly cared for they can look pretty good, but they wouldn’t be right for my yard. Their crown is very broad, and I don’t have a lot of horizontal space in my yard, particularly in the narrow planting area I have reserved for it. The spread of those Brazilian Jacarandas can be quite impressive (as much as or more than a good Royal Poinciana, which I finally had to have taken down a year or so ago after it had been the crowning glory of the neighborhood for decades).

So my landscape lady and my native-plant-nursery man both recommended Jacaranda caerulea, a nice slender tree that grows well here in the Caribbean (Bahama, Cuba, Dominican Republic). In fact, its common name, at least around here, is Bahama Jacaranda. It has a longer flowering season than the more commonly available species, and, if not native it’s at least naturalized in south Florida. Furthermore, when in bloom, it’s apparently a very attractive nectar plant for several species of butterfly in the islands; presumably there will be some customers among the Floridian lepidoptera as well.


For a tree that’s going to serve as a focal point, I knew that I’d have to begin by preparing the ground. So I started a couple of days before I traveled up to the nursery to get the tree. I had a bunch of old roots from that poinciana to remove, which meant a good couple of sessions with a mattock and shovel. As anyone who’s dug them up knows, roots of old trees might not be much to look at, but they sure can be difficult to dig.

So on April Fools’ Day this year, soil all prepared, I went up to Mesozoic Landscapes nursery in Lake Worth to get another semi-exotic flowering tree to replace the previous exotic flowering tree. At the nursery, I was a bit surprised by what Richard brought out for me: a ten-foot-tall twig that barely fit in my van with all the rear seats stowed or removed and the front passenger seat reclined to maximum. There were three or four tiny little leaves poking out at the top:

Jacaranda caerulea just leafing out. Boca Raton, FL, April 2, 2015.

Jacaranda caerulea just leafing out. Boca Raton, FL, April 2, 2015.

The tree looked so barren that the rock and mulch man at the Bushel Stop (I had stopped off on my way home to pick up yet another ten bags of pea rock and ten bags of mulch; feels like that’s all I do these days is buy pea rock and Florimulch….) asked me whether the tree was OK (“no leaves”); I assured him, more confidently than I felt, that it was just fine.

When I got home, I dug a bit deeper with the shovel to make sure I had removed all the old tree’s roots that were likely to cause conflict with the new one. As I dug, I found almost pure sand underneath a thin layer of topsoil. I amended the sand with a bit of the pea rock and some fertilizer that I had handy. Then I plopped the root ball down in the hole, added some more pea rock, sand, and fertilizer, gave it a final top dressing of pea rock, watered it in, and now I’m sitting back awaiting the results.

Should be good times ahead.

With the tree safely in the ground, I decided to do a bit more research. Interestingly enough, although this tree is not the most commonly encountered Jacaranda today, it serves as the type species of the genus. Mark Catesby, whose name has only recently returned to prominence among the early explorers of North America, illustrated this tree from the Bahamas back in the 18th century, along with a beautiful island bird that sometimes shows up here in south Florida: the stripe-headed tanager—er, Western Spindalis.

Here’s the link to the page on Plantilus; I also include a screenshot in case the link expires as they are wont to do:

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 3.11.46 PM

In my copy of Catesby’s Birds of Colonial America (lamentably illustrated only in black and white, apart from 20 selected plates at the front), editor (and birds-as-dinosaurs denier) Alan Feduccia1 explains that the bird is depicted in the “boxwood or cancer tree (Jacaranda caerulea).”

Waitaminnit—the what tree?

That’s right. The cancer tree.

Having never been to the islands, I had never known what the islanders called these trees. But that tidbit in Catesby prompted me to look more deeply into the ethnobotany. And according to the website for the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve on Eleuthera island in the Bahamas,  these flowering jacarandas are indeed known as Cancer Tree and Boxwood. Other names for the tree include What-o’clock, Clock Bush, Knucker Box, and Horse Bush.

And as it turns out, at least according to Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America, in the Bahamas people apply a “parched leaf decoction to skin cancer and other skin ailments,” while in Cuba, they use a “leafy branch decoction to bathe eczema and pimples.” Presumably they also used the wood of the tree to make boxes.

Once I found the common names listed on the Leon Levy website, I decided to take a look at the botanical description of the tree while I was there. And oh, my, that description is a treasure trove of botanical terms; I’ve added notes to try to unpack them, but I’ll probably have to write separate articles on each term before I truly come to, um, terms, with them:

The zygomorphic2 flowers are arranged in panicles3.  The calyx4 has 5 unfused sepals5.  The corolla6 has 5 fused purple, pubescent petals with 2 upper lobes and 3 lower lobes. There are 5 stamens7 and the upper center stamen is highly pubescent8.  The ovary9 is superior10 with 2 locules11 and numerous seeds12.  The fruit is a flat brown capsule at maturity that splits apart to disperse the seeds.  The seeds are winged.

Interestingly enough, the botanists at Leon Levy consider that this tree is not a true Bahama native. Apparently, like Jacarandas and Bougainvilleas around the world in former British colonies, this tree was an import (from before Catesby’s time!) from Argentina that subsequently escaped cultivation.

According to a recent article, the colonizers apparently planted these beautifully colored species in many areas of British Africa where their presence is now somewhat controversial. It seems that these exotic imports symbolize both the beauty and the unintended consequences of the legacy of colonialism. Turns out that these imported trees are very thirsty, and their abundance, driven by their beauty and the desire of  those who can afford to display it, reduces the amount of water available for the native flora and fauna. Still, there’s no denying that these are pretty trees.

And here in south Florida, the Jacaranda is not considered a pest, nor is it a water hog. I’m hoping it’ll turn into a truly lovely focal point in the driveway. Once I have everything all cleaned up and ready to show, I’ll post some photos.


Catesby, M. 1739. Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. London.

Duke, J. 2009. Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Feduccia, A, ed. 1985. Catesby’s Birds of Colonial America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P.

Mungai, C. 2015. “Not just trees: The politics of the jacaranda, eucalyptus and hyacinth in Africa.” Mail and Guardian Africa (online), March 27. Available at http://mgafrica.com/article/2015-03-25-not-just-trees-the-politics-of-the-jacaranda-eucalyptus-and-hyacinth-in-africa.


What’s in a name? The “involucrate” of Lantana involucrata


My last post was about a nice little Florida native plant that I’m trying out (again) in the yard: Lantana involucrata. Now “lantana,” you’ll recall, in addition to being the name of a town not far from where I live, comes from the Latin for “flexible,” whatever that may mean when applied to these rather woody shrubs.

But in that recent post about this little flowering shrub, I never did get around to the definition or derivation of the specific name, “involucrata.” To do that requires a bit of background, so sit tight, hold on, and learn with me.

When I looked the plant up on the FNPS blog, Laurie Sheldon’s recent article on the different lantanas available told me that this species has white flowers “borne in flat-topped, sometimes involucrate heads.” Now flat-topped, that I understand, but “involucrate”? That has me scratching my head. Sure, you can look it up in a botanical dictionary, as I did, but it might not be a big help. According to my Facts on File Dictionary of Botany, involucre has the following meanings:

1. A protective structure consisting of a ring of bracts arising below the inflorescence in angiosperms with condensed inflorescences (e.g. the capitulum and umbel).

2. A sheathlike outgrowth of tissue in bryophytes protecting the archegonia or antheridia in certain liverworts.

3. A tubular extension of the thallus of hornworts that rises up and surrounds the base of the sporophyte.


Well, since we’re not talking about liverworts or hornworts, we can safely ignore definitions two and three. Let’s concentrate on definition number one.

“A ring of bracts.”

I know what a ring is, but what is a ring of bracts? Bracts, as you may or may not know, are modified leaves. They’re not actually flowers, but in many ornamental plants, like the Bougainvillea that grows on my neighbor’s side of the fence but only sends its thorny branches on our side, they put on a very showy display of “flowers,” while the true flowers are rather inconspicuous:

Bougainvillea flower (mouse over image to see labels, or if you can’t do that, click here for the labeled version). Boca Raton, FL, March 31, 2015

That little white thing on the pink stalk? That’s the flower (technically it’s the pistil, the pollen-receiving part, while the stalk connects the pistil to the base of the flower where the anthers are located). You can see that there are two other stalks in this group, waiting their turns to flower.

“Arising below the inflorescence”

So a bract can subtend or, as my botanical dictionary definition has it, “aris[e] below the inflorescence” of a flowering plant (“angiosperm”), as it does in the Bougainvillea pictured above. But what’s the difference between an inflorescence and a flower?

An inflorescence is just a group of flowers that share a common stalk. The typical example of an inflorescence that most people call a flower is a sunflower:

Dune sunflower (mouse over image to see labels, or if you can’t do that, click here for the labeled version). Boca Raton, FL, May 30, 2012

As you can see, it has a bunch of bright yellow ray-like “flowers” or “petals” surrounding a darker purple bunch of, um, things. Those things are the actual flowers. The yellow things are variously called sterile florets, ray flowers, ray florets, or even bracts. After all, they’re modified leaves.

Taken together, this arrangement is an inflorescence: a collection of small flowers arising from the same stalk.

Which brings us back to the lantana, whose specific name, involucrata, refers to the arrangement of its flowers into inflorescences with protective bracts arising beneath them:

“Flower” (actually inflorescence) of Button sage (Lantana involucrata). Mouse over image to see labels, or if you can’t do that, click here for the labeled version.

So that’s where Button Sage, Lantana involucrata, got its name: the flexible plant with clustered flowers protected by bracts. Got it? Don’t lose it.


Bailey, J., ed. 2003. The Facts on File Dictionary of Botany. New York: Facts on File.

Capon, B. 2005. Botany for Gardeners, revised edition. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

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