New backyard bug: Fulvous Hairstreak

Fulvous Hairstreak (Electrostrymon angelia). Boca Raton, FL, April 19, 2016.

It doesn’t take long to “survey” the yard when you’re a backyard naturalist. A few minutes in the morning, as long as you actually get out and do it, can have some interesting results. This morning, as I was grinding through the normal workaday toil, I decided I simply hadn’t been outside enough for the day. So I took my camera and wandered around the front and back yards for about five minutes. And in those five minutes I found a butterfly that I’d never seen before!

It’s another hairstreak, like the very common Mallow and the much less common Martial, but this one is a relatively recent newcomer to Florida, having been definitively established only since the mid-70s: Fulvous Hairstreak.

Fulvous Hairstreak (Electrostrymon angelia). Boca Raton, FL, April 19, 2016.

Fulvous Hairstreak (Electrostrymon angelia). Boca Raton, FL, April 19, 2016.

Like most hairstreaks, it’s a small butterfly, with a wingspan less than one inch. And, like many hairstreaks, it’s fairly pretty. Perhaps the combination of those two traits was the reason William Chapman Hewitson (1874) bestowed the species name (angelia); said species name is almost certainly behind one of its common names, Angelic Hairstreak.

While it’s always nice to see new butterflies, especially ones that are rather strikingly handsome, this one brings up some decidedly mixed feelings. Its most common hostplant is the non-native invasive tree species Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius—often written as S. terebinthifolia because, Latin). The plant itself is fairly pretty when it’s in fruit, as the huge clusters of tiny red berries against the dark green foliage give it a festive appearance. It was first imported as an ornamental in the 90s—the 1890s1—and, because it thrives in this environment, became very popular.

A couple of common names from back in the 50s when it first found widespread cultivation as an ornamental in south Florida were “Florida Holly” and “Christmas Berry.” And on the surface, what’s not to love? It’s fairly pretty, particularly when trimmed up as a specimen rather than allowed to grow to its natural form (basically, a 30-foot sprawling globe), it grows and propagates easily, and it has high wildlife value—the birds love the berries (which allows it to spread easily via seed transport, aka the poop train).

But dig a little deeper and you discover that perhaps this plant isn’t so nice:

  • It’s a member of the cashew family (Anacardiaceae) and, like its cousins in that family (think poison oak, poison ivy, poison sumac), is a skin irritant. So just trimming it up to look nice can cause sensitive types (like me) to break out into a painful rash.
  • It also produces allelopaths, chemical substances that inhibit the growth of other plants in its area. Like a planet, it clears its own orbit.
  • Its so easy to grow that it currently dominates over 700,000 acres in Florida, making it the number one invasive plant species in the state.

And now, back to our butterfly. As Cech and Tudor wryly observe

Given the abundance of Brazilian Peppers in Florida, it is surprising that the Fulvous hairstreak is not one of the state’s most prevalent butterflies.

It isn’t though. This sighting was my first in the fifteen years I’ve lived in Florida. As Cech and Tudor continue:

While it does often occur in swarming local colonies, the Fulvous is not an everyday sight throughout its range. It poses no visible threat to its hostplant’s viability, based on it apparently modest appetite as an herbivore.

More’s the pity, some might say.

Sometimes I don’t know whether to admire or curse Nature’s whimsy. Beautiful native plants like the Fiddlewood (Citharexlyum fruticosum) get stripped down to twigs by the fiddlewood roller (Epicorsia oedipodalis, a fairly ugly little caterpillar that grows into an even uglier moth), yet the beautiful butterfly that feeds on Brazilian Pepper doesn’t even put a dent in that noxious weed.

Still, I suppose it’s a good thing that I don’t see too many of these little butterflies in my yard; it means there aren’t too many Brazilian Peppers in my neighborhood.

There’s also another way of looking at it: there are reports from Cuba of this butterfly feeding on a diverse genus of wildflowers, Salvia, of which I have several different varieties in both front and back yards. If the south Florida hairstreaks feed on Salvia as well, I won’t mind having them around at all!

References

Cech, R. and G. Tudor. 2005. Butterflies of the East Coast: an observing guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Glassberg, J. 2012. A Swift guide to butterflies of North America. Sunstreak.

New plant: Climbing aster

Climbing Aster (Aster carolinianus). Boca Raton, FL, November 28, 2005.

After leading my annual Audubon Society of the Everglades birding field trip to Green Cay this November 28, I made my annual stop at Native Choice Nursery. They weren’t yet open for the day, but they’d left out exactly what I wanted: Climbing Aster (Aster carolinianus). I paid in the main office (a bargain at $5 each) and put them in the ground in the morning, watered them in, and left for the beach.

They’re basically a wetland plant in the wild, but one of my books tells me that they’re pretty adaptable, so I put them in along a fence (to give them something to climb) next to another climbing vine-type plant, Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), which is another plant that starts to sulk when I neglect to hit it with the hose every few days.

Here’s a photo from Craig Huegel’s excellent blog, hawthornhillwildflowers.blogspot.com (he’s also written several recent books on various types of Florida native plants):

Here’s hoping mine do half as well. The more photogenic of the two I picked up is below:

Climbing Aster (Aster carolinianus). Boca Raton, FL, November 28, 2005.

Climbing Aster (Aster carolinianus). Boca Raton, FL, November 28, 2015.

Neither of the plants I bought had lovely blooms on them. I did this deliberately, because those typically drop off very soon after planting, leaving me disappointed. And the blooming season of these plants is very late, so I’m hoping that by putting it next to the summer-blooming Coral Honeysuckle I’ll have blooms even in the dead of “winter” here.

Plus, asters are the larval host plant family for the Pearl Crescent, so I’m hoping this planting will take off and provide some food for those lovely little guys.

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.

References

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!

References

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?

References

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

Fiddlewood flowers and true garden pests

Detail of caterpillar removal.

Gardeners who plan their gardens for wildlife often see that planning rewarded. The thing is, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether that reward is, as the computer programmers say, a feature or a bug.  That is, we plant the plants we do because we’re interested in more than just the way the garden looks to us; we want it to attract the attention of the native fauna as well. But of course we also try to manage the garden so that there are plenty of beautiful plants and flowers throughout the year. So although we experience at least as many “pest” infestations as gardeners who plant for traditional garden beauty, we handle them differently.

For example, we have rather yucky-looking caterpillars attacking our beautiful passionvines to the point of defoliation at times. Sounds like a bug, right? But at the same time, it’s a feature: those caterpillars grow up to be beautiful butterflies. The damage to the plants is ephemeral; passionvines not only refoliate rapidly, they’re notorious for popping up at many different places in the garden, whether you wanted them there or not. (Again, hard to tell whether that’s a feature or a bug!)

The caterpillars of passionflower butterflies (the heliconians, Zebra, Gulf Fritillary, and Julia) eat the passionvines for the chemical defenses they provide. These caterpillars aren’t pests; they’re friends. We manage their infestations by planting enough of the vines in out-of-the-way spots that they can defoliate them, should the population require it, without sacrificing the lovely flowers everywhere.

The same is true for many of the “weeds” that grow in our diverse lawns. Cheesytoes , Spanish Needles, Trefoil (Desmodium sp.) , and the like—all of these are attractive to insects, which in turn attract lizards and birds and other wildlife to the garden. It’s not the same as a true ecosystem, but it’s nice to see some life in our yards, instead of the sterile no-fly zones of monocultured lawns, manicured weekly by gas-guzzling and noise-polluting “landscaping” crews.

There are, however, some pests that even the most tolerant of wildlife gardeners would like to control. In the second week of May I started to notice my Fiddlewood (Citharexlyum fruticosum) starting to come into flower, which is very exciting. This is a beautiful and ornamental native plant. The wildlife value of its flowers is limited, because it flowers for such a short time each year, but when it’s in flower, my goodness! It sure is pretty:

Fiddlewood (Citharexylum fruticosum) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Fiddlewood (Citharexylum fruticosum) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

For more on the name of this plant, check out the post over at Eat the Weeds. I quote just a very few relevant words here (lightly edited):

When Linnaeus was naming plants, the English words “violin” or “fiddle” were not common in his time; plus, he preferred classical names. He knew the wood was used to make musical instruments so he named it  “guitar wood shrub,” Citharexylum fruticosum. That got stretched into Guitar Tree and then Fiddlewood Tree. Now you know.

The most common name for the tree in the Caribbean islands is “old woman’s blisters”—read it’s used for a lot of ailments. Boiled twigs and decoctions are used if you’re chilled. When mixed with Strongback and Spoonbush it is used for sores. Boiled with mahogany, lignum vitae, Doctor Club roots, Snowberry and papaya latex, it was used to aid indigestion… or perhaps create it…. Also beware… insects of all sorts love the tree so you will encounter them, in numbers. The fruit pulp is edible but not prized. Do not eat the seeds.

Unfortunately for those who garden for aesthetics in addition to wildlife value, as noted by Green Deane in the above quote, this beautiful small tree serves as the larval host plant of a particularly annoying insect, a communal-feeding caterpillar, Epicorsia oedipodalis (I’ve written about it before). Since the time of that write-up, the UF/IFAS program has released a paper on them that wasn’t available to me until I started researching this post. (About time, guys!) Here’s the relevant section of the paper for gardeners and native plant enthusiasts:

This leaf-eating pest does no permanent damage to the plant, the shrub simply puts out a new flush of leaves. From an ecological perspective, the larvae themselves may serve as a valuable food source when baby birds need feeding during the spring dry season in Florida.

While I’m sure it’s true that the feeding damage isn’t permanent, and that this is indeed a worthy caterpillar, and a worthy moth too, for that matter, it comes in feeding hordes so large that they can completely defoliate young trees (and mine is only a couple of years old). So rather than letting nature take its course, I’ve been trying to manage the tree by systematically removing the caterpillars whenever I notice the characteristic signs of their presence: long webs running along the flower stalks (you can see it in the above picture if you click through to the full-sized version), skeletonized or discolored, dead, or dying leaves:

Signs of Epicorsia infestation. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Signs of Epicorsia infestation. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Maybe once my tree is a bit older, I’ll be able to practice the more ecologically sound approach and leave them on the tree. For now, though, I’m in protective mode. If you clicked through to look at the first picture of the fiddlewood flower, you noticed the long webbing running up the flower stalks; there are usually several caterpillars hiding in those protective zones. And since this hideout was running along the longest and nicest flower stalk, I needed help to remove the caterpillars without damaging the flowers. So I turned to my lovely and talented wife, whose up-close vision is far finer than mine, and whose hands are far steadier, for help:

Surgical removal of caterpillars from flower stalk. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Surgical removal of caterpillars from flower stalk. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

If you look closely at the image above, you can see the little caterpillar in it:

Detail of caterpillar removal.

Detail of caterpillar removal.

And here’s a larger one that she’d removed a minute earlier:

Caterpillar about to meet its maker. Boca Raton, FL. May 14, 2015.

Caterpillar about to meet its maker. Boca Raton, FL. May 14, 2015.

And here is a jar full of hundreds of these little guys that I’ve removed via leaf-pinching and simple snipping over the past several days:

Caterpillars in a jar.

Caterpillars in a jar.

No, I’m not going to try to raise them. I’m just going to keep them in that peanut butter jar until the trashmen come to haul it away with the rest of the garbage next week.

These caterpillars also enjoy three other native plants in our region, two of which (Pigeon Plum and Lancewood) I have in my yard. Fortunately, according to the Featured Creature report, “less damage has been noted on these hosts.” (The third host, Sea Grape, is a close relative of Pigeon Plum.)

And, as usual with the UF/IFAS people, they suggest the nuclear option for homeowners interested in control of these infestations: Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as the way to make sure no insects survive in your yard ever. (They say that “this Lepidoptera-specific material is toxic to caterpillars but relatively non-toxic to beneficial organisms like predatory and parasitoid wasps, predaceous bugs, and vertebrates (birds, lizards, people, etc.).”  Sorry, IFAS, there’s no way I’m going to apply that butterfly-killing bomb anywhere in my yard!

References

Kern, W. 2015. “Featured Creatures: Fiddlewood leafroller.” Publication number EENY-617. Available at http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/ORN/fiddlewood_leafroller.htm

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?

gaillardia_pulchella

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.

References

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.

Etymology

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.

References

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.

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