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 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: Trefoils (Desmodium spp.), larval host plant for Gray Hairstreak, Dorantes and Long-tailed Skipper butterflies: Wireweed (Sida acuta), a nectar source for many insects and the larval host plant for Gray Hairstreak, Columella Hairstreak, and Tropical Checkered Skipper butterflies: Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum), nectar plant for many butterflies and larval host plant for Great Southern White, European Cabbage White, and Checkered White butterflies: Cheesy-toes (Stylosanthes hamata): Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa), a beautiful low-growing mat-forming weed with pink flowers: Dayflowers (Commelina spp.), a winding, climbing, grasslike plant related to the spiderworts: The sticky-seeded "tarvine," Boerhavia diffusa, also known as Red Spiderling for its flowers and its sprawling, long-legged growth habit: 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): 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: Why not give it a try? References Kushlan, J. and K. Hines. 2014. Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens. Gainesville: UP of Florida.
Macroscopic identification of the mounds of red imported fire ants (RIFA, Solenopsis invicta) is typically made by lay residents of Florida while in the midst of a hasty retreat once the mounds are accidentally disturbed and large numbers of irritated stinging red ants emerge to attack the source of the disturbance.In the course of trying to remove three tied-off irrigation tubes that served as hosts to fire ant colonies, I was able to learn a bit too much about how the defense systems of these tiny social insects operate. At first, they feel like normal ant bites--a bit painful, but nothing to get excited about. Brush them off and move on. But it turns out, that's just the beginning. After about 24 hours, the site of each bite swelled up, blistered, and started itching like crazy. I'm no fan of benadryl, but hydrocortisone cream alone just wasn't cutting it with these things. So even though I appreciate the amazing social creatures that ants are, yadda yadda, I'm not exactly a fan of the whole bite-me group at the moment. But ants can also be extremely beneficial, as I discovered just a couple of days later. I recently planted a Florida fiddlewood tree in the back yard (and never have gotten around to writing it up). Citharexylum spinosum is a lovely tree, with elegant foliage on slender curving branches. It flowers and fruits in a rather showy manner for a native plant. Here's a photo from a field trip I took back in 2008 during one of my Florida Master Naturalist field trips: I'm looking forward to seeing this little guy grow up. Now, my native plant guru warned me that there was a caterpillar that can attack these plants, defoliating them rather quickly. She didn't know the name of it (most moths don't have common names), and I decided I'd take the risk; after all, part of the reason I have a native plant garden is to increase the biodiversity on my little plot of land. A few more insects has to be good for the old ecosystem, right? Nevertheless, I was dismayed when I went outside one morning and saw leaves drooping, skeletonized, victims of some foul miscreant. I immediately searched the leaves to see who could be responsible, and, sure enough, I discovered a group of caterpillars resting on a partially skeletonized leaf: There were four of them, all told, on this little leaf. A fifth, a bit more alert than these sleepyheads, was able to abseil down a silk line to safety on the ground. I let him go, figuring I'd catch him again as he climbed the trunk, as I'd be keeping a close watch on this plant for the next couple of days. Turns out there was no need. After only a few minutes inside taking mug shots of the four perps I had in custody, I went back out to see if I could nab any other malefactors. I scanned the ground for the one I knew had escaped, and there it was, being carted off by a busy troupe of ants. Not fire ants, mind, but good old brown garden-variety ants. Those same ants that tend their herds of scale that damage my plants with sooty mold, that I curse whenever I find them, were doing me a big favor patrolling the ground around my wounded fiddlewood. How about them apples? After a friendly referral on bug guide.net, I was able to tentatively ID the moth species as Epicorsia oedipodalis, which is a species of pyraustine crambid moth. (That tells you everything you need to know, right?) Its host plants appear to be lancewood and fiddlewood, so I'd better be on the lookout for this guy over in another spot of the garden where I have a couple of lancewoods. Epicorsia appears to refer to something "on the side of the head/temple"; perhaps the little eyes (stemmata) located high on the head, near where the caterpillar's temple would be if it were human, is responsible for the name: I trust that oedipodalis reminds you of Oedipus, but I'm not sure why this moth or caterpillar (whichever is responsible for the name) reminded someone of him strongly enough to merit the name.
From time to time the native plants in my yard, which I do my best to foster, suffer from an overabundance of a certain tiny insect: scale. These insects aren't scary to most people—they don't bite, they don't fly up and startle you, they don't even move after they hunker down in their chosen spot to feed. But they are rather scary to the plants they parasitize. They latch onto a growing stem, use their piercing sucking mouthparts to penetrate the thin exterior walls, and suck up the vital juices that are supposed to be circulating through the plant and helping it grow. Soft-bodied scale also excrete (yes, excrete, not secrete) honeydew, which, in enough quantity, enables the fungus called sooty mold to grow on the plant. Sooty mold can cover the entire leaf surface, interfering with photosynthesis. So not only do the scale insects steal the plant's sap (literally sapping its energy), they also create an environment in which other plant pests can interfere with other important plant functions.
You'd think that scale insects would be pretty easy to defeat—after all, they can't move or sting, and they have no particular defenses at all apart from a waxy covering that prevents casual inspectors from noticing that they exist. Other insects, such as lacewing and lady beetle larvae, like to eat these little guys whenever they find them. But their honeydew buys them some serious protectors: ants. The sweet, nutritious by-product of their all-plant-juice diet is beloved by these social insects. Ant colonies will send out "cowboys" to tend the herd and to bring back their liquid excrement ("milk," if you will) to the nest. That's right, ants are scale and aphid ranchers.I've spent the last few weeks out in the garden trying my best to remove these scale insects without damaging the plants, but it's tough sledding. There are dozens of insects per growing stem, and most of the shrubs and trees in my yard have dozens upon dozens of growing stems. Stripping the bugs off and squishing them makes your fingers sticky and smelly, and there's always the risk of pinching off the stem or leaf of the plant when you're just trying to scrape off the sticky gooey bug that's attacking it. There are about 175 armored species of this pest in Florida, and 60 "soft" scale species. The biology of the species goes like this, according to the UF/IFAS web page about them:
The armored scale life cycle is generalized as follows. The eggs are laid underneath the waxy covering and hatch over a period of one to three weeks. The newly hatched scales (called crawlers) move about over the plant until they locate succulent new growth. They insert their piercing-sucking mouthparts into the plant and begin feeding. Female scales lose their legs and antennae during the first molt. They molt a second time before reaching maturity and do not pupate. The cast skins (exuviae) are incorporated in the scale cover. Male scales go through two additional molts and pupate underneath the wax. Adult males are tiny two-winged, gnat-likeinsects without mouthparts. In some armored scales the adult stage is reached in six weeks, and there are several generations per year.But sometimes, if you're lucky, you really can get help from mother nature, in the good old-fashioned food chain sense. And that's what happened the other day. I was soaking my feet in the pool while making sure my three-year-old stayed in his floatie—he can "swim" really fast in that plastic ring, but he tends to sink if he's not using it, which is a Bad Thing—when I heard some fast-paced, high-pitched bird calls somewhere nearby. Intrigued, I started checking things out when I discovered to my great astonishment and delight that a pair of Downy Woodpeckers were gleaning insects from the firebushes that were most heavily infested with scale. Upon further inspection it turned out that this wasn't a "pair" of woodpeckers so much as it was a parent and a young bird. And what was that dad (male downies have a red patch on the nape of the neck; female birds are white-headed) stuffing down baby bird's gullet to shut it up? You guessed it: a beak full of scale! In case it's hard to see in that shot, here's a closer look: How's that for service? I get to see wildlife in action, and that action consists of helping me out in my gardening endeavors! While it's too soon for the plants to have regained their showy appearance after their battle with the sap-sucking, soot-making, honeydew cows, it's encouraging to see that garden ecology sometimes does work. Here are a few more shots of the birds doing their thing; I tried to stay inconspicuous for fear of frightening them off, but they didn't seem to mind my being about 20 feet away, hiding behind the kids' plastic slide and firing away with my zoom lens: The next morning as I was out, sans camera, inspecting the handiwork (beakywork?) of these fine insect control service technicians, the same pair flew right up into the tree next to those firebushes and began their chipping/begging act again. You can bet I high-tailed it out of there, in hopes that they'd set about polishing off the bugs that survived the previous night's work. As it turns out, the woodpeckers appear to be husbanding their food supply rather than eradicating my pest problem, so I still have a lot of bug squishing to do. Oh, well. It's fun having the birds in the yard, and if I'm out there squishing the scale, at least I'm out and about with a chance to see more urban wildlife!
In the females of the soft scales the antennae and legs are not lost, but are reduced to such an extent that though the adults can move about somewhat they seldom do. The wax when secreted, usually forms a sac at the rear end of the body enclosing the eggs, and the scale on the back of the insect becomes much thickened, forming a thick fluffy mass. The life cycle is similar to the armored scales except some soft scales require one year to reach maturity.
When the style snaps up and inward, first the stigma scoop scrapes across the bee’s tummy removing any pollen it has brought from a different flower. Then a nanosecond later in the same snap the pollen-bearing cup brushes new pollen onto the bee. The snap no doubt kicks out the dismayed bee, and closes off the entrance to the flower, which has no further need for visitation.I'm looking forward to trying this out next time I run across this plant on the boardwalk! Etymological note: Thalia is, of course, the name of the muse of comedy, and geniculata, as explained above, means "with knees." References Austin, D. 2009. Wetlands Plant Guide: A Pocket Guide to the Common Plants of Southern Florida's Wetlands Community. Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Rogers, G. 1984. The Zingiberales (Cannaceae, Marantaceae, and Zingiberaceae) in the Southeastern United States. J. Arnold Arb. 65: 5-55.
have the typical flower head arrangement for this family, which is composed of many florets sharing a single receptacle. The florets arrange themselves to look superficially like a single flower: sterile ray flowers around the edge look like petals, while the central disk florets, arranged spirally, are fertile and produce the seeds.You can see the fertile florets fairly well in the close-up of the inflorescence above. The pollen-bearing ones are around the outside. If you want a more technical botanic description, see the treatment in the online Flora of North America. The common name of this plant is dune sunflower, and it really earns its name: it is an important component of dune ecosystems because its low-growing leaves and hairy roots make it an important sand binder on the beach dunes where it grows:
coined in 1731 from L. mimus, "mime" + -osa, adj. suffix (fem. of -osus); so called because some species (including the common Sensitive Plant) fold leaves when touched, seeming to mimic animal behavior.Kind of cool, huh? According to some writers, M. strigillosa is not a sensitive plant, but the leaves of the one in my yard do indeed curl up when touched, so I'm not sure where this confusion comes from. Craig Huegel writes that "The leaves are not sensitive to touch as is that of sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis) - a plant it is sometimes confused with." I'm not sure who would confuse the two, though, as M. quadrivalvis has thorns and M. strigillosa is the only thornless species in Florida. Perhaps the confusion is in the horticultural trade over M. pudica, the archetypal sensitive briar, and M. strigillosa, which might in fact not be sensitive. I'm hoping that, even though it's described as not a very competitive species, I'll be able to get it to spread across the landscape and I can start pulling up the pretty but very aggressive (and exotic) Richardia grandiflora. This native mimosa is not only attractive to the bees, like the exotic R. grandiflora, but it's also a larval plant for the little sulphur butterfly (Pyrisitia formerly and still sometimes Eurema] lisa). As usual, the functional and flowery native plays a more complete ecological role in the landscape; such plants really should be promoted over the showy but sterile exotics.
Except for the ephemeral nature of the flowers, which last only a few hours in the morning, and its abundant self-seeding, this wildflower is nearly perfect.I usually consider Rufino to be the last word on a subject, but here I have to wonder. "Abundant self-seeding," hah! I had two of these at the old place, and once they tired out I never saw another one. Maybe these plants will try to restore Mr. Osorio's reputation by seeding, at least a teensy bit. If you look at that last picture closely, you'll see that this plant has the potential to put out a lot of blooms; the blooms in wait look almost like rows of shark's teeth, just waiting for their predecessors to break off so they can have their day in the sun. This flower is attractive to all sorts of native pollinators, including our lovely halictid (sweat bee in the family Halictinae), Agapostemon splendens: