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.

Ants bite; they can also tend your garden for you

Epicorsia oedipodalis detail. Note the stemmata rather high on the head

Last weekend I went out to Yamato Scrub for another volunteer clean-up event coordinated by Palm Beach County ERM. We were removing the last of the temporary irrigation installed years and years ago to jump-start the native plants that they imported to the site to replace the acres and acres of Brazilian Pepper and Australian Pine that had grown up over the years since the site was drained by the canals that run all over the place down here.

The irrigation was the typical black poly tubing with smaller tubes for the emitters. But the contractors who installed the tubing made sure that the emitters didn’t wander off by tying them around the trunks of all the plants. And over time, those trunks got larger and even started growing right over the tubing, making it quite difficult to remove. What’s more, the combination of small amounts of water (this is drip irrigation, after all) and delicious leaf litter and mulch, proves irresistible to that imported scourge, Solenopsis invicta: the red imported fire ant.

As anyone who’s had the “opportunity” to deal with fire ants knows, they bite. And then they spray acid into the bite. And it hurts. A lot. The Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce has perhaps the best description of how to ID them:

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:

Florida Fiddlewood (Citharexylum spinosum).

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:

Fiddlewood caterpillar moth. Boca Raton, FL, June 10. 2014.

Moth caterpillar (Epicorsia oedipodalis) on Fiddlewood. Boca Raton, FL, June 10. 2014.

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:

Epicorsia oedipodalis detail. Note the stemmata rather high on the head

Epicorsia oedipodalis detail. Note the stemmata rather high on the head.

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.

New backyard bird: Downy Woodpecker, or why native plants love birds (and vice versa)

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescent with scale. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

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.

 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.

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!

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) gleaning scale insects from firebush (Hamelia patens). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) gleaning scale insects from firebush (Hamelia patens). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

In case it’s hard to see in that shot, here’s a closer look:

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescent with scale. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) with scale. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

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:

Downy Woodpecker feeding young. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014

Downy Woodpecker feeding young. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014


Dad (bottom) shows scale on outside of beak; baby (top) displays a mouth full of bugs. Yum!

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!

Dune sunflowers, spiders, and moths, oh my!

Dune Sunflower (Helianthus debilis). Boca Raton, FL, July 9, 2012.

Dune sunflower, Helianthus debilis, is a commonly recommended plant for Florida native gardeners. It’s in the daisy family (Asteraceae), and it’s very pretty:

Dune Sunflower (Helianthus debilis). Boca Raton, FL, July 9, 2012.

Dune Sunflower (Helianthus debilis). Boca Raton, FL, July 9, 2012.

Yellow rays, purple disc flowers, loads of pollen—very attractive to bees and butterflies.

Halictid bee on Dune Sunflower. Boca Raton, FL, May 26, 2013.

Halictid bee on Dune Sunflower. Boca Raton, FL, May 26, 2013.

It self-sows and reseeds annually, so once you’ve got it established, you don’t have to do much except remove it from places you don’t want it! It grows best in “dune” environments: sandy areas in full sun, hence the common name.


Since it grows to cover such a large area (it’s often used as a groundcover), it naturally develops a bit of an ecosystem of its own. I’ll frequently find flower spiders gleaning insects attracted by the bright colors and abundant pollen. Until the other day, though, I hadn’t thought of it as a larval host plant for lepidoptera young, but now I’ve seen a couple of things that have started me thinking.

For example, here’s a flower crab spider (family Thomisidae, species incertae, most likely Mecaphesa celer, formerly known as Misumenops celer) enjoying a fly of some kind (order Diptera, perhaps family Sarcophagidae, but without a view of the head, it’s hard for a nonspecialist like me even to get to the family level on this one!):

Flower spider with fly. Boca Raton, FL, June 13, 2013.

Flower spider with fly. Boca Raton, FL, June 13, 2013.

But here’s another flower crab spider with what looks like a tiny caterpillar in its mouth:

Flower spider with caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, June 13, 2013.

Flower spider with caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, June 13, 2013.

If you’re not convinced that there’s a caterpillar there, here’s a close-up:

Detail of flower spider w/caterpillar in Dune Sunflower.

Detail of flower spider w/caterpillar in Dune Sunflower.

Once I noticed that caterpillar, I started looking for more, and sure enough, these Dune Sunflowers appear to be some sort of host plant (maybe just a roosting location during the day?) for what look like grass-skipper or moth caterpillars. Here’s one without a spider munching on it; it appears to be munching on the flower instead:

Caterpillar on Dune Sunflower. Boca Raton, FL, June 13, 2013.

Caterpillar on Dune Sunflower. Boca Raton, FL, June 13, 2013.

I haven’t been able to find much on Helianthis debilis as a host plant for lepidopterans; according to the interwebs, its only attraction is as an adult nectar source.

My Wagner, though, lists sunflower as the host plant for the common looper moth caterpillar, which this caterpillar resembles fairly closely (although it looks much MORE like the related soybean looper, which does not feed on sunflower, at least according to Wagner, and MOST like the found-in-Florida Cabbage Looper, Trichoplusia ni, which isn’t specifically associated with sunflowers).

So I’m going to tentatively ID it as Cabbage Looper, and if someone wants to tell me I’m wrong, I’m happy to listen. I don’t think the caterpillar will mind, either way.


Wagner, D. (2005). Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton UP.

Florida Native Plant: Alligator Flag (Thalia geniculata Linnaeus)

Thalia geniculata, Alligator Flag. Fern Forest, September 15, 2008

Alligator flag is a very common sight to birders in Palm Beach County, because it appears in abundance at two of our favorite wetland areas: the boardwalks at Wakodahatchee and Green Cay (where I’ll be leading a birdwalk this Saturday).

Thalia geniculata, as it’s known to botanists, is a a tall (up to 10 ft or more at the nutrient-rich waters of these two created wetlands) plant with a long flower stem growing up from a cluster of basal leaves. Its roots are quite strong—it’s in the Marantaceae, or arrowroot family, which is known for the big starchy rhizomes in its underground root systems.

This was a fairly important food plant for the Seminoles: they ate the fresh roots, the flowers, rhizomes, and stem bases.  They used the large leaves (up to two feet long and over half a foot wide) to wrap food for cooking—according to Dan Austin (2009), “Cornbread dough was mixed with meat and rendered fat, and then boiled in the leaf, like a tamale, but the Miccosukee call it paluee.”

The stems are bent “like a knee” (whence the Latin specific epithet, geniculata). The purple and white flowers are quite pretty, hanging down from that zizgaggy stem:

Thalia geniculata, Alligator Flag. Fern Forest, September 15, 2008

Like all plants in this family, alligator flag possesses an unusual, “explosive” pollination mechanism. The pollen-bearing bits of the plant (the style) is buried inside the showy “flowery” parts (which are not petals in this plant, but stamens). And, although you can’t see it in the snapshot above, each of these “flowers” has two little “triggers” in it that, when a bee or hummingbird or other potential pollinator brushes up against one, releases the style in a manner similar to the workings of a rat trap. (The traps in the visible flowers above appear to have been sprung already.)

Here is a drawing from a botanical article that explains the mechanism:

Drawing from Rogers, G. The Zingiberales (Cannaceae, Marantaceae, and Zingiberaceae) in the Southeastern United States. J. Arnold Arb. 65: 5-55. 1984.

As George Rogers over at Treasure Coast Natives describes it,

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.”


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.

New backyard plant: Helianthus debilis


Last winter I ordered some seed from a Florida native wildflower nursery to spread in the bare patches in the front (I got rid of a bunch of turf grass with the idea of having a nice wildflower bed instead). I ordered sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa), Indian Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella), and four other species that I hoped would add some color and texture to the yard.

I followed the instructions and was a bit disappointed that only one of the plants came up, and only in one little area, but I’m pretty sure I know why this wildflower crop failed. Most of the birds in our neighborhood are seed-eaters: mourning doves, cardinals, and the like. As I recall, they were watching me spread the seed with a rather keen interest. I’m sure they scooped up the bounty that I so carefully planted.

One reason I’m so sure they’re to blame for my wildflowers not growing where I planted them is because one of the plants I ordered has come up in several places that I didn’t plant it! Helianthus debilis, aka Dune Sunflower, has appeared in at least two places I didn’t sow any seed for it, and one of them happens to be right underneath the gumbo limbo out back, where some of these birds like to sit and, ahem, poop. And I guess that treatment is just what this little flower needs, because take a look at one of the blooms from back there:

According to Gil Nelson, there are 14 native sunflowers in Florida, and H. debilis is one of the more commonly available ones for gardeners. Like most flowers in the world, it’s in the aster family (Asteraceae). According to the entry in the FNPS blog for this plant, sunflowers

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:


The genus name, Helianthus, is from Ancient Greek ἥλιος (helios, “sun”) + ἄνθος (anthos, “flower”). It was named by the originator of modern scientific taxonomy, botanist Carl von Linnaeus. The specific name, debilis, is Latin for weak, frail (cf. French débile.), although I’m not sure where Nuttall came up with this name for the species. Presumably because it grows so low to the ground, unlike it’s more famous 5–6 foot tall cousin. But weak? Fragile? Hardly. It’s actually a fairly hardy little plant, as far as I can tell. The one area where I sowed seed and something came up is right next to the driveway, and the plant is growing out into a little corner. Last weekend during our Memorial Day cookout, the wife had to squeeze too close to it to get out of our driveway  and accidentally smushed about a quarter of the plant. All I did was trim off the damaged portion, and the rest of it is going strong!

New backyard plant: Mimosa strigillosa


The Saturday before Mother’s Day, I took Grammy and the boys up to Meadow Beauty Nursery in Lake Worth. Mom (Grammy) has a little sandyard that she wants to fill in with something pretty, so we went a-lookin’, and I decided that I needed some ground cover to fill in under my Bahama Strongbark.  It would make a nice surprise for Mommy when she got home (just in time for Mother’s Day).

The minute we got back from the nursery, I planted the flowers and grasses that we got, because I didn’t want to let the it-looks-like-rain weather pass. And boy, what a reward I got! One of them, the little pink Mimosa strigillosa, commonly known as powderpuff  or sunshine mimosa, has already flowered!

Powderpuff mimosa has a low growth habit that makes it an ideal ground cover, and pretty little pink blossoms that add some color to your yard:

The plant is part of the legume family, so it has little seed pods and it can fix nitrogen in the soil. Unlike some other low-growing and pretty groundcovers that you’ll find in Florida (I’m thinking of you, Tribulus cistoides, AKA puncture vine!), it’s native, not exotic, and it doesn’t have thorns, so it’s really an excellent little plant if you’re looking for color and coverage.

It can even be interplanted with lawn grass. According to the very informative Lee County UF/IFAS circular, grasses will grow through it and can be mowed without affecting the usually lower growing mimosa. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works in my garden.

Etymology: Like some other plants in the genus Mimosa, M. strigillosa is a “sensitive plant,” meaning that it responds to touch. The leaves, covered with stiff hairs or bristles (strig- = referring to stiff hairs or bristles [strigosa / strigillosa]), curl up within a second or two of being touched. Hence the genus name, which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (which I rarely consult because the Florida native organisms I find are so rarely explained therein!) was

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?

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.

New Backyard Plant: Tradescantia ohiensis, Common Spiderwort


Whenever you go shopping (at least, whenever I go shopping; maybe you’re different) you seem to come home with more than you set to out to get. For instance, last month I went to my favorite native plant nursery (Mesozoic Landscapes in Lake Worth) to pick up a new tree (a Bahama Strongbark to replace the White Lead Tree that volunteered in my front yard). While I was at the nursery, though, I wandered through the bitterbush (Picramnia pentandra) section and realized that I’d been wishing for that for quite some time. So I brought home a couple of those as well. What’s more, these bitterbush pots had some spiderwort volunteers growing in them! I love wildflowers, and getting them “for free” (I did have to pay for the bitterbush, after all) is the best way!

Common Spiderwort, known to gardeners as Tradescantia ohiensis, is a crafty little flower. It only blooms relatively early in the morning, so if you have to get the kids off to school, you’d better come back quick before it disappears. Last week I was a bit too slow, and she’d gone to bed:

You can see the flower petals all folded up tight inside the sepals, waiting for the morrow.

And today I was able to get home in time to catch her in full glory:

As always with native plants, I check to see what Rufino Osorio has to say. Here is his final thought about the plant:

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:

I’m hoping that if it gets enough pollination visits and enough sun/shade/water/drought, it will start to spread itself through the backyard. I’ve got enough pest species (Spanish needles, Beggarticks, etc.) that it would be nice to get some competition for them!

New plantings: Vallesia antillana


I “won” a couple of the silent auctions at last month’s FNPS plant auction. One of the plants I brought home is pearl berry, Vallesia antillana. It’s a very pretty little plant, and apparently quite rare in the wild. (My Chafin tells me that it’s known only from 7 sites, 4 of which are state or national parks.)  It’s also rather rare in cultivation; the only other native plant person I know with this plant tells me that hers is much smaller than this one. And mine is only about two feet tall, and probably about two feet around. I kept it in its pot for a month or so, and then the other day decided the time was right to put it in the ground.

It took me a while to find an appropriate site. The notes that came with the specimen indicated that it likes filtered light, and there’s not a lot of that on my property. I have plenty of spots that are either in morning, mid-day, afternoon, or all-day full sun; I also have a few sometimes-shady spots under a palm or gumbo limbo. But that’s really about it. But I finally realized that over against the fence on the eastern side of the house, there’s a little group of palms under a large pod-bearing tree.* And in that spot the fence shades it from full sun in the morning, while the palms and the large tree filter the midday sun, and the house shades the area in the late afternoon.

I put the plant there soon after bringing it home, and after a few weeks in the pot, it didn’t seem to be any the worse for wear, so I got my spade and put it in the ground.

Here’s a picture from the early days, when it was still a potted plant:

The leaves are nice and shiny, and the flower is quite dainty and interesting. According to the internet references I’ve found it fruits and flowers year-round, although I’m still waiting to see any fruits on mine. Of course, those references also say it’s a slow-growing shrub that reaches about 5 feet; my Chafin tells me it’s a shrub or small tree to 12 feet tall, so, as with most things, you get to decide which source you want to believe. Everyone seems to agree that it should be placed in the dogbane family (Apocynaceae), and that it has alternate, elliptic leaves with milky sap (a distinguishing characteristic from other alternate-elliptic-leaved shrubs) and fruits and flowers year-round (another distinguishing feature).

There’s a story about this plant, though; I’m just waiting for the good folks at bugguide.net to firm up an ID for me before I get to it. Stay tuned!

* I’m told the tree is a copperpod, which is one name for “yellow poinciana,”Peltophorum pterocarpum, but I haven’t seen the brilliant showy flowers that tree is supposed to have, so that may not be right. Whatever the tree is, it provides some good shade. It certainly does have copper-colored seed pods:

But I’m not sure that the ID is correct, despite the convergence of feature and common name. My tree has puffy, nonshowy flowers, which is a big strike against that ID:

Any ideas what this tree might be?

New plantings: Zanthoxylum fagara


One of the cornerstone plantings in my new backyard is a Wild Lime tree, Zanthoxylum fagara. It didn’t come from the native plant auction, but from one of my friends in the Audubon Society who is also an FNPS member and who graciously allowed me to come take many many plants to get my back yard started. Wild lime is a great one, because it’s useful in many ways: as a larval host plant for Giant Swallowtail butterflies, as a cover plant for small birds (it has thorns to deter predators, although because it’s a tree, it’s not as good as a thickety shrub would be), and, because of its aromatic leaves, as a nice accent tree in the native garden. Neither Craig Huegel (“The seeds have only very minor value to most wildlife”) nor Rufino Osorio (“It does not have any outstanding horticultural attributes…”)  seem to like it too much, although they note that it is popular with butterfly gardeners.

I’m just glad that it’s coming in, as I had my doubts when I first planted it. It seemed to be taking forever to send up new growth. But some tender leaflets are appearing at last:

The entire plant is about two feet tall right now, and it looks like it’s rooting well, as the new growth is coming in nicely:

I’ve planted this member of the prickly ash family in an out-of-the-way corner of the yard, along with some other prickly plants like coral bean (Erythrina herbacea); as I get more plants I’m going to screen in front of it with marlberry, wild coffee, firebush, etc., so people don’t blunder into the thorns.

Zanthoxylum means “yellow wood”; I’m not sure what Linnaeus meant by “fagara,” which is also the name of a genus of tree found in India.

Wild Lime is a citrus tree, but it bears only the tiniest of fruits, certainly nothing like a true lime or Key lime tree would… Nonetheless, I’m excited to have it in my garden!

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