Friday, August 15, 2014

The Color of Sunshine

I love yellow.

Yellow is the color of those cute little smiley face icons we add to our email messages, of rubber duckies, of bananas, and pollen. It's a happy color.

It is the color of sunshine, the color of Florida.

I didn't realize just how many yellow wildflowers are in my butterfly garden until last week. The butterfly bed -- a narrow space packed with flowers for pollinators -- is aglow in yellow.

Many of the flowers look like daisies, with multiple ray-like petals encircling either a yellow or dark center disk. 

There is black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).

And rosinweed (Silphium astericus).

Gulf fritillary on rosinweed

And the lovely cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), perhaps my favorite.
Green sweat bee on cutleaf coneflower

Earlier in the summer, I had tickseed (Coreopsis spp.) though it has died back in my garden now.  I saw more tickseed in pastures, ditches and along roadsides this year than I can ever recall -- seas of egg-yolk blossoms that never failed to make me slow down and soak in the sheer beauty of these "fields of gold."

Tickseed meadow, Myakka River State Park
 in June 2014
A closer look at tickseed 

And soon I will have the tall stalks of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and the prolific narrow-leaved sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) that reach heights of 8 feet if I don't cut the stems back in early July, before flower buds start to form.

 Narrow-leaved sunflowers,
 October 2014

All of these species are native to Florida. All are perennials -- meaning they return year after year to shine in your yard (although tickseed is an annual for me, and every spring I transplant a few from a nearby vacant lot). 

Several, like goldenrod and narrow-leaved sunflowers, reseed with abandon, multiplying over time so you can share them with friends. 

Maybe it's not a coincidence that the Sunshine State has so many sunshine-colored wildflowers! 


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When Passions Collide

I love making things grow. I also love having butterflies in my yard. About this time every year, the two passions collide -- literally!

I plant flowers not just to provide food, in the form of nectar, for the adult butterflies, but also to feed their babes -- known to scientists as instars and to us as caterpillars. For example, milkweed species are the only plants on which monarch butterflies will lay eggs. Passionvines, or passionflowers, are the sole larval food for both the Gulf fritillary and the zebra longwing (pictured here).

Nature ensures that fritillaries and longwings don't compete for the same passionvines by bestowing a preference for passionvine in full sun on the fritillaries and passionvine planted in shade on the longwings. How cool is that?

I have three types of passionvine in my yard: 

  • Maypop passionvine (Passiflora incarnata) native to Florida
  • Corky stem passionvine (Passiflora suberosa) also native to Florida
  • A hybrid variety with magenta flowers called Passiflora 'Lady Margaret'

The Lady Margaret and Maypop varieties have stunning flowers any gardener would be proud to showcase. 
Passiflora 'Lady Margaret"

The corky stem is a bit of an ugly duckling. Its flowers are small and somewhat pathetic looking. But it is beloved by zebra longwings, and that is why I have it.

Lady Margaret is planted on my backyard fence in full, blazing sun. Maypop winds along my deck railing in part sun/part shade. The corky stem is tucked away on a trellis in deep shade. People don't notice it and that's fine with me. I don't even notice it.

But I do notice the other two varieties, which is why the gardener in me cringes this time of year, because those get munched to oblivion by Gulf fritillary and zebra longwing caterpillars.

Gulf fritillary caterpillar
Two years ago, every single leaf on my Lady Margaret was eaten by fritillary cats. I mean EVERY SINGLE LEAF. Nothing was left but bare vines sprawling along my fence like highway lines on a map. 

That spring, my husband and I counted as many as 32 caterpillars at a time on the plant. Those were just the ones we could find.

I marveled at the buffet line of caterpillars, simultaneously shedding a tear for the lost beauty of the Lady Margaret.

This year, the same destruction is underway, and we'll soon be left with bare stems on the Lady Margaret again. But the plant will bounce back quickly - it always does. 

My Maypop is new and not nearly as appetizing yet, but the butterflies already are hovering around it.

So, here in all its shredded and ragged glory, is what is left of my Lady Margaret this year. 

But here is my reward for choosing nature's way over the perfect garden.
Adult Gulf fritillary

No doubt about which is better.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


My beautyberry is by no means a beauty right now, but the birds don't give a hoot.

Scraggly and almost naked after our relatively cold winter, it is little more than a "Charlie Brown Christmas tree" of bare branches drooping with round clusters of dark purple berries. And that's fine with the mockingbirds, blue jays, warblers and, most recently, robins, that have been feasting on them.  I have read that many migrating birds that normally eat insects -- such as robins -- will switch to fruits and berries prior to migration to pile on the fat they will need to fuel their epic journeys.
Sssshhh. Don't let the birds hear us call this beautyberry an ugly duckling!

I still have mockingbirds going to great lengths to keep other birds away from the beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). Don't know if it's the same bully bird I first noticed last December!

A walk around my yard reveals a surprising number of plants with ripe berries right now. Mother Nature must know that the end of winter is a time of slim pickings for birds and other critters, and she makes sure to stock the larders!

My East Palatka hollies still have a few bright red berries. This is another treat much loved by the mockingbirds, as well as blue jays.

East Palatka Holly 

Berries are still hanging on to the wild coffee too, and I have seen cardinals plucking those recently.

Button, or wild, sage
A newcomer to my yard is the button sage, a native shrubby lantana. This is NOT the lantana you see in the Big Box stores -- some varieties of that (including the popular multi-color Lantana camara) have become quite invasive and are spreading through our wildlands. The native button sage (Lantana involucrata) is widely available in native plant nurseries and easy-peasy to grow in residential landscapes.
I haven't seen any birds consuming these berries yet -- what about any of you that have this hardy shrub?

Finally, there is the firebush (Hamelia patens), the most super-charged butterfly nectar plant I have! The irresistible tubular blooms have now become prolific clusters of juicy ebony berries. I understand people can eat these berries, as syrup or wine, though I haven't tasted them yet. But the mockingbirds and cardinals have, quite enthusiastically!
Firebush, one of my all-time favorites!

Spring is coming, no doubt about it. Any day now I expect to see my deciduous Florida elm come alive with tiny little green leaf buds, and the monarch butterflies reappear, looking for milkweed. But the last remnants of winter are providing a colorful, berry-licious reminder that, even in the season of scarcity, nature gives us what we need to get by.

What berries are your backyard birds devouring?