Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Learning the Local Native Plants

Ashamedly, I have to admit that it took me living here for over 10 months to get off my duff and go back out to the nearby wild area for a walk-about to look for native plants.  Even then, my friend Anna had to initiate the outing.  I can't believe I waited this long - and I'm kicking myself about all the interesting sights I have been missing.

On Monday morning, Anna and I sallied forth to the same road/trail that my family and I visited 18 months ago.  I blogged about our finds in "We're Not in Kansas Any More!" as well as two subsequent posts about specific plants.  Walking on Monday, I actually recognized the American holly tree that I talked about in that original post, but otherwise my attention was generally drawn to very different plants this time.

We were scouting for lupine, which Anna had seen along this sand road just a week or two earlier.  Unfortunately, in the intervening time, some "maintenance" had been done on the trail by a bulldozer, carelessly and messily widening it, and we found no trace of the lupine.  We did, however, discover some other treasures.

One of the first plants we noticed was Pinewoods Milkweed, Asclepias humistrata.

This plant is also known by the common names of sandhill milkweed, for its preferred habitat, and pink-veined milkweed or purple milkweed for rather obvious reasons.  This is a plant that I would love to grow in my yard, as I find the leaves gorgeous just by themselves. 

Add in the attractive pinkish flowers and its function as food for monarch caterpillars and this plant becomes almost irresistible.

Another attractive plant that we noticed was this little white-flowered beauty with its beautifully shaped, dark green leaves.

As I researched to figure out what we were seeing, I was very glad that we didn't try to pick any of the flowers we saw, just to save us from picking this one.  This plant is called Tread-Softly, Cnidoscolus stimulosus, and all of the green, above-ground parts of the plant are covered with stinging hairs.  While this isn't not a true nettle, it is sometimes called bull nettle or spurge nettle.  Another name for it is finger rot, which makes my imagination run wild in all sorts of nasty ways.  Needless to say, this is NOT a plant that I plan on trying to import into our yard!   Ironically, at least one source said that the tuberous roots are edible...but getting to those roots might take some serious caution.

Silphium is a genus that I became somewhat familiar with on the prairie, where one of its most famous members is Compass Plant, Silphium laciniatum.  As soon as I saw the leaves of this basal rosette, my mind yelled, "Silphium!", and I think that instinctive reaction is probably correct.

While I won't know for sure until later in the year when I see it bloom, I think this beautiful little clump of big, bright green leaves belongs to Kidneyleaf Rosinweed, Silphium compositum.   I'm not sure you could dream up a much uglier name for a plant.  Despite its ugly name, I hope to find a source for this species, since I think the leaves would look really nice in a native flower bed, adding some dramatic size and visual texture to the overall mix.

There were two flowers that we found that I haven't been able to identify yet.  First was this pinky-purple little beauty.

That's reindeer moss nestled beside it, to give you a sense of scale.  We saw several of these plants blooming and they were all less than 12" tall.

Second was this yellow-green, almost abstract bloomer that I suspect is in the Euphorbiaceae family. We saw several;  they seemed to run about 15-18" tall.

If anyone knows the identity of either of these plants, I would love to know what they are.

Another plant we noticed was this silvery, quiet-looking plant.

A little research gave me the identity, Healing Croton, Croton argyranthemus

What I haven't been able to determine is why it's been given the common name of Healing Croton.  It is the larval food for a pretty little butterfly known as a goatweed leafwing.   I haven't seen a goatweed leafwing since moving here to Florida, although they do occur here, but here are photos of one in Kansas, taken in September 2013.

Speaking of butterflies, at one point we found this large chrysalis hanging from a bare branch.  I don't know enough about such things to begin to guess what species made this chrysalis, but I think it's cool.

Another insect sighting was this black and white wasp, working busily to deal with a caterpillar, presumably extracted from this stitched together clump of leaves.

At the time, I was concerned that it might be a bald-faced hornet, so I didn't get too close. 

When I got home and downloaded the photos, I realized that this little beauty is actually a potter or mason wasp, a solitary wasp, presumably collecting caterpillars to paralyze and store for its young to eat as it grows.

Reindeer moss, sparkleberry, blooming yaupon, black cherry, beach rosemary.....  We saw a lot of other things that entranced us.  I'll leave you with a photo of the sky through the pine trees - a slice of heaven.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Pausing to Rest for the Summer

Last spring, on Earth Day, this was our front yard.

Of course, it wasn't our front yard yet, but this was the front yard of the house that we would buy two months later.  A couple big trees, lots of generic, box store shrubs, and a typical Florida sandy "lawn".

Between our grandson being born, a major move, selling our old house, unpacking, celebrating the holidays, and caring for Connor, we did basically nothing to the yard for months except to mow it.

"I thought you were a gardener," quipped one of our neighbors, after we'd been here for about 6 months but still had done nothing in the way of planting or landscaping.

At last, around the end of January, my gardening juices began to flow.  I had some plants that I'd purchased at the Mobile Botanical Garden during a visit the previous fall...few had been planted yet.  There were no defined planting beds except for the first few feet next to the foundation.  The yard was so open and almost barren that I felt almost paralyzed.

Here was the view from our front porch to the driveway, on January 23rd.....

...and here was the overall front yard on that day, little changed from the prior April except for the passing of seasons.

I took stock of the plants in the yard, to see what we had that I wanted to keep.  There were the big trees, although several laurel oaks in the back yard were obviously unhealthy and not long for this world.   Seven camellias - large, with lovely blooms, but planted about 15" from the foundation and heavily pruned with little knowledge or finesse.  Two healthy yellow anise (Illicium parviflorum), unfortunately planted 15" from the foundation directly beneath the big kitchen window, which they were trying desperately to shield from sight. Quite a few healthy, evergreen azaleas, almost all neatly pruned into boxes and planted right up next to the foundation.  Several Knockout roses, all leggy and overgrown, desperately in need of pruning.  Some very nice big clumps of African iris.  A single clump of narrowleaf goldenaster (Chrysopsis linearifolia) that I had found as a "weed" in the lawn.  Some seedling beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) - one about 18" tall coming up through an unhealthy Indian hawthorn and several 6" tall individuals in a clump.  A few, very small St. John's Wort shrubs (Hypericum sp.) that seemed to have come in on their own.  And some partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) growing at the base of one of the laurel oaks.

All in all, not a big start in a 0.4 acre yard. And none of it in a logical sweep that suggested a planting bed or the start to a landscaping plan.

So, I simply got out the hose and started making a big curve in the front yard.  Under the big southern magnolia along the driveway, I used the demarcation of lousy grass caused by heavy shade to get started, then I moved on from there.  The following photo shows the beginning of the middle bed, with some of the plants we had recently planted, after the bed had been outlined, but before I had finished weeding and mulching.

Here along the Gulf Coast, one of the main times of leaf fall is in the spring when the evergreen oaks shed their leaves just before getting their new foliage.  As Greg picked up the fallen leaves, he put them in the newly marked bed under the magnolia.  I found a source of shredded wood mulch from a local tree service and had them dump a load, then used that heavier mulch as a thin layer to hold the leaves in place.  With a slope from the street towards the front walkway and porch, I was concerned that, with the first big rain, all the mulch would float down to cover up the path, but thankfully that hasn't happened.

With shrubs already under the magnolia tree, defining that bed was pretty quick and easy.  Defining the remaining 2 beds in the front yard took a little more time, but we used the same general process - define the outline with the hose, then put down leaves topped with shredded hardwood. Of course, we were also visiting both 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery and Mobile Botanical Gardens to get more plants, placing those where appropriate, as you can see above.

The more open areas that we turned into beds took much more time and effort to outline, plant and mulch than the first bed - but we finally finished today!   I really wanted to get the front yard beds to a state that looked moderately finished, so that we didn't look like the half-built house slumming in the neighborhood.  The beds are still very empty, but we've been able to find and put in several shrubs that should be getting a nice start this year, plus a few perennials that we found we couldn't live without.

These photos don't really show the new beds as well as I'd like them to, but I'm still excited enough about getting the project to this state that I want to share!  First, the overview....

...then the opposite angle, ...

...and the front door gardens.

I'm excited about continuing to fill the beds.  Hopefully, the next time I share photos of the front yard, it will be because these new beds are brimming with gorgeous plants and bright, blooming flowers!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Spring Blooms Anew

It doesn't seem fair to go through spring without posting a few "pretty" pictures, so I'm going to give into the urge while I have time and energy tonight.

Since this is a new location and a new garden, I'm still in early days yet, learning what will thrive here, what will just survive, and what just doesn't like this yard.  Hopefully these flowering beauties will all be thrivers.

One of the plants that I just put in this spring is downy phlox (Phlox pilosa) that I bought from Dara at 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery in DeFuniak Springs.  We purchased 3 of these at the end of January and planted them the next day.  At the time we bought them, one plant was just beginning to bloom.  The photo above was taken on March 23rd; 3 weeks later, all three plants are blooming as much or more today as they were in this photo.  So, as of right now, these downy phlox started blooming at the end of January and are still blooming strongly 2 1/2 months later!  Not bad for perennials, especially perennials that I haven't dead-headed.

Next on my spring showcase tour are these golden ragwort (Packera aurea), another great purchase from 7 Pines.  These plants were also purchased at the end of January and planted shortly thereafter into very dry shade under a large southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).  So far, they are doing better than I even hoped for. 

The beautiful little golden flowers started blooming a couple weeks before this photo was taken on March 23rd, the same day the photo of the downy phlox was taken, and they are just now beginning to go to seed.  While I'm tickled about 6 weeks of bloom, I'm most excited about how well the basal rosettes of leaves are doing, as one of my favorite things about these plants is their low, pretty foliage throughout the year. 

Hopefully, in a couple years, this entire area will be carpeted with golden ragwort plants.  To facilitate that, I'm going to leave the spent flowers on the plants until the seeds have dispersed.  Then I will cut the stems off and just let the plants function as an attractive groundcover for the rest of the year.

Moving to the back yard, we planted a trio of Florida flame azaleas (Rhododendron austrinum) next to the sea wall about a month ago.  Two of these plants are just moving into full bloom now and I am loving their vivid orange blooms and bright new foliage against the backdrop of the shifting lake waters.

Of course, I love their blooms up close even more!

I do plan to solve the "plants plopped into the middle of grass" issue...but that will have to wait for quieter times, I'm afraid.

Last but not least, in this little spring tour, are the beautiful little white violets (Viola sp.) that came along with one of the Florida flame azaleas, nestled at its base.  So far I have no species identification for this plant, but I am enjoying its dainty beauty anyway.

As I've written this post, I've realized that I haven't gotten photos of several other blooming plants in the yard, but I'll have to save those for another day.  I hope your spring is bringing you lots of fresh beauty all around!

The Surprising Lure of Open Ground

Why on Earth would I share a photo of such a nondescript area of our "new" backyard, here in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida?

To put it bluntly, I am sharing this photo because it is one of the most "happening" places in our yard.

Yeah, I wouldn't believe it either, if I didn't look out my kitchen window and see it for myself every day, regularly, throughout the entire daylight period.

I am still not sure what, exactly, attracts the birds to this particular area.  They don't dust bathe in the open sand.  There are no thriving ant colonies in the area or obvious signs of other insect life.  There is no pea gravel or other, slightly larger, gravel that could help in their crops.  Yet every day, over and over again, I see blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, mourning doves, mockingbirds, and cardinals come into this area, stay for a while, then fly off again.  Obviously something is attracting them.

By watching closely, though, I've figured out a bit of the mystery....

The red-bellied woodpeckers fly directly from the trunk of the laurel oak (on the left) or the pignut hickory (on the right) down to the ground, stay for 30 seconds or so, then fly back up.  Watching through the binoculars, I think they are generally picking up the laurel oak acorns that were thick on the ground last fall and through the winter. 

The acorns aren't nearly as common now as they were then, which is hardly surprising, but still the red-bellieds come.

The blue jays fly down from the branches of the surrounding trees.  They, too, seem to be going after the acorns, based on what I see through the binoculars.

On the other hand, the mockingbird perches on the hammock first, then flies to the ground.  He seems to scavenge a little longer than the jays or the woodpeckers and it's hard for me to see what he is finding.  I suspect insects or some other small invertebrates, but it could be seeds.  (I am speaking of this as a singular bird, since I tend to see one mockingbird at a time, but I strongly suspect that more than one visits the area.)

I haven't been able to see anything in the beaks of the cardinals or mourning dove that come in to feed either.  For these birds, I suspect the attraction is seed from the "weeds" that are easily as major a component of the area as any grass that remains from the last sodding.

So why share this area at all?  I guess because I want to point out that even seemingly barren, "waste" ground can be valuable to some wildlife.

When we first moved in, I saw this part of the backyard as an area that needed to be fixed, preferably sooner than later.  I just wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do with it.  Now I'm not so sure.  This patch attracts many more birds than nearby areas that have much healthier grass.  I do worry about erosion, though, since we get frequent rain and the land in the backyard slopes slightly.

For now I'm content to just wait and observe.  Funny how natural systems see worth in different ways than we humans do.

P.S.  That ugly, plastic, green flag?  I mark plants I don't recognize or that I may want to move when they have come up in the lawn.   That way, I remember to keep an eye on them and the plants don't get mowed before I decide what to do with them.  That particular flag is marking a dainty little sedge that I want to move somewhere more picturesque.