Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mysteries Solved: Three "New" Plants in the Garden

Just for the record, I HATE botanical keys.  You know the sort - those dichotomous keys where you spend more time in the glossary than you do looking at the specimen.  "Is this acute or attenuate?  What the hell does 'glandular' actually LOOK like?  Are these considered lobes or is this simply a wavy leaf edge?  Phyllaries?  What in the world is a phyllary?"  Heaven forbid your specimen isn't in the growth stage that the key is looking for!  The very first step in the most recent key I was using called for an examination of ribs on the seeds - but I've been waiting all summer for my plants to simply bloom, let alone for seed to set.  They are still weeks away from having ripe seeds!

Thankfully, there's the internet and friends and sheer doggedness.

I've actually been able to solve three identification mysteries recently, two of them at least partially through the use of dichotomous keys.  The first mystery I solved was what the slightly blurry, tall plant was on the right hand side in the foreground of the photo below....

This was a volunteer in the backyard which I noticed early last spring, although this photo was taken in early June.  I was hoping it was a goldenrod (Solidago sp.), rather than horseweed (Conyza canadensis).  The mystery plant kept growing taller and taller and taller, not heading out until sometime in September. When it finally bloomed, I was vindicated.  Definitely goldenrod. 

Definitely goldenrod.  It was much tougher to figure out WHICH goldenrod, though.  Using keys and photos, I was finally able to work it out:  I now have a locally sourced, pine barren goldenrod (Solidago fistulosa).  Because not all goldenrods are created equal and because pine barren goldenrod is notorious for its "vigorous spreading" via rhizomes, it's good to know the actual identity of this plant.  I'd been planning on moving it anyway, since it's too tall for its location - now I know I HAVE to relocate it to someplace where its expansive tendencies won't be a big problem.  Sounds like a lower terrace plant to me!

Just to the left of that first mystery plant was another mystery plant....

By early June this second plant was shorter than the first mystery plant, but still fairly tall.  It looked vaguely like an althea (Hibiscus syriacus), which does naturalize in this area, but that didn't seem quite right.  So I waited and waited and waited for this plant to bloom, too.  Meanwhile, the stems got woodier and woodier and the height got taller and taller.  Finally it, too, bloomed - just shortly after the pine barren goldenrod.

It's rather hard to see the plant in this photo from 10 days ago, but it's the upright plant in the middle of the goldenrod.  It's even harder to see the small, white blooms from this far away, but here they are, up close and with a syrphid fly on one of them....

With few close relatives to distinguish between, it was fairly easy to peg this plant as saltbush/eastern baccharis/groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia) once the blooms appeared.  Indeed, had I ever grown this plant before, I would probably have recognized it much sooner.  While I would have preferred a female plant, since the female blooms are much showier, I am still excited about having this pollinator magnet show up naturally.  The male blooms, above, are about 1/4" in diameter, to give you a sense of scale.  They are not showy, but the insects sure love them!

As the plant grew taller over the summer, I started planning to relocate it to the lower terrace along with the goldenrod.  However, several sources mentioned that saltbush makes a very pretty small tree, so I've changed my mind and decided to limb it up and use it to anchor the southern end of the bed that has grown up around these two mystery plants.

The third mystery plant has been nagging at me for identification almost since the day we moved into the house.  I noticed a rather pretty looking plant out near the lakeside deck a year ago in June and marked it so that it wouldn't get mown.

Last fall it bloomed with golden "daisy" flowers, after significant browning out on its lower stems.  Despite the brownout, the blooms were vibrant and showy.

Because of the blooms, last fall I was able to figure out that this was a goldenaster (Chrysopsis sp.), but I've been stymied about WHICH goldenaster.  There are several goldenaster species that only occur in this general area of the Florida panhandle, so there aren't many descriptions or photographs of those species available on the web.  Generally, the wildflower guides only showed one or two species out of the 6 or 7 that were possibilities.

We've had irrigation on the yard this summer and it has made a big difference with this plant.  While it browned out badly last summer without irrigation, this summer it has hardly browned out at all.  This plant has also probably tripled in size from last year to this, at least in reference to the number of stems and flower heads it has; it stays a wonderful 18" tall in height.

Drum roll, please!  I now know which species this is:  Godfrey's goldenaster (Chrysopsis godfreyi).  According to the USDA Plant Profiles database and the Atlas of Florida Plants, it is found in
5 or 6 counties in the panhandle of Florida and a little bit, somewhere in Alabama.  In other words, this is a fairly localized plant - which really excites me!  I am so glad that I protected it from mowing, particularly since it's turned out to be so attractive.

While this plant is nice from a distance, up close it's truly glowing....

Now that I know what a winner this plant is, I'm going to try to start some seeds...when at last I finally get some.  At least I don't have to worry about working through a dichotomous key on this one again - those ribbed or ribless seeds/reflexed phyllaries had me stymied for quite a while!


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Garden Pest Control, Goldenrod Style

Frustratingly, we are often gone during the time when the goldenrods are in full bloom.  I say "frustratingly" because I am fascinated by pollinators and by the interaction between plants and the insects that use them...and goldenrods are among the most highly utilized flowers in my gardens.  Only asters seem to attract more insects.

We only have 2 species of goldenrod in our yard so far.  One species, wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia), I planted.  The second species, whose identity is more problematic, came in on its own.  When I looked at the USDA Plant Profiles site, there are 12 goldenrods said to be native to Okaloosa County, Florida.  I can eliminate two of those species based on growth habit, but I am still left with at least 10 possible species that might be "my" goldenrod.  That said, I'm not sure how important it is to know the exact identity as, to my knowledge, all goldenrods are spectacular pollinator plants.

Like most years, we were gone for 10 days during peak goldenrod bloom time this year, but I was able to get a few photos the day we left and, again, a day or two after we got back.  I don't have all the insects identified, but I thought I'd share some of the photos with you anyway.

As I listed the species I'd photographed nectaring on or otherwise using our goldenrods, I realized that goldenrods are marvelous predator attractants.  There were at least 6 different wasp species nectaring, most of whom feed their young on moth or other caterpillars.  (Note:  I am paranoid about wasps, but have never been bothered by a wasp feeding on a flower.  Generally only social wasps and bees are aggressive, and then only in defending their nests.)  There were other insect predators, too.

There were at least 4 different mason or potter wasps, all of whom feed their young on caterpillars:

Among these cute little solitary wasps, some (the mason wasps) utilize existing small holes to pack with paralyzed caterpillars and lay an egg upon, before closing up the opening with mud.  The holes in our bricks around the windows, where a prior owner had to board up the windows in preparation for a hurricane, are popular nesting spots for mason wasps.  Others of these wasps build free standing pots of mud which are filled with paralyzed caterpillars before an egg is laid and the pot is sealed.  Those are, not surprisingly, known as potter wasps.

Shown below, northern paper wasps can be very colorful.  This IS a social species and they build a classic "wasp nest" made of regurgitated wood fibers (paper).  Typical of social wasp species, paper wasps do defend their nest - but the individual wasps pay no attention to people when they are away from the nest, feeding on nectar.  Like the species above, this species hunts caterpillars but they hunt other insects, too, to feed their larvae.  They chew up their prey and feed their young on the protein rich regurgitated mix that results.

Thread-waisted wasps are odd looking creatures, but again they are great predators.  While the adult feeds on nectar at flowers, they feed their young on moth caterpillars.  Good protein for growing bodies!

Breaking the long line of caterpillar predators, there were also five-banded tiphiid wasps.  Tiphiid wasps lay each egg on a white grub in the soil (yes, THOSE white grubs).  When the egg hatches, the wasp larva burrows into the grub and slowly eats it from the inside, saving the most important organs for last, so that the grub remains alive and "fresh" until the bitter end.

Two other predatory insects that I found and photographed on the goldenrod were a pair of ladybugs (whose photo was so bad that I'm going to save my photographic reputation and not share it) and a milkweed assassin bug. 

Assassin bugs are indiscriminate predators and feed on many different kinds of insects.  I have to wonder how this brightly colored insect can get close enough to any other insect to capture it and eat it, but obviously they do.

There were common green bottle flies nectaring on the goldenrod, too.  These are one of the insect species whose larvae feed on carrion - and those larvae are also used by forensic scientists to date the age of corpses.  Obviously, the adults feed on flower nectar.

When you think of pollinators, you think of bees, right?  So far I haven't actually shared photos of any bees that were visiting the goldenrod, but there were, indeed, several different species of native bees that I saw.

In fact, bees were the most obvious insects feeding on the goldenrod blooms - at least in part because some of them were the biggest insects.  What is the first thing you notice in the photo above?  The two big eastern carpenter bees, of course.

Zooming in a little bit closer, you can see the righthand one in decent focus.  The left one, the one that is flying, is unfortunately out of focus, but I think you can still see the "bare" abdomen that is indicative of carpenter bees.  That big shiny black abdomen is the quickest and easiest way to separate carpenter bees from similarly sized and shaped bumblebees, whose abdomens are covered with hair.

There was one big black bee that also had a shiny abdomen.  I'd never seen one quite like it before, so I submitted the photos to BugGuide, where I was told it was also a carpenter bee....

.... a female southern carpenter bee (Xylocopa micans).  The males of this species have yellow or orangish hair on their thorax, similar to the eastern carpenter bee above, but they often seem to have green eyes... or at least that's what it seems like, looking at the images on BugGuide.

There was a male green metallic bee (Agapostemon splendens), a species I've seen on other flowers in the yard before.

There were also a couple of bees that I haven't identified yet.

I may need to ask for help from BugGuide to identify these, too.

If we'd been home during the peak goldenrod bloom time, I'm sure that I'd have more insect photos to share with you.  There were, for example, several butterflies that I'd see nectaring on the goldenrod, but they were always gone by the time I got outside with my camera.

All in all, though, I'm pretty happy with the 15 different species I observed using the goldenrods in our yard.  These pollinators will also be pollinating other flowers in the area...and over half of these species will also be controlling leaf-eating insect species in the yard as they raise their families.  That's pest control I LOVE to see happening!

Monday, October 03, 2016

Learning My Garden Through Weeding

Anybody else out there enjoy weeding?

While I don't like to be outside for any length of time if the weather is abysmal - which is how I define most of the hot, humid summer down here in the panhandle of Florida - once the weather starts cooling off, I actually find that I like to weed.  It's meditative...and I learn A LOT about the nuts and bolts of daily life going on at ground level in my garden.

My latest weeding project is/was a large, new bed that I halfheartedly started last spring, before I got chased inside by heat and humidity.  The photo above shows about half of the area, which continues on to the right another 10 feet or so.  Taken fairly early in the weeding process, this shows the approximate height and thickness of the weeds I was removing. 

I chose to hand weed this new bed for two basic reasons, one of them related to poor planning.  First of all, I knew there were several small seedling plants located in the area that I wanted to save and, probably, relocate.  Secondly, when I started to make the bed last spring, I put in a few plants that I didn't want to lose.  There were 3 clumps of pink rain lilies (Zephyranthes grandiflora) and, more problematically, several wild strawberry plants (Fragaria virginiana) that had spent the summer putting out runners and baby plants.  If I smothered the area with newspaper and mulch, it would be relatively easy, but I'd lose ALL of the plants in the area, including the ones I wanted to keep.

So I sat down on my rear and I weeded.  The weeds were primarily a mix of an 18" tall, rather airy plant with wiry stems that I haven't identified, doveweed (Murdannia nudiflora), chamberbitters (Phyllanthus urinaria, a.k.a. gripeweed, for my Mobile friends), Asiatic hawksbeard (Youngia japonica), mock strawberry (Duchesnea  indica), Florida pusley (Richardia scabra), and Virginia buttonweed (Diodia virginiana).  For seasoning, there was a little bit of dollarweed (Hydrocotyle umbellata), the dainty Carolina ponysfoot (Dichondra carolinensis), and a variety of sedges (Carex spp.) thrown in.

The photo above is a single stem of Virginia buttonweed, surrounded by lots of doveweed.  Lovely, isn't it?  (Yes, that's sarcasm.)  At least it was mostly green.  Anyway, of all the weeds, only about half the species were native:  Virginia buttonweed, Florida pusley, dollarweed, Carolina ponysfoot, and probably most of the sedges.  I don't know about the unidentified, 18" "wiry" weed.  Most of the biomass was doveweed, the wiry unknown, and Virginia buttonweed.

Anyway, as I sat there on the ground, hour after hour, I not only got to know the plants quite well, but I also got to see some of the "denizens of the dirt", those little creatures who live their entire lives in our gardens but that we rarely see or notice.  A few of these little creatures sat still long enough for me to photograph, so I thought I'd share them with you....

First off, I am going to cheat just a little.  I saw one skink in this area as I was working, but I didn't get a photograph of that particular individual.  I did get a photo of another one of the same species a few days earlier, so I'll share the photo that I have.

This is a ground skink (Scincella lateralis) and it was probably about 5" long, which is about as large as ground skinks get.  Apparently they are the commonest skink in Florida gardens, but they are rather hard to see, as they move very rapidly through the undergrowth and leaf litter.  When I am working in an established bed, I often catch a glimpse of a little brown lizard skittering away.  I assume those are other ground skinks, exhibiting their getaway skills.

A toad was the only other vertebrate that I flushed out as I weeded, although certainly birds and other vertebrates must have foraged in the area from time to time.  This little guy...

...seemed to be missing his right rear leg.  An injury?  Some sort of genetic defect?  Hard to tell.  Surprisingly to me, there are only 4 species of toads in Florida.  I think this is a southern toad (Bufo terrestris), the most common species, but I am not completely certain.

Rather unexpectedly, there were two large caterpillars amidst this unprepossessing mass of vegetation.  The first one was an odd looking "woolly bear" type, with coal black hair and bright red segments that showed when it curled up in its defensive position.  I've seen lots of woolly bears before, but never one colored like this.

According to BugGuide, this is the caterpillar for the giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia).  I've never seen an adult, but the BugGuide photos look stunning and I will certainly be looking for one now that I know it obviously occurs in our yard.

The second large caterpillar fell out of a handful of weeds that I had pulled, but by observing it for a couple minutes as it got back to eating, I believe it was munching determinedly on Virginia buttonwood.

Despite this guy's 3-4 inch long size and distinctive markings, he was a little hard to identify.  Nothing seemed to fit when I scanned the hornworm photos at BugGuide, so I eventually turned to Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David L. Wagner, where I was able to figure out what I was seeing.  This is the caterpillar of the Tersa Sphinx (Xylophanes tersa), another striking moth species that I've never seen before.  The link is to the node at BugGuide, where you can see photos of both the caterpillars and the adults.

I photographed two other caterpillars, both much smaller.  One was a hairy individual that I haven't tried to identify yet....

while the other was an early instar of yet another sphinx moth, about an inch long, also currently unidentified.

There were lots of little, round snails, maybe 1/4" in diameter...

...and one large, conical snail whose shell was at least an inch in length.

While I saw many green stinkbug nymphs, I only saw this one adult stinkbug.

While I'm not completely sure, I think this is Euschistus crenator, a species that feeds on sedges.  Probably the green nymphs were of a different species.

There were several small, longhorned grasshoppers, ....

but no shorthorned grasshoppers of any size, which is a major change from gardening in Kansas.

There were also a lot of small spiders.  I only took the time to photograph this one, which was slightly larger than most.  I think it is a wolf spider, but I don't know the species yet.

Last, but hardly least, there were a lot of roaches running around.  I didn't try to photograph any of them, assuming they were wood roaches which help to decompose organic matter.  I saw this one, though, that was different and obviously an adult.  It was trying to get away through the grass and "posing", so I did take a couple minutes to get a few photos.  Imagine my dismay just now as I worked to identify it and realized it is probably a non-native, Surinam Cockroach (Pycnoscelus surinamensis) .  If so, according to BugGuide, it has the interesting characteristic of reproducing entirely by parthenogenesis in the U.S. - no males have ever been found.

As I worked and noted all of the small creatures living among the weeds I was pulling out, I found myself feeling guilty for destroying the habitat that was obviously providing food and shelter for such a large variety of little animals.  I'm trying to placate myself by remembering that I will be planting a variety of native perennials and shrubs in the area this fall, all tucked in with a nice layer of leaf and wood chip mulch...but the dismay is still there, simmering in the background.  Forgive me, little ones.  I really AM trying to create a healthy habitat for all in our yard and gardens.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Lab Girl", A Memoir of a Female Scientist Forging Her Proper Life

Do you have behaviors that you wish you'd begun when you were younger?  I know I do.  One of my regrets is that I didn't read more biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies when I was in my teens, 20s, 30s, and even in my 40s.  I especially regret that I didn't read more about the life stories of women that I admired, so that I could get a wider understanding of what being a woman in our culture entailed, both positively and negatively.

Regrets aside, I've started reading more biographies and memoirs in recent years.  I love the perspective it gives me on possibilities, life choices, the cost of fame, the commonalities that we all experience, and a myriad of other issues, both philosophical and mundane.

I don't remember where I first heard about Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) or what the reviewer said about this book, but I immediately knew I wanted to read it...and I am so glad that I did.

Hope Jahren was born in 1969, 13 years after I was born, into a family with a father who was a scientist and teacher, a highly intelligent mother who was a housewife, and 3 older brothers.  She learned to love science in her father's classroom laboratory and, building on the platform of a rather ordinary childhood, she has become an award winning geobiologist, recently based out of the University of Oslo.

It's rare to find a book, written by a scientist who based the thematic structure of the book on plants, described as "mesmerizing", having a "zing", or "electric".  These words have all been used to describe this book, and they are spot on.  Dr. Jahren intersperses vividly written and lyrical short chapters on plant biology with engrossing tales of the people and the events in her life that have helped shape her into who she is today.  Incidentally, in her childhood Dr. Jahren studied English literature with her mother, as her mother worked to earn the bachelor's degree that she'd been unable to obtain before marriage.  Dr. Jahren herself started college as a literature major before realizing that science was her true passion; her facility with words and metaphors and her compelling prose betray her ongoing love of language, despite her choice of science as her career path.

From this book, "Each beginning is the end of a waiting.  We are each given exactly one chance to be.  Each of us is both impossible and inevitable.  Every replete tree was first a seed that waited."

Lab Girl is a seed that has been cast out into the world to germinate.  Whether it develops into a towering oak or stays a struggling seedling depends in great part on how deep and rich the soil is upon which it lands, how many people read it and absorb the wisdom it has to offer, then pass that wisdom along.   Most of all, I can envision Lab Girl bearing valuable fruit such as young girls being able to see a path forward if they choose science as a viable life path and ordinary people learning to see plants as the living heroes of our planet that they truly are.

Read this book.  Judge it for yourself.  Then let me know what you think.  I'm betting you'll be encouraging others to read Lab Girl, too.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Trickle of Native Insects Begins to Appear....

FINALLY!  We've lived here for about 16 months now and at last I am beginning to see a greater variety of  insects attracted to and living in our yard.  It's so exciting to go outside and see native pollinators nectaring at the few little blooms we have scattered around, or predatory insects patrolling the foliage and flowers.  It sure goes to show that changes don't have to be big or dramatic to have an impact.  Every little bit counts.

So here are some of my recent finds....

Gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are gorgeous butterflies, with silver patterns on the undersides of their wings and an almost fluorescent orange coloration on the top side.  The fresh individual in the top photo was nectaring at garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), while the tattered one in the lower photo is nectarying at Flyr's Nemesis (Brickellia cordifolia), a rare wildflower in Florida that has recently become available at some native plant nurseries, including 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery in DeFuniak Springs.

Out and about, I'm seeing more gulf fritillaries flying everywhere these days, presumably due to the time of year.  However, I'm starting to count on seeing them regularly in our yard since we finally have some caterpillars eating the maypop vines (Passiflora incarnata) that we planted on the lower terraces last spring.  Just as monarch caterpillars only eat milkweeds, plants in the genus Asclepias, so gulf fritillary caterpillars only eat maypops and passionflowers, plants in the genus Passiflora.

Predators are pretty rare in the yard still.  It took me around 5 years to start noticing them regularly in my Kansas gardens, so I'm trusting that they'll increase in number as I garden naturally here.

With a lake right out the back door, however, we do have several dragonfly and damselfly species.  One of the species I've just started to see is the eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera).  A male and a female have staked out the small patch of powderpuff (Mimosa strigillosa) in the front yard and I can count on finding them there essentially every day.

Although this species is quite small for a dragonfly, the male eastern amberwing, shown above, is easy to spot since he's dramatically colored, with shining amber-colored wings and a darker amber body.  Up close, the camera captures yellow markings on the thorax and abdomen that the eye generally misses.  The female, however, is much different....

...and much drabber.  Her darkly blotched wings and more sober colors don't attract the eye as her mate's colors do, but that's probably the point.  She, too, has yellow markings on her thorax and abdomen. 

These small dragonflies are said to eat "tiny, flying insects", which I interpret to mean mosquitoes.  Hopefully my male and female eastern amberwings will produce lots and lots of baby eastern amberwings to patrol my yard even more thoroughly!

Another colorful species that I've observed, photographed, and been able to identify is the metallic green bee, Agapostemon splendens.  I've always loved the metallic green bees, especially the ones that are entirely green, because of their vibrant coloring.

Shown above, the females of Agapostemon splendens are especially beautiful to my eye and earn their "splendid" moniker based on the beautiful shadings of blue and green on their abdomen.  Note:  I have no real idea why this species was labeled the splendid green metallic bee, but I think the abdomenal color IS splendid.

Here's another, closer look at that gorgeous color.  Look, too, at the pollen load that this little bee is carrying - the pollen from this species of flower is white, not yellow, and that's a LOT of pollen clustered on her hind legs!  She still has to finish her load and, most importantly, fly back to her nest with her carefully gathered provisions.  Like many other native bees, the Agapostemon bees nest in the ground, usually in a tunnel dug by the female.  After digging the tunnel, the female gathers together a ball of pollen and nectar, lays an egg on it, seals off the cell, and repeats the process several times.

Interestingly, like the eastern amberwing dragonfly above, Agapostemon splendens is another dimorphic insect species, with the male looking significantly different from the female.  The photo above is a male of the same species.  While the thorax is similar to the female's, the abdomen is completely different - males sporting a natty black and yellow stripe pattern that is vibrant, but not as pleasing to my eye.  This little guy was fun to watch.  He seemed to perform head stands as he fed, diving deeply into the flower to get his prize.

Unlike the colorful green metallic bees, the next bees I want to share with you are somber black with a few white markings.

Another native bee, this is a carpenter-mimic cuckoo-leaf-cutter (Coelioxys dolichos) - a name that seems more interesting than the bee looks, at least on first appraisal.  That's the bloom of a wild lettuce (Lactuca sp.) that she's feeding on.

What drew my attention to this bee was the pointed abdomen, which is very distinctive.  Cuckoo bees are parasites on other bees.  The females of this genus of cuckoo bee, Coelioxys, use that sharp abdomen to break into the nests of their host species and lay eggs on the pollen and nectar stored there for the host's eggs.  Because female cuckoo bees don't have to provision their own nests, they don't have pollen baskets and they aren't seen carrying pollen;  they do, however, still have to feed themselves.

This particular species, the carpenter-mimic cuckoo-leaf-cutter, is a parasite on a single bee species called the carpenter-mimic leaf-cutter bee (Megachile xylocopoides). Ironically, when I went to look up M. xylocopoides, I recognized the pictures as showing the same species as another, unidentified bee species in my recent photos!  I even took the photos of the two different species within a few feet of each other, just 1 day apart!

Here is the male carpenter-mimic leaf-cutter bee (Megachile xylocopoides), also feeding on wild lettuce blooms.  Did the two bees, the predator and the prey, hatch out of the same nest?  There's probably a good chance of it.  At the very least, it would appear that the nests were nearby.

There are many more sightings I'd love to share, but this post is long enough for now.  Hope you're seeing lots of interesting insects in your gardens, too!