Monday, February 29, 2016

The Milkweed Community Beyond Monarchs

My attempt to rescue 4 monarch caterpillars that were about to eat out their food source seemed to fail, despite my provisioning them with 6 white milkweed and 2 swamp milkweed plants from 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery.  The last - and largest - of the caterpillars curled up in a question mark on the soil surface one day and then disappeared overnight.  Eaten?  Probably.  Pupated somewhere?  Possibly.  At any rate, I have no more monarch caterpillars to watch right now.

However, I do have my 8 milkweed plants.  Making me quite sure that these plants weren't being treated with neonics, my milkweeds came pre-supplied with bright yellow aphids.  A little research on informed me that these aphids are oleander aphids, Aphis neriiOleander aphids are actually native to the Mediterranean area, but they have become common around the globe, having traveled everywhere on oleander plants.  Oleander aphids are especially common on oleander and on milkweed plants, although they are known to feed on several other types of plants as well.

As I was looking for the monarch caterpillars, I noticed a fly hovering about 6" from the milkweed plants. Watching more closely, I noticed there were actually about 6 flies, and that occasionally one would dart in, look like it was depositing something, and return to hovering.

So I got my camera and tried to take a photo.  After a long time - and many attempts - I hadn't managed to get a nicely clear photo, but I had managed to get a couple shots where I was able to at least get a feel for the flies I was seeing.

Between the blurry photos, the gestalt I had, and the research I did, I think that this little fly is a species of syrphid fly, Ocyptamus fuscipennis, known both for its dark colored wings and its diet of aphids in the larval stage.  That's just my best guess, however.  It's not a verified identification.

As I was trying, again and again, to get a clear photo of one of the syrphid flies, I suddenly noticed a couple tiny, tiny wasps walking among the aphids.  As I looked through the camera lens, I watched one of the wasps curl its abdomen and seem to poke the aphids individually.  This was a little odd, because the wasp curled its abdomen relatively far away from the aphids, but I was sure that it was laying eggs on them.  Again I took photos, but again I didn't get any good shots - to get clear photos of such minuscule insects, I needed a tripod for stability and a windless day with no sway in the plant stems.

Despite my lack of good photos, I saw enough to have a good idea of what was going on.  After more research, I suspect that the small wasps were braconid wasps, which parasitize aphids by inserting an egg in an individual aphid.  The egg hatches and the larval wasp eats the aphid from the inside, killing the aphid and leaving an "aphid mummy", which is essentially the shell of the aphid with the larva, then pupa, of the wasp inside.  When the wasp emerges from its pupal stage, it cuts a hole in the aphid mummy and emerges, to repeat the cycle.  If you click on the link I've highlighted, you'll see a great photo posted on of one of these wasps in egg-laying stance, ready to lay an egg on an oleander aphid.

Note:  Looking at several of my photos from this series, there are many little dots on them.  The dots were only visible when I enlarged the images and they only occurred in the middle of the milkweed plants.  I don't think it was a dirty lens (although I will certainly be cleaning it to verify).  There is also a small, beetle-like insect on the vein of the milkweed leaf in the very bottom right of the photo above, which I haven't identified.  I think it might be some sort of weevil, but that is simply another guess.

So right now, with no milkweed blooms to be had, I've already got 4 species that are relying on my milkweeds for the basis of their life cycle:  monarchs, oleander aphids, a syrphid fly, and a braconid wasp.  I've also seen examples of herbivory (monarch caterpillars and oleander aphids), predator-prey relationships (syrphid flies and aphids), and parasitism (braconid wasps and aphids).  Pretty cool for February!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Good Book And Some Humble (Oak) Pie

It's such a rookie mistake!  I knew there were several species of evergreen oaks down here.

But let me start again.... 

A while back, I discovered a promising book on, Finding Home in the Sandy Lands of the South: A Naturalist's Journey in Florida, by Francis E. "Jack" Putz.  Despite having absolutely no extra room for books in the house, I convinced myself that I truly needed this addition to my library. After all, we were talking about an author from the north (who was a naturalist!), living in the same general ecosystem we've just moved to, writing about what he's discovered about the plants and animals of the area since he moved here.  Of course I bought it.

Then, equally "logically", Sandy Lands stayed on my bedside bookshelf "maturing" for a while until the time seemed right to read it.  That time came a few days ago, as the weather and my schedule started to coalesce, making gardening seem more possible after our move.

As I delved into the book, I enjoyed Dr. Putz's tales of botanical and other adventures immensely, reading some of them aloud to Greg so that he could share them too.  Both of us decided that we would love to live in an environmentally focused, land trust based, community neighborhood like Flamingo Hammock, the spot near Gainesville that Dr. Putz has called home for many years now.  I know many of the species that were mentioned in his vignettes, so I could accurately picture them as I read, but I learned all sorts of additional, interesting bits and pieces, creating a much fuller understanding of our new habitat.

If you live in the southeastern coastal plain region, this is an enjoyable and informative read - I highly recommend it.  Actually, it's an enjoyable and informative read even if you don't live in this region!

Getting back on topic, I highly recommend this book, in fact, despite the fact that it has made me feel like a total dunce about my basic plant identification skills.  

The problem started when I read the chapter on "Liberating Live Oaks".  Our neighborhood is lucky in having many, many live oak (Quercus virginiana) and sand live oak (Q. geminata) trees, draped with Spanish moss, defining the landscape.  The original developer's daughter apparently loved the trees and convinced her father to save as many as he possibly could when he was building the homes.  Truthfully, the live oak trees were what drew our daughter to the neighborhood, when she moved to Ft. Walton Beach almost 5 years ago.  (She and our grandson were what drew us to the neighborhood...but the live oaks certainly helped clinch the deal.)

Putz, however, was talking about the decline of these beautiful old live oaks due to the encroachment of other hardwood trees, and he listed several species of particular concern that tend to grow fast and tall, overtopping established live oaks and causing their decline.  The problematic trees he mentioned specifically were laurel oak (Q. hemisphaerica), water oak (Q. nigra), and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

Suddenly I remembered an earlier essay where he had mentioned that laurel oaks and live oaks could be difficult to tell apart, with similarly sized and shaped leaves.  And he was constantly, constantly talking about having to cut out laurel oaks that freely seeded and grew - fast - to crowd out all sorts of other plants.

Oh, no!  I had thought that the reason the live oaks in our back yard - left, center and right - were dying was because of the construction of the seawall back there, 8 years ago...but what if they weren't actually live oaks at all? With fear and trembling in my heart - but really knowing the answer already - I went outside and looked specifically at the back sides of the leaves of my trees:  shiny and bright green, not dull and whitish from tiny hairs.  Horrors!  Not only were all the "live oak" trees in the back yard actually laurel oaks, but even the big "live oak" in the front yard was a laurel oak!  No wonder they were all beginning to decline.

To add insult to injury, I've been flagging seedling oak trees in the yard, thinking to save a few of the best placed ones but, when I looked, all of the seedlings - every single one - was a laurel oak as well.

I guess the best lesson to take away from this humbling experience is to keep learning and to keep questioning my own assumptions.  I am truly glad that I realized my mistake now, and not 5 years from now, when the young laurel oak seedlings were well established and hard to pull out.  Now I need to decide whether to find tiny live oak seedlings to transplant from neighbors' yards, keeping the local ecotype going, or whether to buy commercially grown young trees for planting.  I want to use live oaks for their longevity and wind resistance, even though we'll be long gone before they mature.

One thing's for sure:  I'm glad I read Jack Putz's book and I'm glad I questioned my original identification.  I'd much rather know the truth than believe in a comfortable lie.  In the long run, as my son says, "It's all good."

Monday, February 15, 2016

Milkweeds - A Different Kind of Valentine's Day Bouquet

This isn't the sort of dilemma I would have faced on February 12th in Kansas.

Last Friday, Greg and I were in the back yard with the dogs when Greg looked down and said, "You've got to be kidding me!" There, on the 90% dead tropical milkweed plant, were 2 monarch caterpillars, alive and kicking.  There were 2 problems here - the weather was due to get down to freezing in the next several days and, even if it didn't, there were only about a dozen leaves left on the plant. In no way was there enough foliage to feed 2 monarch caterpillars.

Then I remembered our recent visit to 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery.  Didn't Dara say that she'd moved a block of white milkweed into her greenhouse to overwinter?  A block of white milkweed that had turned out to be well salted with monarch eggs, which had turned into monarch caterpillars, which had munched their way through her plants and successfully pupated? If those white milkweeds were still in her greenhouse, would there be enough foliage for these guys?

So I called Dara to ask. Yes, she had white milkweed in her greenhouse. It was Asclepias perennis, which likes a wet spot in the garden.  That wasn't ideal, given my sandy hill yard, but Dara reported that the plants were leafing back out and that she'd be glad to sell us some.

Greg and I discussed our options.  He said that he'd been planning on ordering me a bouquet of roses for Valentine's Day. Then he asked if I would prefer some milkweed plants instead?

Of course I jumped at that idea! Even if the caterpillars didn't make it, or if the milkweed plants didn't like our yard conditions, we were still attempting to make our yard more wildlife friendly.  The roses - while they would be very much enjoyed and appreciated - would be dead in less than 10 days.  The milkweeds seemed like a great Valentine's Day flower arrangement to me.

So Greg and I jumped into the car and headed up to DeFuniak Springs, where we found a nice block of white milkweed beginning to leaf back out, just as Dara had promised, along with a couple swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and a couple butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa), also leafing out. After my normal lengthy period of cogitation, I decided to get 6 white milkweeds, 2 swamp milkweeds, and 2 butterfly milkweeds.  We then had a relaxing and enjoyable time wandering the nursery and finding a few other gems that HAD to go home with us, as well as talking with Dara and Lloyd about such weighty topics as sausage, beer, and Ft. Walton Beach restaurants.  Finally Greg and I said good-bye, got back into our car, and headed home, intent on caterpillar rescue.

Since the weather was predicted to get down into the 30's for the next 2 nights (and since the milkweeds had been in the greenhouse all winter), I decided to transfer the caterpillars to the new milkweed plants and put the grouping in our laundry room, by a floor length window. 

When we went to get the caterpillars, we found FOUR, not two.  The transfer was quick and easy.  I stayed in the laundry room watching until I saw 3 of the caterpillars beginning to eat, then left them undisturbed for the night.

Sadly, I wish I could report that all 4 caterpillars are doing wonderfully, but I can't.  We keep our house in the low 60's;  perhaps that's too cold.  Perhaps monarch caterpillars don't like to change from one species of milkweed to another as they're growing.  The next morning I could only find 3 of the 4 caterpillars.  For whatever reason, the caterpillars I could find seemed sluggish and uninterested in eating.  Yesterday morning, I could only find 2 caterpillars.

This morning I found one caterpillar obviously still alive and one, seemingly dead, down on the soil in one of the pots.  The weather was warmer today and the sun was shining this morning, so I carried the monarch rescue flat out to the back deck, putting it beside the remnants of the tropical milkweed that all of the caterpillars had started on.

When I checked on the caterpillar this afternoon, it had moved back to the tropical milkweed plant, although it was resting on one of the old, dead stems.  I still did not see either of the "missing" 2 caterpillars.

At this point I plan on leaving the monarch caterpillar back on the tropical milkweed where it hatched out.  We are not due to get below freezing in the foreseeable future, so it should be fine.  I will manage the Valentine's Day milkweeds as appropriate to try to keep them healthy until I feel like it's safe to plant them out in the landscape.  Hopefully, while they may not have ended up rescuing these particular monarch caterpillars, they will still become nursery plants for many more monarchs in the upcoming months and years.

Sometimes our best efforts just aren't enough.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

7 Pines Native Plant Nursery

One of the tough parts of moving is forging a new supporting network.  I expected to have to find a new plumber, new doctor, new electrician, new grocery store, new stylist, etc. etc., but I was flummoxed after the move to realize that I needed to find a new source of native plant material and that, even worse, I had no clue where to begin.

In Kansas, I had found a fairly robust group of alternatives for acquiring native plants, including roadside collection of seeds, a few excellent individual plantspeople, Dyck Arboretum, and the occasional nursery.  Here in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, I was finding nothing stores.  Worse, when I looked at the plants in said box stores, they literally ALL bore the disheartening label, "We have been treated with neonicotinoid insecticides to provide a death trap for any and all insects in your garden."  Okay, maybe that wasn't exactly how the label read, but that's essentially what it meant.

Searching online, I finally found mention of a native plant nursery near DeFuniak Springs, about an hour away - 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery.  Last fall we made the trek up there and I was incredibly pleased by what I found.  Last weekend we went back, and I am happy to report that my initial positive impression was spot on.

7 Pines is a real treat to visit.  Located out in the country, north of DeFuniak Springs, I find that even the drive to get there is relaxing and enjoyable.  Of course, any decline in your blood pressure due to relaxation on the drive out will be immediately counteracted by the excitement you'll feel once you turn in at the gate!

For there, gleaming in front of you, are several long, well ordered beds of native plants, carefully labeled and just calling out to go home with you.  Best of all, as soon as you pull in, you will be greeted by Dara and Lloyd, the owners, who are both extremely knowledgeable and very friendly.

From common to unusual, 7 Pines has a wonderful variety of plants, reasonably priced.  I won't bore you with the entire list of what I've purchased, but it was enough to make Greg groan!  Best of all, the plants are healthy, well rooted, and NEONIC FREE!

Over the course of the last week, Greg and I have managed to get most of the plants we purchased into the ground, so I'm beginning to get the itch to return to 7 Pines and pick up more plants.  I have a sneaking suspicion this is a trip I will be making many times in the future!