Summertime figs

Summertime figs

Ripe figs are a deep shade of pink to purple. Larger green figs will ripen in a few days. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Summer is full of simple pleasures—afternoon rainstorms, living in flip flops, and cooling off in a backyard pool. Among these, one of my favorites is walking out my door and picking handfuls of figs right from the tree. Before we planted our tree, my only prior experience with the fruit was a Fig Newton—I’d never eaten an actual fig, much less one picked fresh. Now, they are my favorite fruit.

Native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, figs were introduced to Florida in the 1500’s by Spanish explorers. Spanish missionaries introduced these relatives of the mulberry to California a couple hundred years later. Figs are best suited to dry, Mediterranean-type climates, but do quite well in the southeast. Due to our humidity, southern-growing figs are typically fleshier and can split when heavy rains come through. The biggest threats to the health of the trees are insects, disease (also due to our more humid climate) and root-knot nematodes.

Fig trees can grow quite large and produce hundreds of fruit each year. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Our tree started out just a couple of feet tall, but 15 years ago we replanted it along a fence in our back yard. It grew so large (easily 25 feet tall and equally wide) that it hangs over our driveway, making it handy to grab a few as I head out for a walk or hop in the car to run errands. The tree is in full sun at the bottom of a slope, and seems to be a satisfied recipient of all the runoff from our backyard. This position has resulted in a thick layer of soil and mulch in which it thrives. In the last year, we pruned it down to an arms-reach height so that we could actually get to the figs being produced.

We usually see small green fruit start to appear in early May, becoming fat and ripe by the second half of June. The tree produces steadily through early August, when the leaves turn crispy from the summer heat and there’s no more fruit to bear. The common fig doesn’t require a pollinator, so only one tree is necessary for production. The fiber-rich fig is also full of calcium, potassium, and vitamins A, E, and K. As it turns out, the “fruit” is actually a hollow peduncle (stem) that grows fleshy, forming a structure called a synconium. The synconium is full of unfertilized ovaries, making a fig a container that holds both tiny flowers and fruit in one.

The insides of a fig show the small flowering structures that form the larger fruit. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

With the hundreds of figs we’ve picked, my family has made fig preserves, fig ice cream, baked figs and of course eaten them raw. We typically beg friends and neighbors to come help themselves—and bring a ladder—because we can’t keep up with the productivity. The local birds and squirrels are big fans, too. Often you can tell you’re near our tree from around the block, as the aroma of fermenting fruit baking on the driveway is far-reaching.

No matter what you do with them, I encourage planting these trees in your own yard to take full advantage of their sweet, healthy fruit and sprawling shade. As Bill Finch of the Mobile (AL) botanical gardens has written, “fresh…figs are fully enjoyed only by the family that grows them, and the very best figs are inevitably consumed by the person who picks them.”

 

Sundews: Tiny, delightful meat-eaters

Sundews: Tiny, delightful meat-eaters

Sundews, tiny carnivorous plants found in pitcher plant bogs, use an enzyme dissolve insect proteins. Native Americans recognized this property and used the plant for skin maladies. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

There are few words better than “pure delight” to describe the face of someone who sees and appreciates a sundew for the first time. Maybe it is their size—often no bigger around than a quarter—or the miniature pinwheel shape, but sundews could easily fit into a fable about garden gnomes or fairies in the woods. These tiny plants hide in plant sight–so small and flush to the ground that you likely won’t see them unless specifically looking for them. But, once you are looking in the right conditions, you will probably see them everywhere.

Sundews (Drosera spp.) are small carnivorous plants found in the same bogs as pitcher plants. They thrive in moist, mucky soil and full sun. They are also carnivorous for the same reasons pitcher plants are—their wet, acidic habitats possess few soil nutrients, so they use insects instead.

Sundews utilize a different method for trapping insects—their flat, radiating structure has wider lobes on the ends, which are covered with hairlike tentacles. These hairs secrete droplets of sticky sap visible at the tip of each hair. Small insects are attracted to the dewlike sap and get stuck. The hairs curl around the insect like a slow Venus flytrap, and natural enzymes to break down the bug.

A healthy sundew plant growing just above the water level at Boiling Creek in Santa Rosa County. Photo credit: Larry Burner, Florida Master Naturalist

There are almost 200 species of sundews, not all with the flat growth pattern. The threadleaf sundew has an upright structure, while others may grow in a spherical shape at the water’s edge. While paddling Boiling Creek on Eglin Air Force Base property a few years ago, our group saw dozens of sundews growing on the trunks of cypress and tupelo trees at eye-level from our kayaks. They were about 4-6” in diameter, much larger than the 1” ones we typically see in the bogs.

Tarkiln State Park, Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, or any place you find pitcher plants are a great place to find sundews. You may have to get on your knees to see them, and move the grasses aside. Bring a hand lens to magnify the delicate details of the droplets of sap perched at the tip of tiny hairs.

Even the famous naturalist Charles Darwin was enthralled with sundews, conducting experiments and writing volumes about them. In an 1860 letter to his geologist friend Charles Lyell, Darwin stated that, “at the present moment, I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world.” If you, too, are fascinated with carnivorous plants, check out these resources from UF IFAS Extension and the Botanical Society of America.

Pitcher Plants

Pitcher Plants

White-topped pitcher plants in bloom at Tarkiln State Preserve. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

If you live in northwest Florida or southeast Alabama and have never laid eyes on our wild native carnivorous plants, it is about time! April and early May are the best times to see them in bloom. We have six species of pitcher plants (Sarracenia), the most common being the white-topped (Sarracenia leucophylla). However, they come in multiple colors, from yellow and red to a deep purple, and in different sizes.

One thing they all have in common, though—they eat meat. Carnivorous plants all over the world have evolved in places that left them few other options for survival.  These plants are typically found in extremely wet, acidic, mucky soils with very low nutrient levels. Normally, plants uptake nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil around them. Not being available in these particular environments, carnivorous plants (or more specifically, insectivorous) developed a way to extract nutrients from insects.

Small parrot pitcher plants lie on the ground instead of standing upright at Blackwater State Forest. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

So how does it work? Pitcher plants have a modified leaf, which instead of lying out flat like most plants, is rolled up into a tube, or “pitcher” shape. The inside of the pitcher has a sweet sap, and the walls of the tube are lined with tiny, downward-pointing hairs. Separate from the leaf, the plant has an elaborate flower structure, which attracts insects for pollination. While nearby, these insects are also attracted to the colorful leaf and the sweet sap in its pitcher. The insect will land on the lip of the leaf, then crawl down.

A lizard waits patiently a the bottom of a pitcher plant, hoping to catch insect prey. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Those sticky, downward facing hairs are a trap, preventing insects from leaving the pitcher. Enzymes—a cocktail of proteins naturally found in many other plants but used creatively here—in the sap break down the bug bodies and convert them to nutrients for the plant. In fact, if you slice a cross-section into a pitcher wall or break open a dried one, you will see countless dried exoskeletons at the bottom of the tube. Several other enterprising species have taken advantage of the pitcher plant’s creative structure. More than once, I have seen tiny spiders spin webs across the mouth of the tube, or small lizards and frogs at the bottom, waiting patiently for prey.

 

Some of the best places to see pitcher plants in the area—they also bloom in October—are Tarkiln Bayou State Preserve, Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Splinter Hill Bog Preserve, and Blackwater State Forest.

Weekly “What is it?”: Native Azaleas

Weekly “What is it?”: Native Azaleas

The sight and scent of a wild azalea blooming in the woods can stop you in your tracks! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

From a distance, native azaleas are easily mistaken for honeysuckle vines. With long, arching stamens, you might be tempted to relive your childhood, hoping to pull the pistil from the bottom and find a single drop of sweetness on the end. Instead, upon close observation you will encounter an equally pleasurable but distinctly different scent. The wild Rhododendron canescens, known variously as a mountain, piedmont, or honeysuckle azalea, can range in flower color from white to deep pink. In northwest Florida, you will find it on the edges of swamps, or as I did on the sunny fringes of wooded areas with rich, moist soil. It is in bloom right now (March), along with its cousins, the white-blooming swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) and the brilliant orange Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum).

The delicate flower of a honeysuckle azalea attracts hummingbirds and butterflies in the spring. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Native azalea populations have declined due to wetland habitat loss, and their delightful smell and delicate flowers have made them susceptible to overcollection.  Due to these factors, the Florida flame azalea is listed on the state endangered species list and wild azaleas should never be removed from their habitat.  Native azalea species attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and are often planted in home landscapes as ornamental shrubs.  Be sure you purchase them from reputable dealers that are not collecting from the wild.

Sustainable Forestry in Florida

Sustainable Forestry in Florida

photo of biologist on a ladder next to a pine tree

A biologist at Blackwater State Forest monitors endangered woodpecker habitat in a longleaf pine. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

In the Southeastern United States, our forests were once primarily longleaf pine-dominated ecoystems. Frequent summer thunderstorms and their accompanying lightning strikes would routinely set a portion of the forest afire. With plenty of space to move, wild animals relocated to safer portions of the forest or hunkered down in deep, winding gopher tortoise burrows underground. The longleaf pine’s life cycle has co-evolved with fire in such a way that its young growth stage is resistant to fire, and its success as a species requires fire to open up the canopy.

As human populations grew larger in the South, much of that forest land was harvested for timber, pitch, and turpentine, then cleared for agriculture and urban development. The American Southeast now has only 5% of that original longleaf pine forest. Thankfully, continued efforts led by organizations like the Longleaf Alliance and The Nature Conservancy have reminded folks of the species’ importance, and led to conservation and restoration efforts.

University of Florida Extension Agent surveys a planted forest with a producer in Washington County. UF/IFAS Photo: Josh Wickham.

Now, we have a newer mix of forest cover, with specimen trees preserved in parks and yards. In addition, we also have sustainable tree farms. You may have passed a wooded area where you noticed pine trees (mostly loblolly and slash in the south) were in perfect rows—these are being farmed, planted in rows just like any other crops. While they will be harvested eventually, during their lifetimes these trees fulfill all the roles we appreciate in wild forests–animal  habitat, oxygen production, carbon dioxide uptake, and cooling via transpiration. The other positive of sustainable forestry is that almost as soon as they’re cut, they’re replaced. Trees are grown in a stepwise fashion to ensure there is always an available harvest. Multiple generations are grown at once to ensure there is rarely a truly bare spot in the landscape.

With 17 million acres in production, forestry makes up the largest agricultural commodity in Florida. When managing, planting, and harvesting trees, modern foresters take tree physiology, invasive species, disease outbreaks, and genetics into serious consideration. These professionals help produce necessary items for life; wood for construction, furniture, books, and the all-important toilet paper, which has emerged as a bartering item in the time of COVID-19. For more information on forestry in Florida, visit the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation.