Bald Cypress:  The Most Adaptable Tree for Panhandle Landscapes

Bald Cypress: The Most Adaptable Tree for Panhandle Landscapes

Lately, to survive in Panhandle landscapes, plants must be able to tolerate extremes.  Summertime temperatures over 100 degrees F, hurricane force winds up to 150 mph, deluges of 1’ of rain in a single day, spring and fall month-long droughts, and the wild winter weather swings we’re experiencing right now.  That’s quite a tall order for most plants to bear, however one of our best native trees handles all of the above conditions with relative ease, the stately Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum).  Though Bald Cypress primarily inhabits flatwood “dome” swamps and areas along the periodically flooded edges of waterways and other wetlands and most folks think of it as just “water tree”, the species is more than capable of handling anything Florida’s climate can throw at it, including thriving in home landscapes.

Bald Cypress in mid-January. Notice the excellent branching structure and the buttressed lower trunk. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

While there are lots of pretty trees in the Panhandle’s natural areas, not many of them possess the longevity, adaptability and well-behaved nature that makes Bald Cypress a great landscape tree.  Bald Cypress are capable of living for hundreds of years and grow steadily to a normal landscape height of 50-60’, truly perfect for a specimen shade tree.  The species also possesses a strong, wide spreading root system and a special above ground root adaptation, known colloquially as “knees”, that enable Cypress to reach deep to outlast droughts, grow unfazed even when the water rises, inhabit many different soil types, and resist hurricane force winds.  While some homeowners object to the presence of Cypress knees in their yard, as the above ground structures can damage mower blades and make for uneven terrain, I’ve found an easy solution is to simply keep the area under the tree’s canopy mulched and forgo mowing there altogether.  It looks nice and means less grass to cut!

Bald Cypress isn’t just a big, tough, adaptable tree, it’s also gorgeous.  The bright green, finely cut, featherlike leaves give the trees an airy appearance in the spring and summer, nicely offsetting common coarse textured yard trees like Magnolia, Sycamore, Red Maple, and others.  However, it is in the fall and winter when Bald Cypress really shines.  Though Florida is not known for its fall foliage, Cypress is a notable exception!  When the weather gets cool, Bald Cypress leaves transition from green to a yellowish orange before finally arriving at a beautifully unique, rusty, orange-brown color.  There isn’t another species out there with a similar show.  The foliage holds deep into winter before finally falling to reveal the attractive branching structure, sweeping buttressed lower trunk, and peely gray bark underneath, completing the four-season show.

Bald Cypress foliage on December 31, 2020. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

In addition to being a near perfect landscape tree, Bald Cypress embodies much of what folks admire about life in the South, living the slow life near the water and enduring everything that’s thrown at it with grace and strength.  Other than possibly the Live Oak, Bald Cypress is the tree that comes to mind first when I think about the tree that most represents where we come from.  From their majestic, buttressed trunks, to the Spanish Moss that hangs loose from their limbs, to the slow, dark water than meanders nearby, the species is iconically Southern.   When looking for an impossibly tough, adaptable, and attractive tree, one could do a whole lot worse than Bald Cypress.

If you have any questions about Bald Cypress, other landscape tree options, or any horticultural topic, please reach out to your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office.  Happy gardening!

It’s Time to Plant and Prune!

It’s Time to Plant and Prune!

The last several weeks have brought consistently cool weather to the Panhandle, with a few downright cold nights dipping well below freezing.  Though winter isn’t officially here, that won’t happen until December 21st, grass mowing season is definitely over and, if you’re like me and didn’t cover your raised bed garden on those nippy nights, vegetable growing has also slowed significantly.  So, what are us horticulturally minded folks with cold-weather cabin fever to do?  It’s time to take advantage of sweat-free temperatures, break out the shovels and pruners, and get to work in the landscape!

Master Gardeners demonstrate correct tree planting techniques.

The months of December through February are ideal times for planting new trees and shrubs.  The reasons for this are simple.  Days are short, rain tends to be plentiful, temperatures are cool, and plants are mostly dormant.  While newly installed plants need water to become established regardless of when they are planted, demand for supplemental irrigation is significantly less in winter (one of our rainiest seasons) and the chances of a new planting dying from thirst is slim relative to warmer months.  Also, planting in winter gives trees and shrubs several months of above ground dormancy to focus their resources below ground, recover from the shock of transitioning from a nursery container into your native soil, and produce valuable roots that will help it get through its first summer.  Think about it.  Would it be easier for you to start and finish a major outdoor project in July with one bottle of water to drink or in December with an ice chest full?  Plants prefer the same!

Not only is winter perfect for planting, tis the season for pruning many species too, deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in the fall) in particular!  The first reason to prune these species in the winter is to give the plants several months to begin healing before growth resumes in spring and insect and disease pressure ramps up again.  Many serious pests and diseases of trees are most active during warm, wet weather and all of them have easier access to attack trees through open wounds.  Prune in winter to help avoid unwanted pest and disease infestations.  Also, dormancy has conveniently knocked the leaves off deciduous species’ branches, allowing us a clear view of the tree’s crown and giving us the ability to make clear, clean, strategic pruning cuts.  Proper pruning can help maintain a strong central leader that produces a stately, straight tree and remove dead and diseased branches that could cause problems in the future.

While planting in the winter is always ideal and we just outlined several reasons pruning now can be good, not all plants should be pruned when dormant.  For instance, old-fashioned hydrangeas and azaleas that produce blooms from the previous season’s growth.  Pruning these in the winter removes all the flower buds that would have bloomed the next summer and what’s the point of an azalea or hydrangea that doesn’t bloom?  Also, many small trees and shrubs, like Crape Myrtle and Vitex, may never need pruning if you site them where they will have room to mature without encroaching on other plants or structures.

If you have any questions about planting trees and shrubs, what, when, and how to prune, or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office!  Enjoy the weather and happy gardening!

A Landscape Combo for Native Fall Color:  Muhly Grass & Darrow’s Blueberry

A Landscape Combo for Native Fall Color: Muhly Grass & Darrow’s Blueberry

In the Panhandle, fall is the prettiest season for wildflowers.  Our roadsides and woodlands are covered with pinks, whites, yellows, blues, purples, and even a little red here and there.  Pretty as it may be, the beautiful wildflower look isn’t super appropriate for most yards.  It would look unkempt, a little “wild” if you will, would be hard to manage and is probably best enjoyed in natural areas.  However, we can bring some of the native colors of fall into our landscapes in a much lower maintenance, refined manner with two Panhandle species that pair excellently together, Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and Darrow’s Blueberry (Vaccineum darrowii).

Muhly Grass and Darrow’s Blueberry in a local landscape. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Muhly Grass, the native grass with the pinkish/purple panicles blooming right now, has gained much popularity in recent years, earning a reputation as a near pest/disease free, drought tolerant, attractive landscape plant.  Operating in lieu of more traditional low growing shrubs in landscapes, Muhly is an airy, greenish gray bunch grass growing about 3-4’ tall and wide, lending informal, coastal texture to landscapes most of the year and really shining in fall during its flowering season.  Once established, it never needs extra water, prefers little fertilizer, and only needs a rejuvenation prune (or burn – the Leonard preferred method.  It’s fun and mimics the role of fire in Muhly’s native ecosystems!) every couple of years to keep it looking tidy.

Unlike Muhly Grass, Darrow’s Blueberry has not caught on broadly in the landscape industry but is no less deserving.  This native blueberry species only grows a couple of feet tall, produces edible fruit that wildlife enjoy, and adds an unusual blue green color to landscapes via its tiny-leaved, evergreen foliage.  It prefers the same sites as Muhly and is part of the reason they pair so well together.  Our mostly sandy, well drained soils work just fine, but both plants can handle soils that are occasionally wet.  A bonus, Darrow’s also has tiny, bell shaped flowers in spring that attract all manner of beneficial bee species.  This makes it a must in any native pollinator garden!

As good as these species are alone, I think they are better together.  In my family’s yard, we created a loose screen of widely spaced (8’ apart) Muhly Grass specimens around a pool, in the spirit of giving the area a “coastal” airy feel, and interspersed Darrow’s Blueberry in between.

The pink Muhly Grass flowers pair nicely with the green blue foliage of Darrow’s Blueberry. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

The look has been outstanding, particularly in the late summer/early fall.  The pinky purple flowers of Muhly Grass complement the green-blue foliage of the blueberries nicely and provide easy, lasting color without having to worry about planting finicky annuals or perennials each season.

Landscaping with natives does not have to look wild and unkempt, nor does it have to be drab and unattractive.  Combining native yet showy plants like Darrow’s Blueberry and Muhly Grass makes for an unusual, refined, nearly no-maintenance feature in your landscape.  Look for these and other neat native plants at native nurseries and independent garden centers around the Panhandle.  If you’d like more information on native grasses, blueberries or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office!  Happy Gardening!

 

Biological Control of Air Potato by a Beneficial Beetle

Biological Control of Air Potato by a Beneficial Beetle

Article by Jessica Griesheimer & Dr. Xavier Martini, UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center, Quincy

Dioscorea bulbifera, commonly known as the air potato is an invasive species plaguing the southeastern United States. The air potato is a vine plant that grows upward by clinging to other native plants and trees. It propagates with underground tubers and aerial bulbils which fall to the ground and grow a new plant. The aerial bulbils can be spread by moving the plant, causing the bulbils to drop to the ground and tubers can be spread by moving soil where an air potato plant grew prior. The air potato is commonly confused with and mistaken as being Dioscorea alata, the winged yam which is also highly invasive. The plants look very similar at first glance but have subtle differences. Both plants exhibit a “heart”-shaped leaf connected to vines. The vines of the winged yam have easily felt ridges, while the air potato vines are smooth. They also differ in their aerial bulbil shapes, the winged yam has a long, cylinder-shaped bulbil while the air potato aerial bulbil has a rounded, “potato” shape (Fig. 1).

In its native range of Asia and Africa, the air potato has a local biocontrol agent, Lilioceris cheni commonly known as the Chinese air potato beetle (Fig. 2). As an adult, this beetle feeds on older leaves and deposits eggs on younger leaves for the larvae to later feed on. Once the larvae have grown and fed, they drop the ground where they pupate to later emerge as adults, continuing the cycle. The Chinese air potato beetle will not feed on the winged yam, as it is not its host plant.Current methods of air potato plant, bulbil, and tuber removal can be expensive and hard to maintain. The plant is typically sprayed with herbicide or is pulled from the ground, the aerial bulbils are picked from the plant before they drop, and the underground tubers are dug up. The herbicides can disrupt native vegetation, allowing for the air potato to spread further should it survive. If the underground tuber or aerial bulbils are not completely removed, the plant will grow back.

The Chinese air potato beetle is currently being evaluated as a potential integrated pest management (IPM) organism to help mitigate the invasive air potato. The beetle feeds and reproduces solely on the air potato plant, making it a great IPM organism choice. During 2019, we studied the Chinese air potato beetle and its ability to find the air potato plant. It was found the beetles may be using olfactory cues to find the host plant. Further research is conducted at the NFREC to increase natural aggregation of the beetles on air potato to improve biological control of the weed.

Chinese Air Potato Leaf Beetle.

If you have the air potato plant, or suspect you have the air potato plant, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Agents for help!