Feeding Caterpillars Aren’t Always Cute

Feeding Caterpillars Aren’t Always Cute

Looks, as the old saying goes, can be deceiving. It is a cautionary pronouncement from experience, usually painful and expensive, to serve as a warning to those who follow and hopefully avoid similar complications if they listen.

In most situations a threat in nature can be easily identified and avoided with a little effort. Except for those situations where the careless or clueless individual blunders into problems, a little observation and logic dictates the potential outcome from a close encounter.

Yellow jackets have stingers, so they must stink something. Alligators would not have all those large and pointed teeth unless they needed to bite something.

Those assumptions are easily deduced by anyone who uses even the slightest quantity of judgement and forethought. Unfortunately, there are occasions where the potential agony is disguised by bright colors and a benevolent appearance.

Such is the case with the caterpillar of the Io moth. Automeris io, this insects entomological name, is a large native moth.

This insects’ range extends from south central and maritime Canada to the eastern half of the U.S. It is found in every Florida County, even into the Keys.

The wingspan of this moth can reach an impressive three and a half inches. Males of this species tend to have a slightly brighter appearance than the females.

Both sexes have large eye spot on each hindwing as a defense device. When revealed, the spots appear as the eyes of predatory creature meant to bluff other aggressors into retreating.

Adults of this species live only a week or two, so reproduction is a priority activity.  Luckily, at least for the parents, there are plenty of host plants in north Florida.

Oaks, sweetgums, redbuds, and ash are among the choice meal sites for the developing caterpillars. The eggs are commonly laid in clusters of 20 or more and the caterpillars go through five development stages before reaching adulthood.

Unlike the parents which are active almost exclusively at night, the larvae spend their days hidden in the tree leaves they are consuming. These caterpillars are quite animated and active, frequently seen moving inline from one feeding site to another.

Initially orange, they change to a lime green as they mature. They also develop clusters of spine strategically place across their plump bodies.

Photo Caption: The colorful Io moth caterpillar is covered by fragile spines. Each contains a painful venom for anyone who physically contact this insect larvae.

Distinct from their parents’ eyespot bluff, the spines are a serious defense designed to assure the caterpillars reach maturity unmolested by birds or other predators which would otherwise find them a suitable snack option.

Unlike a pit viper which injects venom via a syringe-like fang or a stingray which retains its barb in a venom saturated sheath, this caterpillar’s spines work differently. Each spine contains a sac filled with the defensive solution.

When contact is made with the hollow spines, deliberately or accidentally, the fragile structure breaks and releases the toxin.  The pain is almost instantaneous, intense, and can be a serious health treat for those who have an allergic reaction.

Not usually seen on the ground this caterpillar can be encountered on lower limbs, to the detriment of the unlucky individual. The colorful, toy-like appearance hides a very different reality.

To learn more about north Florida’s stinging caterpillars, contact the local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Click here for contact information.

 

 

Wild Azaleas

Wild Azaleas

There is something to be said for being a longtime resident. While it does limit ones outlook from a global perspective, it promotes focus on perfecting applicable traits which are close to home.

Azalea and bug: Wild Piedmont Azaleas (Rhododendron canescens) and a bumble bee.

The unique, and very pleasant, environment of north Florida is an excellent example of near perfection on a localized basis.  The weather (within reason), the fauna and the flora are tailored to a superior quality of life, especially the spring blooming native plants.

The human residents of the panhandle can easily see this in a native plant which blooms in the spring.  Wild azaleas make random appearances, but their cultivated cousins from Asia are now the province of retail establishments.

Azaleas are member of the Rhododendron genus which includes flowering shrubs of the same name which grow in more northern latitudes.  Their popularity as flowering perennials has led to the development of more than 10,000 cultivars worldwide which please almost every taste for a profuse and showy burst of color.

These plants have species native to southwest Europe, Asia, and North America. They are believed to date back 70 million years and have an ancestor in common with blueberries and pieris.

Many of the azaleas which grace the yards and gardens in the southeast are traced back to east Asian stock.  These cultivars had been grown for millennia, but reached Europe in the early 17th Century when wealthy estate owners were seeking a new and unique look to their landscapes.

When azaleas arrived in America there were 26 different native azaleas already growing here.  At least four of these grow naturally in Florida and can be presently seen in natural settings, as well as, managed landscapes.

Like the long cultivated Asian varieties, the azaleas native to Florida prefer acidic soils and filtered light.  The can be found in forested areas and near streams or rivers.

The native azaleas are rather scraggly and upright when very young, but will spread out and fill in as they mature. The large, dark green leaves bend the branches gently to form a cascading appearance down to the ground.

A single specimen in a formal landscape should be allowed at least four to five feet of spread to develop into its natural form. These plants are very sensitive to dry soil, but the soil should drain freely of excessive moisture.

A thick mulch of three inches deep is recommended to help ensure adequate root growth when cultivated out of their natural environment. Roots are located in the top several inches, even in well-drained sandy soils, so adequate mulching is critical to success.

Pruning of these natives is seldom necessary except to control shoots extending above the normally mounded shape. Azaleas bloom on the previous year’s growth so any pruning should be done after flowering, but before July.

Mass azalea plantings add a stark color contrast to any landscape. The green background of March and April with clusters of boldly bright blossoms is a striking sight.

The wild azaleas add an enduring continuity to the ever-changing landscape in contemporary life.  Some things should never change, especially in comfortable north Florida.

Lookout for Early Spring Weeds

Lookout for Early Spring Weeds

Spring 2018 is barely out of the starting gate. All kinds of plants are sprouting and producing blooms! This week’s last gasp of winter temperatures slowed the progress, but only slightly.

Much like the Easter egg hunts a few weeks ago, a search of the landscape can bring multiple surprises. Two colorful plants, spiderwort and rustweed, which are growing in the region fit into this category.

Tradescantia ohiensis, the scientific name for spiderwort, is a herbaceous native plant. Its most striking feature which makes it easily identifiable is the cluster of bright purplish-blue blooms which are currently on display.

Spiderwort in full flower. Image Credit Les Harrison

To the casual listener, the name spiderwort implies an arachnid with a complexion issue. Far from it, but the terminology is shrouded in agriculture and horticulture history.

The term wort, in its various forms, can be traced back to northern Europe to well over 1,000 years ago. Its meaning related at first to herbs, and then to plants without bark or hard stems.

It should not be confused with wart, a skin eruption relating to a virus. Contact with any part of the spiderwort does not infect a person with warts.

The spider part of the name relates to the flower peddles. In harsh sunlight of the afternoon, the Spiderwort’s peddles are reduced to fine threads similar to a spider’s web.

Spiderworts are often seen along fencerows, in pastures and untended fields, and it forested areas. They bloom from late spring to early summer and usually grow in clumps or bunches of plants.

The plant clumps are easily separated and transplanted. Spiderwort has been used in ornamental horticulture as a showy, low-cost alternative for many years.

They expand their presence in the wild slowly, but persistently. Since there are no herbicides labeled for their control, they are considered a pest species by some hay producers.

Another plant with a colorful name, and which is considered a pest, is the rustweed (Polypremum procumbens). While it does not literally rust, it gets its name from its rust colored foliage in the autumn.

In spring and summer this low growing perennial is a Kelly green fitting for St. Patrick’s Day, and easily blends with Bermudagrass and other turfs as they make their season emergence. Tiny white blooms soon to come will confirm it presence, but this is often overlooked when in landscapes and lawns.

This plant spreads by seed, which are small and heart-shaped. One means of colonizing new areas is by seed lodging in mowing and other equipment, then depositing in new areas when the equipment is relocated.

As with all grasses in the Florida panhandle, rustweed is found only in sunny areas. This little known plant is an area native, but also occurs as far away as South America.

Rustweed, among others, in a Florida lawn. Image Credit Les Harrison

This aggressive native will quickly establish itself and push out other more desirable species. Mowing will not slow its progress.

After the multiple frost and muted earth tones, both spiderwort and rustweed are currently adding variation to the landscape’s hues as the weather warms.

To learn more about weeds in north Florida, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Click here for contact information.

Winter Shrubs

Winter Shrubs

Photo Caption: Unused tomato cages are a perfect support for heavy covers which can protect delicate landscape shrubs during the frosts of winter. When spring arrives, they can again be used to support tomato plants. Image Credit Les Harrison

The Thanksgiving turkey is but a distant memory, the stores are stocking for the spring, and Christmas decorations are coming down.

The advent of the new year, finally brings the inevitability of cold and frosty weather. While nothing complements a nice eggnog or hot chocolate like a chill in the air, some northwest Florida landscape plants do not appreciate the dropping temperatures.

Gardeners face a new set of challenges dealing with the effects of cold weather. However, a little planning and creativity can make plant protection in the landscape a relatively simple process.

Many homeowners and landscape managers want to know when plants will need protection. Depending on the plant, the point of freezing is a good rule of thumb. Freezes  will likely occur this season so preparations should begin now.

It is worth noting there is a difference in the terms used for cold weather conditions. Frost, freeze and hard freeze all describe different circumstances.

Frost is when water vapour freezes on surfaces.  It usually happens on clear nights with still air and can happen when reported air temperatures are above freezing.

Freezing is when cold air moves in and causes temperatures to drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This condition commonly involves low humidity and wind, making drying out a big problem for plants.

A hard freeze is when temperatures dip below 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Some tropical plants will survive a few degrees below freezing for very short periods, but extended periods of freezing or heavy frost may require lights or other heat used safely in combination with covering the plant.

In the Panhandle, most of the risk for sustaining freeze damage happens during the busy holiday season. People are busy, schedules are disrupted and the distractions, pleasant thought they be, may cause homeowners to miss a critical freeze alert in the media.

Some plants can be moved indoors for the cold months and incorporated into the interior décor, rather than cramming them last-minute into a chaotic bundle when a freeze looms.

While putting away the holiday decorations into storage, identify old sheets, blankets and drop cloths which can be used as covers for tender plants which must remain outside. Test potential covers beforehand to assure all plants will be thoroughly covered.

It is best if the covers enclose the plant entirely without crushing it. Heavy blankets are great insulation, but only a good idea on the sturdiest of plants.

A tomato cage or other support structure can be used to keep the weight off the plant. Covers also need to be secured at the ground with pins or weights to assure cold air does not enter from below and collect under the cover.

Finally, keep storage bins handy and remove the covers in the daytime if temperatures are above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Monitor weather reports and react accordingly so your tender and tropical plants see spring 2018. Santa will approve.

Fall is an Excellent Time to Plant Daylilies

Fall is an Excellent Time to Plant Daylilies

Daylilies in full bloom. Image credit UF / IFAS Solutions Website

“A penny saved is a penny earned” is the famously frugal advice from Poor Richard’s Almanac. The author Benjamin Franklin, elder statesman and founding father of the United States, offered this simple pearl of wisdom to 18th century American colonist to remind them to cautiously manage their assets.

This concept has met the test of time and had been resurrected in a variety of guises. Individuals, families, companies and governments have all applied a variation of this resource management concept, especially when their economic outlooks are challenged.

As basic as the idea is it can be applied to almost any situation, even the home landscape. Daylilies, the commonly encountered flowering ornamental in many 21st century gardens, is an excellent example of getting the most return for the least output.

The daylily is a popular flowering perennial with East Asian origins which has adapted well to Florida landscapes. Plants are available in a wide variety of growth habits, flower shapes and colors, including yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, near-white and shades and combinations of all of these.

Flowering starts in March for early-season bloomers with late-season cultivars starting in mid-May. The typical bloom period is about four to seven weeks, although some varieties bloom even longer.

Daylilies are colorful and easy to grow. Propagation is easy this time of year, just dig, separate, and replant.

As their name accurately indicates, daylilies are members of the lily family, in the genus Hemerocallis. “Hemero” is Greek for “day” and “callis” for “beauty,” so the scientific name translates to beauty for a day.

For the adventurous eater, the flower buds and petals of daylilies are edible raw, boiled, stir-fried, steamed, stuffed, or battered and fried. Dried daylily petals, called “golden needles,” are used in numerous Chinese dishes.

Many of the modern varieties of daylilies available today have been developed from native Chinese species. Early settlers from Europe and Asia brought many of the original species with them to America.

Daylilies grow best in full sun or filtered shade. The darker colored red and purple varieties flourish better in partial shade, while light colored yellows, pinks and pastels varieties need full sun to bring out their best colors.

The filtered light level under pine trees is ideal for growing daylilies. Heavy shade should be avoided because it will cause thin, spindly growth and poor flowering.

The soil pH should be between 6.2 and 6.8, with 6.5 being optimal.

The soil of daylily beds should be topped with three to four inches of organic matter, such as peat, compost, or well-rotted manure. The amended soil should be mixed or tilled, leveled and then moistened.

Daylilies survive dry conditions well because of their extensive root systems. However, the number and size of blooms, plant growth, and overall vigor can be adversely affected by prolonged drought.

Daylilies multiply fairly rapidly and plant division is an easy way to propagate them for new locations in the home landscape or to share with friends. Division is best done immediately after the flowering season.

Dig the entire clump and shake or wash off the soil without damaging the roots. It is easy to see where the divisions can be made with smaller clumps being easily pulled free to establish a new planting.

The home gardener can expand and share the beauty of these perennials and only spend a little time to accomplish this. No doubt Ben Franklin and Poor Richard would approve.

For more information, check out this excellent publication titled “Daylilies for Florida”.