Firespike: A Tender Perennial

Firespike: A Tender Perennial

Looking to add something to brighten your landscape this autumn?   Firespike (Odontonema strictum) is a prolific fall bloomer with red tubular flowers that are very popular with hummingbirds and butterflies. It’s glossy dark green leaves make an attractive large plant that will grow quite well in dense shade to partial sunlight. In frost-free areas firespike grows as an evergreen semi-woody shrub, spreads by underground sprouts and enlarging to form a thicket. In zones 8 and 9 it usually dies back to the ground in winter and resprouts in spring, producing strikingly beautiful 9-12 inch panicles of crimson flowers beginning at the end of summer and lasting into the winter each year. Firespike is native to open, semi-forested areas of Central America. It has escaped cultivation and become established in disturbed hammocks throughout peninsular Florida, but hasn’t presented an invasive problem. Here in the Panhandle, firespike will remain a tender perennial for most locations. It can be grown on a wide range of moderately fertile, sandy soils and is quite drought tolerant. Firespike may be best utilized in the landscape in a mass planting. Plants can be spaced about 2 feet apart to fill in the area quickly. It is one of only a few flowering plants that give good, red color in a partially shaded site. The lovely flowers make firespike an excellent candidate for the cutting garden and is a “must-have” for southern butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Additional plants can be propagated from firespike by division or cuttings. However, white-tailed deer love firespike too, and will eat the leaves, so be prepared to fence it off from “Bambi”.

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly

Photo by Sydney Park Brown UF/IFAS

Holly has been considered sacred in some cultures because it remained green and strong with brightly colored red berries no matter how harsh the winter, even when most other plants would wilt and die. According to Druid lore, hanging the plant in homes would bring good luck and protection.

Later, Christians adopted the holly tradition from Druid practices and developed symbolism to reflect Christian beliefs.  Today, the red berries are said to represent the blood that Jesus shed on the cross when he was crucified.  Additionally, the pointed leaves of the holly symbolize the crown of thorns Jesus wore on his head.

Several holly species are native to Florida.  Many more are cultivated varieties commonly used as landscape plants.  Hollies (Ilex spp.) are generally low maintenance plants that come in a diversity of sizes, forms and textures, ranging from large trees to dwarf shrubs.

The berries provide a valuable winter food source for migratory birds; however, the berries only form on female plants.  Hollies are dioecious plants, with male and female flowers on separate plants.  Both male and female hollies produce small white blooms in the spring.  Bees are the primary pollinators, carrying pollen from the male hollies 1.5 to 2 miles, so it is not necessary to have a male plant in the same landscape.

Several male hollies are grown for their compact formal shape and interesting new foliage color. Dwarf Yaupon Hollies (Ilex vomitoria ‘Shillings’ and ‘Bordeaux’) form symmetrical spheres without extensive pruning.  ‘Bordeaux’ Yaupon has maroon-colored new growth.  Neither cultivar has berries.

Hollies prefer to grow in partial shade but will do well in full sun if provided adequate irrigation. Most species prefer well-drained, slightly acidic soils.  However, Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) and Gallberry (Ilex glabra) naturally occur in wetland areas and can be planted on wetter sites.

For a more comprehensive list of holly varieties and their individual growth habits refer to ENH42 Hollies at a Glance:

Butterfly Gardening

Blue Morpho Butterfly feeding on banana. Photo: J_McConnell, UF/IFAS

Have you been thinking about creating a butterfly garden but don’t know where to start?

Afraid it’s too much upkeep or has to look wild and untamed?

Red Admiral Butterfly. Photo: J_McConnell, UF/IFAS

Spend a Saturday morning with the UF/IFAS Master Gardeners of Bay County to see how to design, install, and maintain a colorful low maintenance butterfly garden.

Next Saturday, June 3rd, is the free Butterfly Gardening Workshop in Panama City at the UF/IFAS Extension Office at 2728 E. 14th Street. Come learn about butterfly gardening and see our vibrant garden.

Please register ahead of time so that we can supply enough materials for all attendees by calling 850-784-6105 or sign up online.

Observing Springtime Cycles in a Warming World

Observing Springtime Cycles in a Warming World

Azaleas have been in full bloom this year since mid-February. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

It’s mid-February, and regardless of the groundhog’s prediction, spring seems to have arrived in northwest Florida. In my neighborhood, all the azaleas have bloomed. While beautiful, it’s something that usually doesn’t happen around here until well into March!

According to NOAA and NASA climate data, 2016 was the hottest year globally on record, followed by the previous hottest years, 2015 and 2014. In fact, 16 of the 17 warmest years documented (since official record keeping began in 1880) have been since 2001. The United States also experienced a record-setting year of natural disasters in 2016, ranging from floods to droughts and wildfires.

As the warming trend continues, gardeners, farmers, and wildlife managers alike will find it necessary to adjust their long-held practices. When plants bloom or put on fruit early, these changes can have real economic and commercial impacts. Farmers compete on a global scale to get products to market, and if northern climates start experiencing warmer temperatures, Florida farmers could lose their competitive edge.

Juvenile bats are vulnerable and therefore protected by state laws during late spring through summer in Florida. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

In natural systems, a change in migration or hatching could affect the success of a protected species’ survival. The time frames for these life stages are often legally protected by state or federal laws. For example, in Florida, bats cannot be “excluded” from a building between the April 16-August 14 due to the maternity season. Beach re-nourishment projects are restricted and heavily monitored during sea turtle nesting from May-October. If these time frames start skewing earlier in the year due to changing temperatures and early onset of spring and summer, laws or common practices might need to be evaluated and changed.

In response to these changes in weather patterns, the interesting science of phenology (not to be confused with the brain-mapping “science” of phrenology) has regained popularity in recent years. Phenology is the study of when annual events in the natural world begin—the first hatching of shorebirds, the blooming of spring flowers, the migration of butterflies. For many years, both amateur and professional naturalists have kept records of these phenomena, observing them for pure scientific interest. Now, phenology research has become real-time documentation of a changing world. There are several national networks of citizen scientists making observations and recording them online, including Project BudburstFrogWatch USA, and the National Phenology Network. If you enjoy spending time outdoors, consider joining one of the many phenology networks and contributing to the larger body of scientific observation. The more we understand about climate-related changes, the better we can prepare and adapt.


Native vs. Invasive Plants

Native vs. Invasive Plants


CrossvineAccording to the Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants, there are more than 4,200 plant species naturally occurring in the state.  Nearly 3,000 are considered native.  The Florida Native Plant Society (FNPS) defines native plants as “those species occurring within the state boundaries prior to European contact, according to the best available scientific and historical documentation.”  In other words, the plants that grew in natural habitats that existed prior to development.Dogwood seed

Native plants evolved in their own ecological niches. They are suited to the local climate and can survive without fertilization, irrigation or cold protection.  Because a single native plant species usually does not dominate an area, there is biodiversity.  Native plants and wildlife evolved together in communities, so they complement each other’s needs.  Florida ranks 7th among all 50 states in biodiversity for number of species of vertebrates and plants.  Deer browse on native vines like Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), Trumpet Creeper (Campsis saw-palmetto-palm-tree-pictureradicans), Yellow Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) and Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).   The seeds and berries of Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) and Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) provide vital food for songbirds, both local and migratory.  Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) provides cover for numerous birds and small mammals, as well as, reptiles.

Non-native plants become “naturalized” if they establish self-sustaining populations. Nearly one-third of the plants currently growing wild in Florida are not native.  Privet berriesWhile these plant species from other parts of the world may provide some of the resources needed by native wildlife, it comes at a cost to the habitat.  These exotic plants can become “invasive”, meaning they displace native plants and change the diverse population into a monoculture of one species.  Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense), Popcorn trees (Triadica sebifera) and Cogongrass (Imperata cylindrica) have Cogongrassfloweringimagechanged the landscape of Florida over the past decade.  While Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) have change water flow in many rivers and lakes.  These invasive species cost millions of taxpayer dollars to control.waterhyacinth4

By choosing to use native plants and removing non-native invasive plants, individuals can reduce the disruptions to natural areas, improve wildlife habitat and maintain Florida’s biodiversity.

Florida Master Naturalist Courses Provide Unique Perspective into Natural World

Florida Master Naturalist Courses Provide Unique Perspective into Natural World

Do you love the outdoors? Wish you knew more about the plants and animals native to our area?

Master Naturalist Jerry Patee leads classmates along his project: a wetland boardwalk in Perdido Key. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Master Naturalist Jerry Patee leads classmates along his project: a wetland boardwalk in Perdido Key. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The Florida Master Naturalist Program is a course offered by Extension agents throughout the state, including the northwestern counties. Three different modules—Freshwater Wetlands, Coastal, and Uplands—are offered. They include 40 hours of instruction time on ecosystems, plant identification, animal ecology, and how humans live within the environment. Each class includes 2-3 field trips which may entail hikes, paddling, or tours of local museums and parks. Adult students are expected to produce an educational project at the end of the course, which may vary from a display or presentation to a skit or full-blown nature trail.

Proud Master Naturalist students at their graduation. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Proud Master Naturalist students at their graduation. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Several  Master Naturalists have recently brought their projects to life. Several years ago, Charlie Lurton created a plan to build living shorelines in Bayou Grande behind homes in his neighborhood. The project was approved by state and federal environmental regulatory agencies and oyster reefs and planting have recently begun. Jerry Patee, also an Escambia County Master Gardener, worked with his church to create a boardwalk trail through wetlands to a pristine view of Bayou Garcon in Perdido Key.

Master Naturalist students vary in backgrounds from retired military and teachers to new residents and college students. Many Master Gardeners find the courses a helpful addition to their training, and utilize their newly gained knowledge when working with clientele. At completion, students receive an official Florida Master Naturalist certificate, pin, and patch. Several Panhandle courses will be offered this spring—check out the FMNP website to see when a class will be offered near you!