There are a number of plants that are adapted to the climate in the Florida Panhandle. Some can be grown in your yard to provide fresh, nutritious food for your family. In this episode of Home Grown Food, County Agent Doug Mayo, UF/IFAS Extension in Jackson County, Florida shares the rabbit-eye blueberries and satsuma citrus that he grows on the edge of his yard.
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.
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.
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.”
One of the most common questions I’ve gotten across the Panhandle over the last several years is “What can I plant to screen my house and property?” I surmise this has a lot to do with Hurricane Michael wiping properties clean and an explosion of new construction, but whatever the reason, people want privacy, they want it quickly, and they often want something a little more natural looking and aesthetically pleasing than a fence. Like everything else, the answer to the question is nuanced depending on the site situation. However, if the situation is right, I almost always recommend that clientele at least consider a woefully underutilized plant in the Panhandle, Pineapple Guava (Acca sellowiana).
Named a Florida Garden Select Plant by the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA) in 2009, Pineapple Guava is a standout screening and specimen plant, passing all the usual tests homeowners demand from shrubs. Growing 15’x15’ or so if never pruned or sheared, these quick-growing evergreen shrubs sport pretty, leathery green leaves with gray to white undersides. This leaf underside coloring causes the plants to emit a striking silvery blue hue from a distance, a very unusual feature in the screening shrub world.
Look past the leaves and you’ll notice that Pineapple Guava also possesses attractive brownish, orange bark when young that fades to a pretty, peely gray with age. To complete the aesthetic trifecta, in late spring/early summer (generally May in the Panhandle), the plants, if not heavily sheared, develop gorgeous edible, pollinator-friendly flowers. These flowers, comprised of white petals with bright red to burgundy stamens in the center, then develop over the summer into tasty fruit that may be harvested in the fall.
In addition to being a superbly attractive species, Pineapple Guava is extremely easy to grow. They like full, all-day, blazing sunshine but will tolerate some shading if they receive at least six hours of direct sun. Well-drained soil is also a must. Pineapple Guava, like many of us, is not a fan of wet feet! Site them where excessive water from rain will drain relatively quickly. Adding to its merits, the species is not plagued by any serious pests or diseases and is also drought-tolerant, needing no supplemental irrigation once plants are established. A once a year application of a general-purpose fertilizer, if indicated by a soil test, may be useful in getting plants going in their first couple of years following planting, but is rarely necessary in subsequent years. To maintain Pineapple Guava as a formal hedge or screen, a simple shear or two each growing season is normally enough. The species also makes an outstanding small specimen tree when allowed to grow to its mature height and “limbed-up” to expose the interesting bark and limb structure.
If you’ve been looking for a quick-growing, low-maintenance screen or a specimen plant for a large landscape bed, you could do a lot worse than the Florida-Friendly Pineapple Guava! As always, if you have any questions about Pineapple Guava or any other horticulture, agriculture or natural resource related issue, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office!
The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a native edible that is often overlooked and misunderstood. Not only does it produce a delicious fruit that looks like a mango and tastes like a banana, but it is also an aesthetic landscape plant. This fruit is slowly gaining popularity with younger generations and a handful of universities (Kentucky State University and the University of Missouri) are working on cultivar improvements.
The pawpaw is native to the eastern United States (USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5-8), however it’s closest relatives are all tropical such as the custard apple, cherimoya, and soursop. The pawpaw, along with these fruits, are known for their custard-like texture which may be a unpleasant for some consumers. Pawpaws are relatively hardy, have few insect pests, and can still produce fruit in partial shade (although they produce more fruit when grown in full sun).
Pawpaws perform best in moist, well-drained soils with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. They are found growing wild in full to partial shade, but more fruit are produced when trees are grown in full sun. However, pawpaws need some protection from wind and adequate irrigation in orchard settings. Trees can grow to between 12 feet to 25 feet tall and should be planted at least 15 feet apart. In the Florida Panhandle, flowers bloom in early spring and fruit ripen from August to October depending on variety and weather.
A number of improved cultivars of pawpaws have been developed that produce more fruit with more flavor than native seedlings/saplings. The University of Missouri has conducted trials on the following pawpaw cultivars: ‘Sunflower’; ‘PA Golden’; ‘Wells’; ‘NC-1’; ‘Overleese’; ‘Shenandoah’; ‘Susquehanna’; and ’10-35′. Most of these cultivars performed well in southern Missouri, however yields may differ in the Florida Panhandle. The full results of the trial can be found in the “Pawpaw – Unique Native Fruit” publication.
Pawpaws can be propagated by seed or cuttings. Unlike most fruit trees, pawpaws are usually true to seed meaning that saved seed produces a tree with similar characteristics to the parent tree. To save seeds, place fresh seeds in a bag of moist peat moss and refrigerate for 3 to 4 months before planting. To vegetatively propagate, take cuttings (pencil thin in diameter) in the winter and store in a refrigerator until early spring. Cuttings should be chip budded onto seedling rootstock during the spring. Please visit this publication from the University of Nebraska for more information on chip budding.
Pawpaw fruit are ready to harvest when they are slightly soft when gently squeezed. Fruits picked prior to being fully ripe, but after they start to soften, will ripen indoors at room temperature or in a refrigerator. Already-ripe fruit will stay fresh for a few days at room temperature or for a few weeks in the refrigerator. To enjoy pawpaw fruit throughout the year, scoop out the flesh, remove the seeds, and place the flesh in freezer bags and freeze.
Whether you want to add more native plants to your landscape or you are a rare and unusual fruit enthusiast, pawpaw may be the tree for you. They can be utilized as a focal point in the garden and provide delicious fruit for your family. For more information on pawpaw or other fruit trees, please contact your local Extension Office.
One of the things to do while stuck at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, is to look for caterpillars and butterflies in your landscape. I’ve noticed giant swallowtail butterflies (Papilio cresphontes) a little early this year. The giant swallowtail is one of the largest and most beautiful butterflies in our area. Its larval stage is known as the orangedog caterpillar. This unusual name comes from the fact that it feeds on young foliage of citrus trees.
The orangedog caterpillar is mostly brown with some white blotches, resembling bird droppings more than a caterpillar. When disturbed, it may try to scare you off by extruding two orange horns that produce a pungent odor hard to wash off.
I’ve had some minor feeding on citrus trees in my landscape from orangedog caterpillars. But I tolerate them. I’m not growing the citrus to sell. Sure the caterpillars eat a few leaves but my citrus trees have thousands of leaves. New leaves eventually replace the eaten ones. I leave the caterpillars alone. They eat a few leaves, develop into chrysalises and then emerge as beautiful giant swallowtail butterflies. The whole experience is a great life lesson for my two teenagers. And, we get to enjoy beautiful giant swallowtail butterflies flying around in our landscape and still get plenty of fruit from the citrus trees. It is a win, win, win.
In some cases, the caterpillars can cause widespread defoliation of citrus. A few orangedog caterpillars can defoliate small, potted citrus trees. Where you cannot tolerate their feeding habits, remove them from the plant. But consider relocating the caterpillars to another area. In addition to citrus, the orangedog caterpillars will use the herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and rue (Ruta graveolens) as a food source. Some butterfly gardens plant citrus trees to provide food for orangedog caterpillars so that they will have giant swallowtail butterflies. So you could plan ahead and grow some fennel, rue or find a butterfly garden in your area for the purpose of relocating the larvae.
The adult butterflies feed on nectar from many flowers, including azalea, bougainvillea, Japanese honeysuckle, goldenrod, dame’s rocket, bouncing Bet and swamp milkweed. Some plants in this list might be invasive.
Keep in mind that mature citrus trees can easily withstand the loss of a few leaves. If you find and allow a few orangedog caterpillars to feed on a few leaves of a mature citrus tree in your landscape, you and your neighbors might get to enjoy the spectacular giant swallowtail butterfly.
More information on the giant swallowtail butterfly is available online at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in134.