In 2016, I wrote an article for Gardening in the Panhandle called “Attract Pollinators with Dotted Horsemint” introducing readers to this tough native plant that supports native pollinators. If you have flowers in your garden, you probably have pollinators and a whole lot of other insects but if you want a plant that lets you observe a really diverse palate of bugs dotted horsemint Monarda punctata.
When I find I have some downtime at home I have a habit of wandering the yard looking for interesting insects. Admittedly, I usually have my phone in hand hoping to get a great photo or video of my arthropod visitors, but it is a productive task, too. As strange as it may sound, I can count this hobby as part of my integrated pest management landscape maintenance strategy – scouting!
My favorite plant to visit on my scouting run is normally not afflicted with pests, but it hosts so many different insects it always gets a stop on my rounds. When dotted horsemint is in full flower it is visited by a lot more than pollinators. I’ve recorded daily visits from assassin bugs, ants, beetles, flies, dragonflies, spiders, thread-waisted wasps, honey bees, butterflies, and moths.
Here’s a photo album of frequent visitors to my dotted horsemint from this summer – enjoy!
A Florida Master Naturalist Uplands class visits the highest point in Florida, located in Walton County. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
For many Floridians, gardening is a window into learning the cycles of the natural world. Understanding pollination, distinguishing beneficial insects from harmful ones, creating compost, or knowing what time of year to apply iron supplements are important for a gardener to be successful. While we have our share of campers, hikers, and kayakers, over the years Extension agents have found that some of our best Master Naturalist students are those with fond memories of farming or gardening as children or adults.
If you have always been fascinated by the natural world and how plants, animals, and people interact, you might be a perfect candidate for the Master Naturalist program. Offered periodically in almost every county in Florida, this adult educational course combines classroom sessions with field instruction, typically over a six-week period. At graduation, students present an original project, which may vary from creating an exhibit, a children’s book, or even an environmental non-profit organization.
Master Naturalist students vary in backgrounds from retired military and teachers to park rangers 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.
The traditional 40-hour courses cover Upland, Coastal, and Freshwater Wetland habitats, while the newer “special topics” cover Conservation Science, Environmental Interpretation, Habitat Evaluation, and Wildlife Monitoring. A new “restoration” series has begun with the Coastal Restoration class, which kicked off in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and is currently being taught in Bay. Extension agents will be offering several classes in the Panhandle this fall—check out the FMNP registration site to see when a class will be offered near you!
Each time I travel to central and south Florida and observe the wonderfully flamboyant tropical flora, I am reminded of the unique and frustrating climatic characteristics of Northwest Florida. Our weather is tropical enough through the summer to sustain virtually everything our friends to the south grow, but winters north of the Big Bend are just cold enough to prevent long-term success with most tropical species. However, the genus that is maybe most synonymous with tropical color, the Hibiscus (it even has its own texting emoji!), contains several species that are hardy through our winters. The best landscape plant of these hardy Hibiscus species is creatively (sarcasm) called Hardy Hibiscus or Giant Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) and is an absolute star in the Panhandle, bringing the beauty of the tropics to your yard!
Hibiscus ‘Starry Starry Night’ – Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard
Rose Mallow is a native perennial species that occurs in sunny wetlands across the eastern U.S. This species can grow 7-8’ in height in its natural, unimproved state and possesses the largest flowers of any hardy perennial, some varieties easily eclipse 12” in diameter. Rose Mallows bloom through the heat of our long summers and return reliably each winter unfazed by frost. The flowers also happen to be a favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds and bring beneficial wildlife to the landscape. These characteristics and the trend towards the use of pollinator friendly, low-maintenance native perennials in landscapes quickly made Rose Mallow a jewel for plant breeders and now virtually all major horticultural brands have a line of Hardy Hibiscus available at garden centers, in varying sizes, flower color and leaf color/form. Recent breeding efforts have focused on introducing plants with enormous, richly colored flowers held on compact plants with attractive foliage. The results have yielded two series and three individual cultivars that I consider superior selections and are more than worthy of inclusion in your garden:
- Summerific® Series by Proven Winners. This series is comprised of four robust (up to 5’ in height) cultivars, ‘Cherry Cheesecake’ (bicolor magenta and white flowers), ‘Berry Awesome’ (purplish lavender flowers), ‘Cranberry Crush’ (a red you really have to see to believe), and ‘Perfect Storm’ (notable for its deep purple foliage).
- Luna Series by Monrovia. This series is notable for its ultra-compact (3’ in height or less) size and characteristically large flowers. It is also composed of four cultivars, ‘Luna Red’ (deep red), ‘Luna Blush’ (white, fading to pink near flower margins), ‘Luna Pink Swirl’ (pictured and my favorite, bicolor swirly flowers), and ‘Luna White’ (white with a red center).
Hibiscus ‘Luna Pink Swirl’ – Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard
- ‘Starry Starry Night’ by Walter’s Gardens. (Pictured) This cultivar combines dark purple to black leaves with swirled pale and dark pink flowers. It has performed very well in my landscape and if I could only grow one, this might be it.
- ‘Lord Baltimore.’ The classic, large growing cultivar with bright red flowers that is widely available and easily found. An oldie (introduced in 1955) but a goodie.
- ‘Midnight Marvel’ by Walter’s Gardens. A “hot off the press” new cultivar that is currently difficult to find due to popularity, though some online outlets have them available in small sizes. This one is worth your patience. Sporting deep red blooms on near black foliage, there’s nothing else like it in the landscape.
In addition to being gorgeous plants, Rose Mallows are extremely versatile in the landscape and could not be easier to grow. Because the size varies so greatly (from the diminutive 30” tall ‘Luna’ series to the 8’ tall unimproved species), there really is a place for one in every garden. I like to use the smaller cultivars in large containers to facilitate moving them around where their floral display has the greatest impact or to create a tropical effect where in ground plantings are not an option (pool decks, patios, etc). The larger cultivars make spectacular specimen plantings in perennial and shrub beds and even make a really dense, striking hedge (just know they disappear in the winter). Be sure to give them as much sun as possible, as this will enhance the number of flowers on each plant and darken the foliage on the cultivars with purplish/black leaves. Too little sun will result in fewer flowers and lighter green foliage. As wetland plants, Rose Mallows enjoy regular water, either from rainfall or irrigation; they will let you know when they need it – their large leaves readily wilt under drought stress, somewhat like Hydrangea.
For low-maintenance, native, pollinator friendly, cold-hardy tropical color, you need look no further than Rose Mallow. These perennial shrubs come in all sizes and colors and fit any landscape! Look for the above listed series and cultivars at better garden centers and online retailers and enjoy the oohs and ahhs elicited when people first get a glimpse of Hardy Hibiscus in your landscape! Happy Gardening!
National Pollinator Week is only recognized in June, but efforts to encourage pollinators shouldn’t end then.
Pollination occurs when pollen grains are moved between two flowers of the same species, or within a single flower, by wind or animals that are pollinators. Successful pollination, which may require visits by multiple pollinators to a single flower, results in healthy fruit and fertile seeds, allowing plants to reproduce. Without pollinators, we simply wouldn’t have many crops!
Worldwide, approximately 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we depend. Foods and beverages produced with the help of pollinators include blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, pumpkins, vanilla, and almonds.
About 75% of all flowering plants rely on animal pollinators and over 200,000 species of animals act as pollinators. Of those, about 1,000 are hummingbirds, bats, and small mammals. The rest are insects such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths. Western honey bees are the most common.
Most species of bees don’t sting. Although all female bees are physically capable of stinging, most bee species native to the U.S. are “solitary bees,” that is, not living in colonies and don’t sting unless they are physically threatened or injured. Only honey bees are defensive and may chase someone who disturbs their hive.
It is wise, though, to avoid disturbing any bee or insect nest.
What everyone can do for pollinators:
Watch for pollinators. Get connected with nature. Take a walk, experience the landscape and look for pollinators which are most active midday in sunny, planted areas.
Reduce your impact. Reduce or eliminate your pesticide use, increase green spaces, and minimize impervious surfaces.
Plant for pollinators. Create pollinator-friendly habitat with native flowering plants that supply pollinators with nectar, pollen, and homes. For a list of plant choices go to: http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/design/gardening-with-wildlife/bee-plants.html
What you can do to create a pollinator-friendly habitat:
Design your garden so that there is a continuous succession of plants flowering from spring through fall. Check for the species or cultivars best suited to your area.
Plant native to your region using plants that provide nectar for adults plus food for insect larvae, such as milkweed for monarchs. If you do use non-native plants, choose ones that don’t spread easily, since these could become invasive.
Select old-fashioned varieties of flowers whenever possible because breeding has caused some modern blooms to lose their fragrance and/or the nectar/pollen needed to attract and feed pollinators.
Install ‘houses’ for bats and native bees. For examples go to: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw290 or http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/design/gardening-with-wildlife/pollinator-hotels.html
Avoid pesticides, even so-called “natural” ones such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). If you must use them, use the most selective and least toxic ones and apply them at night when most pollinators aren’t active.
Supply water for all wildlife. A dripping faucet or a suspended container with a pinhole in the bottom is sufficient for some insects. Other wildlife need a small dish of water.
Provide water for butterflies without letting it become a mosquito breeding area. Refill containers daily or bury a shallow plant saucer to its rim in a sunny area, fill it with coarse pine bark, sand or stones and fill to overflowing with water.
A tiny fly (a “midge”) no bigger than a pinhead is responsible for the world’s supply of chocolate
One out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat is delivered to us by pollinators.
Digger bees resemble honey bees, although they do not sting, and would only bite if mistreated. Photo by Molly Jameson.
Have you noticed many little dirt piles that resemble mini ant mounds around your yard? Well, fear not, for these mini mounds are made by digger bees who are excellent, yet ephemeral, early-spring pollinators.
These solitary ground-nesters are native to our area and only appear for four to six weeks to raise their offspring. Although they do not produce honey, they resemble honey bees in size and shape. They also do not sting and would only bite if they were handled roughly.
Female digger bees build their nests close together, creating clusters of many small mounds. Photo by Molly Jameson.
Otherwise known as miner bees, females create their underground cylinder-shaped nests in dry, well-drained soils, often right next to each other, creating patches of many mounds in a small area.
These bees will pollinate many early-spring blooming flowers – a bonus for gardeners – as they collect pollen to add to each cell that they excavate. They then lay their eggs on these pollen masses, cap the cells with clay, and complete their life cycles. The eggs hatch about five days later and emerge from the chamber created by their mothers.
While digger bee mounds may detract from an otherwise tidy lawn, they will do no harm, and can actually be beneficial, in that they improve air, water, and nutrient percolation. If you feel you must discourage their presence, simply run a sprinkler over the area as their season approaches. They prefer dry soil rather than wet soil and will look elsewhere to build their nests.
But better yet, take a seat on your front or back porch, pour yourself some lemonade, and take in the soothing hums of their wings as they do their work.
The spike of lavender blooms of lyreleaf sage. Photo credit: Mary Salinas.
Spring wildflowers are popping up along our roadways and along woodland edges. One of our native perennial beauties you can enjoy right now is lyreleaf sage, Salvia lyrata, with spikes of tubular lavender flowers rising about a foot above the ground. The blooms, which occur late winter through late spring, attract bees and butterflies and provide them a good source of nectar. It also is a good host plant for aphids, which in turn, can make it a good banker plant and feeding station for ladybug larvae.
The irregularly-shaped leaves grow in a rosette hugging the ground and can make for a natural ground cover in part shade areas. These attractive leaves are easily identifiable by their purple stems, edges and veins in sharp contrast to the bright green of the rest of the leaf. Lyreleaf sage belongs to the mint family and shares the characteristic square-shaped stems and two-lipped flowers.
Leaves of lyreleaf sage form a ground hugging rosette. Photo credit: Mary Salinas.
Whatever garden conditions you have, lyreleaf sage should be able to adapt. It tolerates drought, flooding and most soil types. Be aware, though, that this beauty produces lots of seed and can spread quickly. This can be a very desirable trait for establishing a wildflower meadow but challenging if you want to keep it contained in a small area. To manage its’ spread, remove flower spikes after the blooms fade to prevent most seed formation.
Lyreleaf sage can usually be found in native plant or local nurseries; seed can be found through online wildflower seed sources.
For more information:
Planting and Care of Salvias in Landscapes
Florida Wildflower Foundation