Fall Color Without Popcorn Trees

Fall Color Without Popcorn Trees

As the trees begin to turn various shades of red, many people begin to inquire about the Popcorn trees. While their autumn coloration is one of the reasons they were introduced to the Florida environment, it took years for us to realize what a menace Popcorn trees have become. Triadica sebifera, the Chinese tallowtree or Popcorn tree, was introduced to Charleston, South Carolina in the late 1700s for oil production and use in making candles, earning it another common name, the Candleberry tree. Since then, it has spread to every coastal state from North Carolina to Texas, and inland to Arkansas. In Florida it occurs as far south as Tampa. It is most likely to spread to wildlands adjacent to or downstream from areas landscaped with Triadica sebifera, displacing other native plant species in those habitats. Therefore, Chinese tallowtree was listed as a noxious weed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Noxious Weed List (5b-57.007 FAC) in 1998, which means that possession with the intent to sell, transport, or plant is illegal in the state of Florida. The common name of Florida Aspen is sometimes used to market Popcorn tree in mail-order ads. Remember it’s still the same plant.

Although Florida is not known for the brilliant fall color enjoyed by other northern and western states, we do have a number of trees that provide some fall color for our North Florida landscapes. Red maple, Acer rubrum, provides brilliant red, orange and sometimes yellow leaves. The native Florida maple, Acer floridum, displays a combination of bright yellow and orange color during fall.  And there are many Trident and Japanese maples that provide striking fall color.  Another excellent native tree is Blackgum, Nyssa sylvatica. This tree is a little slow in its growth rate but can eventually grow to seventy-five feet in height. It provides the earliest show of red to deep purple fall foliage. Others include Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, Sumac, Rhus spp. and Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua. In cultivated trees that pose no threat to native ecosystems, Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia spp. offers varying degrees of orange, red and yellow in its leaves before they fall. There are many cultivars – some that grow several feet to others that reach nearly thirty feet in height. Also, Chinese pistache, Pistacia chinensis, can deliver a brilliant orange display.

                                                                  Young Trident maple with fall foliage. Photo credit: Larry Williams

There are a number of dependable oaks for fall color, too. Shumardi, Southern Red and Turkey are a few to consider. These oaks have dark green deeply lobed leaves during summer turning vivid red to orange in fall. Turkey oak holds onto its leaves all winter as they turn to brown and are pushed off by new spring growth. Our native Yellow poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, and hickories, Carya spp., provide bright yellow fall foliage. And it’s difficult to find a more crisp yellow than fallen Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, leaves. These trees represent just a few choices for fall color. Including one or several of these trees in your landscape, rather than allowing the Popcorn trees to grow, will enhance the season while protecting the ecosystem from invasive plant pests.

For more information on Chinese tallowtree, removal techniques and native alternative trees go to: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ag148.


Let’s Cool Off

Let’s Cool Off

Hydrologic cycle and geologic cross-section image courtesy of Florida Geological Survey Bulletin 31, updated 1984.

With more than 250 crystal clear springs in Northwest Florida it is just a short road trip to a pristine swimming hole! Springs and their associated flowing water bodies provide important habitat for wildlife and plants. Just as importantly, springs provide people with recreational activities and the opportunity to connect with the natural environment. While paddling your kayak, floating in your tube, or just wading in the cool water, think about the majesty of the springs. They are the visible part of the Florida Aquifer, the below ground source of most Florida’s drinking water.

A spring is a natural opening in the Earth where water emerges from the aquifer to the soil surface. The groundwater is under pressure and flows upward to an opening referred to as a spring vent. Once on the surface, the water contributes to the flow of rivers or other waterbodies. Springs range in size from small seeps to massive pools. Each can be measured by their daily gallon output which is classified as a magnitude. First magnitude springs discharge more than 64.6 million gallons of water each day. Florida has over 30 first magnitude springs. Four of them can be found in the Panhandle – Wakulla Springs and the Gainer Springs Group of 3.

Wakulla Springs is located within Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. The spring vent is located beneath a limestone ledge nearly 180 feet below the land surface. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have utilized the area for nearly 15,000 years. Native Americans referred to the area as “wakulla” meaning “river of the crying bird”. Wakulla was the home of the Limpkin, a rare wading bird with an odd call.

Over 1,000 years ago, Native Americans used another first magnitude spring, the Gainer Springs group that flow into the Econfina River. “Econfina”, or “natural bridge” in the local native language, got its name from a limestone arch that crossed the creek at the mouth of the spring. General Andrew Jackson and his Army reportedly used the natural bridge on their way west exploring North America. In 1821, one of Jackson’s surveyors, William Gainer, returned to the area and established a homestead. Hence, the naming of the waters as Gainer Springs.

Three major springs flow at 124.6 million gallons of water per day from Gainer Springs Group, some of which is bottled by Culligan Water today. Most of the springs along the Econfina maintain a temperature of 70-71°F year-round. If you are in search of something cooler, you may want to try Ponce de Leon Springs or Morrison Springs which flows between 6.46 and 64.6 million gallons a day. They both stay around 67.8°F.  Springs are very cool, clear water with such an importance to all living thing; needing appreciation and protection.

“Ice Age” Tree in Peril: Florida Torreya

“Ice Age” Tree in Peril: Florida Torreya

Having just completed the Okaloosa/Walton Uplands Master Naturalist course, I would like to share information from the project that was presented by Ann Foley.


The Florida Torreya. Photo provided by Shelia Dunning

The Florida Torreya is the most endangered tree in North America, and perhaps the world! Less than 1% of the historical population survives. Unless something is done soon, it may disappear entirely! You can see them on public lands in Florida at Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve and beautiful Torreya State Park.

The Florida Torreya (Torreya taxifolia) is one of the oldest known tree species on earth; 160 million years old. It was originally an Appalachian Mountains ranged tree. As a result of our last “Ice Age” melt, retreating Icebergs pushed ground from the Northern Hemisphere, bringing the Florida Torreya and many other northern plant species with them.

The Florida Torreya was “left behind” in its current native pocket refuge, a short 40 mile stretch along the banks of the Apalachicola River. There were estimates of 600,000 to 1,000,000 of these trees in the 1800’s. Torreya State Park, named for this special tree, is currently home to about 600 of them. Barely thriving, this tree prefers a shady habitat with dark, moist, sandy loam of limestone origin which the park has to offer.


Hardy Bryan Croom, Botanist, discovered the tree in 1833, along the bluffs and ravines of Jackson, Liberty and Gadsen Counties, Florida and Decatur County in Georgia. He named it Florida Torreya (TOR-ee-uh), in honor of Dr. John Torrey, a renowned 18th century scientist.

Torreya trees are evergreen conifers, conically shaped, have whorled branches and stiff, sharp pointed, dark green needle-like leaves. Scientists noted the Torreya’s decline as far back as the 1950’s! Mature tree heights were once noted at 60 feet, but today’s trees are immature specimens of 3-6 feet, thought to be ‘root/stump sprouts.’

Known locally as “Stinking Cedar,” due to its strong smell when the leaves and cones are crushed, it was used for fence posts, cabinets, roof shingles, Christmas trees and riverboat fuel.  Over-harvesting in the past and natural processes are taking a tremendous toll. Fungi are attacking weakened trees, causing the critically endangered species to die-off. Other declining factors include: drought, habitat loss, deer and loss of reproductive capability.

With federal and state protection, the Florida Torreya was listed as an endangered species in 1983. There is great concern for this ancient tree in scientific community and with citizen organizations. Efforts are underway to help bring this tree back from the edge of extinction!

Efforts include CRISPR gene editing technology research being done by the University of Florida Dept. of Forest Resources and Conservation- making the tree more resistant to disease. Torreya Guardians “rewilding and “assisted migration”.  Reintroducing the tree to it’s former native range in the north near the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, which has maintained a grove of Torreya trees and offspring since 1939 and supplying seeds for propagation from their healthy forest.  Long before saving the earth became a global concern, Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), spoke through his character the Lorax warning against urban progress and the danger it posed to the earth’s natural beauty. All of these groups, and many others, hope their efforts will collectively help bring this tree back from the brink!


NISAW 2018:  It’s Growing So Well It Must Be A Good Plant

NISAW 2018: It’s Growing So Well It Must Be A Good Plant

Lantana is a landscape plant that easily escapes cultivation and spreads. Photo Credit: Jennifer Bearden

You know that plant in the corner of the yard that seems to be taking over?  It’s the one that your friend “passed along” because they had plenty of them and wanted to share.  After all, it grows so well.  How can you go wrong?

The odds are that vigorous plant is a non-native species.  The majority of what is sold in nurseries are introduced from a foreign country and developed for their uniqueness.  The problem is that many of the plants brought into the United States arrive without their natural enemies.  Under the long, warm growing season found in Florida, these non-native plants become the dominant plant in an area and manage to out-compete the native plants.  When this happens, these introduced plants get labeled as an “invasive species”.

These invasive species threaten Florida’s environment, economy and health, requiring an estimated $120 billion a year to control them.  Learning which of these plants have the potential to become invasive has been a focus of researchers with the UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants.  They have spent more than a year developing a searchable website and database to help Floridians assess problem non-native plants.  The website features more than 800 species, is easily searchable by common or scientific name, and the results can be filtered.  The site helps predict the invasive potential.  Each species is categorized as “caution”, “invasive not recommended”, or “prohibited” based on their ecological threat.

If you want to learn more about your friend’s ”passalong” plant be sure to visit the Assessment of Nonnative Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas website and database.  Also check the FLEPPC (Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council) list.  Also make sure new plants are not on the Florida Noxious Weed List or the Federal Noxious Weed List.

NISAW 2018:  Well Behaved Cultivars That Help With Invasive Issues

NISAW 2018: Well Behaved Cultivars That Help With Invasive Issues

An invasive plant is defined as a plant that is non-native to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health (National Invasive Species Council, 2001). Research supports the fact that invasive plants damage natural areas, but there is great debate over which plants are invasive and where they are causing problems.   Many lists of invasive plants have been complied by government agencies or environmental groups such as the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (www.fleepc.org) that include plants currently available at nurseries.  Examples of such plants are Mexican petunia, Lantana and Porterweed.

Mexican Petunia

The bright color and rapid growth of Mexican petunia (Ruellia tweediana or R. brittoniana) has resulted in mass plantings that disrupt native wetland systems.  The species is not used by butterflies, contrary to published misinformation.  On the other hand, Porterweed is attractive to butterflies and the deep blue flower color of Stachytarpheta urticifolia has proven to be equally popular with gardeners.  Additionally, Lantana camara is a favorite of Lepidoptera and a prolific bloomer, so hundreds of plants are installed in the landscape annually, spreading viable seed throughout the neighborhood and woods.  Unfortunately, when it is found in natural areas it is difficult to distinguish the native lantana (L. depressa) from the invasive lantana (L. camara) and the two species can hybridize, making accurate identification even harder.

In fact, all three plants have native cousins with acceptable growth habits.  Drought tolerant Ruellia caroliniensis has a pale violet-colored flower that serves as a host plant to the Buckeye butterfly. Stachytarpheta urticifolia is a low-growing groundcover with pale blue flowers.  If the Porterweed is growing tall and upright, it is not the native.  Leaf characteristics can be used to distinguish the native lantana (L. depressa) from the invasive lantana (L. camara).  Native lantana has a tapered leaf base, whereas the invasive lantana has a truncate leaf base.

Lantana camara

Cultivars of species may have characteristics making them less invasive (Wood, 2007). University of Florida faculty has implemented an assessment process to evaluate non-native, highly utilized plants that are invading natural areas in Florida, including the marketed cultivars.  The “UF-IFAS Assessment of Non-Native Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas” (IFAS Assessment) uses four criteria to categorize many of the plants available in the nursery trade.  Over 700 species have been assessed (results are available at http://plants.ifas.ufl.edu/assessment/).

Some of the latest research included Lantana, Ruellia, and Stachytarpheta species.   Each of them yielded a sterile cultivar that exhibited both the desired flowering of the invasive species while posing no threat to natural areas.  When evaluated, these three cultivars scored well for minimal ecological impact, potential for expanded distribution, management difficulty and yet have a good economic value for the industry.  So when looking for this year’s new garden introduction, one should consider ‘Purple Showers’ Ruellia, ‘Violacea’ Porterweed or ‘Patriot Cowboy’ Lantana.  According to Dr. Gary Knox (UF/IFAS, North Florida Research and Education Center, Quincy, FL), they behaved well in the UF-IFAS assessment.