A threadleaf sundew in bloom, with its series of buds trailing down. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The mucky, sunny spaces here in northwest Florida are inevitably full of beauty and surprises. Due to the sopping wet, acidic, and nutrient poor soil, plants in these areas must make some unusual adaptations. Wetland bogs are home to several interesting and carnivorous species, like pitcher plants and sundews. Most sundew species I come across are the tiny, pinwheel shaped dwarf sundews (Drosera brevifolia), which lie prone to the ground.
Threadleaf sundew leaves glisten in the sunlight adjacent to a crop of purple flowers growing from separate stems. Photo credit: Hugh and Carol Nourse
Lavender, four-petaled meadow beauty flowers are common in wet areas. However, this plant was a bit different. First, it had five petals; but even more unusual was that something akin to a green caterpillar was hanging from every flower bloom. Intrigued, I bent closer and saw that the green segments were not a dangling invertebrate, but a series of fuzzy green flower buds. The bud closest to the purple flower was a deep violet and close to flowering.
Fields of curled fiddlehead leaves of the threadleaf sundew are a whimsical sight in wetland bogs. Photo credit: North Carolina State Extension Service (NCSES)
In all my years of exploring and leading people around pitcher plant prairies, I’ve encountered Tracy’s sundew/threadleaf sundew (Drosera tracyi)—a type of sundew with an upright, sap-covered stem—but never one in bloom.
Up-close view of a Drosera tracyi leaf. Photo credit: NC State Extension
Typically, you’ll only come across the slender, threadlike ( a structure known as “filiform”) fiddlehead leaves. These leaves look more like stems, and are bright green and covered in dewy, sticky, deadly-to-insects droplets. Insects are attracted to the shimmering drops of mucus, triggering a hormone in the plant that causes the leaf and its glands to fold over the prey. Once stuck, the insects suffocate and are digested by enzymes in the leaf glands.
The purple flowers appear in May or June, atop a single leafless stem that appears unattached to the threadleaf sundew leaves. According to the Georgia Biodiversity Portal, this series of flowers will “open one by one, from the bottom of a coiled inflorescence up, with unopened buds at the top. Flowers begin to open about 9:00 am and close about five hours later; some flowers persist for two days.” Threadleaf sundews can self-pollinate but are also attractive to bees.
Bats give birth upside down–and a nursing female bat can eat up to 4,000 insects per night! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
I have a soft spot for bats. I know, I know, they give people the creeps and can show up in unwanted places (like attics and sheds). But collectively, the bats in our communities eat millions of mosquitoes and agricultural pests every night. Without them, we’d be overrun with insects, disease, and damaged crops.
This mother bat and two of her babies are nearly the same size. Female bats nurse and care for their newborns until they can fly on their own. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
As a mom, I also have the utmost respect for bat mothers. When a member of this acrobatic species gives birth, it’s done while hanging upside down by her feet. When the baby is born, mom catches it in her wings and the newborn crawls up to her abdomen. Bat babies are not tiny, either—at birth, they are typically up to a third of an adult bat’s weight. Can you imagine giving birth to a 40-50+ pound baby, while hanging from your feet? Thankfully, most births are single pups, but occasionally multiples are born. Through our local wildlife sanctuary, I once met an exhausted bat mother of triplets. She and her new brood were found together on the ground—mom was unable to carry all three with her as she flew.
Summer is maternity season for female bats, typically giving birth in May or June. Being fellow mammals, bats must stay near their newborns to nurse. It takes about three weeks for juvenile bats to learn to fly. During that time, they either cling to their mother, nursing on the road, or stay behind in a maternity colony as she feeds at night. For that reason, during the period from April 16-August 14, it is illegal to “exclude” or prevent bats from returning to their roost—even if it’s your attic. Blocking a bat’s re-entry during this time frame could result in helpless newborn bats getting trapped in a building.
Hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from the Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin, TX on a summer night. Photo credit: Visit Austin
So, if you have seen evidence of bats flying in and out of your attic—or another building that should not house them—you will need to wait until August 15 or later. Excluding bats from a building entails waiting for the bats to fly out at night and putting up some sort of barrier to prevent their return. This can be done using several different methods explained in this video or by using a reputable wildlife professional. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has regulatory oversight for bat-related issues, and they will work with homeowners to arrange a positive outcome for both the homeowner and the animals involved.
The bat houses on UF’s campus house are home to approximately a half million bats. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
On just about any spring or summer night at dusk, you can look up and see bats darting around, chasing and catching insects. If you are a total bat nerd like me, there are also several places around the southeast with large bat houses for public viewing. In Gainesville, the University of Florida bat houses are home to over 450,000 bats that leave the houses every night. An even larger colony in Austin, Texas (750,000-1.5 million bats) flies out at sunset every night to forage from their dwelling under a downtown bridge. Both are fascinating experiences, and worth a visit!
If you’re interested in building a bat house for your own backyard, reach out (firstname.lastname@example.org); I have examples at the office and several sets of plans for building bat houses and installing them correctly. The publication, “Effective Bat Houses for Florida” goes through the best way to figure out where to place a house and includes a set of plans.
Twigs dangle from a branch, held in place by horsehair fungus rhizospheres. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Imagine walking through the woods, enjoying the fresh air and birdsong, when you notice a twig just dangling midair. On first glance, you might presume it is stuck in a vine or a large spider web. However, this material is thinner than a vine and there are no spiders or webs to be found. On closer inspection, you see the twig is entangled in a dark knot of string, slightly thicker than a human hair. Following the source of the black string leads to a lacy network of the same material, flat against and around the branch from which the twig hangs. Fifteen feet down the trail, you come across the same thing—more twigs hanging from “string” in the trees, dangling from a knot of thin black material. What is going on here?
After some research, my conclusion is that we have come across horsehair fungus (Mirasmius spp). Mushrooms and other fungi have long, thin, rootlike structures called rhizomorphs. Rhizomorphs are composed of large numbers of microscopic hyphae, which are tubular and exchange nutrients and water among other parts of the fungus. The hyphae are typically located underground, but in this instance, they are visible in the open.
The ropy network of rhizospheres is visible on the branch, then turns into thin fibers that can trap plant debris. Sample provided by Suzy Marshall.
Aerial rhizomorphs are an excellent example of an evolutionary strategy known as resource partitioning. By forming a netted trap to intercept falling leaf material on a tree, the fungus gets a jumpstart on the decomposition process, taking nutrients from dying plant material before it falls to the ground. The tree-dwelling fungus is thus not competing directly with fungi on the ground, and both types of fungi can thrive. In human terms, this is loosely analogous to co-workers labeling their own food in a shared refrigerator. Everyone eats, but no one has to compete with another for nutrition.
A bird’s nest in Argentina is composed primarily of strong horsehair fungus fibers. Photo credit: Danny Newman
The common name, “horsehair fungi” applies to many species around the world. They are most common in nutrient-poor subtropical and tropical forests, where any available nutrients in the soil are used up quickly by the lush tree growth. They can be found here along the Gulf Coast, up to the Appalachian Mountains, and as far away as equatorial rainforests. In a Malaysian study, researchers found that the aerial fungi trapped up to 225 pounds of fallen plant material per acre! This network of material also supported a significant population of arthropods, which were crucial parts of the overall ecosystem by providing pollination, herbivory, and serving as detritivores. One study of spruce-fir forests in the northeastern United States showed that birds are known to use the material as a nest lining, as it is lightweight but very sturdy. In this particular research, 85% of the nests (particularly of warblers and thrushes) examined utilized the material.
I have come to expect the unexpected when working in Extension. Photo credit: Libbie Johnson
Working in Extension has given me a lot of interesting opportunities. On the job, I’ve found myself leading kayak trips all over Florida, building a two-story bat house, and wearing a Mr. Peanut costume while talking about agriculture. But I never really imagined being featured on a home improvement reality TV show. Sure, I’ve watched my fair share of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Love it or List it, but those were just entertaining ways to pass the time and maybe get some ideas for my own house.
Then, a few months ago our office was contacted by the producers of a show called Flip My Florida Yard, to inform us they would be in Escambia County to film an episode of the show for the Discover Florida channel. As part of the effort, they’d need a local Extension agent to go on a site visit, help review the landscape design, and talk about Florida friendly landscaping principles on air. Based on my prior experience as a Florida Yards & Neighborhoods agent (and our horticulture agent being swamped with Master Gardener training), I got the reality TV job.
Florida-friendly landscapes use water and fertilizer appropriately, include wildlife-friendly vegetation, and reduce stormwater runoff. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Part education and part entertainment, the show’s premise is similar to most home remodeling shows. A couple or family wishing to improve their current home shares their hopes with the remodelers, the homeowners are sent away for a day, and upon their return they are surprised with a brand-new look.
The twist with Flip My Florida Yard is that the landscapes in need of improvement are redesigned with Florida-friendly principles in mind. During each episode, Extension agents, IFAS researchers, and landscape designers are interviewed about concepts like using mulch and compost, proper irrigation, or “right plant, right place” choices based on soil type and sunlight availability. Last season, the crew was in Panama City to help a family restore their yard after damage from Hurricane Michael. For our Escambia County program, we will focus on appropriate fertilization, managing stormwater, protecting the waterfront, and providing wildlife habitat.
The “Flip My Florida Yard” program features Florida homeowners getting a Florida-friendly landscape renovation. The show is available online and through several streaming services.
In late December I was interviewed by the show’s producers, and we spent a full day renovating a local backyard. The challenging, steeply sloping backyard was given some really nice amenities, including a rain barrel, a seating area, and wildlife attractants. Our local episode should air in March or April. In the meantime, all the past episodes are available for viewing on the Discover Florida Channel. The channel can be accessed via a free online account, or through several streaming services like Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire. Flip My Florida Yard is a creative partnership between the Department of Environmental Protection/Florida State Parks and the state level UF IFAS Extension Florida Friendly Landscaping Program, so even the commercial breaks cover environmentally friendly messages and scenic views of state parks. Check it out—you might get some helpful ideas or even become the next homeowner featured!
Coastal plain honeycombhead blooms through the summer and early fall on local beaches. Photo credit, Bob Pitts, National Park Service
Over my years of leading people on interpretive trail hikes, I have learned it is particularly important to know the names of the plants that are in bloom. These flowers are eye-catching, and inevitably someone will ask what they are. In fact, one of my favorite wildflower identification books is categorized not by taxonomy, but by bloom color—with a rainbow of tabs down the edge of the book for easy identification.
Wildflower identification can be tough, but color-coded guidebooks are really helpful! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
In our coastal dunes right now, several plants are showing off vibrant yellow blooms. Seaside goldenrod, coreopsis, and other asters are common. Rarer, and the subject of today’s post, is the Coastal Plain Honeycombhead (Balduina angustifolia). It has bright yellow flowers, but often gets more notice due to its unusual appearance when not in bloom. The basal leaves are bright green and similar in shape and arrangement to a pine cone or bottlebrush (albeit a tiny one), sticking straight up in the sand. The plants are typically found on the more protected back side of primary dunes or further into secondary dunes, a little more inland from the Gulf.
When not in bloom, the plant resembles a green pinecone planted in the sand. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The plant plays a special role in beach ecology, as a host plant for Gulf fritillary butterflies and the Gulf Coast solitary bee (Hesperapis oraria). The bee is a ground-dwelling pollinator insect that forages only in the barrier islands of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The species is currently the subject of a University of Florida study, as the endemic bee’s sole source of nectar and pollen is the honeycombhead flower. As of publication date, no bee nests have been discovered. Researchers are interested in learning more about the insect’s life cycle and nesting behaviors to better understand and protect its use of local habitats. Based on closely related species, it is believed the Gulf Coast solitary bee builds a multi-chambered nest under the soft sands of the dunes.
Adult female Hesperapis oraria foraging on coastal plain honeycombhead (Balduina angustifolia). Photograph by John Bente, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Park Service.
While the honeycombhead plant is found in peninsular Florida and coastal Georgia, the bee has been identified only in a 100 km² area between Horn Island, MS, and St. Andrews Bay, FL. Luckily for the bee, large swaths of this land are preserved as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and several state parks. Nonetheless, these coastal dune habitats are threatened by hurricanes, sea level rise, and development (outside the park boundaries). Due to its rarity and limited habitat, a petition has been submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act.