Like finding buried treasure on a desert island, walking up on a mound of sandhill milkweed (Asclepias humistrata) may elicit cries of excitement from someone who understands what they’re seeing. And not unlike searching for pirate booty, there’s a bit of danger involved, too—milkweed is highly toxic.
Last month in the dunes of Perdido Key, our Master Naturalist class found robust clusters of eye-catching, pink-tinged leaves, blooms, and buds of sandhill milkweed. Also known as pinewoods milkweed, this variety thrives in dry, sandy soils. It is native to the southeast, found typically in the wilds of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Its genus name, “Asclepias” refers to the Greek god of healing—indigenous people have used the plant for medicinal purposes (dysentery treatment and wart removal, in particular) for centuries. The species name humistrata means “spreading,” which describes the growth habit of the plant. Milkweed is highly toxic, so we do not recommend trying any medicinal uses at home! The “milk” part of the common name refers to its sap, which is a thick, sticky, white substance containing that toxic chemical.
As the only food source for the monarch caterpillar, healthy milkweed plants are crucial for maintaining populations of the famous monarch butterfly. The plant itself is rather complex and beautiful. Its five-petaled blooms grow in tight clusters, on stalks sticking several inches off the ground. The leaves are broad and a deep forest green, edged in the pale maroon/pink of the stems and flowers. The seedpods of milkweed are quite large (3-6” long), resembling pea pods and full of seeds. Each seed has a wispy white fiber attached, which helps it disperse in the wind like a dandelion. The fibers have been used for years as stuffing for pillows and mattresses, and were used for life jackets during World War 2.
The first cluster of milkweed we found was host to multiple monarch caterpillars, recognizable by their greenish-yellow, white, and black stripes. By the time you see caterpillars, the milkweed is already working its magic, transferring its toxins to the insects but causing them no harm. Monarchs have evolved the capability to digest and metabolize this poison, which would induce heart attacks in nearly any vertebrate animal. Adult monarchs use several nectar sources, including milkweed flowers, and females lay their eggs on the plant so that their young can begin eating once hatched.
In the animal kingdom, red and orange are signs of danger. The bright orange coloration of an adult monarch butterfly serves as a warning to would-be predators to exhibit caution, as the toxins from their food sources stay within the butterfly’s body. The copycat viceroy, soldier, queen, and Gulf fritillary butterflies benefit from this trait by using mimicry in their own orange coloration to ward off predators.
It’s a bit early still for blueberries in north Florida, but they are definitely on the horizon. We have a handful of bushes at home and the office, and I’ve noticed the white blooms are gone and berries are forming as we speak. Many of us, myself included, look forward to the late-spring harvest of blueberries, taking our children out to u-pick operations and hunting down family recipes for blueberry-filled desserts.
Often, when people think of fruit growing in the wild, their minds naturally go to tropical rainforests, with visions of bananas, mangoes, and drooping fruit-laden trees. But blueberries are a home-grown local Panhandle fruit. A walk through any self-respecting northwest Florida wooded area is bound to have blueberry bushes growing wild. Vaccinium species thrive in more acidic soil, (between 4-6 on pH scale), which we have in abundance here. In northwest Florida, we have lots of pines and oaks dropping needles and leaves, seasoning our soil to a 6 or lower on the pH scale. Central and south Florida soils are alkaline due to all of the natural limestone, so while blueberries are grown on farms down south, they’re rarer in the wild.
Blueberries are pollinated by bees of many stripes, but most people are unaware of the specialized bee that literally lives for this season. During the last few weeks, this species has been furiously pollinating blueberry bushes during its short, single-purpose lifetime.
Southeastern blueberry bees (Habropoda labriosa) are active only in mid-March to April when blueberry plants are in flower. They are smaller than bumblebees, and yellow patches on their heads can differentiate males. Blueberry pollen is heavy and sticky, so it is not blown by the wind, and the flower anatomy is such that pollen from the male anther will not just fall onto the female stigma. Blueberry bees must instead attach themselves to the flower and rapidly vibrate their flight muscles, shaking the pollen out. Moving to the next flower, the bee’s vibrations will drop pollen from the first flower onto the next one. This phenomenon is called “sonicating” or ‘buzz pollination” and is the most effective method of creating a prolific blueberry crop.
This native bee lives most of its life underground, emerging in the spring when blueberries are in bloom and living long enough to pollinate the plants. Blueberry bees do not form hives, but create solitary nests in open, sunny, high ground. Females will dig a tunnel with a brood chamber large enough for one larva, filling it with nectar and pollen. After laying an egg, the female seals the chamber and the next generation is ready. The species produces only one generation of adults per year.
By the time we are picking fresh blueberries in May and June, you probably won’t see any blueberry bees around. However, we should all consider these insects’ short-lived but vitally important role in Florida’s $70 million/year blueberry industry!
About a year ago, one of my regular blog readers asked if magnolia trees (Magnolia grandiflora) had any particularly redeeming qualities. The one in her yard was constantly dropping leaves and seedpods, and she was tired of it. Little did she know, she had stepped into the domain of an absolute devotee of the magnolia tree. I told her that as a child of the Magnolia State (Mississippi) with the new magnolia-centered state flag flying from my front porch, it was my sworn duty to defend this magnificent symbol of southernness. Well, maybe I wasn’t so dramatic, but I definitely took on the challenge.
First, I do empathize with the constant leaf dropping. We have a large, beautiful magnolia tree in our front yard, and it drops its thick leaves year-round. We just rake them into a natural mulch pile around the base of the tree, though. As for the seedpods—those I have learned to be wary of. A couple of summers ago as I walked to my mailbox, I didn’t see one on the curb, then promptly rolled my ankle on it and landed face-first onto the road. After massive swelling and bruising on my foot, I finally went to a doctor to discover I’d managed to tear a tendon. So, tread carefully around the dropping seedpods!
But aside from that, it’s all positives. A Southern magnolia is as sturdy a tree as you could hope for—it is consistently ranked as one of the most wind-resistant trees in the landscape. Their thick, dense, upright trunks and the overall pyramidal shape allows the wind to whip around them, rarely causing damage. In fact, the only damage we’ve had to our tree was when a weaker tree fell on our magnolia and knocked some branches off. Eighteen years after Hurricane Ivan, it’s filled in and you’d never know it lost branches. Ours was planted 50 years ago to celebrate the birth of the previous homeowners’ son, and has been a source of shade and relaxation (we have a great swing hanging from it) ever since.
Like many other trees, magnolias have medicinal uses. The bark of a related magnolia species has been used in traditional Asian medicine to treat “anxiety, asthma, depression, gastrointestinal disorders, headache, and more” and our North American varieties were once used as an antimalarial drug. Modern research has shown seed extracts are effective in maintaining sleep and body temperature, as a sedative, and in reducing the intensity of epileptic seizures. As always, never attempt to use a plant-based home remedy without consulting a physician!
To me, nothing quite says springtime like a magnolia blossom. As buds, they are thick and velvety, completely covering the trees with pops of bright white. Once they bloom, these large (up to 8” wide) saucer-shaped blossoms give off a lovely fragrance, attracting pollinators. Interestingly, magnolias are such an ancient species that they evolved (in the Cretaceous period) before flying insects like bees and butterflies existed. Therefore, magnolias are pollinated by flies and flightless beetles, which crawl from one flower to the other, relying on their sense of smell to guide them. Because beetles are chewers, the flowers and leaves co-evolved to be thicker and tougher to offset and survive the bugs’ messy eating habits. Once the flowers have gone, the fuzzy grenade-shaped cones/seedpods grow on the trees. After the seedpods fall, they open to reveal brilliant red seeds. These have significant wildlife value, as songbirds, squirrels, deer, wild turkey, and quail eat the seeds. This time of year, many people use the waxy, deep green leaves for seasonal décor—magnolia wreaths are quite popular, especially in the south. Many people make their own, but companies often sell them for hundreds of dollars apiece!
Magnolias may be so common as to seem unremarkable to many, but they are a hardy group of trees who have survived on the planet since dinosaurs roamed the earth. And that’s about as redeeming a quality as you can get. To learn about other magnolia varieties that work well in our area, check out this publication from UF IFAS Gardening Solutions.
Most of us are familiar with the Appalachian Trail, the popular hiking route that follows the mountains from Maine for nearly 2,200 miles to north Georgia. But did you know you could set off from Fort Pickens at Pensacola Beach and follow the Florida Trail for over 1,100 miles, all the way to Big Cypress in the Everglades?
Inspired by the Appalachian Trail in the 1960’s, Florida Trail Association founder James Kern started gathering support and planning a route for a Florida trail that would take a trekker through nearly the entire length of the state. By 1983, the Association’s efforts resulted in recognition as a National Scenic Trail, with the path currently winding through the property of over a hundred land management partners. Some stretches of the trail are designated for biking or horseback riding, but the vast majority are intended for foot traffic only. A through-hike of the Florida Trail can be challenging, as the weather, water, and insects can be more intense in our climate than cooler areas. Dozens of people complete the journey every year, and the trail is gaining in popularity. In 2020 and 2021, fewer than 20 individuals were certified as through-hikers. However, last year 47 individuals signed the end-to-end hiker roster online, complete with their “trail name” and hometown. Many hikers are Floridians, but more than half the roster included people from other regions of the United States, and even a couple from Germany.
At the northern terminus of the trail adjacent to Ft. Pickens, hikers will experience a relatively flat, sandy path along the dunes. A bridge crosses a small freshwater pond, then the trail leads to shadier secondary dunes. On a hike this past October, I saw plenty of blooming fall wildflowers, a turtle, a frog, and numerous birds. The Blackwater Side Trail along Blackwater River State Park and Forest consists of a totally different ecosystem, with 48 miles of shady and hillier terrain. This particular stretch connects with the Alabama Trail, which is still being linked together but aims to run the entire north-south length of the state. According to those who have hiked the whole Florida Trail, the most challenging sections include mucky soil through Big Cypress and rocky, uneven limestone and grasses in south Florida. There are plenty of interesting sights and potential hazards, from alligators and black bears to flooded trail routes and pop-up thunderstorms. But the rewards are vast, too, like having the whole trail to yourself most of the time, with opportunities to see rare panthers and a 2,000-year-old cypress tree. Interested hikers can reach out to the Florida Trail Association’s Western Gate, Choctawhatchee, or Panhandle Chapters if you have questions, (including local member Helen Wigersma). These groups help maintain sections of the trail and are a wealth of information. If you’re up for a new adventure this year, you can start a real one right here in our backyard.
October is an important month for butterflies. The monarchs are making their epic migration towards Mexico, gracing us with their presence as they stop to feed on saltbush or lantana plants along the coast. But our homegrown orange-and-black butterfly is showing up everywhere right now, too. The Gulf fritillary (Agrautis vanillae) is a smaller species, but also features bright orange wings with black stripes and spots. Their caterpillars come dressed for Halloween, too—they are a deep orange color with black legs and spikes. While the caterpillar is not venomous to any potential predators, the spikes are quite intimidating and serve a protective function.
Fritillary (name from the Latin “chessboard”) eggs are bright yellow and laid primarily on varieties of passionflower vines, which the caterpillars feed voraciously upon. Passion vine is an important host plant for the zebra longwing as well, which is Florida’s state butterfly.
Gulf fritillaries are found in all 67 Florida counties, and may live throughout the southeastern United States, Mexico, and central and south America. They are found in varied habitats but prefer open, sunny spots in fields, forests, and gardens. The butterfly’s wing shape puts them into the “longwing” category, as their elongated wings spread wider than other species.
In the fall, fritillaries migrate to the warmest ends of their range. By spring, they move slightly north into North Carolina or interior Alabama.