Crane Flies

Crane Flies

A typical crane fly on the outside of a building. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

All my life, I’ve known them as mosquito hawks. Built like extra-large, spindly-legged versions of mosquitoes, they look a bit intimidating. However, growing up we were told they were harmless and actually fed solely on mosquitoes. In the days before Google, I just accepted it as fact and was glad to see them around.

In early March, there was a bit of an invasion of these insects. I started seeing them everywhere outdoors and inside my office building. They are slow movers, bouncing in the air more than flying. After several days of seeing them everywhere, though, they pretty much disappeared.

Several crane flies appear to have met their demise inside my office building. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Like much folk wisdom accrued through my life, the story of the mosquito hawk is not totally true. They are harmless, that much is correct. While many people do know them as mosquito hawks, the accepted common name is the crane fly. Crane flies come in a wide variety of sizes and colors, ranging as some of the smallest and largest species in the fly Order, Diptera. Their diversity is rather mind-blowing, with the Family Tipulidae including about 15,000 species of crane flies worldwide.

Crane fly larvae live in aquatic environments and feed on decaying plant material. Photo credit: North Carolina State University

As for being voracious predators of mosquitoes, we have no such luck. Crane flies barely eat at all, because their adult life span is as short as those two weeks I recently noticed them around. They spend most of their lives as aquatic larvae, living in streams, pond edges, and rotting vegetation. Adults do not have the right mouth anatomy to eat other insect prey, instead drinking only by sponging up water in dew form or taking nectar from plants. Their primary purpose in adulthood is to complete the mating process. Females lay eggs near water, hence the location as larvae. After this hedonistic spring break experience of adult life, they die.

Crane flies, in both larval and adult forms, are popular snacks for other wildlife. The adults are easy targets for birds and bats. The larvae, which in some species are as large as a pinky finger, are tasty morsels for fish and amphibians.  During their larval existence, crane flies ingest debris, helping with the decomposition process and filtering the water bodies they live in. Despite their short life span, crane flies make an outsized contribution to the food web.




Rosemary is one of those tough, multi-purpose plants that I’ve come to not just love, but respect. It looks docile enough, but that great-smelling herb on your porch is also capable of serious chemical warfare.

There are two native species we call rosemary found commonly in our dry, sandy habitats, at the beach and in upland scrubs and forests. Neither of these is the culinary rosemary (Salvia rosemarinus) typically grown in herb gardens—that’s from the Mediterranean—but ours are similar.

Florida rosemary has dark green, fir-like needles. Photo credit: Ashlynn Smith, UF IFAS

In northwest Florida, we have Florida rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides) and false rosemary (Conradina canescens). While Florida rosemary is a deep evergreen color year-round and most resembles culinary rosemary, it is not terribly aromatic when crushed. The plants grow in rounded mounds, and are extremely salt, drought, and heat tolerant. Florida rosemary’s yellow flowers are present from spring to early fall. The needles are similar in shape to a fir tree, growing upright and firm to the touch.

False rosemary is a pale green and more aromatic than Florida rosemary. Photo credit: Mack Thetford, UF IFAS

False rosemary is actually a type of scrub mint, and grows in the same habitat as Florida rosemary. It is softer to the touch and lighter in color—the needles are a pale green and the flowers are lavender (as are those of culinary rosemary). To me, false rosemary has a much stronger, more “rosemary-like” scent than Florida rosemary and could be used for cooking. On the internet (including in IFAS publications), you will see contrasting descriptions of the level of scent for these species. However, in my field experience (and that of several Extension colleagues), we find false rosemary to be the most aromatic.

Both Ceratiola and Conradina play important roles in dune ecology. Their mats of woody roots help stabilize the loose sand of vulnerable barrier islands. Their flowers are important for pollinator species, particularly bees.

As for the “chemical warfare” I alluded to earlier, Florida rosemary is one of several native species known to be allelopathic. Allelopathy is a strategy by which plants secrete chemicals through their root systems that seep into the surrounding soils. The Florida rosemary produces ceratiolin, a compound that works like a natural herbicide to prevent growth of any competing species around them. This enables their own successful growth and that of any offspring. You may have noticed that rosemary shrubs often grow in clumps set slightly apart from other species—this is why! Other plants basically cannot enter the underground force-field created by the rosemary plants.

The highly specialized rosemary grasshopper feeds on Florida rosemary in central Florida. Photo credit: Lyle Buss, UF IFAS

In central Florida’s sandy ridges, Florida rosemary also has a few closely associated insect species. The bright green coloration of the rosemary grasshopper allows it to hide in plain sight within the plants. The grasshopper’s diet consists solely of Florida rosemary leaves. Wolf spiders and the rarely-seen cotton leafhopper also live among the rosemary; with the leafhopper eating its flowers and the spider burrowing in the open sandy area around the shrubs.

The Franklin Tree

The Franklin Tree

In the late 1700’s, explorer and naturalist William Bartram and his father, the “King’s Botanist”—visited Pensacola and much of the southeastern United States. Curious observers of everything from plant growth and wildlife to Native American culture, they were also collectors. Countless American plant species were sent to Europe for further examination and later preserved in gardens and arboretums.

The Franklin tree no longer grows in the wild, but was originally discovered and named in the late 18th century near this spot in coastal Georgia. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

If it were not for their formidable observation skills, at least one species of unique native tree would be completely extinct. While traveling along the Georgia coast in 1765, the Bartrams recorded and named a species of small tree they’d never seen anywhere before. They christened it the “Franklin tree” for their friend and compatriot Benjamin Franklin. Known scientifically as Franklinia alatamaha (after Franklin and the nearby Altamaha River), its similarity to the loblolly bay tree landed it in the Gordonia genus for a while. References in the literature to this tree may include Gordonia alatamaha, Gordonia pubescens var. subglabra, or Lacathea florida, although it is now officially Franklinia alatamaha and considered part of the tea tree family.

The attractive bloom of the Franklin tree is reminiscent of magnolia flowers. Photo credit: Scott Zona, used with permission from NCSU Extension

William Bartram knew this species was unique, as he never saw the tree elsewhere in any of his extensive travels. He returned to the area in 1776, this time collecting seeds from the Franklin trees and propagating five of them successfully back at his home in Pennsylvania. The last time this species was seen in the wild was at the original wetland floodplain along the Altamaha River between 1790-1803. Now, the only Franklin trees in existence are all descendants of the seeds collected by William Bartram.

A sign in the Brunswick, GA marine extension office/demonstration garden explains the tree’s unique history. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Their exact cause of extinction is not clear, but there are some solid theories. Land adjacent to the river was cleared for cotton farms, and the Franklin trees were vulnerable to a fungal pathogen that affects cotton. Based on the early records, the very small endemic population was particularly susceptible to habitat destruction and changing climatic conditions.

While no longer growing in the wild, the tree is mostly living in demonstration gardens and Arboretums on the east coast. However, it can be found in the nursery trade and grown in a large swath of the country if cared for properly. I was introduced to this species for the first time at the Brunswick, Georgia marine extension office. In addition to working with fishermen, they also educate residents on native landscaping and ways to prevent stormwater runoff and pollution. Over a span of a few years, they transformed the “front yard” of their office building from a turf lawn with a couple of oaks to a lush landscape full of flowers, shrubs, and pollinator insects. Included is a Franklin tree, with signage explaining its unique history. At about 15-20 feet tall, it has reached mature height. The original site of the Bartrams’ discovery is less than 20 miles from the garden location.

Just a few years ago, this lush garden consisted only of turf grass and a few live oak trees! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Yaupon Holly

Yaupon Holly

For most of the year, yaupon (pronounced “yo-pon”) holly is the nondescript evergreen backdrop to forested areas throughout the Panhandle. But in the fall, these plants are bursting with brilliant red berries. There are 9 holly species native to our area, all with evergreen, mostly oval shaped leaves. Of these, yaupon is among those with the smallest leaves. Members of this species can be distinguished from the similarly sized myrtle-leaved holly by their leaf margins. While myrtle has smooth edges, yaupon has scalloped/serrated edges. Both species sport bright red berries, tasty only to birds and other wildlife.

The bright red berries of yaupon holly are particularly eye-catching during the fall. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The leaves, however, have historically been ingested by humans. I’ve tried homemade black yaupon tea, and it is quite tasty. Native Americans throughout the southeast brewed a “black drink” from yaupon holly as a natural stimulant and for use in ceremonies. It is one of just a handful of naturally caffeinated plants that grow in the wilds of North America, and Spanish explorers quickly took up the habit as well. Lore says that overconsumption can lead to stomach ailments, hence the Latin name Ilex vomitoria. By most accounts, however, you’d have to drink gallons of the stuff to actually get sick. Rumors still circulate that this unappetizing misnomer was deliberate, because by the late 1700’s the homegrown American tea was starting to rival popularity of British teas. In addition to tea, Native Americans would use the plant medicinally and also convert the shrub’s typically straight branches into arrow shafts.

Freshly picked yaupon holly leaves can be dried/roasted and brewed into an excellent tea. Photo credit Matt Stirn, BBC

Early American settlers drank yaupon tea frequently when tea was hard to obtain from overseas during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. During the rationing periods of World War II, the American government encouraged the substitution of yaupon tea for coffee and other teas. While it never really took off in the 1940’s, Texas currently has a rapidly growing industry in harvesting the plant. Growers are selling it as tea and as flavoring for a wide variety of food and drink products. To maintain a steady supply of leaves, tea makers often clear landowners’ property of overgrown yaupon shrubs, free of charge. This win-win solution provides an inexpensive harvest, reduces wildfire fuel, and allows native grasses and other open-canopy species to thrive.

Yaupon holly can be differentiated from other holly species by its small, scallop-edged leaves. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

For the most part, the plant is considered a nuisance in forested areas. It is one of those woody species that grows up quickly in areas that haven’t been maintained by fire on a regular basis. As a home landscape plant, it works well as an evergreen screen. While it can grow up to 20’ tall, yaupon responds well to routine pruning. Most native hollies thrive in both wet and dry soils, so they are truly versatile. They are also salt-tolerant, drought-tolerant, wind resistant, and provide winter color and food for wildlife in their bright red berries.

Chickasaw Plum

Chickasaw Plum

The Chickasaw plum is covered in beautiful small white flowers in the spring. Photo credit: UF IFAS

The native Chickasaw plum is a beautiful smaller tree (12-20 ft mature height) that is perfect for front yards, small areas, and streetscapes. True to its name, the Chickasaw plum was historically an important food source to Native American tribes in the southeast, who cultivated the trees in settlements well before the arrival of Europeans. They typically harvested and then dried the fruit to preserve it. Botanist-explorer William Bartram noted the species during his travels through the southeast in the 1700’s. He rarely saw it in the forests, and hypothesized that it was brought over from west of the Mississippi River.

Humans and wildlife find Chickasaw plums delicious. Photo credit: UF IFAS

One of the first trees to bloom each spring, the Chickasaw plum’s white, fragrant flowers and delicious red fruit make it charmingly aesthetic and appealing to humans and wildlife alike. The plums taste great eaten fresh from the tree but can be processed into jelly or wine. Chickasaw plums serve as host plants for the red spotted purple butterfly and their fruit make them popular with other wildlife. These trees are fast growers and typically multi-trunked.

Almost any landscape works for the Chickasaw plum, as it can grow in full sun, partial sun, or partial shade, and tolerates a wide variety of soil types. The species is very drought tolerant and performs well in sandy soils.

The plum is in the rose family and has thorns, so it is wise to be aware of these if young children might play near the tree.

Winter is ideal tree-planting time in Florida. While national Arbor Day is in spring, Florida’s Arbor Day is the 3rd Friday of January due to our milder winters.

For more information about tree selection in northwest Florida, contact your local county Extension office.