It’s no secret that fall, October specifically, is the best month for wildflower watching in the Panhandle. From the abundant vibrant yellow-gold display of various Sunflowers, Asters, and Goldenrods to the cosmopolitan bright pinks and purples of Mistflower, Blazing Star, and False Foxglove, local native landscapes light up each year around this time. However, if you’re lucky and know where to look, you can also spot two species, Azure Blue Sage (Salvia azurea) and Forked Bluecurls (Trichostema dichotomum) that sport that rarest of wildflower hues – vivid blue.
Forked Bluecurls begins its flower show in late summer, picking up steam in fall, and reaching its peak now as nights get cool and the days grow short. The species’ flowers are easily among the most unique around. Each flower has two distinct “lips” – the lower lip is white and dotted with blue specks, while the top is distinctly pure blue – with characteristically curled blue stamens rising to preside over the rest of the flower below. Though individual flowers are very small and only bloom in the morning, they appear by the hundreds and are very striking taken together. Various pollinators, especially bees, also find Forked Bluecurls flowers to their liking and frequent them on cool fall mornings. Though the flowers are obviously the highlight, the rest of the plant is attractive as well, growing to 3’ in height and possessing small, light-green fuzzy leaves. Forked Bluecurls, while not exceedingly common, can be found in sunny, sandy natural areas throughout the Panhandle, including well-drained flatwoods, sandhills, and open, disturbed areas.
The second blue bloomer, Azure Blue Sage, is possibly even more striking in flower than Forked Bluecurls. Aptly named and blooming around the same time as Forked Blue Curls, Azure Blue Sage is a much larger plant (often 4-6’ in height) and holds its abundant sky-blue flowers high above the surrounding landscape. Because of their height and their propensity to occur in bunches, Azure Blue Sage’s brilliant tubular flowers are immediately noticeable to passersby and the myriad bee and butterfly pollinators that visit. Beyond its flowers, Azure Blue Sage is a very unusual looking perennial plant, tall and spindly with dark green, narrow leaves held tightly to square stems, a giveaway of its lineage in the Mint family. The species can be found in similar areas to Forked Bluecurls – natural areas in the Panhandle that possess abundant sunshine and sandy, well-drained soil.
Both species would make excellent additions to mixed perennial landscapes where the soil and sun conditions were right, as they are exceedingly low-maintenance and have the propensity to reseed themselves from year to year. Unfortunately, they are rarer in the nursery trade than they are in the wild and can only be found occasionally at nurseries specializing in Florida native plants. (Visit PlantRealFlorida.org to find native nurseries in your area!) However, even if you are unable to source a plant for your home, both these somewhat rare, blue-blooming fall beauties, Forked Bluecurls and Azure Blue Sage, are worth searching out in the many State Parks and public natural areas across the Panhandle! For more information about Forked Bluecurls and Azure Blue sage or any other natural resource, horticultural, or agricultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy fall wildflower watching!
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s been hot outside. Like really, scorching, hellacious, dog days hot. In this weather pattern we’ve been in, it’s hard to make yourself do non-essential stuff outside that doesn’t involve swimming and so our gardens go by the wayside. In my opinion, that’s totally okay! Give yourself a rest from the garden and landscape chores for the next couple of weeks and get your fall gameplan ready. The following are some things to think about over the next few weeks to prepare yourself for the coming cooler weather!
Get your soil tested. If you’re an in-ground vegetable gardener or just like to have an attractive lawn/landscape, performing a simple soil test can offer either peace of mind that your soil’s pH and fertility is good or give you a nudge to schedule some needed amendments. Though I don’t recommend fertilizing lawn grass this late and there’s no need to fertilize the garden before it gets planted in mid-late September, you can certainly begin to source and price fertilizer for the appropriate time based on your test results. However, now IS the perfect time to get lime out in a vegetable garden if your pH has sunk beneath the recommended 6.5. Lime takes weeks to months to begin to alter soil chemistry so the sooner the better if it is needed!
Order seeds. While I love to support local farm stores and plant nurseries, you are limited with the vegetable and flower varieties you can plant by what they have in stock. I enjoy trying new/improved and heirloom plant varieties each year and, most of the time, these can only be found by ordering online. For the latest in vegetable and cut flower varieties with a nice mix of heirloom cultivars thrown in also, I can recommend Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, and other similar purveyors – all of these are great places to look. Continue to purchase your more common standbys through local outlets but, this year get different and try new things by ordering online!
Develop a garden/landscape plan. I doubt there’s a gardener amongst us who wouldn’t like to rearrange things a bit outside. Maybe you planted your lettuce a little too closely together last year, you’ve been dreaming of installing a new flower bed, or you really want to do a full garden/landscape renovation. The best way to be successful at any of these things is to get outside (or at least look out from behind a window in the A/C), take stock of what is already there, the space that is or might be available, research what plants or varieties might do well in your yard/garden (your local UF/IFAS Extension office is a great resource for this), and begin to sketch your ideas out. This planning step WILL save you time and money by ensuring you don’t purchase too many plants, by picking plants that will do well, and ensuring you install everything at the correct time.
So, take advantage of the heat, stay inside, and work up your garden gameplan together this August – fall is just around the corner. For help with soil testing, recommendations on plant varieties to purchase, or working up a garden/landscape plan tailored to you, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Stay cool and happy gardening!
Since Ponce de Leon first set foot in Florida around Easter in 1513 and gave the state its name – he called it La Florida, which loosely translates to flowery in English – Florida has been known for its amazing native wildflower displays. Florida’s primary native flower shows do indeed occur in the spring (the one observed by Ponce de Leon) and fall, but my favorite Florida “wild” flower is neither a native nor does it bloom in April or October. Rather, the Philippine Lily (Lilium formosanum) does its thing each year in the heat of the summer, when not much else wildflower-wise is blooming.
Hailing from Taiwan and the Philippines but naturalized throughout the Panhandle, the Philippine Lily is easy to spot. Often confused with Easter Lily (Lilium longiflorum), which blooms much earlier in the year, Philippine Lily blooms mid-July to August and sports classic lily-type flowers held high on study stems that may reach 7’ or higher. Emerging from the drab green of the surrounding summer landscape, Philippine Lily’s very large (10” or more), very fragrant, trumpet-shaped, creamy-white flowers are showstoppers. The propensity of the flowers to appear in elegant, “nodding” clusters of a dozen or more also adds to the effect. Admired by gardeners and other passersby during the day, at night these wonderfully scented flowers become a whirring site for evening pollinators, particularly the enormous Hummingbird, or Sphinx Moth.
In addition to being a beautiful surprise in natural areas, Philippine Lily is among the easiest and most versatile of landscape plants to grow. The species prefers partial shade, but the thousands growing along roadsides in full sun speak to its adaptability. It is also right at home in our often dry, sandy Panhandle soils, and no special soil amendments are needed for the species to thrive. To get plants started, one may use either seeds or transplants from existing stands. If using seeds, simply sow them in your desired garden location into loosened garden soil, cover lightly, and water – the same seed sowing method can be used in pots for transplanting or sharing with friends later. Alternatively, you can dig or pull bulbs from natural areas where Philippine Lily already exists – assuming you have permission from the property owner. These newly dug and planted Lilies will need babying with regular water for several weeks to reduce transplant shock and improve survival.
Philippine Lily is probably best sited in the back of landscape beds to take advantage of the plant’s height and display its flowers over lower growing perennials. Siting in the back also allows pre and post bloom Philippine Lily stalks to hide amongst other plants as they don’t add much aesthetically when not in flower. Philippine Lily pairs very well with other low-maintenance summer-blooming perennials like Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata), Milkweed (Asclepias spp.), and others.
While not a native wildflower, Philippine Lily certainly adds to North Florida’s reputation as La Florida! They are among the easiest to grow, highest impact “wild” flowers Panhandle gardeners have at their disposal. Enjoy them this summer in natural areas and consider adding a few to your landscape! For more information on Philippine Lily or any other horticultural topic, contact us at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension Office. Happy gardening.
After Hurricane Michael indiscriminately felled millions of trees in the Florida Panhandle five years ago, I’ve gotten much more selective with which trees I recommend to shade-seeking homeowners. Category 5 hurricanes don’t strike every year, or even every decade, but Michael reminded us that 150 mph+ wind events are possible, and we should choose the trees we plant accordingly. Keeping Michael’s lesson in mind, the shade tree I’ve recommended most to area homeowners lately is the ultra-wind resistant Nuttall Oak (Quercus texana) *.
While probably not native to our area (Nuttall is native to Mississippi River Valley bottomlands and nearby Gulf Coast regions), Nuttall Oak is a well-adapted deciduous oak species perfect for the Panhandle. The species is a strong, long-lived tree, yet also a quick grower (3-4’ per year in its youth, reaching 60-80’ at maturity). Unlike many rapidly growing trees, Nuttall is extremely resistant to wind breakage, disease, and other disfiguring issues. There are several Nuttall Oaks in Panhandle landscapes that survived Michael’s fury completely intact, with little more than wind-whipped leaves as evidence a storm had passed.
Nuttall is also an awesome landscape ornamental and a wildlife magnet in maturity. The species possesses a strong central leader and a stately, upright-rounded appearance. In summer, Nuttall leaves are large, dark green, deeply lobed, and pointed, somewhat reminiscent of our native Southern Red Oak. In fall, trees are capable of Blue Ridge quality color with fiery orange-red foliage, though the foliage show is not as consistent year to year here as farther north. The bark of Nuttall even has aesthetic appeal – dark and smooth in youth becoming ridged/furrowed with age. And it’s not just people that find Nuttall attractive, several beneficial insects use Nuttall as a host plant and various wildlife (deer, squirrel, and ducks especially) are fond of the prolific, highly nutritious acorns that mature trees produce in earnest each winter.
Finally, Nuttall is among the easiest of trees to grow and thrives in a variety of landscape conditions. Because it’s adapted to grow in poorly drained bottomlands that are either seasonally flooded or very dry, Nuttall is very tolerant of both compacted, poorly aerated soils common in urban areas and unirrigated, often droughty soils present in many Panhandle landscapes. However, like any tree, Nuttall Oak performs best with regular water and fertilizer for the first couple of years until established.
If you’ve been searching for a native-ish, hurricane-resistant, quick-growing, low-maintenance, wildlife-attracting shade tree for your property, Nuttall Oak is an excellent option and one I can fully recommend! For more information on Nuttall Oak or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy gardening!
*Nuttall Oak was recently reclassified botanically from Quercus nuttallii to Quercus texana.
Begonias have long had a reputation of being either boring workhorses in annual planting beds and container gardens, like Wax Begonias, or finicky, greenhouse specialty types unsuitable for most people and landscapes, like Rhizomatous Begonias. However, in 2008, Benary Seeds introduced a new early flowering landscape/container Begonia series, all with huge, showy flowers and robust growth habits. They named the series ‘Big’ and changed Begonia’s negative narrative forever.
The first attribute that’s obviously different about ‘Big’ Begonias is that they are, in fact, much bigger than “normal” bedding begonias in every conceivable way. ‘Big’ grows to 18” high with a similar spread, roughly twice as large as conventional wax begonias. ‘Big’ also sports massive (for a Begonia) 1.5-2” flowers that don’t stop until the first fall frost ends the show. And since Begonia flowers appear in clusters, the combined effect of these much larger flowers grouped together is nothing short of spectacular. Even individual leaves are larger on ‘Big’, often hand-sized and coming in various shades of green and bronze, depending on the cultivar.
Speaking of cultivars, the ‘Big’ series has now expanded to include eight different selections, each with slightly different leaf/flower attribute combinations. For example, the ‘Big’ that I am growing this year is named ‘BIG Rose Bronze Leaf’. As you might expect, the plant has dark, bronzish-colored leaves and vivid, rose-pink flowers that together make for a striking combination. Others in the series include such creative names as ‘BIG Red Green Leaf’ and ‘BIG White Bronze Leaf’. Though the names of these cultivars leave much to be desired (come on Benary, step up your name game!), they are all outstanding plants.
Fortunately, growing difficulty doesn’t also increase with plant/flower size and all the plants in the ‘Big’ series are extremely easy to cultivate. ‘Big’ selections, like most other Begonias, prefer partial shade and consistently moist soil, though they can tolerate the occasional dry period due to their waxy leaves. The ‘Big’ cultivars with bronze-colored leaves can even tolerate full sun, which the ‘BIG Rose Bronze Leaf’ sited in a sunny area on my deck can confirm. As with most other long-season flowering annuals, I apply a slow-release, complete fertilizer at planting and then supplement throughout the season with liquid fertilizer to keep them looking their best!
If you’ve avoided Begonias in the past like I did because they just didn’t offer the “wow” factor of other annuals, it’s time to think again. Bigger and truly better in every way than most other begonias, the selections in the ‘Big’ series are definitely worthy of a spot on your patio or in your landscape – plant one today and enjoy eye-catching Begonia blooms all summer long. For more information on Begonias, flowering annual plants, or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy Gardening!