Blue Blooming Beauties of the Florida Panhandle

Blue Blooming Beauties of the Florida Panhandle

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.

Forked Bluecurls blooming in an open natural area in Calhoun County, FL. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

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. 

Azure Blue Sage blooming in a recently replanted pine forest in Calhoun County, FL. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

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 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!

Are there Scorpions in the Panhandle?

Are there Scorpions in the Panhandle?

There are many species of insects and Arachnida (Arachnid) found in the Florida Panhandle. A specific arachnid that often brings fear and dread is the scorpion.  There are 3 species of scorpion found the Panhandle. The Florida Bark Scorpion is commonly found in and around the home. The others, the Hentz Stripped Scorpion and Guiana Striped Scorpion, typically live in the woods.  One point to remember is that all three species prefer to avoid contact with humans and save venom for their preferred dinner meal, which includes many pests like include roaches, millipedes, silver fish, other spiders, and maybe a few termites. 

bark scorpion
Florida bark scorpion. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, University of Florida/IFAS – Santa Rosa County

Scorpions are most often found outdoors under bark mulch around plants and under logs and other items on the ground.  When moving wood from woodpiles, remember to wear gloves and fully inspect them if pieces of wood are coming indoors for fireplace use.  Be sure to keep outdoor firewood stacked away from the home. 

Are the three Florida Scorpions found in the Panhandle capable of giving a fatal sting?  The quick answer is no, but it is painful – as this author can attest to twice over the last twenty plus year.  The last sting was in my laundry room and occurred about two months ago.  Individuals with elevated allergies that react to other insect stings, such as bee, wasp or yellow jacket stings, should take precautions and seek medical assistance if necessary. 

Keep in mind scorpions are considered beneficial as they hunt and consume many insect pests we commonly have in and around homes.  They are most often found in landscapes under things we may move that have been in contact with the ground.  Scorpions prefer to stay in moist dark areas.  They are nocturnal hunters, so remember to turn on lights when walking around the house at night, especially in kitchen, laundry, or closet areas.  They will quickly hide once the light is on.  If shoes are left outside on porches or other open areas be sure shake them out.     

Control methods involve several options that amount to making the setting less hospitable for scorpions to frequent.  Look for possible hiding areas in and around the home.  Seal around plumbing fixtures under the sinks, around exterior vents, and cracks/spaces around windows and doors.  Do not store wood or other stackable products in attic or basement areas.  It is recommended that if pesticides are used to consult with a commercial licensed pest management company.  Use of pesticides can have mixed results as scorpions can go two plus months without eating after consuming an insect.  Placing a yellow sticky board under sinks or tucked away in laundry areas can help catch a scorpion.  Place these cards out of reach of pets or children as they are very sticky. 

Video: Pollinators Visiting Centipedegrass

Video: Pollinators Visiting Centipedegrass

Centipedegrass is a low maintenance turfgrass for North Florida landscapes. Scientists from Georgia also found an added benefit when the grass is in flower. Learn about the specific insects found visiting the flowers of centipedegrass.

Friendly Fungus: More than Meets the Eye!

Friendly Fungus: More than Meets the Eye!

Figure 1. Aschersonia aleyrodis, entomopathogenic fungi feeding on immature whiteflies on a satsuma tree. Photo Credit: Doug Mayo, UF/IFAS Jackson County.

Proper plant disease and insect identification is essential, not just in agriculture production, but in the garden and landscape setting too! The presence of “friendly fungi” on a citrus tree is a prime example of the phrase, “there is more here than meets the eye”. Friendly fungi is an entomopathogenic fungi that attacks citrus whitefly and cloudywinged whitefly nymphs. At first glance though, it can be a scary sight and may look like your citrus tree is being plagued with a new citrus disease or a new species of scale, when in fact, the whitefly nymphs are being controlled by a beneficial and naturally occurring biological control agent!

Figure 2. Adult citrus whitefly feeding on the underside of leaf. Photo Credit: Lyle Buss, UF/IFAS Entomology.

The citrus whitefly (Dialeurodes citri) and the cloudywinged whitefly (Singhiella citrifolii) are two insect pest species of whiteflies that occasionally cause injury to citrus. The adults are small, white and resemble tiny moths (Figure 2). Adults lay eggs on the underside of leaves and eggs hatch into nymphs (Figure 3). The nymphs cause injury to the plant by feeding and consuming large quantities of sap. As a result of the large amount of sap consumed, nymphs excrete honeydew which causes growth of sooty mold fungi. Severe sooty mold infestations give plants an unhealthy appearance and can reduce plant photosynthesis.

Figure 3. Citrus whitefly nymph feeding on the underside of leaf. Photo credit: Lyle Buss, UF/IFAS Entomology.

Citrus whiteflies have historically been controlled by a suite of predators including two strains of the entomopathogenic fungi, Aschersonia aleyrodis, the red strain and Aschersonia goldiana, the yellow strain. The red strain infects the citrus whitefly and the yellow strain infects the cloudywinged whitefly. These fungi are commonly referred to as “friendly fungi”. Both strains are present in North Florida and are normally observed now, through mid-September, following the rainy season.

Figure 4. Friendly fungus attacking whitefly nymphs that are feeding on the underside of a satsuma leaf. The black growth is sooty mold, caused by the whitefly nymphs. While this leaf looks bad, the friendly fungus is helping to reduce the whitefly population. Photo Credit: Danielle Williams, UF/IFAS Gadsden County.

The friendly fungi can be clearly seen from a distance with their bright red and/or yellow spots. While it may be a scary sight to see, the entomopathogenic fungi does not harm the tree and is beneficial in helping control whitefly populations! For more information, please contact your local Extension Office.

Smart Tools for Backyard Wildlife ID

Smart Tools for Backyard Wildlife ID

It’s hot, but the birds are still singing, the bees, including annoying yellow jackets, are buzzing, and the plants continue blooming. While many north Florida gardeners are hesitant to do much gardening in this heat, there’s plenty in the landscape to keep us entertained. One of the many benefits of gardening is observing all of the wildlife that visits, whether for pure enjoyment of watching nature or for keeping life lists of every bird, beetle, snake, or wildflower you’ve ever seen. However, many of us may not know exactly which bird, etc. that we’re looking at, much less hearing in the distance. Fortunately, there’s an app for that!

You may already be familiar with the many online tools, but here are a couple that are easy to use, assuming you know how to download an app on your smartphone, and go beyond an id based on visual similarity to other online photos with no consideration of your location.

We’ll start with my favorite app for plants, insects, and other critters you can easily capture with a camera – iNaturalist. Once you set up your account, you can begin to upload “Observations” with saved photos or directly with your phone’s camera. iNaturalist does have the option for uploading sound “Observations” as well, which I’ve used to upload frog calls. It uses your location to provide you with a list of potential species, and which one it feels is the most likely. The great thing about iNaturalist is someone else, often someone with experience identifying that organism, follows up to confirm or suggest another option. When enough identifiers agree, your “Observation” is considered research-grade. Another great feature of iNaturalist is that once the “Observations” are considered research-grade, biologists around the world can use the app to learn more about plant and animal population dynamics. Turning you into a research assistant/gumshoe naturalist. iNaturalist should only be used for wild populations, nothing planted or domesticated. They have a slimmed down version called Seek that can be used for identifying landscape plants.

List of “Observations” in iNaturalist. Credit: Mark Tancig, UF/IFAS.
The INaturalist user interface when uploading a new species. Credit: Mark Tancig, UF/IFAS

Another easy-to-use app from our land-grant friends, and bird lovers, at Cornell University is the Merlin Bird ID app. The great feature of this app is the ability to record bird chatter and let the app figure out the bird species present. Once the recording is over, you can save it and even dial in on the different species and the call it made. With the touch of a finger, you can then learn more about each species. The Merlin Bird ID app also utilizes your location data and allows for uploading pictures and/or using a step-by-step guide to help figure out what you may have seen.

The Merlin Bird ID app allows you to record bird species by sound, photo, or with a step-by-step ID. Credit: Mark Tancig, UF/IFAS.
The results of a sound recording from my backyard. Credit: Grace Diez-Arguelles.

The heat may be miserable, but the sounds and sights of the garden can be quite a treat this time of year. Once you learn more about the critters that share your landscape, hopefully you’ll be encouraged to provide them more of the things they need to thrive – water, shelter, and food, in the form of a diverse landscape. Maybe it will give you ideas for more plantings later, when it cools off a bit!

I should highlight that both apps are free with no obnoxious ads that pop up while you have them open. They both also allow you to make lists and keep track of your observations. When visiting a new part of the world, they also let you explore what species may be near and new to you.

For more information on attracting wildlife to your landscape, please visit the Gardening with Wildlife site and read Landscaping Backyards for Wildlife: Top Ten Tips for Success. Of course, you can always contact your local extension office for assistance.

Spiders in the Landscape and Garden

Spiders in the Landscape and Garden

Unknowingly we interact with many small creatures in our everyday lives. Spiders are one of these groups that are beneficial to the function of human activity.  This group receives much publicity as being dangerous to people and our pets.  While there is always a possibility of being bitten and having venom injected by a few types of spiders, most all others are harmless to people.  The primary benefit of spiders is their propensity for catching insects outside and in the home that are identified as harmful to people.  Spiders come in all shapes and sizes with many hiding away, never to be seen by people.   

Spiders are often included in the same group as insects, but this is not true.  They belong in the group arachnids and are closely related to ticks, scorpions and mites.  Spiders have two body sections (cephlothorax and abdomen) and have eight legs while insects have three body sections (head, thorax and abdomen).  Scorpions usually remain outdoors and may be found indoors during hot dry periods.  They are nocturnal hunters of pests that include roaches.  None of the scorpions native to Florida are capable of providing a lethal sting, but it is painful when it occurs, leaving a sore and swollen at the sting area.  I was reminded of this after stepping on one in the late evening while moving around the kitchen with no lights on.  If the person that is stung has allergic reactions to bee stings, observe them and take precautionary health measures needed.

The spider is an important predator of harmful insects and can be found about any where in and around the home, in the garden, and many other places in the great outdoors.  An Extension Entomologist I knew from North Carolina State University always mentioned, when presenting to Master Gardener Volunteer classes, that at almost any time given time, we are within two to three feet of a spider, with most so small we never see them.  They are great at keeping the beneficial and harmful insect populations in balance in nature.

If you decide to spray to manage your spider population, keep in mind that by reducing the number of spiders in the landscape, you can create a reverse problem with harmful insect populations increasing dramatically.  If big webs are a bother, simply take a broom and knock them down.  They will rebuild by the next day, but you may not need to be in that area for a while.  Always be careful and wear gloves when working in the garden, especially areas that are dark and covered, such as irrigation valve boxes, wood stacks, and other similar places.  These are prime locations where the Black Widow or Recluse spiders may be set up, waiting to ambush roaches and other insects.  If you are bitten by either seek immediate medical care. 

Finally, spiders are fun to observe in nature! One of the most interesting spiders to watch is observable during fall in Florida – the Yellow Garden Spider.  They build large webs and often place a zig zap signature in the middle.  This large spider catches many insects in the garden and landscape.  With early morning sunlight and dew hanging on the web during the fall, it makes for a beautifully create piece of art.  Enjoy nature and all the creative processes that occur from a safe distance – spiders included!