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.
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.
Fall is the season for leaf color changes on many plants, but we are often concerned when we see evergreen plants with brown leaves. Learn what is normal browning for evergreens and when to seek more help from UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
Every so often while I am enjoying a walk through the garden, I notice a growth pattern on a plant that is just not normal. One of the more interesting patterns I see is called fasciation. This is a distortion of plant tissue that often causes flattened, curved, or the thinning of plant tissues. I recently noticed this on the stem of a Coral Porterweed in the Escambia County Demonstration Garden. The leaves were a normal shape but several inches of the stem were flattened and curved.
The distorted stem tissue of a Coral porterweed. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
So what is causing this type of growth pattern?
The most common cause of fasciation is usually some type of genetic mutation in the growing points of the plant. The other possible causes could be a physical injury to new tissues, a bacterial infection, chemical injury, or even an insect injury. Fasciation will be random in its occurrence and many gardeners may never have it occur on a plant in their yard. I have seen it on both woody and herbaceous plants in my own yard and in the demonstration gardens.
If you see a plant exhibiting this distortion of growth, you don’t need to take any action. If the growth is unsightly to you, prune out the affected plant tissue. It is probably best that you not propagate material from an affected plant just to prevent any transfer of the distortion to a new plant if the cause is genetic or from a living organism.
It’s mid-February, cloudy, and cold. It’s time to get outside and take cuttings for fruit and nut tree grafting. The cuttings that are grafted onto other trees are called scions. The trees or saplings that the scions are grafted to are called rootstocks. Grafting should be done when plants start to show signs of new growth, but for best results, scion wood should be cut in February and early March.
Straight and smooth wood with the diameter of a pencil should be selected for scions. Water sprouts that grow upright in the center of trees work well for scion wood. Scions should be cut to 12-18″ for storage. They should only need two to three buds each.
Scions ready for grafting. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County
Scions should be cut during the dormant season and refrigerated at 35-40°F until the time of grafting. If cuttings are taken in the field or far from home, then simply place them in a cooler with an ice pack until they can be refrigerated. Cuttings should be placed in a produce or zip top bag along with some damp paper towels or sphagnum moss.
It is better to be late than early when it comes to grafting. Some years it’s still cold on Easter Sunday. Generally, mid-March to early April is a good time to graft in North Florida. Whip and tongue or bench grafting are most commonly used for fruit and nut trees. This type of graft is accomplished by cutting a diagonal cut across both the scion and the rootstock, followed by a vertical cut parallel to the grain of the wood. For more information on this type of graft please visit the Grafting Fruit Trees in the Home Orchard from the University of New Hampshire Extension.
A bench graft union. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County
Achieving good bench graft unions takes skill and some practice. Some people have better success using a four-flap or banana graft technique. This type of graft is accomplished by stripping most of the bark and cambium layer from a 1.5″ section of the base of the scion and by folding the back and removing a 1.5″ section of wood from the top of the rootstock. A guide to this type of graft can be found on the Texas A&M factsheet “The Four-Flap Graft”.
Grafting is a gardening skill that can add a lot of diversity to a garden. With a little practice, patience, and knowledge any gardener can have success with grafting.
Intense red fall color of Japanese Maple in Georgia is hard to replicate in our climate. J_McConnell, UF/IFAS
Fall is a favorite time of year for many people. Cool nights, short days, football games and the fast approaching holidays are all signs of summer coming to an end. Floridians who have relocated from other parts of the country may be disappointed to realize we get very little showy fall color even though we can grow some of the same trees in North Florida as other parts of the country. Why is that? Well, although plant breeders may promise “showy fall color” in certain selections, they really can’t promise that year after year because it’s more than just genetics influencing leaf color. Let’s take a deeper dive into the science behind fall color!
Why do the leaves change color? Lower temperatures and shorter day length indicate to plants that winter is approaching and some physiological changes start to occur. Chlorophyll is a pigment found in leaves that, in addition to capturing sunlight and producing energy, also causes plants to display green during the growing season. As fall approaches, environmental changes tell plants to stop producing chlorophyll and existing pigment begins to break down. The reduction of chlorophyll allows the other pigments present (carotenoids and anthocyanin) to reveal their colors in an array of yellows, browns, oranges, reds, and purples. Different plants have different levels of these pigments and some may not exist at all in certain species. This explains why some plants typically turn only yellow and others may show yellow, orange, and/or red!
Why is there so much difference from year to year?
Variation occurs because environmental conditions and cultural practices play a part in determining how much color will be on display. Rainfall or irrigation amounts in the preceding summer and fall, drought cycles, nutrient levels, sunlight, and day and night temperatures all influence color from year to year.
How do I increase the potential for showy fall color in my landscape?
Choose plants with the reputation of producing desired fall colors in our area. However, keep in mind that because of the influence of outside conditions, you may be in for a surprise from year to year. To increase your chance of having a somewhat predictable fall display, use cultivars instead of seedlings of a plant species. A cultivar is a selection of a plant species that has been chosen for desirable traits, like growth habit, flowering, or fall color. These attributes are usually easily identified by the way their names are assigned. For example, Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ is a red maple cultivar known for a full rounded canopy and exceptional red fall color. The reason that cultivars appear more consistent is because they are genetic copies of the parent plant that they are named for. A species or seedling plant is not a clone but comes from seed, which means you will get as much genetic variation as you see in human siblings. Just like children in our own families, each will each shine in their own way and no two will be exactly alike.