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.
The blackgum/tupelo tree begins changing leaf color in early fall. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Florida isn’t necessarily known for its vibrant fall foliage, but if you know where to look this time of year, you can find some amazing scenery. In late fall, the river swamps can yield beautiful fall leaf color. The shades are unique to species, too, so if you like learning to identify trees this is one of the best times of the year for it. Many of our riparian (river floodplain) areas are dominated by a handful of tree species that thrive in the moist soil of wetlands. Along freshwater creeks and rivers, these tend to be bald cypress, blackgum/tupelo, and red maple. Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is also common, but its leaves stay green, with a silver-gray underside visible in the wind.
The classic “swamp tree” shape of a cypress tree is due to its buttressed trunk, an adaptation to living in wet soils. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one of the rare conifers that loses its leaves. In the fall, cypress tress will turn a bright rust color, dropping all their needles and leaving a skeletal, upright trunk. Blackgum/tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) trees have nondescript, almost oval shaped leaves that will turn yellow, orange, red, and even deep purple, then slowly drop to the swamp floor. Blackgums and cypress trees share a characteristic adaptation to living in and near the water—wide, buttressed trunks. This classic “swamp” shape is a way for the trees to stabilize in the mucky, wet soil and moving water. Cypresses have the additional root support of “knees,” structures that grow from the roots and above the water to pull in oxygen and provide even more support.
A red maple leaf displaying its incredible fall colors. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The queen of native Florida fall foliage, however, is the red maple (Acer rubrum) . Recognizable by its palm-shaped leaves and bright red stem in the growing season, its fall color is remarkable. A blazing bright red, sometimes fading to pink, orange, or streaked yellow, these trees can jump out of the landscape from miles away. A common tree throughout the Appalachian mount range, it thrives in the wetter soils of Florida swamps.
To see these colors, there are numerous beautiful hiking, paddling, and camping locations nearby, particularly throughout Blackwater State Forest and the recreation areas of Eglin Air Force Base. But even if you’re not a hiker, the next time you drive across a bridge spanning a local creek or river, look downstream. I guarantee you’ll be able to see these three tree species in all their fall glory.
Fasciation of Rudbeckia hirta ‘Toto Rustic’. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF IFAS Extension.
You never know what surprises are looming in your flower gardens.
This Rudbeckia in the photo to the left sported one bloom that was so different from all the others. The disk or central portion of the inflorescence was elongated and curved back on itself and created a contorted, crazy looking bloom. And then there was a yellow squash in my garden that had a leaf growing down the length of the squash. What caused these things to happen?
Fasciation in yellow summer squash. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF IFAS Extension.
This is a mutation, often genetic, but also could be caused by outside influences such as pathogens, injuries, or chemicals. Plant hormones may also play a role in this phenomenon. This mutation expresses itself as a malformation or cresting at the tip or growing point of the plant, also known as the meristem. We call this fasciation and it begins when the cells at a growing point of a plant start dividing in an uneven or asymmetrical fashion instead of the normal symmetrical pattern.
A gerbera daisy affected by fasciation. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF IFAS Extension.
There are some plants we embrace for their fasciation. A common one is cockscomb celosia that is prized for its showy crested inflorescence. Cacti and succulents more commonly exhibit fasciation and we can see it in some of the crested cacti.
Take a close look at what is happening in your garden and landscape. Plant biology is fascinating!
Cockscomb Celosia inflorescence. Photo credit: Lee Terilla 2008, some rights reserved.
By: Stephen Greer, CED Santa Rosa County
Rhexia marianna Photo credit: Stephen Greer, University of Florid IFAS
There is a lot to be said about early morning or late afternoon walks along a woodland trail in Northwest Florida. With so much to see, hear and smell there is never enough time to take it all in. I would suggest slowing down and look for the many colorful and interesting plants these native plant communities have to offer.
I had the great fortune to meet with a group of plant explores lead by Angus Gholson, botanist and conservationist with a passion to share his knowledge in Washington County many years ago for a 5-hour hiking adventure. We hiked an exceptional longleaf pine forest with immense flora on the forest floor. It was all but impossible to see everything.
We searched for unique and common plants in the Sandhills and Clayhills in the central and northern areas of Washington County. Here are just a few of the plants we saw along our hike and some detail about them.
St. Peter’s-wort. Photo create: Stephen Greer University of Florida IFAS
St. Peter’s-wort, Hypericum tetapetalum is a wonderful Hypericum of the many we have in NW Florida. With its ability to repeat bloom petite yellow flowers from March to November, we often get the chance to revisit these trails at a later date for another chance to enjoy them. Like many repeat blooming natives, there will be weeks of rest periods with no bloom. This shrub will grow to three feet tall allowing the flowers to peak out over other plants in the pine flatwoods.
Shiny Lyonia, Lyonia lucida is another exceptional shrub with many uses. This evergreen can grow in low damp areas or with irrigation in landscapes to 10 to 12 feet tall. When found in pine forest areas they range from 3 – 6 feet tall. This Lyonia produces an attractive small bell-shaped red flower spread across a stem of last years growth similar to blueberry. Flowering can occur between November and June.
Lyonia lucida. Photo credit: Stephen Greer, University of Florid IFAS
Pale Meadow Beauty, Rhexia Marianna brings a soft pink bloom to the pine forest, grass prairies and edge of full sun to part-shade wetlands. With the ability to grow in diverse landscapes in Northwest Florida it can just about show up anywhere, bloom a few weeks and melt back into the natural setting. Seeding is best completed in the fall and consistent moisture is needed for bloom to occur.
All three of the plants in this article can be found at native plant nurseries. Call the nursery well ahead of time to make sure they either have it or can order it for you. Enjoy the outdoors and adventure it has to offer.
Why are the plants we are trying not to grow so hard to kill? Weeds can be quite frustrating to home gardeners as they struggle to get them under control. There are a few things you can do to help make your efforts more successful.
Identify the weed. It might seem like it doesn’t matter what the plant is if you know you want to get rid of it, but a big part of your strategy should be figuring out why that plant is being so difficult. Below are the reasons why weed identification is so critical in your fight to control it.
- Which plant are you favoring with your maintenance routine? All plants have similar basic needs: water, sunlight, nutrients, and a space to grow, but some perform better with varying amounts of each of these inputs. Sometimes we can influence these factors in a way that favors one plant over another. The best example is how we irrigate our landscape. If you plant drought tolerant shrubs, such as Indian Hawthorne, which can survive with little to no irrigation after establishment, and then continue to water 2-3 times a week, is it any wonder that you get water loving weeds such as dollarweed, torpedograss, or sedge? Only apply inputs that support your desirable plants and nothing more.
- Recognize the weed type. There are three main types of weeds we typically encounter: broadleaf, grass, or sedge. Some herbicides are broad-spectrum, which means they kill any type of plant, while others are selective. Selective herbicides generally target either broadleaf, grass or sedge weeds and have minimal impact on the other types. This can be very important information to have if you are shopping for an herbicide.
- Understand the life cycle. Herbaceous plants fall into three main life cycle categories: annual, perennial, or biennial. Annuals and biennials tend to reproduce primarily from seed. The annual plant completes its entire life cycle in one season or year and a biennial takes two years. When targeting these two, your goal is to get rid of the plant before it flowers and sets seed to reduce future crops. If you miss that window and the weeds go to seed, plan to use a pre-emergent herbicide prior to their next scheduled germination date (usually the next season). Perennials live for more than 2 years and tend to be tough to manage. They may reproduce by seed but many also multiply by vegetative means. To put this simply, they store everything they need in tiny pieces of the plant and if left in place, it will generate more plants. So, that little tiny root fragment from dollar weed you didn’t pull up – yep, it’ll grow a whole new one in its place!
For more information on weeds and weed control in lawns and landscapes, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office!
Sundews, tiny carnivorous plants found in pitcher plant bogs, use an enzyme dissolve insect proteins. Native Americans recognized this property and used the plant for skin maladies. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
There are few words better than “pure delight” to describe the face of someone who sees and appreciates a sundew for the first time. Maybe it is their size—often no bigger around than a quarter—or the miniature pinwheel shape, but sundews could easily fit into a fable about garden gnomes or fairies in the woods. These tiny plants hide in plant sight–so small and flush to the ground that you likely won’t see them unless specifically looking for them. But, once you are looking in the right conditions, you will probably see them everywhere.
Sundews (Drosera spp.) are small carnivorous plants found in the same bogs as pitcher plants. They thrive in moist, mucky soil and full sun. They are also carnivorous for the same reasons pitcher plants are—their wet, acidic habitats possess few soil nutrients, so they use insects instead.
Sundews utilize a different method for trapping insects—their flat, radiating structure has wider lobes on the ends, which are covered with hairlike tentacles. These hairs secrete droplets of sticky sap visible at the tip of each hair. Small insects are attracted to the dewlike sap and get stuck. The hairs curl around the insect like a slow Venus flytrap, and natural enzymes to break down the bug.
A healthy sundew plant growing just above the water level at Boiling Creek in Santa Rosa County. Photo credit: Larry Burner, Florida Master Naturalist
There are almost 200 species of sundews, not all with the flat growth pattern. The threadleaf sundew has an upright structure, while others may grow in a spherical shape at the water’s edge. While paddling Boiling Creek on Eglin Air Force Base property a few years ago, our group saw dozens of sundews growing on the trunks of cypress and tupelo trees at eye-level from our kayaks. They were about 4-6” in diameter, much larger than the 1” ones we typically see in the bogs.
Tarkiln State Park, Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, or any place you find pitcher plants are a great place to find sundews. You may have to get on your knees to see them, and move the grasses aside. Bring a hand lens to magnify the delicate details of the droplets of sap perched at the tip of tiny hairs.
Even the famous naturalist Charles Darwin was enthralled with sundews, conducting experiments and writing volumes about them. In an 1860 letter to his geologist friend Charles Lyell, Darwin stated that, “at the present moment, I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world.” If you, too, are fascinated with carnivorous plants, check out these resources from UF IFAS Extension and the Botanical Society of America.