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!
Bright color is sometimes hard to come by in landscapes, especially in those areas where not much likes to grow. In particularly sandy areas along our coastlines, it can be a challenge to find plants that can both tolerate extremely dry conditions with heavy salt spray and provide an aesthetic boost. Luckily, there is at least one flower out there that goes above and beyond when it comes to beauty.
Gaillardia pulchella, or blanket flower, Indian blanket flower, firewheel, or sundance is a relatively low growing (up to 1.5 feet tall) plant that favors conditions that would make most plants wither. It grows as an annual or short-lived perennial and though it goes dormant in the winter, during warm weather, it’s bright and colorful! It is native to the United States, but probably never spread farther east than Texas until assisted by humans. It grows well throughout Florida, and can often be seen along roadsides.
Spreading to around two feet wide, each individual plant may not blanket the ground, but it readily produces seed which is easy to germinate. Flowers are produced throughout the growing season. Varieties are available with different appearances, though all tend to be some combination of bright yellow and dusky red. The blossoms can be used as cut flowers, or left in the landscape to attract pollinators.
Blanket flower prefers well-drained soil, even growing out into beach dunes. As stated previously, it may be propagated easily by seed; either let dried seed heads remain on the plant long enough to drop seeds or harvest them to plant elsewhere. Sow seeds in the spring and enjoy low-maintenance color for months after!
The UF/IFAS Extension Bay County Pollinator Garden is the proud recipient of a Little Free Library built, stocked, and installed by the Bay County Library Foundation. We were incredibly fortunate the foundation had the perfect box designed and painted by local artist Heather Clements just waiting for the perfect place to be installed!
You might be asking yourself, how does a Little Free Library work? It’s very simple, if you want a book you take one and if you have a book to donate you leave it in the box. Our box includes books for all ages and reading levels including children’s books in English and Spanish and of course gardening and wildlife topics. As people exchange books the titles and topics will change and evolve over time.
If you are in Panama City I hope you will take a moment to pick out a book and enjoy our demonstration gardens at 2728 E. 14th Street, Panama City and visit the virtual garden for educational information about the garden inventory.
Need an excuse to not mow your lawn this month? UF/IFAS Extension agents in the Florida Panhandle are asking residents to skip their soon-to-be-weekly outdoor chore until the calendar flips to April.
The idea for “No Mow March” is borrowed from “No Mow May,” a concept begun in the United Kingdom that has now spread to northern parts of the United States.
“Obviously, our lawns are growing way too quickly by the time May rolls around,” said Beth Bolles, UF/IFAS Escambia County horticulture agent who is leading the pilot effort this year. “Here in North Florida, March is our transition period, when grass is exiting dormancy. But it’s also when pollinators are starting to become more active, so it’s the perfect time to celebrate them and promote their health and habitat.”
Bolles is quick to point out, though, that the month is about more than just turf.
“We recognize that some communities have rules to follow regarding their lawns,” she said. “There are other things you can do to encourage pollinators to visit, whether it’s container plants or adding new shrubs or pollinator houses. We encourage everyone to find their own way to participate.”
The first step in participating is to sign the pledge at go.ufl.edu/NoMowMarch. Visitors can also use the website to find virtual or in-person events geared to the topic, learn tips for adhering to homeowners association guidelines while still promoting pollinators, and record observations to a No Mow group on iNaturalist.
October is an important month for butterflies. The monarchs are making their epic migration towards Mexico, gracing us with their presence as they stop to feed on saltbush or lantana plants along the coast. But our homegrown orange-and-black butterfly is showing up everywhere right now, too. The Gulf fritillary (Agrautis vanillae) is a smaller species, but also features bright orange wings with black stripes and spots. Their caterpillars come dressed for Halloween, too—they are a deep orange color with black legs and spikes. While the caterpillar is not venomous to any potential predators, the spikes are quite intimidating and serve a protective function.
Fritillary (name from the Latin “chessboard”) eggs are bright yellow and laid primarily on varieties of passionflower vines, which the caterpillars feed voraciously upon. Passion vine is an important host plant for the zebra longwing as well, which is Florida’s state butterfly.
Gulf fritillaries are found in all 67 Florida counties, and may live throughout the southeastern United States, Mexico, and central and south America. They are found in varied habitats but prefer open, sunny spots in fields, forests, and gardens. The butterfly’s wing shape puts them into the “longwing” category, as their elongated wings spread wider than other species.
In the fall, fritillaries migrate to the warmest ends of their range. By spring, they move slightly north into North Carolina or interior Alabama.
Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, has become a commonly grown monarch host plant in many gardens. It grows very well in our climate and survives into Fall and Winter during many years. This long life of Tropical milkweed is not necessarily a good trait for the monarch butterfly. In the Fall, monarchs are in migration mode and need to move out of our area to overwinter in warmer climates. Live host plants that are found during migration may interrupt the process. An additional problem is that Tropical milkweed may be host to a disease caused by a parasite that can impact the health of Monarch butterflies. The best tip to help our migrating Monarch butterflies, is to cut back your Tropical milkweed to the ground each Fall or better yet, grow native milkweeds that usually die back on their own.