The Coontie

The Coontie

The ancient cycad, coontie, is a hardy and attractive plant for Florida landscapes. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The plant has a crazy-sounding name, more like some little animal you’d find in Australia than a native plant. However, an ancient Florida plant it is, and a tough one at that. Growing close to the ground, it most resembles a large fern or a sago palm, if the sago had smooth, rounded leaf edges. Like the sago, the coontie (Zamia floridana) is a cycad—a group of palmlike plants that have been around so long that triceratops and stegasauruses ate them! Coonties are the only cycads native to North America, found in the states and island nations like Cuba and the Bahamas.

Male cones (strobilus) of coontie are thinner and shorter than female cones. Photo credit: Dan Culbert, UF IFAS

Another interesting feature of the coontie is its seed cones. These are large reddish orange cones that resemble magnolia seedpods. Both sexes of plant produce them in clusters ranging from one to five of the 2-7” long cones. Cones from the male produce pollen, while females produce seeds. If you are interested in attracting wildlife to your yard, the coontie provides good low-growing cover for birds and small mammals. It is also the preferred food for the caterpillar of the rare Atala butterfly. Members of the Timucuan and Calusa tribes ground up the starchy root of the coontie as a flour. However, the root contains a toxin and if it is not removed first, ingestion could result in severe abdominal pain and vomiting. From the late 1880’s through World War I, a large starch industry existed in Florida, producing flour from the coontie root.

Adult female atala butterfly, showing royal blue streak on forewings. Photo credit: Sandy Koi, University of Florida

At home in drier soil conditions like oak hammocks and pinelands in north central Florida, these plants can also adapt to a variety of soil pH types. Coonties are drought, cold, and salt tolerant, thus a great landscape choice for coastal landscapes near the Gulf or a bay. The plants are very long-lived and adaptable. In fact, the book Florida’s Best Native Landscape Plants notes it is “Very hardy and easy to care for. Will grow well in any part of Florida, even outside its normal range. An exceptional replacement for the closely related, often used, but non-native sago palm.” In other words, this is an ideal landscape plant that should be used more throughout Florida.

Landscaping with Native Plants

Landscaping with Native Plants

Landscaping with native plants brings opportunities and challenges while adding diversity and beauty to the home.  There are many factors that come into play to successfully grow plants.  As gardeners, we all want things to look exceptional for all to enjoy.  Native plants have evolved over long periods of time naturally in a given region without intervention, bringing much needed diversity to natural areas and landscapes.  A big plus for natives are the flowers presented for the local bee populations and other pollinators assisting in the continuation of the plant species potentially established over thousands of years.

Landscape of Native Plants.

Landscape of Native Plants. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS Extension Santa Rosa County

Native plants have evolved in natural communities and are found to be interdependent not only plant to plant yet with soil type, soil microbial activity through bacteria and fungus, specific site location and others though biodiversity of these living communities.  Part of this community is often referred to as the soil web creating the connections of billions upon billions of organisms in the critical survival of the plants, insects and other animals we see.  The first steps when considering native plants for your landscape are to do your research and contact your local Extension office.  Some questions to consider may include: Does it grow best in well drained sand or wet soils or require high in organic matter?  Will full sun, part-shade to full shade be needed?

Coontie Palm in landscape.

Coontie Palm in Landscape. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS Extension Santa Rosa

Plants that are native and non-native are often seen in the same landscape setting.  Consideration should be taken to determine if either of the groups are aggressive in expanding beyond the intended plant setting.  Before moving on, non-native is in reference to plants that are introduced to a plant community that came from a totally different plant location.  An example of that location being hollies from southeast Asia or South America or even a different area of the United States.  Many have been researched and observed for many years under managed situations before being introduced into the local landscape nursery markets.  Once in a while a plant is introduced that has not gone through a long rigorous study and can become naturalized outside of its normal plant zones and establish as an invasive species.  This highly adaptable aggressive habit can, and often will colonize a given location out competing the native plants.  Kudzu is a good example of an invasive exotic plant that is naturalized in the southeastern U.S.

As gardeners there are opportunities to have positive impacts on some of these diminished native habitat areas that can be threatened by growth of urban and rural areas in Florida.  Establishing native plants areas into the landscape with proper soil preparation, managed water needs and more gives that chance for this interdependent system of plants, animals and nonliving elements to remain established with big impacts.

Virginia Sweetspire.

Virginia Sweetspire. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS Extension Santa Rosa County

Native plants can be a working part of the garden from wonderful flowers, season color change, leaf foliage of multiple sizes and shapes to feed the insects that feed the birds, leaves and nuts that feed so many other animals for us to enjoy seeing.  Balance is such a big part of being a successful gardener.  Remember not all native plants are suitable for landscape spaces, do your research and ask for assistance from the experts to determine if it is the right plant for the right place.

 

 

Using a Buckwheat Cover Crop in Raised Bed Gardens

Using a Buckwheat Cover Crop in Raised Bed Gardens

2020 has not been the most pleasant year in many ways.  However, one positive experience I’ve had in my raised bed vegetable garden has been the use of a cover crop, Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)! Use of cover crops, a catch-all term for many species of plants used to “cover” field soil during fallow periods, became popular in agriculture over the last century as a method to protect and build soil in response to the massive wind erosion and cropland degradation event of the 1930s, the Dust Bowl.  While wind erosion isn’t a big issue in raised bed gardens, cover crops, like Buckwheat, offer many other services to gardeners:

Buckwheat in flower behind summer squash. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

  • Covers, like Buckwheat, provide valuable weed control by shading out the competition.  Even after termination (the cutting down or otherwise killing of the cover crop plants and letting them decompose back into the soil as a mulch), Buckwheat continues to keep weeds away, like pinestraw in your landscape.
  • Cover crops also build soil. This summer, I noticed that my raised beds didn’t “sink” as much as normal.  In fact, I actually gained a little nutrient-rich organic matter!  By having the Buckwheat shade the soil and then compost back into it, I mostly avoided the phenomena that causes soils high in organic matter, particularly ones exposed to the sun, to disappear over time due to breakdown by microorganisms.
  • Many cover crops are awesome attractors of pollinators and beneficial insects. At any given time while my Buckwheat cover was flowering, I could spot several wasp species, various bees, flies, moths, true bugs, and even a butterfly or two hovering around the tiny white flowers sipping nectar.
  • Covers are a lot prettier than bare soil and weeds! Where I would normally just have either exposed black compost or a healthy weed population to gaze upon, Buckwheat provided a quick bright green color blast that then became covered with non-stop white flowers. I’ll take that over bare soil any day.

Buckwheat cover before termination (left) and after (right) interplanted with Eggplant. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard, UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension.

Now that I’ve convinced you of Buckwheat’s raised bed cover crop merits, let’s talk technical and learn how and when to grow it.  Buckwheat seed is easily found and can be bought in nearly any quantity.  I bought a one-pound bag online from Johnny’s Selected Seeds for my raised beds, but you can also purchase larger sizes up to 50 lb bags if you have a large area to cover.  Buckwheat seed germinates quickly as soon as nights are warmer than 50 degrees F and can be cropped continuously until frost strikes in the fall.   A general seeding rate of 2 or 3 lbs/1000 square feet (enough to cover about thirty 4’x8’ raised beds, it goes a long way!) will generate a thick cover.  Simply extrapolate this out to 50-80 lbs/acre for larger garden sites.  I scattered seeds over the top of my beds at the above rate and covered lightly with garden soil and obtained good results.  Unlike other cover crops (I’m looking at you Crimson Clover) Buckwheat is very tolerant of imperfect planting depths.  If you plant a little deep, it will generally still come up.  A bonus, no additional fertilizer is required to grow a Buckwheat cover in the garden, the leftover nutrients from the previous vegetable crop will normally be sufficient!

Buckwheat “mulch” after termination. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard, UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension.

Past the usual cover crop benefits, the thing that makes Buckwheat stand out among its peers as a garden cover is its extremely rapid growth and short life span.  From seed sowing to termination, a Buckwheat cover is only in the garden for 4-8 weeks, depending on what you want to use it for.  After four weeks, you’ll have a quick, thick cover and subsequent mulch once terminated.  After eight weeks or so, you’ll realize the plant’s full flowering and beneficial/pollinator insect attracting potential.  This lends great flexibility as to when it can be planted.  Have your winter greens quit on you but you’re not quite ready to set out tomatoes?  Plant a quick Buckwheat cover!  Yellow squash wilting in the heat of summer but it’s not quite time yet for the fall garden?  Plant a Buckwheat cover and tend it the rest of the summer!  Followed spacing guidelines and only planted three Eggplant transplants in a 4’x8’ raised bed and have lots of open space for weeds to grow until the Eggplant fills in?  Plant a Buckwheat cover and terminate before it begins to compete with the Eggplant!

If a soil building, weed suppressing, beneficial insect attracting, gorgeous cover crop for those fallow garden spots sounds like something you might like, plant a little Buckwheat!  For more information on Buckwheat, cover crops, or any other gardening topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office.  Happy Gardening!

Aphids & Milkweed

Aphids & Milkweed

Perennial milkweed, Asclepias perennis, with oleander aphids; notice the brown aphid mummies that have been parasitized. Photo credit: Mary Salinas UF/IFAS Extension.

Milkweeds are appreciated for their beauty, but often we cultivate it for the benefit of the monarch butterflies who lay their eggs only on this plant genus. Avid butterfly gardeners want the monarch caterpillars to eat up the milkweed and become beautiful butterflies. Often instead, thousands of aphids show up and compete for space on the plants. These bright yellow aphids are known as oleander aphids.

Just how do aphids build up their populations so quickly? It seems that one day you have a small number on a few plants and then a few days later, thousands are all over your milkweed. Oleander aphids have a few advantages for quickly building their populations:

  • All oleander aphids are female and do not need to mate to produce their young
  • Aphids give birth to live young who immediately start feeding on the plant
  • Aphids start reproducing when they are 4 to 10 days old and keep reproducing during their one-month life span
  • When populations get heavy or the plant starts to decline, winged individuals are produced to migrate to new areas and plants.

Parasitic wasp and aphid mummies. Photo credit: University of California.

 

What can or should you do to control this pest?

One option is to do nothing and let the natural enemies come in and do their job. One of the best is a very tiny wasp that you will likely never see. This parasitoid lays its eggs only inside aphids. The wasp larva feeds on the inside of the aphid and turns it into a round brown ‘mummy’ and then emerges when mature by making a round hole in the top of the aphid. Look closely with a hand lens at some of those brown aphids on your milkweed and you can see this amazing process. Another common predator I see in my own garden is the larvae of the hover fly or syrphid fly. You will have to look hard to see it, but it is usually there.  Assassin bugs and lady beetles also commonly feed on aphids. The larvae of lady beetles look nothing like the adults but also are voracious predators of aphids – check out what they look like.

Lady beetle larva feeding on aphid on tobacco. Photo credit:
Lenny Wells University of Georgia Bugwood.org.

If you think your situation requires some sort of intervention to control the aphids, first check carefully for monarch eggs and caterpillars, keeping in mind that some may be very small. Remove them, shoo away any beneficial insects, and spray the plant completely with an insecticidal soap product. Recipes that call for dish detergents may harm the waxy coating on the leaves and should be avoided. The solution must contact the insect to kill it. Always follow the label instructions. Soap will also kill the natural enemies if they are contacted. One exception is the developing wasp in the aphid mummies – fortunately, they are protected inside as the soap does not penetrate. Oils derived from plants or petroleum can serve the same purpose as the insecticidal soap.

Syrphid fly larva and oleander aphids. Photo credit: Lyle Buss, University of Florida.

You also can squish the aphids with your fingers and then rinse them off the plant. If you only rinse them off, the little pests can often just crawl back onto the plant.

There are systemic insecticides, like neonicotinoids, that are taken up by plant roots and kill aphids when they start feeding on the plants. However, those products also kill monarch caterpillars munching on the plant and harm adult butterflies, bees, and other pollinators feeding on the nectar. So those products are not an option. Always read the product label as many pesticides are prohibited by law from being applied to blooming plants as pollinators can be harmed.

In the end, consider tolerating some aphids and avoid insecticide use in landscape.

Happy butterfly gardening!

Garden Ideas – Les Furr’s Sunflower Screen

Garden Ideas – Les Furr’s Sunflower Screen

Veteran Master Gardener, Les Furr shares an idea he and his wife had to hide an ugly debris pile following Hurricane Michael. He planted a temporary sunflower screen to block something ugly with something beautiful. Sunflowers can be planted along a road or fence, and provide a lovely addition to your property. The seed can be saved and frozen to provide beauty to your property year after year.

Lessons in Landscaping Provided by Oleander Caterpillars

Lessons in Landscaping Provided by Oleander Caterpillars

Oleander caterpillars, which are active on some oleanders during summer, can provide a number of gardening lessons.

Oleander caterpillar moth on yellow flower

Oleander caterpillar moth on lantana flower. Photo credit: James Castner, UF

The adult moth is striking in appearance. The bluish to purplish moth has white dots on its black wings. The moths resemble wasps as they fly in and around oleander shrubs.

It’s the orange caterpillars with black spots and black hairs that cause problems for some gardeners.

Caterpillars are the larval stage of butterflies and moths. In order to enjoy watching butterflies and moths feeding on the nectar of flowers, some of the caterpillars must survive to become adult butterflies and moths. This is lesson number one.

Oleander caterpillars usually only feed on oleander plants. Oleanders are native to areas of Europe and Asia. This is lesson number two.

Oleander caterpillar on oleander leaf

Oleander caterpillar, Photo credit: Paul Choate, UF

Oleander caterpillars benefit by us planting their food source in Florida.

This relationship between pest and plant is referred to as the key plant, key pest concept. Some other examples include St. Augustinegrass and chinch bugs, gardenias and whiteflies, crape myrtles and crape myrtle aphids, azaleas and azalea caterpillars, camellias and tea scale, roses and black spot, pecans and pecan scab, squash and squash vine borers.

Understanding this concept can be helpful in designing a “low maintenance” landscape.

When you plant roses, you plant everything that goes with roses, including the time and money required to maintain them. This applies to St. Augustinegrass, pecan trees, squash and oleanders. This is lesson number three.

Oleander caterpillars can temporarily damage the appearance of oleanders. But they cause no long-term damage for the plant. This is lesson number four. The damage is aesthetic. Oleander caterpillars can consume great numbers of leaves. However, if the plant is otherwise healthy, new leaves will be produced and the plant will continue to grow. The damage is temporary; there will be no evidence the plant ever had a problem.

To spray or not to spray for oleander caterpillars has to do with a person’s tolerance level.

If you can’t tolerate having oleander caterpillars around and the temporary aesthetic damage they cause, consider the use of Bacillus thuringiensis. It is sold under a number of brand names and many times is referred to as Bt. This bacterium only controls caterpillars so it is friendlier for the beneficial insects. When using any pesticide, always follow the label directions and precautions.

Here are links to UF/IFAS Extension publications with more info.