Grow Your Own Christmas Tree

Grow Your Own Christmas Tree

Christmas is among my favorite holidays.  The religious significance, music, lights, amazing food, fellowship with family, and giving and receiving gifts all lend something special to the season.  However, the tradition that arguably gets the most attention is selecting and putting up a Christmas tree!  Those that participate in the festivities and put up a Christmas tree have three options:  purchasing an artificial tree, purchasing a real tree, or growing your own.

While I like the convenience of a pre-lit tree as much as anyone, artificial trees don’t do a whole lot for the environment or sustainable US agriculture.  They are almost exclusively produced overseas and contain non-biodegradable plastics.  Not the best.  If you select option two and choose to purchase a real tree, you’ll help support a sustainable US agriculture industry!  According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are ~25-30 million Christmas trees sold annually in the US and 350 million more currently growing on Christmas tree farms waiting their turn!  Purchasing real Christmas trees also ensures that the over 100,000 Christmas tree farm workers remain employed, and the 1/3 million acres US Christmas tree farms comprise will remain non-developed “green spaces”!

But for the green-thumbed Christmas enthusiast that’s willing to put in a little time and effort, there is a third choice – growing your very own Christmas tree right at home!  In the Panhandle, there are several species, Florida natives and not, that make wonderful Christmas trees and are easy to grow!

Red Cedar makes a fine Florida Christmas tree!

Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) – This Florida native is the classic southern evergreen.  Growing quickly to the desired heights of 4’-10’, emitting a “Christmas tree smell”, and possessing dark, dense foliage, Red Cedar makes an excellent Christmas tree!  Red Cedar performs very well in most soils but does not like wet feet and will not tolerate continuously saturated areas.

Leyland Cypress (x Cupressocyparis leylandii) – A hybrid of Alaskan Cedar and Monterrey Cypress, Leyland Cypress is recognized as one of the most popular Deep South grown Christmas trees for good reason.  Leylands grow exceptionally fast, are a desirable forest green color, and have a naturally conical shape!  Though not recommended as long-term landscape trees in Florida due to disease susceptibility, Leylands do very well in short Christmas tree rotations.

Thuja ‘Green Giant’ – ‘Green Giant’ is a cultivar of Thuja and is similar in appearance to Leyland Cypress.  Though not quite as deep green in color as Leyland, ‘Green Giant’ also grows rapidly (up to 3’-4’ annually), tolerates many soil conditions, and has no serious insect/disease issues.

Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica) – Arizona Cypress is the Christmas tree for those who would normally choose to be different by purchasing a blue, silver, or white artificial tree!  Famous for its striking blue/silver foliage, Arizona Cypress is native to the American Southwest but thrives in the drier sandy soils found in many parts of the Panhandle.

Sand Pine (Pinus clausa) – The quintessential “Cracker Christmas Tree”, Sand Pine is native to the deep sandy ridges of Florida.  Normally thought of as a scrubby, low-value tree, when shaped a little, the short-needled Sand Pine makes an excellent Christmas tree!  Obviously preferring a dry, sandy site but capable of growing nearly anywhere, Sand Pine has no pest or disease issues and grows fast!  If you want a true, old-school Florida Christmas tree, Sand Pine is it.

Regardless of the species you choose, implementing the following few maintenance tips and expectations will lend best results:

  • Cut/remove J or circling roots before planting.
  • Plant just higher than ground level.
  • Refill the hole with native soil from the site.
  • Regular irrigation for the first several months of their lives is necessary and trees will benefit from supplemental fertilizer applications twice a year (spring and mid-summer).
  • Shaping trees each summer with hedge shears to achieve the desired dense, compact shape will allow for a uniform tree with no “holes”.
  • Plant several trees per year to ensure a nice tree come December, just in case.
  • Florida grown Christmas trees will NOT have the exact look of fir or spruce. Adjust expectations accordingly.
  • Most Florida grown Christmas trees do NOT have rigid branches and cannot support heavy ornaments. Again, adjust expectations accordingly.

While Christmas tree species that perform well in the Panhandle will not have the exact look of a classic fir or spruce sourced from the Carolinas, they certainly mimic the look and there is something to be said for walking outside and harvesting your own tree to put presents under!  For more information on growing your own Christmas trees or other horticultural topics, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office!  Happy New Year!

 

Fall Color and Native Plants

Fall Color and Native Plants

Many of the native plants in the Northwest Panhandle of Florida are often placed into landscapes as backdrop support plants.  Many bring the solid green color to emphasis other colorful plants.  What is often missed is the opportunity to see the fall color palate of these plants.  Sometimes the easiest thing to do is travel to the nearest nursery to purchase annuals and perennials that come from all over the world and have been time tested to determine their invasiveness outside of planting areas and are determined to be at a minimal risk of colonizing outside of their intended planting area.

Native plants may not be in the thought process and are often overlooked for their exceptional color that can be a focal point in the landscape.  Several native plants bring multi-colored leaves or flowers adding fall interest for all to enjoy.  Let us take a moment and look at just a few of the plants that can be found in the Florida Panhandle that offer the many colors you may be looking to utilize in your landscape.

Beauty Berry (Calliparpa americana)

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). Photo courtesy: Stephen Greer, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

American Beautyberry

Beautyberry has two wonderful display times each year.  In the late spring to early summer petite light colored lavender flowers open in small clusters along the upright stems of the plant.  This flowering can be a brief soft show for a few weeks.  The big color show comes in the fall with colorful shiny purple fruit clusters known as drupes.  The fruit clusters around the stems of the plant in groups of 20 plus drupes.  Often you will see multiple clusters on a given stem spaced approximately 3 to 4 inches apart in the beside the leaf petiole area.

Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)

Blazing Star (Liatri spicata). Photo courtesy: Stephen Greer, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

Blazing Star

Blazing star is another fall beauty that creates a great vertical flower floret display of tall spires showing a pleasant medium lavender color.  The clustered small flowers provide color in the garden for several weeks.  This pollinator plant attacks Monarchs and Swallowtails butterflies plus others adding more enjoyment to the garden.  For quality establishment and growth, it needs well drained soil, yet soils that are not high in fertility.  Overly fertile soils will over stimulate flower stem growth that will grow too tall and flop over.  Blazing star can be divided once it is established and has expanded through underground stem growth creating a wider plant base.  In sandy soil sites that have been disturbed through clearing this plant will often establish through seed from adjacent plant settings.

Golden Rod (Solidago spp.)

Golden Rod (Solidago spp.). Photo Courtesy Stephen Greer, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

Golden Rod

One of the stronger colors of fall is yellow and the native Golden Rod is a big contributor with its upright stems holding multi-clusters of small bright yellow blooms.  This plant serves as a pollinator plant for butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects.  Often associated with fall allergies, this plant is not likely the culprit as the pollen is heavy and does not blow on the wind as ragweed will do.  Ragweed blooms around the same time and does not have a showy bloom, yet many suffer from allergic reactions to this plant making it the likely problem plant for allergy sufferers.  Golden Rod tends to colonize and crowd out other native plants so don’t hesitate to thin out the plant area if it is expanding too quickly.

Growing native plants including fall flowering selections is a fun journey for all to enjoy as the cool hints of fall weather moves in.  Do a little research and keep in mind there is an Extension office in every county to assist in addressing your gardening needs.

Coastal Plain Honeycombhead and the Gulf Coast Solitary Bee

Coastal Plain Honeycombhead and the Gulf Coast Solitary Bee

Coastal plain honeycombhead blooms through the summer and early fall on local beaches. Photo credit, Bob Pitts, National Park Service

Over my years of leading people on interpretive trail hikes, I have learned it is particularly important to know the names of the plants that are in bloom. These flowers are eye-catching, and inevitably someone will ask what they are. In fact, one of my favorite wildflower identification books is categorized not by taxonomy, but by bloom color—with a rainbow of tabs down the edge of the book for easy identification.

Wildflower identification can be tough, but color-coded guidebooks are really helpful! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

In our coastal dunes right now, several plants are showing off vibrant yellow blooms. Seaside goldenrod, coreopsis, and other asters are common. Rarer, and the subject of today’s post, is the Coastal Plain Honeycombhead (Balduina angustifolia). It has bright yellow flowers, but often gets more notice due to its unusual appearance when not in bloom. The basal leaves are bright green and similar in shape and arrangement to a pine cone or bottlebrush (albeit a tiny one), sticking straight up in the sand. The plants are typically found on the more protected back side of primary dunes or further into secondary dunes, a little more inland from the Gulf.

When not in bloom, the plant resembles a green pinecone planted in the sand. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The plant plays a special role in beach ecology, as a host plant for Gulf fritillary butterflies and the Gulf Coast solitary bee (Hesperapis oraria). The bee is a ground-dwelling pollinator insect that forages only in the barrier islands of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The species is currently the subject of a University of Florida study, as the endemic bee’s sole source of nectar and pollen is the honeycombhead flower. As of publication date, no bee nests have been discovered. Researchers are interested in learning more about the insect’s life cycle and nesting behaviors to better understand and protect its use of local habitats. Based on closely related species, it is believed the Gulf Coast solitary bee builds a multi-chambered nest under the soft sands of the dunes.

Adult female Hesperapis oraria foraging on coastal plain honeycombhead (Balduina angustifolia). Photograph by John Bente, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Park Service.

While the honeycombhead plant is found in peninsular Florida and coastal Georgia, the bee has been identified only in a 100 km² area between Horn Island, MS, and St. Andrews Bay, FL. Luckily for the bee, large swaths of this land are preserved as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and several state parks. Nonetheless, these coastal dune habitats are threatened by hurricanes, sea level rise, and development (outside the park boundaries).  Due to its rarity and limited habitat, a petition has been submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

False Foxglove:  A Unique Fall Wildflower

False Foxglove: A Unique Fall Wildflower

False Foxglove in a Calhoun County natural area. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Fall is the absolute best season for wildflower watching in the Panhandle!  When mid-September rolls around and the long days of summer finally shorten, giving way to drier air and cooler nights, northwest Florida experiences a wildflower color explosion.  From the brilliant yellow of Swamp Sunflower and Goldenrod, to the soothing blue of Mistflower, and the white-on-gold of Spanish Needles, there is no shortage of sights to see from now until frost.  But, in my opinion, the star of the fall show is the currently flowering False Foxglove (Agalinus spp.).

Named for the appearance of their brilliant pink flowers, which bear a resemblance to the northern favorite Foxglove (Digitalis spp.), “False Foxglove” is actually the common name of several closely related species of parasitic plants in the genus Agalinus that are difficult to distinguish by all but the keenest of botanists.  Regardless of which species you may see, False Foxglove is an unusual and important Florida native plant.  Emerging from seed each spring in the Panhandle, plants grow quickly through the summer to a mature height of 3-5’.  During this time, False Foxglove is about as inconspicuous a plant as grows.  Consisting of a wispy thin woody stem with very small, narrow leaves, plants remain hidden in the flatwoods and sand hill landscapes that they inhabit.  However, when those aforementioned shorter September days arrive, False Foxglove explodes into flower sporting sprays of dozens of light purple to pink tubular-shaped flowers that remain until frost ends the season.

False Foxglove flowering in a Calhoun County natural area. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

In addition to being unmatched in flower, False Foxglove also plays several important ecological roles in Florida’s natural areas.  First, False Foxglove’s relatively large, tubular-shaped flowers are the preferred nectar sources for the larger-sized native solitary and bumble bees present in the Panhandle, though all manner of generalist bees and butterflies will also visit for a quick sip.  Second, False Foxglove is the primary host plant for the unique Common Buckeye butterfly.  One of the most easily recognizable butterflies due to the large “eye” spots on their wings, Common Buckeye larvae (caterpillars), feed on False Foxglove foliage during the summer before emerging as adults and adding to the fall spectacle.  Finally, False Foxglove is an important indicator of a healthy native ecosystem.  As a parasitic plant, False Foxglove obtains nutrients and energy by photosynthesis AND by using specialized roots to tap into the roots of nearby suitable hosts (native grasses and other plants).  As both False Foxglove and its parasitic host plants prefer to grow in the sunny, fire-exposed pine flatwoods and sand ridges that characterized pre-settlement Florida, you can be fairly confident that if you see a natural area with an abundance of False Foxglove in flower, that spot is in good ecological shape!

The Florida Panhandle is nearly unmatched in its fall wildflower diversity and False Foxglove plays a critical part in the show.  From its stunning flowers to its important ecological roles, one would be hard-pressed to find a more unique native wildflower!  For more information about False Foxglove and other Florida native wildflowers, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.

 

Hickory Gall and Anthracnose, a Deadly Combination?

Hickory Gall and Anthracnose, a Deadly Combination?

As homeowners, we do value our trees and no one wants to lose a shade tree especially on the house’s south side in Florida.  On a recent site visit, a hickory tree had multiple concerns.  Upon closer inspection, the tree had a bacterial infection about 30” off the ground with a smelly, black-brown ooze seeping forth.  The leaf canopy was riddled with beetle holes and leaf margins were chewed by caterpillars.  When leaves were viewed under the microscope, thrips (insects) and spider mites were found running around.   The biggest homeowner cosmetic concern arose from hickory anthracnose (fungus) and upon closer inspection found the leaves to have hickory midge fly galls.  The obvious question is should the tree come down?  I’ll have you read the whole article before giving you the answer.

Whole Hickory Gall

Each hickory gall is approximately 3/16″ wide.

Hickory anthracnose or leaf spot as seen in the banner photo is caused by a fungal infection during the wet summer months in Florida.  The homeowner can usually recognize the disease by the large reddish brown spots on the upper leaf surface (sending a sample to the NFREC Plant Pathology Lab will confirm the diagnosis) and brownish spots with no formal shape on the bottom.  Be sure to rake and remove all leaves to prevent your disease from overwintering close to the tree thus reducing infection next year.

Gall Half

A hickory gall has been cut in half to show the leaf tissue.

The fungus can be lessened by good cultural practices and appropriate fungicidal applications.  Please remember it is best left to professionals when spraying a large tree.  This alone is not cause to remove your tree.

Hickory gall is caused by the hickory midge fly, an insect that lays eggs in the leaf tissue.  The plant responds by building up tissue around each egg almost like the oyster when forming a pearl.

As the gall tissue grows, eggs hatch and larva start to feed on this tissue.  The larva will continue to

Gall Larva

The larva has eaten all soft material inside the gall and is ready to pupate.

feed until it is ready to pupate within the gall.  After forming a pupa, the midge fly will eventually emerge as an adult and females will continue to lay eggs on other leaves.  The galls are more of a cosmetic damage and because your hickory leaves will fall from the tree as winter comes, the galls will normally not cause enough damage to worry about each year.  Once again good cultural practices and disposal of each year’s leaves will reduce the gall numbers next year.

In a large tree with many leaves, foliar feeding by beetles and caterpillars do cause damage though the leaves will still produce enough food (photosynthesis) to keep the tree alive.  Most of us never climb our trees to look at leaves to see the small insects/mites and there are more than enough leaves to maintain tree health.

The biggest concern during my site visit was their tree’s bacterial infection.  A knife blade was pushed into the wound area and went in less than 1/4″.  The homeowner was instructed to look at bactericide applications.  In the end, this hickory tree with so many problems is still shading the home and helping cool the house.  It is still giving refuge to wildlife and beneficial insects.  When in doubt give our trees the benefit and keep them in place.  Remember your local Extension agent is set up to make site visits and saving a tree is time well spent.

 

Rainlily: A Rewarding Bulb for Panhandle Gardeners

Rainlily: A Rewarding Bulb for Panhandle Gardeners

Bulbs are my favorite class of ornamental plants.  They generally are low maintenance, come back reliably year after year, and sport the showiest flowers around.  While many bulbs like Daylily, Crinum and Amaryllis are very common in Panhandle landscapes, there is a lesser-known genus of bulbs that is well worth your time and garden space, the Rainlily (Zephyranthes spp.).

Rainlily, aptly named for its habit of blooming shortly after summer rainfall events and a member of the Amaryllis family of bulbs, is a perfect little plant for Panhandle yards for several reasons.  The plant’s genus name, Zephyranthes – which translates to English as “flowers of the western winds”, hints at the beauty awaiting those who plant this lovely little bulb.  From late spring until the frosts of fall, Rainlily rewards gardeners with flushes of trumpet-shaped flowers in shades of white, pink, and yellow, with some hybrids offering even more exotic colors.  While these individual flowers typically only persist for a day or two, they are produced in “flushes” that last several days, extending the show.  Though Rainlily flowers are the main event for the genus, beneath the blooms, plants also offer attractive, grass-like, evergreen foliage.  These aesthetic attributes lend themselves to Rainlily being used in a variety of ways in landscapes, from massing for summer color ala Daylilies, to use around the edges of beds as a showy border like Liriope or other “border” type grassy plants.

Unknown Rainlily species blooming in a raised bed. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Continuing along the list of Rainlily attributes, the genus doesn’t require much in the way of care from gardeners either.  Most species of Rainlily, including the Florida native Z. atamasca, have no serious pests and are right at home in full sun to part shade.  Once established, plants are exceedingly low-maintenance and won’t require any supplemental irrigation or fertilizer!  Some Rainlily species like Z. candida even make excellent water or ditch garden plants, preferring to have their feet wet most of the year – putting them right at home in the Panhandle this year.  And finally, all Zephyranthes spp. do very well in containers and raised beds also, adding versatility to their use in your landscape!

The one drawback of Rainlily is that they can be somewhat difficult to find for sale.  As these bulbs are an uncommon sight in most garden centers, to source a specific Zephyranthes species or cultivar, one is probably going to need to purchase from a specialty internet or mail-order nursery.  As with other passalong-type bulbs though, the absolute best and most rewarding way to obtain Rainlily is to get a dormant season bulb division from a friend or fellow gardener who grows them.  There are many excellent unnamed or forgotten Zephyranthes cultivars and seedlings flourishing in gardens across the South, waiting to be passed around to the next generation of folks who will appreciate them!

Even if you must go to some lengths to get a Rainlily in your garden, I highly recommend doing so!  You’ll be rewarded with years of low-maintenance summer color after the dreariest of rainy days and will be able to pass these “flowers of the western wind” on to the next gardening generation.  For more information on growing, sourcing, or propagating Rainlilies, check out this EDIS publication by Dr. Gary Knox of the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC) or contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office!  Happy Gardening!