Sandhill Milkweed – Attracting Butterflies in the Dunes

Sandhill Milkweed – Attracting Butterflies in the Dunes

Like finding buried treasure on a desert island, walking up on a mound of sandhill milkweed (Asclepias humistrata) may elicit cries of excitement from someone who understands what they’re seeing. And not unlike searching for pirate booty, there’s a bit of danger involved, too—milkweed is highly toxic.

The eye-catching pink coloration of the leaves, stems, and complex flowers make this variety of milkweed stand out among the dunes. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Last month in the dunes of Perdido Key, our Master Naturalist class found robust clusters of eye-catching, pink-tinged leaves, blooms, and buds of sandhill milkweed. Also known as pinewoods milkweed, this variety thrives in dry, sandy soils. It is native to the southeast, found typically in the wilds of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Its genus name, “Asclepias” refers to the Greek god of healing—indigenous people have used the plant for medicinal purposes (dysentery treatment and wart removal, in particular) for centuries. The species name humistrata means “spreading,” which describes the growth habit of the plant. Milkweed is highly toxic, so we do not recommend trying any medicinal uses at home! The “milk” part of the common name refers to its sap, which is a thick, sticky, white substance containing that toxic chemical.

The seedpods of sandhill milkweed are large and full of seeds with wispy fibers that allow them to float through the air for dispersal. Photo credit: Gabriel Campbell, UF/IFAS

As the only food source for the monarch caterpillar, healthy milkweed plants are crucial for maintaining populations of the famous monarch butterfly.  The plant itself is rather complex and beautiful. Its five-petaled blooms grow in tight clusters, on stalks sticking several inches off the ground. The leaves are broad and a deep forest green, edged in the pale maroon/pink of the stems and flowers. The seedpods of milkweed are quite large (3-6” long), resembling pea pods and full of seeds. Each seed has a wispy white fiber attached, which helps it disperse in the wind like a dandelion. The fibers have been used for years as stuffing for pillows and mattresses, and were used for life jackets during World War 2.

Numerous monarch caterpillars feed on a sandhill milkweed plant. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The first cluster of milkweed we found was host to multiple monarch caterpillars, recognizable by their greenish-yellow, white, and black stripes. By the time you see caterpillars, the milkweed is already working its magic, transferring its toxins to the insects but causing them no harm. Monarchs have evolved the capability to digest and metabolize this poison, which would induce heart attacks in nearly any vertebrate animal.  Adult monarchs use several nectar sources, including milkweed flowers, and females lay their eggs on the plant so that their young can begin eating once hatched.

In the animal kingdom, red and orange are signs of danger.  The bright orange coloration of an adult monarch butterfly serves as a warning to would-be predators to exhibit caution, as the toxins from their food sources stay within the butterfly’s body. The copycat viceroy, soldier, queen, and Gulf fritillary butterflies benefit from this trait by using mimicry in their own orange coloration to ward off predators.

Woodland Pinkroot Adds Vibrant Color to Spring Landscapes

Woodland Pinkroot Adds Vibrant Color to Spring Landscapes

This week I have been noticing some of the beautiful perennials blooming at the Jackson County Extension office, and one struck me as especially beautiful. Indian Pink or Woodland Pinkroot (Spigelia marilandica), it turns out, is native to several counties in the Florida Panhandle.

Woodland Pinkroot is a long-lived perennial that has a very showy but short blooming cycle each spring. It thrives in part shade as a small shrublike forb between 2-3 feet tall. Zones 8a and 8b are its native range in Florida and it is often found in moist, sandy, and well-drained acidic soils. This is not a plant that will tolerate salty soils or salt spray, so planting on the coast is not recommended. Additionally, it dies to the ground in the winter, so care must be taken when weeding the garden to preserve this perennial from inadvertent destruction.

This showy native is easy to propagate from seed or root division but not from cuttings. What’s more, it attracts hummingbirds with its tubular-shaped yellow and red flowers. Old flowers may be removed before seed set to extend the blooming season. One advantage for the urban garden is that it is not an aggressive grower but will need some help if competing with other aggressive native plants such as blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum).

This is one plant that I was not aware of until recently as it seems to be not well known even to long-term Florida gardeners. I think that it is a worthy addition to the native or Florida Friendly landscape if one has the right climatic conditions for it to thrive, namely partial shade and well-drained, moist, and acidic soil.

For more information check out these popular native plant websites:

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Florida Native Plant Society

Landscaping in the Panhandle of Florida: Opportunities & Challenges

Landscaping in the Panhandle of Florida: Opportunities & Challenges

Landscaping in the Panhandle of Florida comes with many opportunities and challenges in this diverse plant environment of coastal, flatwoods (aka pine woodland), sandhills, and clay soil areas running adjacent to the Alabama/Georgia lines.  Sandy soil is the predominate soil of the panhandle area from coastal saltwater marshes and brackish bay waters to wetlands and drier well drained quartz sandy soils of the sandhills.  Unique ecosystems can be found in all these areas.  One of the areas with the largest plant diversity is the Longleaf Pine savannahs found in the sandhills.  Now comes the question of landscaping decisions for your residential living. 

Native landscape plants. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County.

Understanding your soils and how to improve them where you live is critically important before putting the first plant in the ground.  We live in an area of abundant rainfall and this will impact the chemistry of your soils.  Make an appointment with your local horticulture agent at the University of Florida IFAS Extension office in your county to discuss your soil and landscape ideas.  Taking soil samples will likely be needed. With instruction you can easily collect the samples needed to be sent and received to determine the best options. 

With abundant rainfall, leaching of key nutrients will occur removing base cations that can include potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca) and others.  This all leads to soils being more acidic in nature.  Nutrient resources may need to be added and checked every 2-3 years, just be sure to follow the soil sample recommendations.  Soils near wetland areas can leach differently than the deep quartz sandy soils of the sandhills.  Adding organic amendments is a recommended practice.  Just how much will depend on your soil setting; talk with your horticulture Extension agent.  Often new homesites and commercial construction areas have soil brought in to raise or level construction locations.  Understanding the movement of water through these newly added layers to the existing soil below will determine drainage and nutrient movement within this site.  It can be confusing making decisions about adding soil nutrients, lime, and organic amendments. 

Challenges in new soils in landscape. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County.

Once all this is settled you can start thinking about how to enjoy this wonderful Panhandle outdoor living opportunity.  Creating living spaces comes in many ways from building patios, porches, decks, outdoor kitchens, and strategically places chairs and benches.  Talk with your family and others who may enjoy these places with you.  Gazebos or barbeque grill areas may be in the plans.  Placing these into the landscape takes planning. Draft designs and think of creative solutions for the site.  Look at the site elevation changes from high areas to low wetland areas.  Will you need “No See Um” screen for the porch to keep out the small insects or install ceiling fans to keep the breeze moving? 

There are many questions to be asked. Create a list to be addressed before beginning a project and then determine the cost.  Enjoy the adventure!

The Florida Trail

The Florida Trail

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.

A brick sign echoes the architecture of Ft. Pickens along the trail at the northern end of the Florida Trail. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

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.

Florida Trail map with alternate routes, provided by the Florida Forest Service.
Is Your Tree a Champion?

Is Your Tree a Champion?

The Florida Forest Service implements the tree champion program in Florida. Credit: Florida Forest Service.

Humans love to measure and rank things. Whether it’s the tallest, the widest, or the most of something, we want to know about it, rank it, and, of course, brag about it if it’s ours. The biggest pumpkin, cheeseburger, truck tires, and so on. Gardeners and plant people are no exception. Actually, when you combine the pride of something you’ve grown with some type of measurement or rank of grandeur, it drives even more competition. Hence, fairs! So, it’s no surprise that there is an official rank of largest tree for each state. These large specimens are known as “Champion Trees” and every landowner I know of would love to have one on their property.

The idea of recognizing Champion Trees goes back nearly a century when the American Forestry Association, now known simply as American Forests, launched a campaign to engage the public in forestry activities. To tap into our desire to rank things and compete, the campaign encouraged a competition to find the largest specimens of selected trees. American Forests still maintains a registry of the national Champion Trees and their current goal of the program is to help people identify tree biodiversity and foster a desire to preserve and protect trees.

The Senator – no longer with us – was the state champion cypress. Credit: Creative Commons.

In Florida, the Division of Forestry (DOF), part of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), maintains a statewide registry of these Champion Trees. According to FDACS’s Florida Champion Trees website, the largest native tree in the state is a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) with a trunk measuring 537 inches in circumference (nearly 15 feet wide), stands 101 feet tall, and has a crown spread of 49 feet. That’s a big ol’ cypress tree! Just in case you were wondering, the smallest Champion Tree is a corkwood (Leitneria floridana) with a trunk measuring nine inches in circumference (almost three feet in diameter), 17 feet tall, and a crown spread of eight feet. That is a big ol’ corkwood!

Corkwood (Leitneria floridana), a native wetland tree, is the smallest state champion. Credit: Creative Commons.

Now comes the exciting part. The Florida Champion Trees website ( has the entire list of trees for you to peruse and includes a list of trees that are yet to have a champion specimen designated. There is a nomination form that, when submitted, will prompt a visit by a County Forester with DOF who will confirm the tree’s measurements. If all checks out, your tree could be a champion!

Consider a Native Christmas Tree

Consider a Native Christmas Tree

Eastern Redcedar

Throughout history the evergreen tree has been a symbol of life.  “Not only green when summer’s here, but also when it’s cold and dreary” as the Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum” says. 

While supporting the cut Christmas tree industry does create jobs and puts money into the local economy, every few years considering adding to the urban forest by purchasing a living tree.  Native evergreen trees such as redcedar make a nice Christmas tree that can be planted following the holidays.  The dense growth and attractive foliage make redcedar a favorite for windbreaks, screens and wildlife cover. 

The heavy berry production provides a favorite food source for migrating Cedar Waxwing birds.  Its high salt-tolerance makes it ideal for coastal locations.  Their natural pyramidal-shape creates the traditional Christmas tree form, but can be easily pruned as a street tree. 

Two species, Juniperus virginiana and Juniperus silicicola are native to Northwest Florida.  Many botanists do not separate the two, but as they mature, Juniperus silicicola takes on a softer, more informal look. 

Cedar waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

When planning for using a live Christmas tree there are a few things to consider.  The tree needs sunlight, so restrict its inside time to less than a week.  Make sure there is a catch basin for water under the tree, but never allow water to remain in the tray and don’t add fertilizer.  Locate your tree in the coolest part of the room and away from heating ducts and fireplaces. 

After Christmas, install the redcedar in an open, sunny part of the yard.  After a few years you will be able to admire the living fence with all the wonderful memories of many years of holiday celebrations. Don’t forget to watch for the Cedar Waxwings.