Elderberry: A Very Attractive and Useful Native Plant

Elderberry: A Very Attractive and Useful Native Plant

If you are out and about this time of year you may notice an interesting flowering shrub putting on a show of white flower heads. As time goes on the flower will develop into dark purple almost black fruit. You often find this shrub in forests, the edge of fields and pastures, and along roadsides. This attractive and very useful plant is the elderberry: Sambucus canadensis. It goes by the other common names of American or Common elderberry or simply elder or elder tree. It is native to North and South America from Canada to Brazil, and all over it’s range it is used by indigenous and local communities for a wide variety of uses. It has both food and beverage uses and medicinal uses. It grows in and tolerates a wide variety of conditions, and is quite easy to cultivate in the landscape or allow to thrive in wild areas. It also puts on a nice early summer flower show and is quite attractive. It can be weedy at times and is not always welcome in pastures as it can be toxic to livestock. Despite its medicinal applications and edible fruit, it bears caution as the leaves, twigs, roots, and unripe fruit are quite toxic to humans as well as bearing several toxic compounds not the least of which is glycosides which are in the cyanide family of chemicals. With care and knowledge though, the flowers and ripe fruits can be used and are frequently used to flavor beverages, dye food, make preserves and jellies, wine, and even many home remedies.

Naturally growing Elderberry in the Florida Panhandle. Photo Credit: Ian Stone

I have looked for and used this plant my whole life. My grandmother grew up on a very rural farm in Louisiana and passed on a whole host of information on useful plants and how to make a variety of home remedies. I was lucky to grow up with someone of a generation where they retained and passed on this knowledge. We never planted or grew elderberry as there was plenty growing wild all over my home area of Louisiana’s Florida Parishes. The same is true all across the Gulf Coast, and June is a good time to spot patches as it is putting on its show of white flowerheads. I always knew about its benefits and uses, and also it’s toxicity and learned much more about elderberry in forestry school. As time went on, I learned people were collecting this wild and also starting to cultivate and grow it as a crop. A family acquaintance in Livingston Parish, LA started a business growing elder and selling syrups, tinctures, and other products. I have even seen their products locally in the Panhandle now at herbal remedy and other stores. Now I go in even chain pharmacies and big box stores and see elderberry products produced on a large commercial scale. I’m glad to see a native plant develop into such a market. For the home landscape and garden, it can make an attractive edition that can then be added to the landscape and cultivated. You can enjoy the flowers and fruits yourself and make your own homemade products from them, or you can leave them for local wildlife that also benefit from them.

If you have a farm or property in the Panhandle it is likely elderberry is growing somewhere. If it is not on your property, you can easily plant and grow it in your garden, homestead, or home landscape. Be aware though it can be aggressive and spready in good growing conditions. It is also fast growing so you have to stay on top of it in cultivated settings. If you are looking to see if you have wild elderberry growing; look for the showy white flower heads on a small shrub to low tree. It has distinctive corky dots on its bark which are called lenticels. The leaves are pinnately compound with serrated margins. The fruit is bright green when unripe turning purple-black when ripe. Only fully ripe fruit are edible and safe, with a ripening period of mid to late summer. There now exists several cultivars of elderberry in the horticultural trade which are available at nurseries that stock native plants.

If you are interested in learning more about elderberry, check out this publication in the IFAS Gardening Solutions page https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/edibles/fruits/elderberry/. There is also a good EDIS publication available at this link https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/ST578. If you are planning on foraging wildflowers or berries and using them use caution, get a good knowledge of how to identify the plants, avoid poisonous parts and unripe berries. As with all wild foraging, only forage if you are well-informed on what you are looking for, dangerous look-a-likes, and how to avoid toxicity issues due to unripe fruit or toxic plant parts. With elderberry there are several severely toxic look-a-like plants, particularly the water hemlock one of the most toxic plants in North America. Use a good field guide and properly vetted resources and if in doubt do not gather or consume.

If you are planning on cultivating elderberry, consider selecting cultivars and varieties specifically for cultivation and fruit production. You will get better results over wild varieties, and fruit ripening will be more uniform making harvesting easier. In cultivated settings it will require care and monitoring for some pest and disease issues as well. It is well suited for marginal conditions where some other fruit options are limited and difficult to cultivate. It’s tolerance of a wide variety of growing conditions means there is likely a place in your garden or landscape that it can fit. An added benefit is that it requires less fertilization and intensive management compared to some other options. For more detailed information on cultivation see this EDIS article https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/HS1390.

Whether you have it growing naturally or are going to cultivate it, elderberry is a very attractive native plant with some beneficial and tasty uses. Elderberry wine, syrups, and preserves are quite tasty and provide many health benefits. Some people use the flower as a flavoring and to make tonics, but this requires caution to avoid poisonous parts contaminating batches. Elderberries are high in vitamin C and contain antioxidants and other medicinal compounds and are often used as cold and flu remedies as well as other ailments. If you do not have experience with making elder products at home; work with someone that is knowledgeable and experienced before making your own, especially with this plant. You can also buy certified products for sale in health stores and even at your local pharmacies now that are tested and known to be safe. Enjoy the attractiveness and usefulness of our native American Elderberry, it is a fascinatingly useful plant.

What is Titi?

What is Titi?

What is a titi? Google it.  Wiktionary says it is “a New World monkey of the genus Callicebus, native to South America, distinguished by their long soft fur”. But deeper into the definitions you will find “a shrub or small tree of the southern Unites States, having glossy leaves and elongated clusters of flowers, occurring in wet soil conditions”.

Titi is just a common name for two species that grow in the wetlands.  Black titi (Cliftonia monophyla), also referred to as buckwheat tree, is the first to bloom in the spring.  Native seedlings produce clusters of small white flowers at the tip of the branches.  The sweet-smelling blooms provide a nectar source for bees in February and March.  Following pollination, golden-brown seed pods will form, resembling buckwheat grains; hence, the other common name.  The seed persists through the fall, providing added aesthetics and a food source for native and migratory birds.  Pink-flowering sports of the Black titi have been propagated for the native plant nursery trade.  ‘Chipolo Pink’ is one of the most popular (pictured).

The other species is Red titi (Cyrilla racemiflora), also called Swamp titi.  It will send out multiple drooping white flowers in a finger-like cluster from the previous year’s wood.  Blooming begins in the late spring and continues into the summer.  Unfortunately, the nectar has shown to be a source for purple brood disease in bees, a terminal condition for the baby bees.

So, when deciding on native plants for your wetlands edge or rain garden, look for the Black titi and the new cultivars on the market.  Then research other summer-flowering nectar sources like Clethra alnifolia, Sweet pepperbush, and their many new cultivars.

Creating a Pollinator Paradise: Attracting Bees, Butterflies, and Birds to Your Garden

Creating a Pollinator Paradise: Attracting Bees, Butterflies, and Birds to Your Garden

In the ever growing urbanization of our world today, green spaces are hard to come by but are so essential to biodiversity conservation. Pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and birds, play a crucial role in our ecosystem by facilitating plant reproduction. Unfortunately, pollinator populations are declining due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change. However, by making simple changes to your garden, you can create an environment that supports and protects your pollinators. In this article, we will discuss ways to turn your garden into a pollinator paradise.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly on flower. Photo taken 09-26-22. UF/IFAS Photo by Cat Wofford.

Choosing Native Plants

Native plants are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions, making them ideal for supporting native pollinators. Research native species that thrive in your region and incorporate them into your landscape. Aim for a diverse selection of flowers that bloom at different times throughout the year to provide a continuous food source for pollinators.

Flowers and insects at the student gardens on the University of Florida campus. Pollinating bee. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.

Providing Shelter and Nesting Sites

Pollinators need more than just nectar-rich flowers; they also require sheltered spaces for nesting or overwintering. By incorporating features such as brush piles, dead trees, and nesting boxes you are creating habitat diversity for the pollinators. Leaving some areas of bare soil for ground-nesting bees and providing water sources like shallow dishes or birdbaths can further enhance your garden’s appeal to pollinators as well.

Avoid Chemical Pesticides

Chemical pesticides not only can harm pollinators, but they can also directly disrupt ecosystems. Instead of reaching for a spray on the shelf to deter pests, consider using a natural pest control method such as companion planting, handpicking pests, and encouraging natural predators like ladybugs and birds. Certain organic gardening practices not only protect pollinators, but can also promote your garden’s overall health.

Embrace Imperfection

A manicured garden may look appealing, but it can be sometimes inhospitable to our pollinator friends. Create a more naturalistic approach by allowing certain areas of your garden to grow wild. Letting plants go to seed, leaving some leaf litter, and allowing flowers to fade and form seed heads provide valuable resources for pollinators throughout their life cycle.

A butterfly garden at a Florida-Friendly Landscape. UF/IFAS Photo taken by Cat Wofford 9-29-23

Educate and Inspire Others

Because pollinator numbers have rapidly declined in recent years, awareness and education of their importance to our ecosystem is crucial. Spreading the word of their importance and how you can contribute to conservation efforts truly helps the cause. UF/IFAS Extension has made great efforts in hosting workshops, giving presentations, and sharing information through newsletters and social media about the importance of creating pollinator habitats. We encourage you, your neighbors, friends, and community members to join in the movement of creating pollinator-friendly gardens and landscapes.

By transforming your garden into a pollinator paradise, you not only enhance its beauty, but also play a vital role in conserving biodiversity. Every flower you plant and every habitat you create contributes to the well-being of bees, butterflies, birds, and other pollinators. Together, we can make a difference and ensure a thriving ecosystem for generations to come.

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Rainfall Revives Resurrection Fern

Rainfall Revives Resurrection Fern

Rainfall in the Florida Panhandle can be described as feast or famine, alternating between daily rain and weeks without a drop. Plants can struggle in these circumstances and if not well adapted to the area may need a little help from gardeners. One plant that is perfectly happy without intervention in these extreme climatic conditions is the resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodiodes).

Resurrection fern is a semi-evergreen epiphytic fern that grows along the branches and trunks of shade trees, rocks, stumps, and other suitable spots. An epiphyte obtains water and nutrients from the air and organic matter on the surface where it is attached; it is not parasitic. This native plant thrives in part to full shade and is cold hardy into Zone 6A. Resurrection fern has fibrous roots and creeping rhizomes that allow this clumping fern to spread and attach itself to trees or objects. Like other ferns it reproduces by spores that are born on the underside of fronds.

When rainfall is scarce, the normally lush fern turns brown, and fronds curl up and it looks dead. Once moisture returns, the fern hydrates and returns to its normal lush look earning the name resurrection fern.

Yaupon Holly

Yaupon Holly

For most of the year, yaupon (pronounced “yo-pon”) holly is the nondescript evergreen backdrop to forested areas throughout the Panhandle. But in the fall, these plants are bursting with brilliant red berries. There are 9 holly species native to our area, all with evergreen, mostly oval shaped leaves. Of these, yaupon is among those with the smallest leaves. Members of this species can be distinguished from the similarly sized myrtle-leaved holly by their leaf margins. While myrtle has smooth edges, yaupon has scalloped/serrated edges. Both species sport bright red berries, tasty only to birds and other wildlife.

The bright red berries of yaupon holly are particularly eye-catching during the fall. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The leaves, however, have historically been ingested by humans. I’ve tried homemade black yaupon tea, and it is quite tasty. Native Americans throughout the southeast brewed a “black drink” from yaupon holly as a natural stimulant and for use in ceremonies. It is one of just a handful of naturally caffeinated plants that grow in the wilds of North America, and Spanish explorers quickly took up the habit as well. Lore says that overconsumption can lead to stomach ailments, hence the Latin name Ilex vomitoria. By most accounts, however, you’d have to drink gallons of the stuff to actually get sick. Rumors still circulate that this unappetizing misnomer was deliberate, because by the late 1700’s the homegrown American tea was starting to rival popularity of British teas. In addition to tea, Native Americans would use the plant medicinally and also convert the shrub’s typically straight branches into arrow shafts.

Freshly picked yaupon holly leaves can be dried/roasted and brewed into an excellent tea. Photo credit Matt Stirn, BBC

Early American settlers drank yaupon tea frequently when tea was hard to obtain from overseas during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. During the rationing periods of World War II, the American government encouraged the substitution of yaupon tea for coffee and other teas. While it never really took off in the 1940’s, Texas currently has a rapidly growing industry in harvesting the plant. Growers are selling it as tea and as flavoring for a wide variety of food and drink products. To maintain a steady supply of leaves, tea makers often clear landowners’ property of overgrown yaupon shrubs, free of charge. This win-win solution provides an inexpensive harvest, reduces wildfire fuel, and allows native grasses and other open-canopy species to thrive.

Yaupon holly can be differentiated from other holly species by its small, scallop-edged leaves. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

For the most part, the plant is considered a nuisance in forested areas. It is one of those woody species that grows up quickly in areas that haven’t been maintained by fire on a regular basis. As a home landscape plant, it works well as an evergreen screen. While it can grow up to 20’ tall, yaupon responds well to routine pruning. Most native hollies thrive in both wet and dry soils, so they are truly versatile. They are also salt-tolerant, drought-tolerant, wind resistant, and provide winter color and food for wildlife in their bright red berries.

Colorful Trees

Colorful Trees

Florida’s natural areas—a great source of pride and enjoyment to its citizens—provide recreation, protect biodiversity and fresh water supplies, buffer the harmful effects of storms, and significantly contribute to the economic well-being of the state. Unfortunately, many of these natural areas can be adversely affected by invasive plant species. An estimated 25,000 plant species have been brought into Florida for use as agricultural crops or landscape plants. While only a small number of these have become invasive, Chinese tallow (Triadica sebifera) is one of them. 

As the trees begin to turn various shades of red, many people begin to inquire about the trees.  While their autumn coloration is one of the reasons they were introduced to the United States, it took years to realize what a menace the trees become.  Triadica sebifera, the Chinese tallow is locally referred to as popcorn tree due to the appearance of the developing seed heads, white three-chambers seeds covered in a fatty wax. It was introduced to Charleston, South Carolina in the late 1700s for oil production and use in making candles. However, the seeds are also tasty snacks for birds and can float long distances in the water, enabling it to spread to every coastal state from North Carolina to Texas, and inland to Arkansas. In Florida it occurs as far south as Tampa, displacing other native plant species in those habitats.  Therefore, Chinese tallow was listed as a noxious weed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Noxious Weed List (5b-57.007 FAC) in 1998, which means that possession with the intent to sell, transport, or plant is illegal in the state of Florida.

tree with red leaves
Fall color of Chinese tallow

Individuals can help mitigate the problem of Chinese tallow trees in Florida’s natural areas by removing them from their property. Mature trees should be felled with a chain saw by the property owner or a professional tree service. The final cut should be made as close to the ground as possible and as level as possible to facilitate application of an herbicide to prevent sprouting. Stumps that are not treated with an herbicide will sprout to form multiple-trunked trees. If it is not objectionable for dead trees to be left standing, certain herbicides can be applied directly to the bark at the base of the tree (basal bark application).

Herbicides that contain the active ingredient triclopyr amine (e.g., Brush-B-Gon, Garlon 3A) can be applied to cut stumps to prevent re-sprouting. The herbicide should be applied as soon as possible after felling the tree and concentrated on the thin layer of living tissue (cambium) that is just inside the bark. Herbicides with the active ingredient triclopyr ester can be used for basal bark applications. Only certain triclopyr amine products may be applied to trees that are growing in standing water.  If trees are cut at a time when seeds are attached, make sure that the material is disposed of in such a way the seeds will not be dispersed to new areas where they can germinate and produce new trees.

Space in a landscape left after removal of Chinese tallow can be used to plant a new native or noninvasive tree for shade, or some other landscape purpose. Although Florida is not known for the brilliant fall color enjoyed by other northern and western states, there are a number of trees that provide some fall color for our North Florida landscapes.  Red maple, Acer rubrum, provides brilliant red, orange and sometimes yellow leaves. The native Florida maple, Acer floridum, displays a combination of bright yellow and orange color during fall.  And there are many Trident and Japanese maples that provide striking fall color.  Another excellent native tree is Blackgum, Nyssa sylvatica. This tree is a little slow in its growth rate but can eventually grow to seventy-five feet in height. It provides the earliest show of red to deep purple fall foliage. Others include Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, Sumac, Rhus spp. and Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua.  In cultivated trees that pose no threat to native ecosystems, Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia spp. offers varying degrees of orange, red and yellow in its leaves before they fall. There are many cultivars – some that grow several feet to others that reach nearly thirty feet in height. Also, Chinese pistache, Pistacia chinensis, can deliver a brilliant orange display.

There are a number of dependable oaks for fall color, too. Shumard, Southern Red, and Turkey are a few to consider. These oaks have dark green deeply lobed leaves during summer turning vivid red to orange in fall. Turkey oak holds onto its leaves all winter as they turn to brown and are pushed off by new spring growth. Our native Yellow poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, and hickories, Carya spp., provide bright yellow fall foliage. And it’s difficult to find a more crisp yellow than fallen Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, leaves. These trees represent just a few choices for fall color.  Including one or several of these trees in your landscape, rather than allowing the popcorn trees to grow, will enhance the season while protecting the ecosystem from invasive plant pests.

For more information on Chinese tallow tree, removal techniques and native alternative trees go to: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ag148.