When beautyberries start producing their eye-catching, bright purple fruit in late summer, we start to get lots of questions. People want to know what it is, where can they find it, and can they eat it? While the berries look good enough to eat, it’s best to leave them to the birds and deer. They are not toxic and were used by Native Americans for a root tea to treat fevers, stomach aches, malaria, and more, but the taste has been described as bitter and mealy. Thanks to a generous volunteer, I am lucky enough to have tried beautyberry jelly. A little (or a lot) of sugar can make most anything taste good—and the finished product is a beautiful, translucent shade of fuchsia.
Even more interesting to me was the revelation that researchers have been able to extract compounds from beautyberry that successfully repel pest insects such as ticks and mosquitoes. The study began about 15 years ago, after a Mississippi botanist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service mentioned to a colleague that his grandfather taught him to rub the crushed leaves of beautyberry on his skin. The technique had been used as a home remedy to prevent mosquito bites for people (and horses) for generations. As a follow up experiment, another group of researchers found these same compounds—callicarpenal and intermedeol—successfully repelled black-legged ticks (which transmit Lyme disease) as effectively as DEET. In the last few years, researchers out of Mississippi have worked towards creating natural insect repellents from the compound that are less harsh on human skin that many commercially available brands.
Aside from its many practical uses, Callicarpa americana is a beautiful native shrub. It has wide green leaves and the brilliant purple berries grow in clusters along its stem. They stay on through late fall and winter in some places, making a beautiful contrast to fall foliage. Beautyberry shrubs can be found in a wide variety of habitats, including sandy and wet soils, full sun, and part shade. Their adaptability makes them a great plant for tight conditions like roadsides or yard edges, but also for nearly any home landscape. The plants can grow to a height of 4-8 feet and spread 3-6 feet wide. The long-lasting berries make them a great wildlife food source later in the cool season than many berry-producing species.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s been hot outside. Like really, scorching, hellacious, dog days hot. In this weather pattern we’ve been in, it’s hard to make yourself do non-essential stuff outside that doesn’t involve swimming and so our gardens go by the wayside. In my opinion, that’s totally okay! Give yourself a rest from the garden and landscape chores for the next couple of weeks and get your fall gameplan ready. The following are some things to think about over the next few weeks to prepare yourself for the coming cooler weather!
Get your soil tested. If you’re an in-ground vegetable gardener or just like to have an attractive lawn/landscape, performing a simple soil test can offer either peace of mind that your soil’s pH and fertility is good or give you a nudge to schedule some needed amendments. Though I don’t recommend fertilizing lawn grass this late and there’s no need to fertilize the garden before it gets planted in mid-late September, you can certainly begin to source and price fertilizer for the appropriate time based on your test results. However, now IS the perfect time to get lime out in a vegetable garden if your pH has sunk beneath the recommended 6.5. Lime takes weeks to months to begin to alter soil chemistry so the sooner the better if it is needed!
Order seeds. While I love to support local farm stores and plant nurseries, you are limited with the vegetable and flower varieties you can plant by what they have in stock. I enjoy trying new/improved and heirloom plant varieties each year and, most of the time, these can only be found by ordering online. For the latest in vegetable and cut flower varieties with a nice mix of heirloom cultivars thrown in also, I can recommend Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, and other similar purveyors – all of these are great places to look. Continue to purchase your more common standbys through local outlets but, this year get different and try new things by ordering online!
Develop a garden/landscape plan. I doubt there’s a gardener amongst us who wouldn’t like to rearrange things a bit outside. Maybe you planted your lettuce a little too closely together last year, you’ve been dreaming of installing a new flower bed, or you really want to do a full garden/landscape renovation. The best way to be successful at any of these things is to get outside (or at least look out from behind a window in the A/C), take stock of what is already there, the space that is or might be available, research what plants or varieties might do well in your yard/garden (your local UF/IFAS Extension office is a great resource for this), and begin to sketch your ideas out. This planning step WILL save you time and money by ensuring you don’t purchase too many plants, by picking plants that will do well, and ensuring you install everything at the correct time.
So, take advantage of the heat, stay inside, and work up your garden gameplan together this August – fall is just around the corner. For help with soil testing, recommendations on plant varieties to purchase, or working up a garden/landscape plan tailored to you, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Stay cool and happy gardening!
The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a plant synonymous with the holiday season. Growing in deciduous forests along the Pacific coasts of southern Mexico it becomes a woody shrub reaching 10-15 feet tall. In 1825 the ambassador to Mexico Joel Poinsett was taken by the red blooms and brought it home to the United States. He propagated and gifted the plant to friends and a few public gardens. Before long the nursery industry took notice and the plant was on its way to becoming the potted plants we see in stores. Today, an extensive breeding program has created a multitude of colors and leaf patterns available to consumers for the holiday season.
Poinsettia is a member of Euphorbiaceae commonly referred to as the Spurge family. The primary feature of this family is a milky sap or latex produced in the stem tissue. Some may be allergic to the latex, but to most it is at worst a mild irritant. This irritation conjoins a reputation of toxicity which may give some pause toward purchasing one. While a very mild toxicity does exist, you would need to consume very large amounts of the leaves to experience negative effects. That said, it is always best to dissuade consumption by pets and children with this and any other house plants. The flowers of this plant are somewhat unremarkable and appear in the middle of several red leaf structures. These leaves are actually bracts and are protective structures for the flower. As a tropical plant, frosts and freezes have a detrimental consequence for this plant, but in areas where there is little or no risk of cold it may be used in your landscape after the holidays. In these scenarios, it will grow much as in its native habitat into a shrub.
When kept inside, keep the temperature around 65F at night and 80F during the day. They need full sun and water only when the soil is dry. It is good practice to remove any water left in pot saucers as this plant performs poorly with wet feet. All-purpose fertilizers should used except while this plant is in bloom. When blooming the plant does not require fertilization. Placed outdoors in a protect area once freeze risk has passed. Keep in mind that the bracts are photosensitive. Around October, theses plants will need 14 hours of complete darkness daily to turn their customary red by Christmas. Keep them covered and completely blacked out as even porch lights will delay color change.
Poinsettias are a beautiful plant and certainly worth your efforts this holiday season. With some knowledge and a little effort, you may extend their life in our environment through much of the year. For more information on poinsettias, see this Ask IFAS document, or contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.
Residents of North Florida are no doubt familiar with camellias, the large, glossy-green-leaved shrub that flowers during the cooler seasons. Common varieties include Camellia sasanqua, which blooms from October through December (depending on variety), and Camellia japonica, which blooms January through March. Both make huge, showy blossoms that demand attention, with forms that range from wild-rose-like to stunning geometric formal patterns.
The popularity of these shrubs is not in doubt, but a cousin of theirs takes the prize as one of the most popular plants in the world. Not due to its flowers: this variety of camellia does bloom, but the leaves are most interesting to humans. It is grown in dozens of countries worldwide and global production is estimated at over $17 billion worth of these leaves. The primary product made from this plant is a beverage that is consumed more than any other drink except water. It is, of course, tea.
Camellia sinensis was named by botanist Carl Linnaeus, “Camellia” to honor another botanist, Rev. Georg Kamel, who really had nothing to do with the plant at all, and “sinensis”, which means “from China”. You may be able to deduce where tea is native to.
The tea plant prefers temperatures from 65 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, doing well in zones 7-9. It can survive freezing or slightly-below-freezing temperatures, though leaves may be damaged by frost. It enjoys moist conditions, needing around 50 inches of rainfall per year. China tea (variety sinensis), which produces smaller, more serrated leaves, prefers more light than Assam types (variety assamica), which have larger, less serrated leaves. Either variety can be grown as a shrub or small tree.
Propagation may be accomplished either by seed or cuttings; cuttings are the preferred method for reproduction, as seeds must be germinated before the seed coat hardens for best results. Caring for tea plants once established involves more frequent but light fertilization, mulching, and regular scouting for pests. Camellia sinensis is susceptible to mites, thrips, scale insects, and aphids, all of which are present in large numbers in our area. Luckily, most of these problems can be solved with an application of either insecticidal soap or horticultural oil, if control is even necessary.
Once a tea plant is large enough to harvest leaves from, it is the new growth which is plucked. The top 2-3 leaves are used either fresh or fermented for a period of time before they are brewed. Green tea comes from the fresh leaves of China type tea plants, while either China or Assam types may be used to make black tea. Black tea leaves are picked, wilted or crushed, and allowed to ferment. Fermentation darkens the leaves and is halted by heating, which also serves to dry the leaves for storage.
The shorter days and cooler temperatures of autumn bring on changes in our shrubs and trees.
Most people expect to see changes in leaf color in deciduous trees and shrubs during fall. But some people become concerned when the leaves on certain evergreen plants begin to turn yellow with the change in the seasons. For many plants this is normal.
Azaleas may lose a few leaves now. These are the older leaves on the branches near the center of the plant. There is no need for alarm by the loss of a few older azalea leaves from now until spring. However, if the younger leaves, those nearest the tip of the shoot, turn yellow or brown there is cause for concern. Poor drainage, lack of water or alkaline soils may cause this condition. Be sure to keep azaleas and other ornamental plants well-watered during dry weather that may occur from now through spring.
Other plants such as gardenias, hollies and camellias may have yellowing leaves now. But as with azaleas, these are the older leaves on the stem near the center of the plant. The mature leaves will drop from the plant from now until spring. This is only the normal aging of older leaves. However, be careful to not confuse this normal process with spider mites, scale, lace bugs, nutrient deficiencies, poor growing conditions or salt injury. Just keep in mind that this normal change in leaf color and leaf drop occurs on the older leaves generally during cooler weather – it’s a seasonal change.
The leaves of sycamore trees have changed from green to brown by now. Although the sycamore is a deciduous tree, this phenomenon may not be caused by a change in day length or temperature alone. This change in leaf color in sycamores can begin in late summer. Many times, it is the result of sycamore lace bugs feeding on the leaves. By the time the damage is visible, there is little that can be done to correct the problem. However, this problem will take care of itself since sycamore trees will soon be dropping their leaves.
We do have some trees that exhibit beautiful fall foliage this time of year. A few to consider include hickory and gingko for their bright yellow fall foliage, black gum for its early display of brilliant red, purple or orange leaves and Chinese pistache for its late reddish-orange fall show. There are plenty of other good trees to consider for fall color here in North Florida such as dogwood, crape myrtle, Florida maple, sourwood, shumard oak and the list could continue.
The interest and use of native plants in the landscape in Florida and the southeastern U.S. has increased significantly over the last 20 plus years. There are many benefits for including them in our landscapes including creating a wider biodiversity and enjoying the multitude of support for butterflies, wildlife, and unique color displays.
Choosing the plant species that works in landscape sites requires a few considerations like being adaptable to the site conditions, soil type and preparation, understanding the plant establishment needs, and finding plants regionally to your area.
Develop a landscape plan that includes addressing soil and site preparation as many landscape sites are altered during the construction phase with the soil being drastically changed. In Florida many sites need soil backfill to raise the elevation for buildings, drive or parking areas to remain above flood challenges. Choosing the right plant for the right place will need to include understanding the plants’ growing environments. Do the plants perform best in well-drained drier areas or moister situations with slight flooding tolerances? Native plants have acclimated to specific soil settings over thousands of years. When selecting the plants for your landscape, perform a site analysis with soil texture, drainage, soil pH, hours of direct intense sun or shade in the growing season, air circulation in the growing area, and growing space available. Doing your homework first can save a lot of money and frustration later. Visit the local nurseries to see plant availability. Just remember many landscape settings do not always match the natural habitats where many of these plants are established in nature.
Soil amendments will likely be needed to improve the soil conditions and provide optimal plant establishment and performance. Most often the soil that brought in is sandy and nutrient poor with little to no organic matter. In addition, the soils are compacted by heavy equipment during the construction phase. These factors can create native plant challenges leading to poor growth and shortened plant life spans. When the soils have been addressed according to plant needs the selected plants can be placed and the fun part begins by following the landscape plan.
With the landscape conditions likely altered with amendments, choose plants that can establish and grow successfully in these often more difficult conditions. Florida red maples (Acer rubrum), Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) and Sand Live Oaks (Quercus geminate) all can provide shade areas for future plantings. Butterflies attach to and feed on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Butterfly weed does well in well-drained sandy soils and swamp milkweed likes it moist. These are just a few of the many plants out there to consider. Just remember to visit your local nurseries and talk with them about native plants and availability. Enjoy your gardening adventure.