Meet the Author:  Dr. Pat Williams

Meet the Author: Dr. Pat Williams

Pat is the County Extension Director and the Agriculture/Horticulture/Natural Resources agent for UF/IFAS Extension Wakulla County while also serving as the Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator for both Franklin and Wakulla counties.

Meet the Agent_Williams 2020Final

Pat by their outdoor mural at the Extension office.

He earned his doctorate from Texas A&M University in horticulture, a M.S. degree from Kansas State University in horticultural therapy, a B.S. degree in ornamental horticulture/floriculture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and an A.S. degree in ornamental horticulture from Crafton Hills College.

Over his horticulture career that started at age 13 working for Chrysanthemum Gardens in Crestline, CA, he has resided in 10 different states with a wide range of environmental influences (CA, KS, NJ, ME, NY, WA, TX, KY, TN and FL).  He has held various positions in his career from teaching adults with developmental disabilities in NJ and ME, designing, installing and maintaining landscapes, landscape construction, being a horticultural therapist in New York City, working for the USDA in WA, teaching in a TX federal prison for his Extension appointment, teaching horticulture in a TN high school and was an university horticulture professor for 14 years in KY after teaching at Kansas State University, Washington State University and Texas A&M University as a teaching assistant.  He started with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in April 2017 as the Sarasota County Residential Horticulture Agent/Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator and transitioned to the Wakulla County Extension office in June 2020.

Kayak POL

Kayaking the Myakka River, FL.

Teaching and greenhouse growing are his professional joys.  Florida is the first state where there has not been a greenhouse to play in and he misses it greatly, however Extension does offer many opportunities to share his passion for plants and outdoors with a new group of learners.  Otherwise Pat grew up on the beaches and ski resort areas of southern CA and still finds solace today relaxing on the beach or kayaking.  He has traveled a bit visiting 49 states with only Hawaii to go.  When indoors he would rather be baking or cooking in the kitchen as his second career choice would have been a chef.  There is usually a yard full of flowers, herbs and vegetables and he is an extremely proud FSU Seminole Dad to Tara, a 2020 graduate.

Pat wears many hats at the Wakulla office and handles topics other than 4-H Youth Development or Family and Consumer Sciences.  Once again he finds himself in a transition adapting to the new horticultural environment of Florida’s panhandle and developing more programs in agriculture and natural resources.  Please feel free to reach out to see how the UF/IFAS Extension Wakulla County can be of assistance.

Reef Fish of the Florida Panhandle

Reef Fish of the Florida Panhandle

When most people think of reefs, they think of the coral reefs of the Florida Keys and Australia.  But here in the northern Gulf the winters are too cold for many species of corals to survive.  Some can, but most cannot and so we do not have the same type of reefs here. 

That said, we do have reefs.  We have both natural and artificial reefs.  There are natural reefs off Destin and a large reef system off the coast of Texas – known as the “Flower Gardens”.  Here the water temperatures on the bottom are warm enough to support some corals.  The artificial reef program along the northern Gulf is one of the more extensive ones found anywhere.  There is a science to designing an artificial reef – you do not just go out and dump whatever – because if not designed correctly, you will not get the fish assemblages and abundance you were hoping for.  But if you do… they will come. 

Reefs are known for their high diversity and abundance of all sorts of marine life – including fishes.  There are numerous places to hide and plenty of food.  Most of the fish living on the reef are shaped so they can easily slide in and out of the structure, have teeth that can crush shell – the parrotfish can actually crush and consume the coral itself, and some can be fiercely territorial.  There are numerous tropical species that can be found on them and they support a large recreational diving industry.  Let’s look at a few of these reef fish. 

Moray eel.
Photo: NOAA

Moray Eels

These are fish of legend.  There all sorts of stories of large morays, with needle shaped teeth, attacking divers.  Some can get quite large – the green moray can reach 8-9 feet and weigh over 50 pounds.  Though this species is more common in the tropics, it has been reported from some offshore reefs in the northern Gulf.  There are three species that reside in our area: the purplemouth, the spotted, and the ocellated morays.  The local ones are in the 2-3 foot range and have a feisty attitude – handle with care – better yet… don’t handle.  They hide in crevices within the reef and explode on passing prey, snagging them with their sharp teeth.  Many divers encounter them while searching these same crevices for spiny lobster.  There are probing sticks you can use so that you do not have to stick your hand in there.  There are rumors that since they have sharp teeth and tend to bite, they are venomous – this is not the case, but the bite can be painful. 

The massive size of a goliath grouper. Photo: Bryan Fluech Florida Sea Grant

Groupers

This word is usually followed by the word “sandwich”.  One of the more popular food fish, groupers are sought by anglers and spearfishermen alike.  They are members of the serranid family (“sea basses”).  This is one of the largest families of fishes in the Gulf – with 34 species listed.  15 of these are called “grouper” and there have been other members of this family sold as “grouper”. 

So, what is – or is not – a “grouper”.  One method used is anything in the genus Epinephelus would be a grouper.  This would include 11 species, but would leave out the Comb, Gag, Scamp, Yellowfin, and Black groupers – which everyone considers “grouper”.  Tough call eh? 

These are large bodied fish with broad round fins – the stuff of slowness.  That said, they can explode, just like morays, on their prey.  Anglers who get a grouper hit know it, and divers who spear one know it.  They range in size from six inches to six feet.  The big boy of the group is the Goliath Grouper (six feet and 700 pounds).  They love structure – so natural and artificial reefs make good homes for them.  They also like the oil rigs of the western Gulf.    

An interesting thing about many serranids is the fact they are hermaphroditic – male and female at the same time.  Most grouper take it a step further – they begin life as females and become males over time. 

The king of finfish… the red snapper
Photo: Florida Sea Grant

Snappers

The red snapper is king.  Prized as a food fish all over the United States, and beyond, these fish have made commercial fishermen very happy.  With an average length of 2.5 feet, some much larger individuals have been landed.  This fishery put Pensacola on the map in the early 20th century.  Sailing vessels called “Snapper Smacks” would head out to the offshore banks and natural reefs, return with a load, and sell both locally and markets in New York.  There are large populations in Texas waters and down on the Campeche Banks off Mexico.  “Snapper Season” is a big deal around here. 

Though these are reef fish, snapper have a habit of feeding above, and away from, them.  You probably knew there was more than one kind of snapper but may not know there are 10 species locally.  Due to harvesting pressure, there are short seasons on the famous red snapper – so vermillion snapper has stepped in as a popular commercial fishery – and it is very good also.  Some, like the gray snapper, are more common inshore around jetties and seawalls.  Also known as the black snapper or mangrove snapper, this fish can reach about three feet in length and make a good meal as well. 

The white grunt.
Photo: University of Florida

Grunts

Grunts look just like snapper, and probably sold as them somewhere.  But they are a different family.  They lack the canines and vomerine teeth the snappers have – other than that, they do look like snapper.  Easy to tell apart right?  Vomerine are tiny teeth found in the roof of the mouth, in snappers they are in the shape of an arrow.  They get their name from a grunting sound they make when grinding their pharyngeal teeth together.  A common inshore one is called the “pigfish” because of this.  They do not get as large as snapper (most are about a foot long) and are not as popular as a food fish, but the 11 known species are quite common on the reefs, and the porkfish is one of the more beautiful fish you will see there. 

Spadefish on a panhandle snorkel reef.
Photo: Navarre Beach Snorkel

Spadefish

This is one of the more common fish found around our reefs.  Resembling an angelfish, they are often confused with them – but they are in a family all to themselves.  What is the difference you ask?  The dorsal fin of the spade fish is divided into two parts – one spiny, the other more fin-like.  In the angelfish, there is only one continuous dorsal fin.    

Spadefish like to school and are actually good to eat.  It is also the logo/mascot of the nearby Dauphin Island Sea Lab. 

Gray triggerfish.
Photo: NOAA

Triggerfish

“Danger Will Robinson!”  This fish has a serious set of teeth and will come off the reef and bite through a quarter inch wetsuit to defend their eggs.  Believe it – they are not messing around.  Once considered a by-catch to snapper fishermen, they are now a prized food fish.  They are often called “leatherjackets” due to their fused scales forming a leathery like skin that must be cut off – no scaling with this fish.  They have the typical tall-flat body of a reef fish, squeezing through the rocks and structure to hide or hunt.  We have five species listed in the Gulf of Mexico, but it is the Gray Triggerfish that is most often encountered. 

Photo courtesy of Florida Sea Grant

Lionfish

You may, may not, have heard of this one – most have by now.  It is an invader to our reefs.  To be an invasive species you must #1 be non-native.  The lionfish is.  There are actually about 20 species of lionfish inhabiting either the Indo-Pacific or the Red Sea region.

 #2 have been brought here by humans (either intentionally or unintentionally – but they did not make it on their own) – this is the case with the lionfish.  It was brought here for the aquarium trade.  There are actually two species brought here: The Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans) and the Devilfish (Pterois miles).  Over 95% of what has been captured are the red lionfish – but it really does not matter, they look and act the same – so they are just called “lionfish”. 

#3 they must be causing an environmental, and/or an economic problem.  Lionfish are.  They have a high reproductive rate – an average of 30,000 offspring every four days.  There is science that during sometimes of the year it could be higher, also they breed year-round.  Being an invasive species, there are few predators and so the developing young (encapsulated in a gelatinous sac) drift with the currents to settle on new reefs where they will eat just about anything they can get into their mouths.  There have been no fewer than 70 species of small reef fish they have consumed – including the commercially valuable vermillion snapper and spiny lobster.  There is now evidence they are eating other lionfish. 

They quickly take over a reef area and some of the highest densities in the south Atlantic region have been reported off Pensacola.  However, at a 2018 state summit, researchers indicated that the densities in our area have declined in waters less than 200 feet.  This is most probably due to the harvesting efforts we have put on them.  They are edible – actually, quite good, and there is a fishery for them.  Derbies and ecotours have been out spearfishing for them since 2010.  You may have heard they were poisonous and dangerous to eat.  Actually, they are venomous, and the flesh is fine.  The venom is found in the spines of the dorsal, pelvic, and anal fins.  It is very painful, but there are no records of anyone dying from it.  Work and research on management methods continue. 

After Flooding, Test Your Well Water

After Flooding, Test Your Well Water

If your private well was damaged or flooded due to hurricane or other heavy storm activity, your well water may not be safe to drink. Well water should not be used for drinking, cooking purposes, making ice, brushing teeth or bathing until it is tested by a certified laboratory for total coliform bacteria and E. coli.

Residents should use bottled, boiled or treated water until their well water has been tested and deemed safe.

  • Boiling: To make water safe for drinking, cooking or washing, bring it to a rolling boil for at least one minute to kill organisms and then allow it to cool.
  • Disinfecting with bleach: If boiling isn’t possible, add 1/8 of a teaspoon or about 8 drops of fresh unscented household bleach (4 to 6% active ingredient) per gallon of water. Stir well and let stand for 30 minutes. If the water is cloudy after 30 minutes, repeat the procedure once.
  • Keep treated or boiled water in a closed container to prevent contamination

Use bottled water for mixing infant formula.

Where can you have your well water tested?

Contact your county health department for information on how to have your well water tested. Image: F. Alvarado Arce

Most county health departments accept water samples for testing. Contact your local department for information about what to have your water tested for (they may recommend more than just bacteria), and how to collect and submit the sample.

Contact information for Florida Health Departments can be found here: County Health Departments – Location Finder

You can also submit samples to a certified commercial lab near you. Contact information for commercial laboratories that are certified by the Florida Department of Health are found here: Laboratories certified by FDOH

This site includes county health department labs, commercial labs as well as university labs. You can search by county.

What should you do if your well water sample tests positive for bacteria?

The Florida Department of Health recommends well disinfection if water samples test positive for total coliform bacteria or for both total coliform and E. coli, a type of fecal coliform bacteria.

You can hire a local licensed well operator to disinfect your well, or if you feel comfortable, you can shock chlorinate the well yourself.

You can find information on how to shock chlorinate your well at:

After well disinfection, you need to have your well water re-tested to make sure it is safe to use. If it tests positive again for total coliform bacteria or both total coliform and E. coli call a licensed well operator to have the well inspected to get to the root of the problem.

Well pump and electrical system care

If the pump and/or electrical system have been underwater and are not designed to be used underwater, do not turn on the pump. There is a potential for electrical shock or damage to the well or pump. Stay away from the well pump while flooded to avoid electric shock.

Once the floodwaters have receded and the pump and electrical system have dried, a qualified electrician, well operator/driller or pump installer should check the wiring system and other well components.

Remember: You should have your well water tested at any time when:

  • A flood occurred and your well was affected
  • The color, taste or odor of your well water changes or if you suspect that someone became sick after drinking your well water.
  • A new well is drilled or if you have had maintenance done on your existing well
  • There has been any type of chemical spill (pesticides, fuel, etc.) into or near your well

The Florida Department of Health maintains an excellent website with many resources for private well users: FDOH Private Well Testing and other Reosurces which includes information on potential contaminants and how to maintain your well to ensure the quality of your well water.

The Science of Sharks

The Science of Sharks

When one thinks of the Emerald Coast, visions of sparkling water, baby-powder beaches, rental houses and high-rises interwoven with seafood and pizza restaurants appear.  The coast is dotted with fishing boats, pirate ships and dolphin cruises and the beaches are littered with people.  But it is what glides under the water that some people are curious about.  “Are there sharks in the water here?” is a question I often get from locals and tourists alike.  The answer is yes, sharks call saltwater home.  

Sharks evoke a variety of emotions in people.  Some folks are fascinated and list shark fishing and diving with a shark on their bucket lists.  Others are terrified, convinced that sharks only exist to hunt them and bite them while they take a swim.  Unfortunately for the sharks, their appearance plays into this later fear, with sharp teeth, unblinking eyes and sleek bodies. The reality is that most sharks only grow up to three feet in length and eat small shrimp, crabs and shrimp, not humans.  But it is true that bull, tiger and great white sharks are all large species that have been known to attack humans.  

Of the 540 different species of sharks in the world, there are about twelve that call the Emerald Coast home including Atlantic sharpnose, bonnet head, blacktip, bull, dusky, great white, hammerhead, nurse, mako, sand, spinner, and tiger.  They don’t all stick around all year, with some migrating south in the winter, while others migrate north.   

Sharks use their seven senses to interpret their environment: smell, sight, sound, pressure, touch, electroreception, and taste. Most shark attacks occur when a human is mistakenly identified as prey.  There are some easy measures you can take to reduce the risk.   

  • Swim with others, this may intimidate sharks and allows someone to go for help if a bite occurs.   
  • Remove jewelry as it can look like an attractive shiny fish underwater.   
  • Don’t swim where folks are fishing as bait in the water may attract sharks.  
  • Pay attention to any schools of baitfish in the area that may be attracting sharks.   
  • Do not swim at dusk or dawn when visibility may be poor. 
  • Learn how to identify various shark species 

Remember, shark attacks on humans are rare. Reports of stepping on stingrays, jellyfish stings, lightning, dangerous surf conditions and car accidents greatly outnumber the number of shark attacks every year.  

For more information: https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/sharks/education-resources/ 

A bull shark being tagged by researchers (credit: Florida Sea Grant).

An Equal Opportunity Institution” 

Marine Open Water Fish of the Florida Panhandle

Marine Open Water Fish of the Florida Panhandle

There is a lot of blue out there… a whole lot of blue.  Miles of open water in the Gulf with nowhere to hide… except amongst yourselves.  Their blue colored bodies, aerodynamically shaped like bullets with stiff angular fins, can zip along in this vast blue openness in large schools.  Their myoglobin rich red muscle increases their swimming endurance – they can travel thousands of miles without tiring.  Some species are what we call “ram-jetters”, fish that basically do not stop swimming – roaming the “big blue” looking for food and avoid being eaten, following the warm currents in search of their breeding grounds.

The open water is a place for specialists.  Most of these fish have small, or no scales, to reduce frictional drag.  They have a well-developed lateral line system so when a member of the school turns, the others sense it and turn in unison – just as the four planes in the US Navy Blue Angels delta do – perfect motion. 

Many are built for speed.  Sleek bodies with sharp angular fins and massive amounts of muscle / body mass, some species can reach speeds close to 70 mph – some can “fly”.  There are fewer species who can live here, as opposed to the ocean floor, but those who do are amazing – and some of the most prized commercial and recreational fishing targets in the world.  Let’s meet a few of them. 

Flying fish do not actually “fly”, they are gliders using their long pectoral fins.
Photo: NOAA

Flying Fish

First, they do not actually fly – they glide.  These tube-shaped speedy fish have elongated pectoral fins, reaching half the length of their bodies.  The two lobes of their forked tail are not the same length – the lower lobe being longer.  Using this like a rudder, they gain speed near the surface and, at some point, leap – extend the large pectoral fins, and glide above the water – sometimes up to 100 yards.  As you might guess, this is to avoid the sleek speedy open water predators coming after them.  You might also imagine that they, and their close cousins the half-beaks, are popular bait for the bill fishermen seeking those predators. 

There are eight species of these amazing fish in the Gulf of Mexico ranging in size from 6-16 inches.  Most are oceanic – never coming within 100 miles of the coast, but a few will, and can, be seen even near the pass into Pensacola Bay. 

The cobia – also known as the ling, lemonfish, and sergeant fish, is a migratory species moving through our area in the spring.
Image: NOAA

Cobia

This is one of the migrating fish local anglers gear up for every year – the cobia run.  When the water turns from 60° to 70°F in the spring – the cobia moves up the coastline heading from east to west.  They have many different common names along the Gulf Coast.  Ling, Cabio, Lemonfish, and Sergeant fish have all been used for this same animal.  This is one reason biologists use scientific names – Rachycentron canadum in this case.  That way we all know we are talking about the same fish.  Whatever you call it, it is popular with the anglers and there is nothing like a fresh cobia sandwich – try one! 

They can get quite large – 5 feet and up to 100 pounds – and resemble sharks in the water, sometimes confused with them.  They seem to like drifting flotsam, where potential prey may hangout, and fishermen will toss their baits all around their schools trying to get them to take.  At times, fishermen have confused sea turtles with cobia and have accidentally snagged them – only to release it, though it is a workout to do so, and they try to avoid it.    

Cobia are in a family all their own.  Their closest relatives are the remoras, or sharksuckers, which sometimes attach to them.  They travel all over the Gulf and Atlantic Ocean. 

Jacks have the sleek, fast design of the typical open water marine fish.
Photo: NOAA

Jacks

This is the largest open water family of fish I the northern Gulf – with 24 species.  Not all jacks are open water, many are found on reefs and in estuaries.  But these are aerodynamic shaped fish, with small scales and angular fins, and built for the open water environment.  They vary in size, ranging from less than one foot, to over three.  This group is identified by the two extended spines just in front of their anal fin.  Several species – such as the amberjacks, pompano, and almaco jacks – are prized food fish.  Others – like the jack crevalle and the blue runner (hardtail) – are just fun to catch, putting up great fights. 

They are schooling fish and often associated with submerged wrecks and reefs, where prey can be found.  The black and white pilot fish is called this because mariners would see them swimming in front of sharks – “piloting” them through the ocean.  They are open water jacks but are more tropical and accounts in our area are rare.

The colors of the mahi-mahi are truly amazing.
Photo: National Wildlife Federation

MahiMahi   

This is the Hawaiian term for a fish called the dolphin (Coryphaena hippurus).  You can probably guess why they prefer to call it by its Hawaiian name.  It is a popular food fish, and to have “dolphin” on the menu – or to say “hey, we’re going dolphin fishing – want to come?” would raise eyebrows – and have. 

The Mexicans call it “dorado”, and that term is used locally as well.  Either name – it is an amazing fish.  With the bull-shaped forehead of the males – they are sometimes referred to as the “bull-dolphin”.  Their colors, and color changing, is amazing to see.  Some biologists believe this may be some form of communication between members, don’t know, but the brilliant greens, blues, and yellows are amazing to see.  They lose these colors shortly after death, so you must see it to believe it – or find one of the popular fish t-shirts. 

Like jacks, dolphin like to hang around flotsam, or large schools of baitfish, looking for prey.  As with many other open water predators, they will sometimes work in a team to scare, and scatter, individuals from the safety of their school.  There are only two species in this family, and both are prized for their taste. 

The Striped Mullet.
Image: LSU Extension

Mullet

This is not one you would typically call an “open water” fish.  But in the nearshore Gulf and estuaries, they are more open water than bottom dwellers – though they do feed off the bottom.  Sleek bodied, forked tail, angular fins, they have what it takes to be a fast swimmer.  Though they do not “fly” as the flying fish do, they do leap out of the water.  Many visitors hanging out around the Sound will hear a fish splash and immediately ask “what kind of fish was that?”  Many locals will respond without looking up – “it was a mullet” – and they are probably right. 

This brings up the age-old question… why do mullet jump?   This was once asked of a marine biology professor.  He paused… thought… and responded saying “for the same reasons manta rays jump”.  That was it… another long pause.  Finally, the students “took the bait” – “Okay, why do manta rays jump?”.  The professor replied, “we don’t know”.  So, there you go. 

Another interesting thing about this fish is its wide tolerance of salinity.  Mullet have been found in freshwater rivers and springs and the hypersaline lagoons of south Texas – they truly don’t care. 

Locally they are popular food fish, and support a large commercial fishery in Florida, but in other parts of the Gulf not so much.  It has to do with their environment and what they are feeding on.  In muddier portions of the Gulf (or our bay for that matter) they have an oily taste and locals there call the “trash fish”.  Even hearing that locals here eat them “grosses” them out.  Local respond by giving it a more “high end” name – the Mulle (spoken with a French accent).  This is actually the Cajun term for the fish.  And let’s step it up a notch by adding that many locals eat mullet row – the eggs.  Yea… getting hungry right?  One of the popular cable food shows came here to try mullet roe.  They said on a scale of 1 to 10, they give it a -4. 

All that said, it is a local icon – with seafood stores selling “In Mullet We Trust” t-shirts, and the popular “Mullet Toss” event held every year on Perdido Key.  It is a COOL fish. 

This Spanish Mackerel has the distinct finlets of the mackerel family along the dorsal and ventral side of the body.
Image: NOAA

Mackerel

When you mention mackerel around here you usually think of one of two fish – the king mackerel (sometimes just referred to as “the king”) and the Spanish mackerel.  But it is actually a large family of open water fish that includes the tuna, bonito, and the wahoo (of baseball fame). 

They are some of the fastest fish in the sea, and several species are ram-jetters.  Sleek bodies, sharp angular fins, they can be identified by the row of small finlets on the dorsal and ventral sides of their bodies near the rear.  Full of red muscle, rich in myoglobin (which can hold more oxygen than hemoglobin alone), these are powerful swimming fish and very popular in the sushi trade.  A bluefin tuna can be 14 feet long, 800 pounds, and bring a commercial fisherman tens of thousands of dollars.  Because of this bluefin tuna are internationally protected and managed. 

Another cool thing about these guys is that some species can control blood flow, and location, to help maintain a higher body temperature – “warm blooded” – allowing them to venture into colder waters of the world’s oceans.  They are one of the big migratory fish we find.  Following the large ocean currents, some species use this to play out their entire life cycle.  Born in the warmer portions of the ocean gyres, they grow and feed in the cooler areas, returning in the warmer currents to breed. 

There are 12 species in this family ranging in size from 1 to 15 feet.  They have the characteristic “dark on top – light one bottom” coloration many animals have.  This called countershading.  It is believed to be used as a form of camouflage in the deep blue – with the darker blue-indigo on top (to blend in with the bottom if look from above) and the lighter silver-white on the bottom (to blend in with the sunlit surface if viewed from the below).  This idea was used by the US Navy during World War II.  If you visit our Naval Aviation Museum, you will see they painted the planes a darker blue on top and a lighter white on bottom.  In hopes that the Japanese pilots would have a hard time spotting them over the Pacific Ocean.  It is also believed to help with temperature control.  The darker side will absorb heat, while the lighter side releases – avoiding over-heating.  Amazing fish, aren’t they? 

Overcup Oak – The Best Native Landscape Tree You’ve Never Seen

Overcup Oak – The Best Native Landscape Tree You’ve Never Seen

Overcup on the edge of a wet weather pond in Calhoun County. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Haunting alluvial river bottoms and creek beds across the Deep South, is a highly unusual oak species, Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata).  Unlike nearly any other oak, and most sane people, Overcups occur deep in alluvial swamps and spend most of their lives with their feet wet.   Though the species hides out along water’s edge in secluded swamps, it has nevertheless been discovered by the horticultural industry and is becoming one of the favorite species of landscape designers and nurserymen around the South.  The reasons for Overcup’s rise are numerous, let’s dive into them.

The same Overcup Oak thriving under inundation conditions 2 weeks after a heavy rain. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

First, much of the deep South, especially in the Coastal Plain, is dominated by poorly drained flatwoods soils cut through by river systems and dotted with cypress and blackgum ponds.  These conditions call for landscape plants that can handle hot, humid air, excess rainfall, and even periodic inundation (standing water).  It stands to reason our best tree options for these areas, Sycamore, Bald Cypress, Red Maple, and others, occur naturally in swamps that mimic these conditions.  Overcup Oak is one of these hardy species.  It goes above and beyond being able to handle a squishy lawn, and is often found inundated for weeks at a time by more than 20’ of water during the spring floods our river systems experience.  The species has even developed an interested adaptation to allow populations to thrive in flooded seasons.  Their acorns, preferred food of many waterfowl, are almost totally covered by a buoyant acorn cap, allowing seeds to float downstream until they hit dry land, thus ensuring the species survives and spreads.  While it will not survive perpetual inundation like Cypress and Blackgum, if you have a periodically damp area in your lawn where other species struggle, Overcup will shine.

Overcup Oak leaves in August. Note the characteristic “lyre” shape. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

Overcup Oak is also an exceedingly attractive tree.  In youth, the species is extremely uniform, with a straight, stout trunk and rounded “lollipop” canopy.  This regular habit is maintained into adulthood, where it becomes a stately tree with a distinctly upturned branching habit, lending itself well to mowers and other traffic underneath without having to worry about hitting low-hanging branches.  The large, lustrous green leaves are lyre-shaped if you use your imagination (hence the name, Quercus lyrata) and turn a not-unattractive yellowish brown in fall.  Overcups especially shine in the winter when the whitish gray shaggy bark takes center stage.  The bark is very reminiscent of White Oak or Shagbark Hickory and is exceedingly pretty relative to other landscape trees that can be successfully grown here.

Finally, Overcup Oak is among the easiest to grow landscape trees.  We have already discussed its ability to tolerate wet soils and our blazing heat and humidity, but Overcups can also tolerate periodic drought, partial shade, and nearly any soil pH.  They are long-lived trees and have no known serious pest or disease problems.  They transplant easily from standard nursery containers or dug from a field (if it’s a larger specimen), making establishment in the landscape an easy task.  In the establishment phase, defined as the first year or two after transplanting, young transplanted Overcups require only a weekly rain or irrigation event of around 1” (wetter areas may not require any supplemental irrigation) and bi-annual applications of a general purpose fertilizer, 10-10-10 or similar.  After that, they are generally on their own without any help!

Typical shaggy bark on 7 year old Overcup Oak. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

If you’ve been looking for an attractive, low-maintenance tree for a pond bank or just generally wet area in your lawn or property, Overcup Oak might be your answer.  For more information on Overcup Oak, other landscape trees and native plants, give your local UF/IFAS County Extension office a call!