Each fall, nature puts on a brilliant show of color throughout the United States. As the temperatures drop, autumn encourages the “leaf peepers” to hit the road in search of the red-, yellow- and orange-colored leaves of the northern deciduous trees. Here in the Florida Panhandle, fall color means wildflowers. As one drives the roads it’s nearly impossible to not see the bright yellows in the ditches and along the wood’s edge. Golden Asters (Chrysopsis spp.), Tickseeds (Coreopsis spp.), Silkgrasses (Pityopsis spp.), Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) and Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) are displaying their petals of gold at every turn. These wildflowers are all members of the Aster family, one of the largest plant families in the world. For most, envisioning an Aster means a flower that looks like a daisy. While many are daisy-like in structure, others lack the petals and appear more like cascading sprays. So, if you are one of the many “hitting the road in search of fall color”, head to open areas. For wildflowers, that means rural locations with limited homes and businesses. Forested areas and non-grazed pastures typically have showy displays, especially when a spring burn was performed earlier in the year. With the drought we experienced, moist, low-lying areas will naturally be the best areas to view the many golden wildflowers. Visit the Florida Wildflower Foundation website, www.flawildflowers.org/bloom.php, to see both what’s in bloom and the locations of the state’s prime viewing areas.
We don’t always have to look closely or work hard to find beauty in our surroundings. While a well-tended landscape can certainly enhance the aesthetics of an area, there are plenty of places to find naturally attractive plants. With the benefit of being easy to care for, wildflowers are a great option for increasing the appeal of an area not just for people, but for wildlife and pollinators as well.
Not every wildflower is easy to grow or desirable in a landscape. Some have specific requirements that must be met for them to thrive, and some might be too vigorous in their growth. Invasive plants don’t make good neighbors. There are some, however, that have all the right characteristics to make them a solid choice in almost any landscape. Here are four of those that are beautiful, well adapted to the climate and soil in North Florida, and don’t necessarily make pests of themselves.
Helianthus debilis, also known as beach or dune sunflower, is a perennial in warmer areas, but may die back during the winter in North Florida. Different varieties may sprawl or stand upright, reaching anywhere from one to four feet in height. Blooms may be found on this plant year-round, and even in areas where it is impacted by freezes it will reseed itself.
Beach sunflower prefers a sunny location and are hardy enough to withstand some fairly marginal locations. With good salt and drought tolerance, this plant can be established in an area and left to its own devices. Too much water and fertilizer can be more of a problem for them than too little, though a little of each can help if faster growth is needed. Just be sure to give it enough room, as it likes to spread out, and be ready to trim back old growth every few months to keep plants looking good.
Rudbeckia species are often known as Black- or Brown-eyed Susan. Native species and varieties can be found that are well adapted to life in Florida. With their distinctive bright yellow petals surrounding a black or brown center, Black-eyed Susans make great cut flowers and are an attractive addition to landscapes. Generally reaching one to two feet in height and spreading two to three feet, they bloom from spring to fall. Different varieties may be annual, perennial, or biennial.
Preferring full sun (though at least one variety tolerates part shade well) and well-drained soil, Rudbeckia does not mind drought or salt spray. Regular deadheading can help keep these plants looking their best.
Gaillardia pulchella is a fiery-looking flower that provides pollinators with nectar and onlookers with a bright pop of color. Growing even in the meanest beach sand, blanketflower blooms from mid-spring to late summer, declining as weather cools. It relies upon its impressive ability to reseed itself to replenish itself each year and can spread rapidly in better soils. Those plants that do persist into cooler weather are in no need of protection, being able to withstand temperatures even into the 20s.
Relatively pest and disease free, plant this wildflower in full sun. It may tolerate some shade, but it will become leggy and creep in search of sun in such places. Dry or well-drained soil is best; certainly avoid over-watering.
There are several species of Liatris native to Florida, any of which can be planted in the panhandle. Tall and showy, the purple blossoms open from the top of the 2-4 foot flower stalk and continue downward. They make great cut flowers and can be placed even in small gardens; while they are tall, they tend not to spread very far. Butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and other pollinators are attracted to these plants, which tend to bloom in the fall.
Blazing star prefers to be planted in full sun, regardless of species. Well-drained soil is best, though one species, Dense blazing star, does well in moist or wet soils. These flowers do not tend to be firmly rooted, so take care when trimming back dead stems. Consider leaving the stalks alone for a while, even if they aren’t the prettiest things – they will reseed themselves and birds may enjoy making a snack of the seeds.
There are, of course, many more wildflowers out there. These are only a few of the options available. Not all wildflowers are suited to formal landscapes and may be better for informal or naturalized areas. For more information, visit the Florida Wildflower Foundation at https://flawildflowers.org/, the UF/IFAS Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Program’s Butterfly Gardens mobile web app at https://ffl.ifas.ufl.edu/butterflies/, or the UF/IFAS EDIS publications https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_wildflowers.
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.
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 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!
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!
When we moved to the Florida Panhandle in 1989 and bought a house in Wakulla County, my wife and I inherited a grape arbor that was planted by the original builder of the home many years previous. It consisted of three 4×4 posts with cross pieces at the top and a run of heavy gauge wire out near the ends of each cross piece. Maintenance had been lacking for some years so the vines had grown into a massive tangle which at first glance, I surmised I would end up cutting down to help improve the appearance of the property. Well, as is often the case, timing is everything and the existence to this day of that grape arbor, is due to the fact that it was late summer and the vines had some fruit on them. It only took one taste of a sweet, flavorful black muscadine grape to decide they were worth keeping. Little did I know what I was in for though, when it came to properly managing this “wildling” for a productive, beautiful arbor; one that now provides many culinary options, as well as a pleasing, eye-catching aspect in our home landscape.
After looking closer at the vines, it appeared that there were two different species of grapes growing. The very dark purple (almost black) muscadines, were dwarfed by much larger greenish-bronze grapes at one end of the arbor. I now know that these grapes are typically referred to as scuppernongs by most locals and they are actually the same species as the dark grapes. In fact, Vitus rotundifolia is the scientific name for our native wild grapes that have a range from Florida to New Jersey in the east, and west to Texas and Oklahoma. The fruits of this species can be bronze, black or red, depending on the cultivar and they are the same species I remembered picking from wild vines as a youth, which ranged in size from ¼ to ½ inch and were often quite tart. Currently, there are about 150 cultivars of muscadine grapes grown for their fruit and their innate resistance to pests and diseases.
The reason for the two varieties on our grape arbor had to do with the fact that many muscadines produce only pistillate flowers and require pollen from another variety to produce fruit. A few varieties have perfect flowers and can produce fruit on their own, notably Carlos and Noble. Writings about these native grapes date back to the early 1500’s as early explorers of the Cape Fear River Valley in modern-day North Carolina described its abundance and pleasing qualities. The common name “scuppernong” is derived from the Scuppernong River in North Carolina but the name has many variations depending on the locale (scuplin, scufalum, scupanon, scupadine, scuppernine, scupnun, and scufadine). The word “scuppernong” comes from the Algonquian “askuponong,” meaning “place of the askupo,” which is the sweet bay tree (Magnolia virginiana). Cultivation has been recorded as early as the 17th century and with over 100 years of breeding, several bronze cultivars such as Carlos, Doreen, Magnolia and Triumph, are distinguished by having perfect flowers. There is one particular vine on Roanoke Island North Carolina that is considered by many to be the “Mother Vine” for all modern day varieties. This vine has been cultivated for around 400 years, to-date.
If by this time, you are working up a craving for a taste of muscadines, you are not alone because late-summer is the peak production period for many vines around the region. If you do not have your own vines, you are still able to get these grapes at several places around our area. Visit this link for a list of wineries and vineyards in Florida, some of which run u-pick operations. Or you may even have a nearby neighbor with an abundance of fruit and generosity. Some cultivated varieties are suitable for table fare as they have fewer seeds and thinner skins. The tougher-skinned varieties are suitable for jellies, jams, grape butter, and wine making. Bronze scuppernongs produce a very light-colored wine with a mild fruity flavor, while the dark purple muscadines derive a dark reddish, and stronger flavored wine. No matter the type of muscadine, they all provide important habitat and food for many wild critters as well. Thankfully, they generally produce enough bounty to go around and I never begrudge the opossums, raccoons, squirrels and birds their share of the blessing.
It’s bright yellow, makes its own fertilizer, and tastes like peanut butter. On my morning walks around the track at our office, I have noticed lately that the perennial peanut (Arachis glabrata) is growing lushly, fulfilling its role as a low maintenance groundcover. The plant thrives in hot weather, full sun, and humidity, so we have nearly reached peak growing conditions for this South American native.
Perennial peanut was brought in from Brazil almost 90 years ago as a valuable hay crop and livestock forage. It is still used regularly for these purposes. However, as years of experience have borne out, there are no insect, disease, or unwanted invasive issues with the plant. The lush green groundcover has been used in the past few decades as a popular turfgrass alternative. It is drought and salt tolerant, and can thrive in low-nutrient, sandy soils.
Its bright yellow blossoms are delicate and almost orchid-like in shape, standing upright on a thin stem. As mentioned earlier, the flower is also edible and has a very light peanut flavor. The foliage, a deep green with compound leaves, lies close to the ground. Its spreading rhizomes serve as an excellent erosion control method, holding even easily washed out sandy soils in place.
Like its more well-known cousin, the perennial peanut is a legume, which means it can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, transforming it into a form the plant can use. For a homeowner, this means you do not need to add nitrogen fertilizer. If phosphorus levels are naturally high enough in the soil (as is often the case in south Florida), only small amounts potassium-magnesium sulfate may be needed.
Perennial peanut is best utilized in open spaces without high foot traffic. If you’d like to see it, come out to the Escambia Extension office; there’s a large swath of it between our main building and the demonstration garden near the walking path. If you are interested in planting or maintaining it, check out these documents from UF IFAS Extension or watch this informative video from a colleague!
As the migratory birds stop off or stay in the Panhandle this winter, they need to find food, food and more food. There is a wide variety of migration activity in Florida beginning in the fall months of September, October, and November. From woodland song birds to waterfowl to the annual warbler invasion, so many different species show up in Florida. While year-to-year migration patterns and winter foraging grounds can shift for some species due to a variety of reasons, some birds stay in Florida for the winter months of December, January, and February. Some may arrive early and others may stay late.
Some North American breeding birds endure harsh winters; however, they are physically suited for cold environments in a number of ways. One, they are able to drop their metabolic rate to a near comatose state using very little energy. Two, they are able to position their feathers, or puff up, to trap heat generated by their own body. Others need to head to warmer climates.
Birds migrate for two reasons. Food and weather avoidance. North American breeding birds who nest in the northern part of the continent will migrate south for the winter. As winter approaches, insect and plant life diminishes in the snow-covered states. Migrating birds head south in search of food. Places like Florida are rich in insects, plant life, and nesting grounds.
Birds need high energy food to stay warm. Berry and seed producing plants contain proteins, sugars and lots of fats. Many native trees, shrubs and grasses can aid migratory and winter visiting birds in their relentless search for food. Gardening for birds and other wildlife enables an opportunity for people to experience animals up close, which providing an important habitat in the urban environment.
For more information on which plants are preferred by specific bird species go to: https://www.audubon.org/native-plants
For more information on landscaping for wildlife refer to: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/UW/UW17500.pdf