Parasitic Plants of the Florida Panhandle

Parasitic Plants of the Florida Panhandle

There are many problems that can plague a plant in our environment, from fungi that love the humidity in North Florida to insects that chew through leaves. One less common but interesting source of stress for plants comes from…other plants?

Most plants are content to gather energy from sunlight and nutrients from the soil in which they sink their roots. Some species, however, have taken up thievery as a lifestyle. Parasitic plants are those that take the nutrients they need to grow from other plants. Some rely completely on their hosts for nutrients, others are able to produce at least some of their own, while yet more can live on their own but steal nutrients if another plant is conveniently nearby. Furthermore, there are some plants and similar organisms that may seem to be parasitic, but actually do no harm.

Mistletoe is a common sight especially in the winter when trees’ leaves have dropped. It relies on its host for water and nutrients, though it can produce energy from photosynthesis. Being evergreen has led it its adoption as a symbol Christmastime, and it has historically been important to other cultures such as the Celtic druids. Too much mistletoe can weaken a tree, and removing it can help to reinvigorate one that is struggling. Physical pruning is often the only method available for its removal, and this can be difficult on a tree of any size.

Yellow tendrils and white flowers of dodder.

Dodder has a strange appearance, looking like someone threw a batch of angel-hair pasta all over a plant. There are ten different species of dodder in Florida and they may be found on a variety of host plants. This parasite is leafless, takes all it needs from its host, and cannot survive independently.  Though it germinates from the ground, it has no true roots. Controlling an infestation of dodder involves removing affected plants or at least pruning off the branches that are hosting the parasite. Herbicides will kill it, but they will also kill the host.

Ghost Pipe flowers

Ghost Pipe may be seen flowering from early summer through autumn, typically in woodland areas. It does not take its nutrients directly from a tree, but instead from mycorrhizal fungi. These helpful fungi attach to a tree and act like extra roots, assisting to absorb nutrients in return for energy from the plant. The ghost pipe helps itself to both nutrients and energy and does not bother to photosynthesize for itself, which gives it its stark white appearance.

Lichen may grow profusely on trees, but does not harm the plant.

 

 

There are also plenty of harmless plants out there, such as Spanish moss and resurrection fern, which grow on trees but are not parasitic. Lichens, while not plants, are similarly prolific on the bark of trees, but do no harm.

For help in identifying a potential parasitic plant, contact your local Extension office.

False Foxglove:  A Unique Fall Wildflower

False Foxglove: A Unique Fall Wildflower

Fall is the absolute best season for wildflower watching in the Panhandle!  When mid-September rolls around and the long dog days of summer finally shorten, giving way to drier air and cooler nights, northwest Florida experiences a wildflower color explosion.  From the brilliant yellow of Swamp Sunflower and Goldenrod, to the soothing blue of Mistflower, and the white-on-gold of Spanish Needles, there is no shortage of sights to see from now until frost.  But, in my opinion, the stars of the fall show are the currently flowering, beautiful pink blooms of False Foxglove (Agalinus spp.).

False Foxglove in a Calhoun County natural area. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Named for the appearance of their flowers, which bear a resemblance to the northern favorite Foxglove (Digitalis spp.), “False Foxglove” is actually the common name of several closely related species of parasitic plants in the genus Agalinus that are difficult to distinguish by all but the keenest of botanists.  Regardless of which species you may see, False Foxglove is an unusual and important Florida native plant.  Emerging from seed each spring in the Panhandle, plants grow quickly through the summer to a mature height of 3-5’.  During this time, False Foxglove is about as inconspicuous a plant as grows.  Consisting of a wispy thin stem with very small, narrow leaves, plants remain hidden in the flatwoods and sand hill landscapes that they inhabit.  However, when those aforementioned shorter September days arrive, False Foxglove explodes into flower sporting sprays of dozens of light purple to pink tubular-shaped flowers that remain until frost ends the season.

False Foxglove flowering in a Calhoun County natural area. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

In addition to being unmatched in flower, False Foxglove also plays several important ecological roles in Florida’s natural areas.  First, False Foxglove’s relatively large, tubular-shaped flowers are the preferred nectar sources for the larger-sized native solitary and bumble bees present in the Panhandle, though all manner of generalist bees and butterflies will also visit for a quick sip.  Second, False Foxglove is the primary host plant for the unique Common Buckeye butterfly.  One of the most easily recognizable butterflies due to the large “eye” spots on their wings, Common Buckeye larvae (caterpillars), feed on False Foxglove foliage during the summer before emerging as adults and adding to the fall spectacle.  Finally, False Foxglove is an important indicator of a healthy native ecosystem.  As a parasitic plant, False Foxglove obtains nutrients and energy by photosynthesis AND by using specialized roots to tap into the roots of nearby suitable hosts (native grasses and other plants).  As both False Foxglove and its parasitic host plants prefer to grow in the sunny, fire-exposed areas pine flatwoods and sand ridges that characterized pre-settlement Florida, you can be fairly confident that if you see a natural area with an abundance of False Foxglove in flower, that spot is in good ecological shape!

The Florida Panhandle is nearly unmatched in its fall wildflower diversity and False Foxglove plays a critical part in the show.  From its stunning flowers to its important ecological roles, one would be hard-pressed to find a more unique native wildflower!  For more information about False Foxglove and other Florida native wildflowers, contact us at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension office.

 

Golden Fall in the Panhandle

Golden Fall in the Panhandle

Yellow Flower

Yellow Flower

Goldenrod

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.

Connecting With Youth Through the Love of the Outdoors

Connecting With Youth Through the Love of the Outdoors

Article by Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.

Article by Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.

By Rachel Mathes

My only brother and his family live in Appleton, Wisconsin. Though I’m only able to see my niece and nephews one or two times a year, we have a deep connection through our love of the outdoors.

Zach discovering the joy of nature. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Zach discovering the joy of nature. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Their middle son, Zachary, is a budding naturalist at just four years old. When I visit them, Zach, his brother Connor, sister Cecilia, and I, load up the wagon and go for walks on the edge of the prairie in their neighborhood. We start our walks looking for scat and signs of wildlife. Because the kids are so close to the ground, they often spot wildlife trails before I do. We talk about what animals may be there, what they eat, and how we can help them.

After each walk, we wind down at home with an iNaturalist session. Zach and his siblings help me choose what animal or plant we think we saw with the help of the app’s nearby suggestions tool. A favorite game we play after all our photos are entered into the app is a game we’ve coined, “where’s that animal?” We use the iNaturalist explore feature to find sightings of exciting creatures like wolves and beavers near their home. The kids have learned that even scientists often don’t see the animals they study, just signs of them.

At age three, Zach learned to identify milkweed with impressive accuracy. I pointed out the plant on a previous trip more than six months earlier and he remembered how to find them. Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is a large leafed species that prefers winters a bit colder than we get here in the Florida Panhandle, but is native in northern states across the Eastern US, including Wisconsin. Zach is often stopping the wagon to scout for monarch caterpillars, finding even the smallest instars and eggs.

Zach learned to identify common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, at the age of three. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Zach learned to identify common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, at the age of three. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

When I video call the kids from Florida, Zach is often asking to see my fruit trees, vines, and bushes. He knows that we have very different seasons than Wisconsin when I am eating blueberries in May and he’s still knocking frost off his snow boots. In July, he tells me about the raspberries they find in the woods with their dad. We both get a bit of seasonal berry jealousy. On my last trip we planted thornless blackberries in their garden together. It remains to be seen whether the birds will let the kids have a harvest, but the kids will be excited either way.

Though we may live a thousand miles apart, I know my relationship with my niece and nephews will continue to thrive as they explore the natural world around them. One day, I hope to introduce them to the awe of Florida manatees and alligators. Until then, I will relish the time we get to spend together outdoors in nature and on the phone together. I know that Zachary and his siblings will grow up having respect for the natural world and I hope he always exclaims, “Monarch! Look auntie Rachel, a monarch caterpillar!” on our walks together.

Author: Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.

Meadow Beauty

Meadow Beauty

Photo by: Sheila Dunning

Have you noticed the beautiful pink flowers in the meadows near the woods?  That’s what many early explorers of Florida may have said, which lead to the common name of Rhexia spp.  Meadow beauty (Rhexia spp.) is a Florida native found in mainly moist habitats, including flatwoods, wet meadows, marshes and savannas.  Rhexia species are herbaceous perennials that flowers from late spring to fall, going dormant in winter.  The simple leaves are simple and oppositely arranged.  The flower has four petals, four sepals and eight long, bright orange-yellow stamen with curving anthers on the end.  The light pink flowers face outward on a 1-2 feet tall stack, each one measuring about an inch across.  The unique shape of the stamen and anthers suggests that the Rhexia species are buzz pollinated.

By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! – Buzz Pollination (Sonication), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38199019

Buzz pollination or sonication is a technique used by some bees to release pollen which is firmly held by the anthers. The anthers of buzz-pollinated plant species are typically tubular, with an opening at only one end, and the pollen inside is smooth-grained and firmly attached. In order to release the pollen, the bees grab onto the flower and move their flight muscles rapidly, causing the flower and anthers to vibrate, dislodging pollen. Honeybees cannot perform buzz pollination.   Only about 9% of the flowers in the world are primarily pollinated using buzz pollination.  So, meadow beauty is not just pretty, it has a unique connection with native bees.

Photo by: Sheila Dunning

Meadow beauty grows in full sun or partial shade.  The plant can reproduce by seeds and underground rhizomes.  Rhexia spp. are also a tasty treat for deer as they graze in the meadow.  The flowers don’t last long and can’t handle being touched.  In Greek, Rhexia means “breaks”.  So, enjoy them as you walk through the woods, but leave them for the bees rather than picking them.

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!