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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The hickory horned devil is a blue-green colored caterpillar, about the size of a large hot dog, covered in long black thorns. They are often seen feeding on the leaves of deciduous forest trees, such as hickory, pecan, sweetgum, sumac and persimmon. For about 35 days, the hickory horned devil continuously eats, getting bigger and bigger every day. In late July to mid-August, they crawl down to the ground to search for a suitable location to burrow into the soil for pupation. While the hickory horned devil is fierce-looking, they are completely harmless. If you see one wandering through the grass or across the pavement, help it out by moving it to an open soil surface.
The pupa will overwinter until next May to early-June, at which time, they completely metamorphosize into a regal moth (Citheronia regalis). Like most other moths, it is nocturnal. But, this is a very large gray-green moth with orange wings, measuring up to 6 inches in width. It lives only about one week and never get to eat. In fact, they don’t even have a functional mouth. Adults mate during the second evening after emergence from the ground and begin laying eggs on tree leaves at dusk of the third evening. The adult moth dies of exhaustion. Eggs hatch in six to 10 days.
The regal moth, and its larvae stage called the hickory horned devil, is native to the southeastern United States. The damage they do to trees in minimal. Learning to appreciate this “odd” creature is something we can all do. For more information: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/IN/IN20900.pdf