The Spiderwort

The Spiderwort

The brilliant purple, edible spiderwort flowers are only around for a day! Photo credit: Mary Anne Tomlinson

The spiderwort is a pretty little plant that most people have encountered in their yards or on roadsides. In cattle or hay pastures, it is considered a weed because cows won’t eat it, and its high moisture content can ruin hay harvests. In a home landscape, though, it can be a nice addition to the yard. I know many homeowners who refuse to let them be mowed down with the lawn simply because of their brilliant color. The native spiderwort (genus Tradescantia) is a perennial flower that grows in clusters, often in moist soils. It is a member of the dayflower family, which means each flower is only open for a single day.  The plant, a favorite of bumblebees, can be identified quickly by its triad of violet petals and bright green, strap-like leaves.

Spiderworts bloom in spring and grow in clumps of bright green, strappy leaves. Photo credit: Mary Anne Tomlinson

Known by common names as varied as “Bluejacket,” “Snotweed,” and “Cow Slobber” (due to the mucilaginous—mucus-like–consistency of its sap), the plant is widespread throughout the eastern and central United States. An interesting aspect of this sap is that it can be used as a salve for insect bites, similarly to aloe. Even more useful for those interested in native edible plants is that the flowers, stems, and leaves can be eaten raw in a salad or cooked and used as a culinary herb. The flowers can be candied with sugar as a dessert or used atop cakes.

Interestingly, the spiderwort can also indicate the presence of radiation. The bluish hairs on spiderwort flower stamens will turn pink in the presence of low levels of radiation, often more reliably than mechanical dosimeters.

For a Unique Landscape Native, Give Needle Palm a Try!

For a Unique Landscape Native, Give Needle Palm a Try!

There aren’t a lot of quality landscape plant options that fit the description nearly every homeowner desires:  native, low-maintenance, slow-growing, pest free, drought tolerant while tolerating wet soils, loving both sun or shade, and green year-round.  Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is the rare plant that checks all those boxes and deserves consideration when adding plants to your landscape!

Mature Need Palm at Eden Gardens State Park in Walton County. Photo courtesy the author.

Needle Palm is an endangered native, growing in a narrow range in the coastal Southeastern US, Calhoun and Liberty counties included.  It is primarily found in the understories of wet wooded areas along slopes, ravines, and bottoms; if you’ve ever hiked the Apalachicola Ravines or Torreya State Park trails, you’ve likely encountered Needle Palm in the wild!  Being native is nice, but what makes Needle Palm an outstanding landscape option?

Needle Palm is the prettier, more refined cousin of Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens), which it is sometimes confused with.  Unlike the rambling, aggressive, stiff-leaved palmetto, Needle palm possesses “softer”, finely cut, lustrous evergreen leaves, allowing it to add amazing texture to any landscape.  Also, unlike palmetto, it doesn’t need a yearly “cleaning” to prune out brown, dead leaves, rather its leaves persist green and clean for many years!  You might not want to reach into the interior of a Needle Palm plant anyway, as generally unseen 6-8” namesake “needles” surround the base of its trunk.  Needle Palm grows very slowly, eventually reaching 8’ tall or so, but is more often seen in the 4-6’ range in landscapes.  This is absolutely a shrub that will never outgrow its welcome.  It is a nearly trunkless palm, almost always appearing as a shrub, though with extreme old age it can begin to look a bit like a small tree with a muted trunk.  With outstanding aesthetics and a low-maintenance growth habit, Needle Palm has a place in nearly any landscape.

6 year old needle palm grouping growing in author’s landscape.

In the landscape, Needle Palm does best when sited with some shade in the afternoon but also thrives in full sun.  They appreciate regular water during establishment but survive on their own without any extra irrigation after!  Needle Palm also doesn’t need much in the way of supplemental fertilization.  They do look their best with a light spring application of a general purpose, slow-release fertilizer, but this is not required.  Needle Palms are not afflicted with the pest and pathogen problems the much more commonly used non-native Sago Palms (Cycas revlolutas) attracts.  I’ve grown Needle Palm for 6 years in the landscape and have never noticed any pest or disease issues.  With Needle Palms becoming more common in the nursery trade, I don’t see a place in most landscapes for the inferior, high-maintenance, insect infested Sagos.  If you want the tropical, textured look of Sagos, plant Needle Palm instead.

Needle Palm is an extremely attractive, low-maintenance Northwest Florida native plant that you should absolutely seek out and add to your landscape!  If you want more information or have any questions about Needle Palm or any other landscape/garden topic, please give us a call at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension Office.  Happy Gardening!

Celebrate Florida Arbor Day

Celebrate Florida Arbor Day

4H youth assist an IFAS Extension agent in planting a tree. UF/IFAS Photo: Josh Wickham.

This week, we celebrate Florida’s Arbor Day. “What?” you may say—“Isn’t Arbor Day in the spring?” Well, yes and no. National Arbor Day is celebrated in the spring (April 24 this year), usually within a day or two of Earth Day. However, because of the wide range of climatic environments throughout the United States, each state has its own date based on ideal growing conditions. As it stands, Florida’s is the 3rd Friday in January, as we are situated so very far south. Alabama and Georgia, where so many of us north Floridians experience similar weather, hold their Arbor Days in late February.

Contrary to popular opinion, the optimal planting time for trees in not in the spring, but in fall and winter. Planting during dormancy allows trees to focus their energy resources on growing healthy roots. In the coming spread, a steady supply of warmth, sunshine, and pollinators bring on leaf growth, flowers, and fruit.

Check with your local Extension offices, garden clubs, and municipalities to find out if there is an Arbor Day event near you! Several local agencies have joined forces to organize tree giveaway and sales events in observance of Florida’s Arbor Day.

 

Friday, January 17th

 Okaloosa County: UF/IFAS Okaloosa County, in partnership with the Florida Forest Service, the Niceville Senior Center and the Kiwanis Club of Niceville-Valparaiso, will give away trees beginning at 9 a.m., until all trees are gone. Niceville Senior Center, 201 Campbell Drive. A UF/IFAS Extension agent will conduct a tree planting demonstration and UF/IFAS Master Gardener volunteers will be available to answer questions about planting and growing trees in North Florida.

Saturday, January 18th

Walton County Master Gardener Volunteer Tree and Plant Sale
A wide variety of plants and trees will be offered: shade trees, ornamentals, citrus, flowering, tropical, fruits, nuts, berries, shrubs, grasses, vines, palms, and ferns.

Time: 9 a.m. to noon
UF/IFAS Extension Walton County
DeFuniak Springs, FL

Escambia County: UF/IFAS Extension Escambia County is partnering with the Escambia County Water Quality and Land Management Department and the Florida Forest Service for the annual Tree Giveaway. Events begin with a tree planting demonstration at 8:45 and conclude by noon (or until the trees are all distributed, two per household). Beulah Middle School, 6001 Nine Mile Road, Pensacola.

Jackson County: Tree give-away Saturday, January 18 at 9 am at Florida Forest Service work center at 3973 Kynesville Rd, Marianna

Wakulla County: UF/IFAS Wakulla County Master Gardeners are hosting a tree giveaway.

Saturday, January 25th

Leon County: UF/IFAS Extension Leon County Master Gardeners will assist with the county’s Arbor Day tree planting at 9 a.m. Martha Wellman Park, 5317 W. Tennessee St., Tallahassee.

 

Feed the Birds

Feed the Birds

Brown bird with red chestAs 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

Help the Monarch Butterfly

Help the Monarch Butterfly

Orange and black buterflyOver 1.8 million Monarch butterflies have been tagged and tracked over the past 27 years. This October these iconic beauties will flutter through the Florida Panhandle on their way to the Oyamel fir forests on 12 mountaintops in central Mexico. Monarch Watch volunteers and citizen scientists will be waiting to record, tag and release the butterflies in hopes of learning more about their migration and what the 2019 population count will be.

This spring, scientists from World Wildlife Fund Mexico estimated the population size of the overwintering Monarchs to be 6.05 hectacres of trees covered in orange. As the weather warmed, the butterflies headed north towards Canada (about three weeks early). It’s an impressive 2,000 mile adventure for an animal weighing less than 1 gram. Those butterflies west of the Rocky Mountains headed up California; while the eastern insects traveled over the “corn belt” and into New England. When August brought cooler days, all the Monarchs headed back south.

What the 2018 Monarch Watch data revealed was alarming. The returning eastern Monarch butterfly population had increased by 144 percent, the highest count since 2006. But, the count still represented a decline of Map of US90% from historic levels of the 1990’s. Additionally, the western population plummeted to a record low of 30,000, down from 1.2 million two decades ago. With estimated populations around 42 million, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began the process of deciding whether to list the Monarch butterfly as endangered or threatened in 2014. With the additional information, FWS set a deadline of June 2019 to decide whether to pursue the listing.

Scientists estimate that 6 hectacres is the threshold to be out of the immediate danger of migratory collapse. To put things in scale: A single winter storm in January 2002 killed an estimated 500 million Monarchs in their Mexico home. However, with recent changes on the status of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has delayed its decision until December 2020. One more year of data may be helpful to monarch conservation efforts.

butterfly on bushIndividuals can help with the monitoring and restoring the Monarch butterflies habitat. There are two scheduled tagging events in Panhandle, possibly more. St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge is holding their Butterfly Festival on Saturday, October 26 from 10a.m. to 4 p.m. Henderson Beach State Park in Destin will have 200 butterflies to tag and release on Saturday, November from 9 – 11 a.m. Ask around in the local area. There may be more opportunities.

There is something more you can do to increase the success of the butterflies along their migratory path – plant more Milkweed (Asclepias spp.). It’s the only plant the Monarch caterpillar will eat. When they leave their hibernation in Mexico around February or March, the adults must find Milkweed all along the path to Canada in order to lay their eggs. Butterflies only live two to six weeks. They must mate and lay eggs along the way in order for the population to continue its flight. Each generation must have Milkweed about every 700 miles. Check with the local nurseries for plants.  Though orange is the most common native species, Milkweed comes in many colors and leaf shapes.Orange flower

Principles of Managing Habitat for Wildlife

Principles of Managing Habitat for Wildlife

Protecting and promoting plants that produce soft mast, like this wild persimmon, can be a crucial step in improving wildlife habitat. Note: This time of year persimmons will be orange, the picture was taken earlier in the summer.
Photo Credit: Mark Mauldin

Landowners frequently prioritize wildlife abundance and diversity in their management goals. This is often related to a desired recreational activity (hunting, bird watching, etc.).

In order to successfully meet wildlife related management goals, landowners need to understand that animals frequent specific areas based largely on the quantity, quality and diversity of the food and cover resources available. Implementing management strategies that improve wildlife habitat will lead to greater wildlife abundance and diversity.

Herbivorous wildlife feed on plants, mostly in the form of forages and mast crops. All wildlife species have preferences in terms of habitat, especially food sources.  Identifying these preferences and managing habitat to meet them will promote the abundance of the desired species.

Herbaceous plants, leaves, buds, etc. – serve as forages for many wildlife species. Promoting their growth and diversity is essential for improving wildlife habitat. Three common habitat management practices that promote forage growth include:

1) Create forest openings and edges; forested areas with multiple species and/or stand ages, areas left unforested allowing for increased herbaceous plant growth.

2) Thinning; open forest canopy allowing more light to hit the ground increasing herbaceous plant growth and diversity.

3) Prescribed fire; recycle nutrients, greatly improve the nutritional quality of herbage and browse, suppress woody understory growth.

Mast – the seeds and fruits of trees and shrubs – is often one of the most important wildlife food sources on a property.

Hard mast includes shelled seeds, like acorns and hickory nuts and is generally produced in the fall and serves as a wildlife food source during the winter.

Soft mast includes fruits, like blackberries and persimmons, and is generally produced in the warmer months, providing vital nutrition when wildlife species are reproducing and/or migrating.

Making management decisions that protect and promote mast producing trees will encourage wildlife populations.

Landowners can make supplemental plantings to increase the quantity and quality of the nutrition available to wildlife. These supplemental plantings (food plots/forage crops and mast producing trees) can be quite expensive and should be well planned to help maximize the return on investment.

Key points to remember to help ensure the success of supplemental wildlife plantings.

  • Select species/varieties that are well adapted to the site.
  • Take soil samples and make recommended soil amendments prior to planting.
  • Make plantings in areas already frequented by wildlife (edges, openings, etc.).
  • Food plots should be between 1 and 5 acres. Long, narrow designs that maximize proximity to cover are generally more effective.

Habitat management and other wildlife related topics are being featured this year in the UF/IFAS building at the Sunbelt Ag Expo. Make plans to attend “North America’s Premiere Farm Show” and stop by the UF/IFAS building, get some peanuts and orange juice and learn more about Florida’s Wildlife.

If you have any questions about the topics mentioned above, contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Office or check out the additional articles listed on the page linked below.

EDIS – Wildlife Forages

A significant portion of this article was summarized from Establishing and Maintaining Wildlife Food Sources by Chris Demers et al.