Monday, October 5, 2015

Spice up autumn with a squeeze of pinecone ginger

When I give a gentle squeeze to the red ‘cone’ of pinecone ginger, a clear, fragrant liquid seeps out of the plant and onto my hand. It’s not sticky. Rather, it feels fresh and fragrant.

A gentle squeeze releases a an aromatic liquid that feels wonderful when rubbed on skin or hair

If I rub my hands together and inhale deeply, the spicy scent of ginger fills the air. I squeeze a little more juice from the cone to rub onto my arms, face and hair. I like the way it feels on my skin. I’m not alone in appreciating the properties of Zingiber zerumbet. Originally from southeast Asia, pinecone ginger is found in the warm climates of Malaysia, Polynesia, Hawaii, Thailand, China, India and Central America as well as here in Central and South Florida.

Wherever it grows, native people have used the aromatic liquid from the pinecone-shaped bracts to cleanse and condition their hair, which explains why another name for the plant is shampoo ginger.

Here in Central Florida, I think of pinecone ginger as one of many signs of the changing seasons. As temperatures begin to mellow, the plant’s bracts respond by turning from green to red, and one to five small buttery-colored flowers appear on the bract’s upper rim. With tall stalks, broad leaves and the tendency to grow in clumps, pinecone ginger provides a tropical look to the landscape. The red pinecone bracts even make long-lasting and attractive cut flowers.

A solitary bract of pinecone ginger in a vase surrounded by cuttings from two other plants

I began adding pinecone gingers to our landscape too long ago to remember when we planted our first roots. What I do remember is frequently dividing our initial plantings. Because ginger grows from rhizomes, it’s easy to propagate by division. A shovelful taken from the edge of a clump can be transplanted to another location without doing much more than tamping down the soil and giving it a good soak.

On our property, we have pinecone ginger growing in a variety of settings. It surrounds the base of trees in the woods and grows down the slopes of hills. Although it seems to prefer slightly shady locations, it does well in sunny spots too. It is not bothered by pests and, once established, requires no attention other than admiration for its beauty.

A stand of pinecone ginger growing in partial shade beneath a crepe myrtle tree

The only disadvantage to adding pinecone ginger to the landscape is that its beauty is fleeting. The pinecone bracts that begin to turn red in September will last only until the first cold spell. Top growth is killed back when temperatures dip into the 20s. Leaves, stalks and bracts turn brown and fall over onto the ground. Underground growth, however, remains unharmed. When temperatures warm in the spring, tiny new ginger shoots begin to pop through the soil and quickly grow several feet tall. It’s fun to watch as the plant develops into a tall, attractive and aromatic landscape feature.

While the buttery-colored flowers are already in bloom, the pinecone-shaped bract is just beginning to turn red

While the fragrant liquid inside the bracts of pinecone ginger is the only part of the plant I’ve had experience using, many cultures have used the rhizomes for a variety of culinary and medicinal purposes. The grated rhizomes add a spicy zest to a many recipes. In Southeast Asian folk medicine, extracts of the rhizomes treat problems such as worm infestations, inflammation and diarrhea. In traditional Chinese culture, rhizomes are masticated in alcohol to use as a tonic or stimulant. In India, rhizomes softened through cooking are applied to ease the pain of toothaches while native Hawaiians use the softened rhizomes to treat headaches.

Pinecone ginger makes a colorful, fragrant and useful addition to the landscape

I like non-fussy plants that are not only fragrant and beautiful but also easy to grow, a cinch to propagate and resistant to disease. I like them even more when they have so many useful functions. Whether I admire the cut bracts in a vase on my kitchen counter or enjoy the spicy scent as I rub the clear liquid onto my skin, pinecone ginger is a plant I’m glad I grow.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A playful birthday month

I like birthdays. I like them so much I think a month-long celebration is more appropriate than a one-day commemoration. Birthdays deserve a month of joyful activities, personal pleasures and whimsical indulgences.

In a few days, it will be my birthday month, which means I’ve been giving a bit of thought lately to how I want to spend the next 31 days. I know I want them to be peaceful days, as free of worry and frustration as possible. To that end, I plan to go rowing frequently. I’m never calmer than when I’m in my old aluminum skiff, skimming across the flat surface of still water.

On days when I’m unable to be on the lake, I’ll try to be out walking, taking long, slow meanders through wooded paths. Next to rowing, a slow stroll through a dark forest fills me with peace and solace. I recently read a Zen meditation quote that I found especially relevant, “You should sit in nature for 20 minutes a day…unless you’re busy, then you should sit for an hour.” An hour sounds about right to me, busy or not.

When I’m not rowing, walking in the woods or sitting quietly observing nature, I’d love to spend time during my birthday month reading, baking and taking pictures. A bit of gardening would be nice, too. Ideally, a birthday month should be filled with as many much-loved activities as possible. Losing myself in a good story, taking a bite of pumpkin pie fresh from the oven or feeling a satisfying glow when I’ve cleaned up a flowerbed are all high on my things-that-make-me-happy list.

Happiness can also be found spending time with others, especially with those people most important in your life. In addition to together time with my husband Ralph, which is always a pleasure, I’m looking forward to visits from each of our children and grandkids during October. For a couple weeks, we’ll have a full house, and as much fun as that can be, I know from experience I’ll be needing breaks. Without doubt, my rowing muscles and walking shoes will get a good workout during those weeks.

Celebrating birthdays with family

On the topic of fun, I believe a birthday month should include at least one frivolous, unnecessary pleasure. My frolicsome leap into indulgency revolves around three wheels and a reclining seat. I’m thinking about getting a one-speed, recumbent Fun Cycle, a bike I have coveted since I first rode one 27 years ago. A birthday is a fine time to revisit long-lasting pleasures from the past, so I’m researching new and used Fun Cycles for sale. At some point during my birthday month, I hope to be zipping down the hard-packed sand on New Smyrna Beach at low tide on my new-to-me recumbent play-mobile.

I got one!  Me on my new-to-me Fun Cycle

Playing is important, and it’s not just for kids. According to Stuart Brown, author, psychiatrist and founder of the non-profit National Institute for Play, “Play is something done for its own sake. It's voluntary, it's pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”

For the next 31 days, no matter what else I do, I’ll be celebrating my birthday by prioritizing play.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly on tropical milkweed plants

Tropical Milkweed attracts so many butterflies including this Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes).  Below is a short video (0:44) of one giant swallowtail as it goes about the life sustaining business of sipping nectar from milkweed flowers.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A good bug with a killer name

Would you like to go through life with a name like Assassin Bug?

I sure wouldn't, but then I don't make a habit of hiding in curled up leaves until unsuspecting prey wanders by. I don’t grab the intended quarry with long, sticky legs to inject enzymes that paralyze bodies and dissolve tissues. And I certainly don’t return later to suck up those liquefied tissues with a straw-like appendage called a stylet.

But that's what Zelus longipes Linnaeus, better known as the milkweed assassin bug, does. Such blatantly brutal behavior is what earns this colorful predator its killer moniker.

The other day, I watched as a milkweed assassin bug did his dastardly deeds.

An ant join a milkweed assassin bug in a feeding frenzy

I was outside enjoying the sight of beneficial wasps flying in and out of the spotted bee balm plant when...

The spotted bee balm abuzz with bees

...I noticed all the queen butterfly caterpillars munching away on the tropical milkweed leaves.

I leaned in for a closer look...

As I leaned in for a closer look, I became aware of an orange and black insect on a milkweed leaf, too. 

What an interesting looking insect

At the time, I didn’t realize it was an assassin bug. All I knew was that it was brightly colored and interesting to watch, especially when it probed a stinkbug with a long thin appendage. Although the stinkbug looked dead, I later realized the assassin bug had actually immobilized it by injecting potent chemical compounds into its body.

One stinkbug = lunchtime for assassin bug

While I watched, the milkweed assassin bug stood over the stinkbug, patiently waiting until its prey was completely inert. At that point, the predator retracted its stylet and stepped away as the stinkbug rolled forward on the leaf, accompanied by two ants that seemed to be anticipating the feast.

Murder was taking place on the face of a tropical milkweed leaf with two ants and I as the only witnesses. However, actions that seem brutal on a human scale are merely a means of survival to wildlife. It was not my job to interfere or intervene.

Like most invertebrates, a milkweed assassin bug’s life revolves around three major activities: finding food, avoiding becoming food and reproducing. In addition to stinkbugs, this beneficial insect eats many garden pests, including caterpillars, armyworms, aphids, mosquitoes, flies, cornsilk flies, cockroaches and cucumber beetles.

Tiny yellow aphids suck juice from the stems of a tropical milkweed plant while a Gulf Fritillary butterfly sips nectar from its flowers

Because it has the ability to inject a very powerful toxin into its victims, a milkweed assassin bug can consume prey bigger than itself, but doing so has its risks. The dissolved fluids from large victims take a longer time to ingest. This means the milkweed assassin bug is exposed to potential predators like birds for more time than it would be if it dined on smaller prey. A large meal reduces hunting time but increases vulnerability. No matter what the species, life is full of plusses and minuses.

The day after I first discovered the milkweed assassin bug on the tropical milkweed leaf, I went back to see if it was still there. It was. 
Only this time, it was not alone.  

The long-legged limbs of two look-alike orange and black bugs were entwined in an amorous embrace. The third essential activity of all creatures — reproduction — was underway. 

Assassin bug rendezvous...

Milkweed assassin bugs making love, not war. Sometimes a name belies a being’s true nature.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Bee happy...plant bee balm (far away from other plants)

My spotted bee balm, Monarda punctata, is a hub of activity. Bees and beneficial wasps are constantly flying in and around the plant’s speckled lavender-pink blossoms. The blooming period for this herbaceous perennial also known as horsemint is August through September.

A carpenter bee snuggles up to a spotted bee balm blossom

This is my first year growing spotted bee balm. Last August, my daughter Amber and I found a patch of the Florida native wildflower growing along the shoulder of a bumpy dirt road. We pulled over, uprooted a couple young plants and took them home for our own gardens.

While my intentions were good, my follow-through was not. The plan — it’s so easy to make plans — was to pot up my rescued plant (I kept one and Amber kept the other) in a small container. Once it had recovered from the shock of uprooting, I intended to transplant it directly into the soil.

I had no trouble doing the first part. I potted up the bee balm — it was quite small at the time — and I placed the container in a garden bed next to the garage where several other plants were already growing. However, as the weeks went by, projects kept popping up and I never got around to transplanting bee balm into a permanent spot in the ground.

As it turns out, spotted bee balm is a forgiving plant. Not only is it attractive to bees and pollinating wasps, it’s also tolerant of neglectful gardeners.

That single uprooted seedling is now a behemoth bush despite the fact that its base remains encased in a black plastic pot. 

Recently I attempted to remove the pot but was unable to do so because the plant’s roots had broken through the container’s bottom anchoring it to the ground. My small pot of spotted bee balm has turned into a sprawling shrub about three feet wide and three feet tall. It looks quite at home.

That may be a problem.

Like all other members of the mint family, spotted bee balm is a strong-willed plant that tends to dominate space. Once it puts down roots, it has a way of taking over. That’s why the wise place to plant bee balm far away from other plants.

Unfortunately, my bee balm is not growing all by itself. I unwittingly set it down in a garden bed already occupied by several succulents, bugleweed and a young pineapple, plants I’d like to keep. However, from the way the bee balm is sprawling, it will soon spread over and smother its neighbors unless I intervene.

Spotted bee balm infringing upon space allocated to the succulent Stapelia gigantea 

My plan — here I go again with plans — is to leave the spotted bee balm where it is until it stops blooming at the end of September. At that point, I intend to severely prune its branches before relocating it to a new spot. This time, assuming I follow through on my intentions, I’ll take it out of the pot and place it in a bed of its own where it can sprawl as much as it wants without infringing on any other plants’ space.

I like spotted bee balm because it attracts so many pollinators to the yard. I like that it’s an easy plant to grow, unbothered by pests, tolerant of dry conditions and accepting of poor soil. I like that its flowers are pretty and that it has a fragrant scent. I also like it because it proves a point: If you’re not careful in the garden, a plant may take over and when it does, other plants will suffer. If bee balm can teach me to be better at following through with my intentions, it will be a lesson well learned for gardening and for life in general.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Who's peeking out of the nesting box?

Last year, I optimistically watched my husband attach a wooden nesting box to a sycamore tree’s trunk on our property. I felt sure wildlife would soon come to check it out. Eventually, some creature — perhaps a bluebird or a screech owl — would raise a family within its rough-sawn walls.

The nesting box’s position couldn’t have been better. From my seat at our kitchen table, I looked across the lawn to the tree. Raised about 15 feet above the ground and facing toward the house, the nesting box was directly within eyesight. If anything was going to happen, I would see it.

Unfortunately, not much happened.

A few wasps buzzed about and some anole lizards checked it out but for most of the year that was all the action I observed until one day when a not-quite-full-grown bluebird sat on its roof. I felt my hopes soar when the bluebird landed. 

An immature bluebird checks out the nesting box

It poked its head into the hole and flitted about. I wondered if it was old enough to nest. If not, would it remember where the nesting box was and return when it was ready to mate and raise babies? I waited to see what would happen, but nothing did.

Months went by. The nesting box sat empty. And then one day as I was at the table eating lunch, I gazed up from my meal to see a little face looking out of the nesting box hole. I quickly put down my fork and picked up the camera, turned it on and zoomed in for a closer look.

Peeking out of the nesting box hole

My Canon camera has a wonderful zoom lens that can pick up the smallest details on far-away scenes. As I zoomed close to the box’s opening, I was surprised by what I saw.

Cute little bugger

Instead of observing one of the cavity-dwelling feathered creatures I’d imagined, my eyes caught sight of a fur-covered critter. A squirrel — a seed-stealing, wood-gnawing, rat-with-a-fluffy-tail fiend — had taken up residence in the wooden box house. As I gawked at the sight of the unwelcome dweller, the unrepentant animal stared back with a self-satisfied grin.

“How nice of you to install this snug and cozy home,” I imagined the squirrel saying. “It’s close to three birdfeeders and conveniently located right next to a den my mate just built in a clump of bamboo.”

Unlike animals that have only one home, squirrels can inhabit not one but three nests. The male has a nest. So does the female. And then there’s another built entirely to contain a litter of young. Once I realized a squirrel had moved into the nesting box, other things began to make sense.

A few weeks back, I had watched a gray squirrel carry nesting material in its mouth from one stand of Giant Timber bamboo to another. 

I suspected a new nest was in the making as I watched a squirrel transfer nesting material from one location to another

The squirrel already had built a leafy nest, known as a drey, in a stand of bamboo about 60 feet from our house. The drey was a loosely woven bowl-shaped structure made from small branches interlaced with leaves, moss and pine needles. When I saw the squirrel moving about with a mouth full of fibers, I figured it was in the process of building another nest nearby. Although I tried to find the new nest in a second stand of Giant Timber bamboo, leafy foliage blocked my view, and I was unable to spot it.

Although I couldn't spot the squirrel's nest in the bamboo, the wily critter had no trouble spotting me from its bamboo perch

Now that I knew a gray squirrel had taken up residence in the nesting box mounted on the sycamore tree right next to the bamboo, I realized what probably had happened. In my attempt to create a wild bird haven, I inadvertently encouraged gray squirrel procreation in a series of treehouse resorts.

Ah well, we don’t always get what we want, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what we get. Maybe, from my kitchen table vantage point, instead of watching a mama screech owl raise her babies, I’ll soon catch some baby squirrel action.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly

I've been seeing quite a few spicebush swallowtail butterflies (Papilio troilus) fluttering around our flower gardens lately.  Although these black-bodied beauties with a blush of powdery blue on their wings land on different plants, they seems to favor tropical milkweed blooms.

Below are some photographs from various angles that show off the spicebush's pretty colors.  

For more information about Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies, click on the following links:

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

One row...many pictures

If you're willing to look, there's much to see.

I just came in from a slow row around the lake's perimeter.  Much of what I found are just little things.  A pretty flower.  A tiny frog.  They could easily be overlooked. But if they were, so much would be missed.

Below is a glimpse into the world I discovered on my late afternoon row.

A pretty flower

A tiny frog, no bigger than my fingernail

Mama spider guarding her spiderlings

Looks like this orb weaver of the genus Neoscona
will soon be dining on a dragonfly wrap

This green tree frog looks like he's ready to leap from one pickerelweed leaf to another

Blue on green - A dragonfly that didn't get caught in a spider's web

And finally, this gulf fritillary butterfly looks like it has settled in for the night holding tight to its pickerelweed leaf bed