Monday, September 15, 2014

Friendship blooms

I have a new BFF.  In garden-speak, that means Best Flower Friend.


Her name is Rudbeckia laciniata, but I like to call her Cutleaf Coneflower.  While my new BFF is a Florida native, she grows just as well in Zone 3 as she does in Zone 9.  During an early August trip to western Mass, flowery displays of Cutleaf Coneflower were ubiquitous in the residential neighborhoods I visited.  Although less common in Central Florida, this member of the Aster shows off her yellow daisy-like flowers in late summer, continuing to paint the landscape with cheery color throughout early fall. 

Related to the more familiar, Black-eyed Susan, one of the main differences between the two perennial plants is their central disc.  In Black-eyed Susan, the petals extend from a dark black circle while in Cutleaf Coneflower the central orb is slightly green, growing darker and more raised as the flower matures.  The greenish tone is responsible for one of Rudbeckia laciniata’s other common names, Green-headed Coneflower. 

The more familiar black-eyed Susan has a much darker central disc than cutleaf coneflower and petals that without a noticeable droop 

However, no matter what you call her, there’s no denying this flower’s impressive height.  Topping out between 3 and 12 feet tall, my lanky friend towers other many of the neighboring blooms.  While not a demanding plant, Cutleaf Coneflower does have her preferences.  She prefers a partially sunny location with enriched, irrigated soil.  In my gardens, I planted this new addition on the southern side of the house in two locations where broad trees and a clump of dwarf bamboo filter some of the sun’s rays. 

For the first few months of our acquaintance, a mound of large, lobed foliage was the only present this plant presented.  As the months went by, the leafy crests grew bigger and broader and I found myself wondering what I’d gotten myself into.  What kind of flower, if any, would this new plant produce?  Admittedly, the foliage was pretty.  But did I really need another non-blooming plant taking up valuable garden real estate?

Before blooms appeared, the only indication of the plant's beauty were large mounds of dark green, lobed leaves 

The answer arrived at the end of July, shortly before I left for New England.  Cutleaf Coneflower was finally ready to show her true colors.  Suddenly, my garden was ablaze with abundant blossoms.  Bright yellow petals emerged atop tall flower stalks and I wasn’t the only one to notice.  Bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds were also paying attention.

Once the plants began blooming, bees buzzed about gathering pollen

The other day, in need of a bit of garden therapy, I positioned myself on a plastic chair in a corner of the garden in hopes of catching a wildlife show.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Within moments, I began to see bees.  Lots of bees.  Pollen sacs on the bees’ forelegs grew noticeably fuller as, one after another, the bees derived sustenance from the profuse yellow blooms.  

Gathering pollen from Cutleaf Coneflower blooms may have increased the load for the bees to carry home to their hives but watching so many beneficial insects visit the garden made my load feel lighter. 

I suppose that’s what friends do.  They make us feel better.  Cutleaf Coneflower is generous without being demanding, beautiful without being boastful.  My new BFF may not be human but it doesn’t matter.  I give her a place to grow and flourish and in return, she provides soothing relief from everyday stresses.  It’s a good deal both of us -  I think the bees are happy too.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Learning to live with 'widow' spiders

Over the last two weeks, Ralph and I have been busy readying one of our rental homes for the arrival of new tenants.  In the process of clearing the yard of debris and cleaning up exterior and interior messes left by the previous tenant, I’ve encountered several brown widow spiders.

A brown widow spider guards her egg sacs and newly hatched spiderlings

Although black widow spiders are more notorious, they are only one of four members of the genus Latrodectus. The southern black, northern black, red, and brown widow are all in the widow family.  Of those four, the brown widow spider (Latrodectus geometricus) is the one most likely to settle around our homes, yard, sheds, boats and vehicles.

Black widow

Like its better-known cousin, a brown widow is easily recognizable by a brightly-colored hourglass-shaped marking on the underside of its bulbous abdomen.  Both spiders are about an inch long with legs extended, but unlike a black widow’s shiny black body, a brown widow’s upper body is grayish-brown with light white markings. 

Brown widow

I realize most people aren’t going to take the time to note subtle color differences between black and brown widows.  When they see a spider – a widow or most any other kind – their first reaction is to kill the eight-legged beast.  That’s unfortunate because of the 40,000 spider species worldwide, the vast majority – even widows - help humans by eating harmful insects.  In Florida, only 7 of the 900 species of spiders, which includes the four widows and three kinds of recluse spiders, pose a threat to people.

Comic by Bruce Thomas,

Although I know venomous spiders are capable of inflicting lethal bites, I also know the risk of that happening is minimal.  According to Dr. Steve A. Johnson of the University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, only seven people in the U.S. die from spider bites annually on average.  To put that figure in perspective, about 21 people die from dog bites each year while stings from bees and wasps are responsible for about 53 fatalities annually.


Entomologist, Fred Santana, of the Sarasota County Extension Agency states on a University of Florida IFAS website that widow spiders are generally non-aggressive and will retreat when disturbed.  Bites usually occur when a person sticks a hand in recessed areas or dark corners and inadvertently presses against a spider.

It was in just such dark spots where I encountered brown widow spiders at our rental house.  One was in the upper track of a sliding glass door, another outside in the recessed top corner of a double-hung window and a third was hiding underneath an aluminum railing in the screen porch.  In all three cases, I noticed brown widow egg sacs before I saw the spiders.

Brown widow egg sacs are easy to recognize.  Larger than a pea but smaller than a marble, each tan-colored orb is covered with small pointy projections that give it a prickly appearance.  Each egg sac – there are usually several – is secured within a three-dimensional conical-shaped web diligently guarded by the female spider who is usually hidden in a corner of the web during daylight hours.  Widow spiders are nocturnal and are generally inactive during days.

Brown widow egg sacs are prickly while the egg sacs of a black widow spider (below) lack bumpy projections

Photo credit:

Because they were at one of our rental homes, I killed the spiders and crushed the egg sacs.  I knew my incoming tenants, who have young children, would not be want to share their new home with potentially dangerous arachnids. 

The thing is, spiders are everywhere and we need to learn to coexist.  Sure, we should take precautions like cleaning regularly and straightening away messes to prevent unnecessary interactions, but that doesn’t mean we should go crazy with fear and kill every spider we see. 

It’s important to learn about the creatures that share our ecosystem.  As knowledge grows, fear decreases.  Once we understand the habitat, behavior and lifecycle of these insect-eating critters we realize even ‘bad’ spiders like those in the genus Latrodectus, are not as bad as we’ve been led to believe.

Comic by Teal,

Monday, September 1, 2014

Our resident cranes are back

A pair of sandhill cranes has returned to our lake. The tall, redheaded birds arrive at dusk to spend the night on a tiny wisp of weedy land surrounded by water.

Flying in to spend the night on an isle in our lake

Shortly after daybreak, they busy themselves with a bit of preening and stretching before flying off to destinations unknown. Although the birds never stay all day on our property, they stop by occasionally to probe the soil with their sharp beaks in search of seeds, bugs, berries or lizards. Inevitably, they leave, returning to the tiny island only when some inner clock tells them it's time to roost.

Sandhill crane morning rituals include extensive preening and stretches

Our lake has been a way station for sandhill cranes ever since a mated pair built a nest on a small island that appeared in the middle of the lake in 2001. Sandhill cranes like to raise their young on protected places such as small land masses surrounded by water or wetlands. We had a period of extreme drought 13 years ago and although lake levels have fluctuated widely since then, the cranes' commitment to our property hasn't wavered.

Unusually low water levels in 2001 exposed a long island of peat in the middle of our lake.  That year a sandhill crane couple nested on the island and hatched out two babies. 

Most years, a pair nests on one of the tiny isles in the north end of the lake and succeeds at raising one or two babies. There have been seasons, however, when the birds didn't reproduce at all or their young failed to survive.

During the especially wet spring of April 2011, the sandhill cranes abandoned a nest with 2 eggs in it when water levels rose and flooded them

As a group, sandhill cranes are doing well with about 500,000 birds worldwide divided into six subspecies. Three of those subspecies, the Greater, Lesser and Canadian sandhill crane, are migratory birds while the other three, the Mississippi, Cuban and Florida sandhill cranes, live their entire lives in limited regions. The migratory populations — cranes that nest in the northern climates and fly south for winter — are either stable or increasing, but the outlook isn't as bright for the non-migratory birds. Mississippi and Cuban sandhill crane populations are dwindling with both subspecies listed as endangered. The Florida sandhill crane population is doing a bit better even though it consists of only about 5,000 birds. The Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission lists the Florida sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pratensis) as threatened.

Large flocks of migratory sandhill cranes come to Florida in the winter

Because I see them in summer when migratory cranes have returned to their northern homes, the pair that spends the night on our lake is among that small group of year-round residents.  I suspect they are the same pair that we've been seeing for years.

Our resident crane couple with their most recent offspring

One of many interesting behaviors is their tendency to return year after year to the same nesting place. The cranes, which can live up to 20 years in the wild, are monogamous birds with both parents participating in the care of their offspring. Young cranes are called colts. A sandhill crane nest usually includes one or two eggs that hatch after about a month. Occasionally, both baby birds will grow to maturity but often only one bird survives.

Baby cranes that do live stay with their parents for about nine months before leaving to join a flock of other juvenile birds. These gatherings of immature, non-breeding cranes provide the young birds with opportunity to find mates and engage in courting rituals that include extravagant dancing behaviors. (Click below to see movie of mating dance.) Once mates have been selected, partners often stay together for several years before the successfully raising babies.

Like many Floridians, I find our resident sandhill cranes fascinating. These large birds are not only beautiful, but also surprisingly tolerant of humans. They often forage for food in our lawns and rest in the shade of our trees. Yet, because we see them so frequently, it's easy to take our resident sandhill cranes for granted.

The sandhill cranes foraging through our front yard in 2012

Although I often wish the sandhill cranes that spend the night on our lake would spend the day on our property, too, with a population of less than 5,000 birds, I try to be grateful that they come at all.

Please visit my YouTube channel to see several more videos of our resident sandhill cranes and their babies.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Learning to listen

Our oldest grandchild just started kindergarten, and his sister is about to begin her first year of preschool.

While handling those changes, their mother — our daughter — is also in the midst of a major do-it-yourself home renovation project. As she and her husband attempt to put their expanded house back together, their "babies" are stepping out into the world, meeting new people and experiencing new situations. It's a difficult period fraught with both physical and emotional exhaustion.

I remember that stage of life. Our children were also little when my husband Ralph and I built our first house on Cape Cod, a do-it-yourself venture where we did everything from designing the floor plan to stuffing insulation. As I walked across my daughter's newly-installed wooden floor to her freshly painted kitchen, I looked up and noticed a small unpainted section of wall by the ceiling.

"Oh that," she said as I pointed it out. "Yeah, it was too high to reach. We'll get back to it at some point and finish it up."

Her words triggered a memory flashback.

"Finish it now," I wanted to say. "Don't make the same mistakes we did. Don't wait for 'someday' when you'll have more time and motivation because tomorrows like that are few and far between."

But I didn't say those words. I know how hard it is to juggle multiple projects and knew it wouldn't help to add more tasks to my daughter's already overburdened schedule. Instead of offering advice, I simply nodded and listened. I tried to practice one of the new lessons I've been trying to grasp — when to offer suggestions to our adult children and when to be quiet.

Our grandchildren may be just starting school, but Ralph and I are still in the midst of our own education. As much as I'd like to be that wise fount of knowledge and advice to our adult kids, I know how important it is for children of all ages to learn things on their own.

No stage of life is free of challenges. Medical issues, home repairs and financial concerns all generate complicated questions as do the problems of figuring out where to live, what type of work to do or if you should send your children to preschool. As a parent of adult children, I've come to realize how my parental role has changed. It is no longer my job to supply fast solutions as much as it is to lend an ear, to be there for support, encouragement and sometimes simply to listen.

When my kids were little, I healed most hurts with hugs and kisses. Although I no longer have that power, my two daughters do. As I watch them attend to the needs of their own children, I catch a glimpse of the transitions of time as we experience different degrees of empathy, love, passion and reaction to the everyday challenges of life.

The end of August is a time of transition. Kids begin school, and patterns change as families rush to complete summer projects and adjust to different schedules. It has been a long time since I felt the tug of society's tether, yet recent visits with my adult children and grandchildren have refreshed the memory of those busy days.

Do I miss the turmoil of those earlier years? Not really. Do I mind the loss of simple fixes? Maybe, just a little. The truth is, I wouldn't want to relive the time when I was too overwhelmed to finish projects and too tired to care. Sometimes it takes a little corner of unfinished paint to remind us of how far we've come and how much there is still is to learn.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A short walk yields many flowers and a few critters

A few pictures from my walk around the house yesterday later afternoon.

Blackberry lily - also called leopard lily

Pink 4-o'clocks and blue porterweed flowers 

Purple duranta, also called golden dewdrop

White duranta - it too is often called golden dewdrop

The fruit on our starfruit tree (carambola) are starting to get big

Cutleaf coneflower with katydid - can you find it?

Cutleaf coneflower without katydid

Grasshopper on coneflower leaf

White plumbego

Ginger with pretty pink flowers...but what kind is it?

White begonia gone wild in the gardens

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Fuzzy wuzzy was a...caterpillar?

Look what I found on a rain lily leaf today.

It may look like the insect version of a tiny dog...

But it's really a caterpillar, a Southern Tussock Moth Caterpillar.

With all those pinkish-grey tufts it looked very soft and touchable but I managed to restrain myself. Some caterpillars are poisonous and since when I first saw it, I wasn't sure what kind of caterpillar it was, I kept my distance. Good thing I did. As it turns out, touching the hairs of some species of Tussock Moth caterpillars can result in a mild but itchy sting.

Just like a cute little dog that will bite your finger if you try to pat him, it's sometimes best to admire caterpillars from afar.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What a surprise!

Three days after my friend Susan posted a picture of her Stapelia gigantea blossom, my Stapelia flowered too!

Until I saw the picture Susan posted on the Florida Flora Facebook page I had been feeling undecided whether or not I would even keep the plant which I had gotten about a year ago at a local plant exchange.  I had no idea what kind of succulent it was, how big it would grow or the type of care it required.  Before seeing Susan's post, I didn't even know it bloomed.  Fortunately, I saw the picture and realized I had the same plant.

As it turns out, Stapelia gigantea, commonly known as Starfish Flower and Giant Zulu, is a clumping succulent with upright green stems.  Native to the desert climate of southeastern Africa, Stapelia gigantea is a carrion plant, which means when it blooms it exudes an odor that smells like rotting meat.  The putrid smell attracts flies that land inside the bloom and wander around in search of the food that they think is there. As they do so, pollen collects on their feet. When they fly off again, they transfer pollen to the next bloom.

The flower, a large, five-pointed blossom edged with white hairs is a annual occurrence that doesn't last long.  After noticing Susan's post and reading comments made by other members of Florida Flora, I went outside to check my own plant where much to my surprise, I saw a bulging appendage that I had never seen before.

Needless to say, I watched it closely. Within a day, the pale green bulge grew bigger until it finally burst open revealing a pink and white speckled interior with a magenta center.

Although I never noticed an offensive odor in Stapelia gigantea, I'm hoping some flies did.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sex in the garden

Love is in the air, and butterflies know it.

Yesterday, while standing by the bottlebrush tree, I watched a pair of Gulf fritillaries engage in Lepidoptera foreplay.

The female chose a bottlebrush leaf, lit upon it and held on tight. While she stayed still, her male counterpart landed on her back and flapped his wings furiously. A few seconds later, the pair parted only to reunite a after the female resettled on a different leaf. As I watched, the couple repeated their pre-mating ritual several more times.

Although it looks like one butterfly, it's actually two gulf fritillaries performing a pre-mating ritual

I might have continued watching the fritillaries amorous activities longer if the sight of two other butterflies had not distracted me. Another romantic rendezvous was taking place.

Eastern black swallowtails are almost twice as big as Gulf fritillaries. With large black wings edged by a series of bright yellow spots and highlighted in the center of the lower wings by two orange “eyes” and several blue dots, they are stunning to behold. I suppose the swallowtails found each other stunning as well — they participated in an airborne lovefest.

Eastern black swallowtails are one of many species that woo potential partners by performing aerial acrobatics. While I stood quietly by, the two butterflies fluttered up, down and all around the bottlebrush tree. They flew together in a closely choreographed dance. Not only did I find the prelude to butterfly procreation interesting to observe, it was beautiful to watch.

Butterflies in pursuit of passion

Beautiful though it be, a butterfly’s life is brief. After emerging from the chrysalis, most live less than a month, and some species last only a few days. During that short time, they must accomplish two tasks — find food and mate. To help with the latter, both sexes exude scent secretions called pheromones from pockets on their wing patches. Male butterflies patrol the air in search of females or perch patiently on a twig, leaf or flower until a member of the opposite sex passes by. Either way, once the male senses or sees a female, he puts on a show to prove his worthiness as a reproductive partner.

One day last year, I encountered a tangle of four monarch butterflies hooked together in what looked like a butterfly bouquet. With wings flapping, the orange-black-and-white beauties fluttered a few feet above our front walkway before eventually settling down together on the concrete path.

Until that day, I had never seen such an entanglement of butterfly bodies. I later learned that males of some species exhibit this type of behavior to attract the attention of a nearby female who then chooses one of the participants as her mate. I don’t know if the monarchs I watched last year were successful at attracting a partner but I do know they put on an impressive show.

Butterflies mate only during warm times of the year. Because they are coldblooded, they depend on warm weather to regulate their body temperature. When it is either too cold or too hot outside — below 50 degrees or above 108 degrees — butterflies are unable to fly. Lately, it has been perfect weather. A butterfly’s search for food typically is met by a ready supply of nectar from flowering plants, leaving only the drive to find a partner and mate.

A pair of queen monarchs mating

Reproduction is a basic need of every species, humans included. I find it odd that many people spend more time watching acts of violence than displays of affection. We could all do with more examples of amorous attention. There’s reason to care when love is in the air.