Monday, April 26, 2010

Sights and sounds of spring are all around us

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 26, 2010)

I've become aware over the last few weeks of a seasonal shift. Winter this year was especially harsh. Spring seemed in no hurry to make an entrance. March was colder than normal, with several false starts at warming temperatures, making it hard to believe that winter would ever end.

Then it happened. I flipped the calendar page to April, a month that in Florida has always meant ideal weather and, sure enough, I wasn't disappointed. Springtime took its time but finally arrived.

How do I know?

I know it is spring because every evening a whippoorwill sits on the irrigation spigot in the front yard to sing its repetitive tune. I hear its song through the open doors of the living room and bedroom. The doors are open because the weather is perfect.

I know it is spring because the mosquitoes think the weather is perfect too. Taking advantage of the warming weather and my open doors, they sneak inside during the day to torment me at night with their buzzes and bites.

I know it is spring because the loquat tree is full of fruit, and both white and black mulberries are ripe. Plump, juicy morsels of sweetness cover the limbs of the mulberry trees. What an amazing crop we have this year! It's too bad there won't be any left for us to enjoy.

I know it is spring because vast flocks of cedar waxwings have arrived, descending on the mulberry trees and devouring every berry in sight.

I know it is spring because plants are growing. The green leaves of passionflowers, rain lilies, amaryllis and other potential blooms are unfurling at a speedy rate.

I know it is spring because little black lubber grasshoppers are covering the leaves. The still soft, small bodies of these voracious eaters depend upon leafy food. In every chewed leaf they find nutrients needed to transform their half-inch selves into the 4-inch-long, thick-skinned pests they'll become by summer's end.

I know it is spring because the lawn has turned green. Nasty brown patches that looked dead a few months ago have responded to recent downpours with exuberant growth.

I know it is spring because the weeds have responded to downpours as well. Spiky stands of cow thistle dot the yard along with a tenacious assortment of weedy blooms. Some wildflowers are worth mowing around. Others are not.

I know it is spring because the lawn mower is busy keeping weeds and tall grasses at bay. The sound of its motor running competes with the whistles, trills and coos of songbirds in the trees.

I know it is spring because the smell of orange blossoms sweetens the air. Honeysuckle, brunfelsia and wisteria flowers infuse the atmosphere with a heady perfume.

I know it is spring because weird-looking stinkhorn mushrooms have popped up in the moist soil. When mistakenly kicked over, these red fungi have a notorious stench.

I know it is spring because animals are entering nesting mode. Carolina wrens, cardinals, little gray catbirds and even wild turkeys are showing signs of nest building.

I know it is spring because wasps and mud daubers also have begun building their nests … in the garage and under the house eaves.

Spring is a wonderful time of year. It's full of hope, potential, beauty and warmth, but even in this loveliest of seasons, downsides are inevitable. With every shift — seasonal or otherwise — come adjustments. With every attraction, there are distractions.

As I watch the cedar waxwings devour this year's crop of mulberries, I can't help but admire their beauty. As I exercise caution when walking by wasp nests, I find myself appreciating their house-building skills. While shooing away pesky mosquitoes, I marvel at their ability to zone in so effectively on potential meals. As I avoid kicking over stinkhorn mushrooms and spiky weeds, I find myself awed by nature's diversity.

I could get upset over the unpleasant parts of life, but what would be the point? By accepting the good with the bad, I am accepting life to the fullest. It's not always pleasant but it is definitely real, and I'm really glad to be along for the ride.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Enjoy splendor right outside your door

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 19, 2010)

I was taking a walk around the yard with my little grandson when we stopped in front of the brunfelsia bush.

"Smell the flowers, Atom," I said, as we leaned in to take a whiff.

Brunfelsia, better known as the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow plant, has fragrant white, pink and purple blooms. I was admiring the plant's beautiful display and trying to pass along my enthusiasm for all things floral to my 8-month-old grandchild when a hummingbird moth suddenly caught my attention.

"Look at that, Atom. Do you see the moth? He likes the flowers too."

Hummingbird moths are fascinating creatures. A member of the Sphinx family of moths, Hemaris thysbe (or common clearwing, as it is often called) is frequently mistaken for the small bird it is named after.

Like many people, I had no idea what it was the first time I saw one. Although it looked like a hummingbird, somehow it didn't. It's easy to get confused. Hummingbirds and hummingbird moths are of similar size, weighing in at around 3 grams — about as much as penny. Bird and moth each seek out nectar-producing plants and feed in a similar fashion. They hover over flower heads while sipping nectar through thin, long, strawlike tubes.

Although most types of moths appear only at night, hummingbird moths are diurnal. That means they are active during daylight — the same time that their lookalike namesake is active — as well as in the evening.

Atom and I watched the tiny nectar sipper flit from one brunfelsia flower to another. Within seconds, the tiny flier moved around the flower-bedecked shrub, sampling the wares and absorbing nectar through its proboscis. As we stood there, a second moth swept in, and the two moths continued encircling the shrub, pausing frequently for sweet sips.

Florida is not the only place where hummingbird moths live. They range throughout the United States and Canada, living as far north as Alaska and the Northwest Territories and as far south as Florida and Texas. Because their survival depends on a steady supply of nectar, they frequent yards that have flowers with strong, sweet fragrances and pale colors. They are especially fond of bloomers such as honeysuckle, viburnum, blueberry, thistle, vetch, beebalm, phlox, milkweed and blackberry as well as the light purple to white blooms of brunfelsia.

As they zip from one bloom to another, brushing against plant anthers in the process, hummingbird moths inadvertently act as pollinators. Their fuzzy bodies attract dusty pollen like magnets. Once gathered, the pollen rubs off on the next bloom the moth visits.

At less than a year old, my grandson understandably lost interest in the fuzzy moths long before I did. While I was willing to watch this unexpected glimpse into the world of tiny fliers and fragrant blooms indefinitely, Atom was becoming more and more ready for his afternoon nap. Of course, his needs took precedence. We left behind the moths and blooms to venture inside for a bottle of formula and a nice cuddle.

As a grandparent, I see it as my duty to not only love my grandchildren but to teach them to love and respect the many wonders of nature that surround us all. The interaction with the hummingbird moth was only one of what I hope will be many encounters with nature's fascinating creatures.

There's so much splendor right outside our doorsteps. Whether you live on large acreage, as we do, or in a city apartment, nature's bounty surrounds us all. The key to finding these treasures is the ability to look at the minutiae of life and to savor the moment. Like the flower that blooms in our yard, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, there are pleasures to be found with every passing day.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Little blue flower is overlooked beauty

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 11, 2010)

If you've been out driving lately, you may have noticed a flush of blue wildflowers on the roadsides. The flowers are 1 to 2 feet tall with lavender-blue blooms atop thin, leggy stems.

They are small flowers, easy to overlook if grown alone but completely captivating when clustered together. The flower's botanical name is Linaria Canadensis, but its common name is toadflax. I've only recently learned its name and I don't much like it. The image that toadflax invokes is not nearly as attractive as this wildflower deserves. Fairy bonnet or shy violet would be a more appropriate moniker suggestive of the plant's delicate and unassuming appearance.

Although Linaria canadensis is native to Florida, it grows throughout the United States and Canada. A springtime bloomer, this sun-loving, slender-stemmed flower is not fussy about soil conditions or irrigation. It does just as well in dry, sandy locations as in irrigated garden soil. Self-sown by seed and spreading through an underground network of roots, thousands of individual toadflax are scattered about our property, appearing in equal numbers around water spigots as they do in dry open fields.

When my children were little, they used to gather quantities of the delicate flowers and present them to me for bouquets. The blooms of Linaria canadensis are just right for little hands. The slender stems either break off or pull out of the ground easily and the flower heads are tiny – each one barely bigger than a half inch. From a toddler's perspective, that's an ideal size and if an adult takes the time to look closely at this miniscule bloom, they'll understand why children find them so attractive.

I think Linaria canadensis looks a little like snapdragons but Frederic William Stack, author of Wild Flowers Every Child Should Know, says the flowers remind him of lobelias.

"The pretty little tubular flower is two lipped, with a slender, sharply-pointed, curving spur. The upper lip has two small, rounded and erect lobes. The lower lip has three rounded, spreading lobes, and at the throat there is a prominent, white, two-ridged swelling that hides the stamens and pistil. Several flowers are set on tiny stems in a loose terminal spike."

I like to learn about the plants in my neighborhood, especially ones as prolific as Linaria canadensis. For more than 19 springs, I've enjoyed this wildflower's colorful displays. I've picked the flowers, put them in vases and intentionally left large patches of the bloom standing when mowing the lawn, and I've done all that without knowing the plant's name. That's not unusual. If I walk outside right now, there are probably a dozen other wildflowers growing nearby that I'd be unable to label.

Although I may not know their botanical names, I do know those flowers by their traits. Some are prickly. Some have burrs. Some pull out easily when I weed the garden while others require a substantial yank to detach the roots. The blooms on a few are impressive, on others, not so much. I know which flowers attract butterflies, bees and caterpillars and which have a fragrance that's pleasant to inhale. As interesting and informative as it is to learn the botanical and common names for everyday plants, a name is only one part of a plant's personality.

On the topic of names, I think Linaria canadensis is too large a title for a little flower and the less than attractive moniker toadflax seems all together inappropriate for this lovely member of the figwort family. To me, Linaria canadensis will always be "the little blue flower that appears in spring." That name is admittedly longer than necessary but at least it accurately describes this overlooked beauty that enriches our landscape each year.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Feathery friend sits in catbird seat

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 5, 2010)

A small, gray catbird has befriended me.

When I walk out to the nursery, a 2-ounce bit of feather and fluff usually hops over to say hello. The bird displays an eager curiosity. Rather than be intimidated, scared or threatened by my presence, the black-capped bird seems keen for the company. He follows me about like a well-trained puppy acting as if he's happy to have a visitor.

Maybe he's curious about what this large, featherless creature (me) might be doing in his territory. Or it could be that he's lonely and looking for a friend.

Although I've yet to find his nest, I suspect that he lives in one of our many mature plantings of clumping bamboos. Catbirds, which are related to mockingbirds and thrashers, like to build their open-cup nests close to the ground on horizontal branches deep in the center of dense shrubs and thickets.

Certain bamboos grow very thick, and I can easily imagine how a small bird seeking protective shelter would gravitate toward a mature clump of Buddha Belly, Alphonse Karr or Multiplex bamboo. It can't hurt that several food sources, such as our white mulberry and loquat trees, are just steps away from potential nest sites.

In addition to dining on all sorts of fruit and berries, catbirds are fond of eating bugs. Beetles, grasshoppers, midges, caterpillars, spiders and moths make up much of their diet. They even eat ants, a highly prized attribute in this part of the country, where ant populations are out of control.

Being befriended by a feathery flier has improved my bird-identification skills. Although I used to confuse catbirds with mockingbirds, I now realize that the two are quite different in appearance and behavior. Mockingbirds are larger than catbirds and have distinctive white streaks on their wings and tails. They also like to fly from one treetop branch to another, while the smaller, gray-colored catbirds keep to the ground. Catbirds prefer flitting from one low perch to another. Although not exactly ground birds, they demonstrate a decided resistance to broad, showy flights.

The catbird in the nursery is a sweet little bird. The fact that it acts so forwardly toward me contradicts the species' normally shy nature. Why this bird has chosen to be so sociable is a mystery. I have no way of knowing if he is merely defending his territory or is actually as interested in me as I am in him.

Like most people, I've accumulated a wide range of friends over the years. I have elementary-school classmates I still stay in touch with as well as new people I've grown close to even though I've known them only a short while. Several pets have been as dear to me as human companions, and I've even become close to certain people with whom I communicate online but have never met.

My friendship with the catbird, however, is a brand-new experience. He (or she — I really can't tell if the bird is male or female) has initiated the relationship, making me the unexpected but delighted recipient.

It's a pleasure to be on the receiving end of any friendship and good will, and if that friendship happens to be with a songbird, well, all the better. It's not every day that people are "adopted" by wildlife. When it happens at all, it usually happens the other way around. Thanks to the little gray catbird, my life is fuller; I've broadened my knowledge and expanded my perspective.

Every wildlife encounter is a chance to glimpse, ever so briefly, into the lifestyle and habits of another creature. Thanks to the black-eyed beauty that lives in our bamboo nursery, I head out to see customers with a renewed enthusiasm and lightness to my step. On one level, I'm going to the nursery to sell bamboo, but on an entirely different level, I'm heading out to see a friend.