Monday, November 29, 2010

Cottony groundsel blooms of winter are Florida's snowflakes

Grounsel Tree up close
and from a distance
Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 28, 2010)

When seen from afar, the soft, white blooms on groundsel trees resemble rounded mounds of snow.

Over the past few weeks, as I've been driving through Central Florida, I've noticed a preponderance of white, fluffy shrubs along the roadsides.

Standing between 5 and 12 feet tall, and about half as broad, these November beauties tend to cluster in lowland sites. They often appear along drainage ditches, which is probably why they tend to line many country roads.

Although their botanical name is Baccharis halimifolia, these plants have many nicknames. They're known as groundsel trees, salt-marsh elders, waterbrushes, silverlings or sea myrtles. I like to call them "snow mound bushes" because, when seen from afar, the soft, white blooms on the female plants remind me of rounded mounds of snow.

For most of the year, these Florida wildflowers go unnoticed. The bushes, with their upright growth and rough bark, blend into the background along fresh and saltwater marshes, lakesides and fields.

They are rather scrubby looking, with no particularly distinguishing characteristics. Then comes November, and the female plants burst into bloom. Overnight, an ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan. The cottony flowers are everywhere.

It is because of those fluffy blooms that the plant is so widely dispersed. The wind picks up the pappi, the bristles surrounding the featherweight seeds, and scatters them about. Over the years, many of those airborne bristles must have landed on our property because numerous "snow mound bushes" thrive along the edge of our lake and marshland.

Recently, when I was gathering flowers for a bouquet, I snipped off a few of the plant's thinner branches. That day, of all the flowers I picked and arranged in a vase, the white groundsel tree blooms lasted the longest. They looked fresh long after the other flowers had faded.

Even though its blooms work well as cut flowers and the plant itself provides excellent cover for wildlife and nectar for butterflies, the groundsel tree is not a commonly used landscape plant.

Most nurseries don't even carry it. The best way to add a groundsel tree to the yard is to visit a native-plant nursery or propagate it yourself from a cutting.

Once established, it lasts a long time, providing seasonal beauty for up to 50 years. However, you don't have to add this winter-blooming shrub to your landscape to appreciate its loveliness. You can do as I often do: admire it from the front seat of a car. You can even pull off to the side of the road and snip a few of the blooms for a bouquet of your own. The flowers will survive the drive home and make an attractive display when placed in a vase.

Wildflowers have a way of appearing when least expected. Just when cool weather has dulled the sheen on most blooms, a splash of brightness takes front stage. That's how it is with the groundsel tree.

The "snow mound bush" is one of those wonderful wildflowers that we tend to take for granted until they burst into bloom. When the bush finally does flower, the white blossoms covering the upright branches jazz up an otherwise subdued landscape. Snowflakes may not fall in Central Florida, but thanks to the groundsel tree, our roadsides are blanketed with snowlike mounds of botanical beauty all winter long.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Knock-knock...who's there?

A female yellow-bellied sapsucker on sycamore tree

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 22, 2010)

There is a yellow-bellied sapsucker in my yard.  The bird – a female – has claimed a specific tree for herself.  The tree is a 40-foot tall sycamore and the sapsucker is doing just that – sucking the sap that drips out of holes it has drilled through the bark. 

I noticed the holes several weeks before I noticed the bird.  Starting about six feet above the ground, a series of pea-sized indentations encircles the trunk.  The wells are closely spaced in horizontal lines that are not quite straight.  They remind me of the type of puncture marks my husband makes when he’s trying rather unsuccessfully to locate a stud through sheetrock.  The perforated rings continue one row above another.  They cover about a four-foot tall section of the tree’s trunk. 

At first, I thought some sort of boring insect was responsible for the damage but a visit from my daughter a few weeks ago proved my assumption incorrect. 

“There’s a woodpecker on the sycamore tree,” Jenny said as she came inside from the front yard. 

Grabbing my camera, I went outside to see.  Sure enough, there on one side of the sycamore’s trunk was a black and white woodpecker with a bright red crown.  Female yellow-bellied sapsuckers only have red markings on their heads while male birds have an additional splash of color on their necks.  

The bird I was watching was clinging to the tree in an upright position.  I started taking pictures from about 10 feet away.  When I moved closer, the bird shifted sideways.  It didn’t fly away.  It simply scooted to a spot on the tree where it wouldn’t be visible.

Seven types of woodpeckers live in Florida year round but yellow-bellied sapsuckers are not among them.  These eight to nine-inch long wood drillers spend most of the year in Canada and the northern United States.  They wait until winter temperatures start to fall before flying south.  After migration, sapsuckers seek out suitable winter homes.  Once an appropriate habitat is located, each bird sets its sight on a few special trees.  What it wants is sap, the watery solution of sugars, salts, hormones and minerals that circulates beneath a tree’s bark.  

Using a percussive motion with its pointy bill, a yellow-bellied sapsucker drills through the tree’s outer bark to stimulate sap flow.  It then eats the inner bark, licks the oozing liquid with its brush-like tongue and consumes any insects trapped within the sticky solution.  Occasionally a yellow-bellied sapsucker will eat berries, fruit or even slugs but their main food flows beneath the inner bark of trees.

Once a tree has been “claimed,” the bird returns to it day after day pecking away for needed sustenance.  These food sources are so essential to the sapsucker’s survival, it will defend “its tree” when other birds and small mammals are attracted to the sap wells.

In a few days, many of us will celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends.  For some of us, however, Thanksgiving is a year-round celebration.  There are moments every day – many moments – for which to be grateful.  Discovering that a yellow-bellied sapsucker is a daily visitor to my yard is just one such moment.  For that and for the many other wonders of nature, I am now and will always be filled with gratitude and awe.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Manna Bread — a little slice of heaven that's also healthful

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 14, 2010)

Many of the foods my family eats are not your typical grocery store finds. One such food, Manna Bread, is a moist, cakelike loaf made from sprouted grains, fruits and nuts. My husband adores Manna Bread. It has been an essential part of his diet for the past 35 years, and when his supply runs low, as it did this past week, he enters a state slightly south of Panic.

"I'm almost out of Manna Bread!" he announced.

"Maybe I can get some in town," I said, hoping to alleviate his anxiety. Although it's not usually available in the grocery store, health-food stores sometimes carry it in their refrigerated cases. I figured I'd go to town and check it out.

We discovered Manna Bread 35 years ago, when we owned a small natural-food store on Cape Cod. For Ralph, it was love at first bite.

"It tastes like carrot cake, yet it has no sugar, no salt, no oil and is made from sprouted grains. What's not to like?" he said, referring to Carrot Raisin Manna Bread, his favorite among the nine varieties produced by Manna Organic.

This concoction is remarkably flavorful despite its minimal ingredient list. Sprouted organic whole-wheat kernels, filtered water, organic carrots and organic raisins are all that's in a 14-ounce loaf of Ralph's favorite bread.

"By fully germinating our grains, we convert the starches into easily digested natural complex sugars, similar to those found in fresh fruits, hence the sweetness," explains Manna Organic on its website, "The sprouts are ground and hand-shaped into loaves, baked at a low temperature, then packed and frozen to preserve shelf life, without any chemical additives."

The bread's sweetness — especially in the Carrot Raisin loaf — makes it a perfect dessert food, and that's how my husband usually uses it. Ralph ends most meals with a serving of Manna Bread.

"It's like having a piece of carrot cake without eating any sugar or oil or salt or preservatives," he explains. "It satisfies my sweet tooth."

With only 130 calories in a two-ounce serving, Manna Bread is kind to the waistline. Flavorful enough to eat plain, it is also tasty when toasted and served with a smear of nut butter, jam or cheese.

"I don't know what I'd do if they stopped making it," he lamented after we returned from a trip to town empty-handed. "I'd be devastated."

I'm hoping that won't happen. Although local stores may not normally carry this less-than-mainstream food, it has been a standard item at large, natural-food chains for more than a quarter-century. It is available in Orlando at Whole Foods Market, and smaller stores can order it if a customer requests it.

We all have special foods that make us happy. For me, it's a cup of stevia-sweetened jasmine green tea. For my husband, it's the naturally sweet taste of carrot-raisin manna bread. If I have to take a 45-minute trip to the city to satisfy my partner's food needs, I'll gladly rev up the motor.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sandhill cranes' mating dance a stunning spectacle

Sandhill cranes, large birds that mate for life, begin their partnership with an elaborate mating dance.

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 7, 2010)

A pair of sandhill cranes wandered into our yard when my daughter and I happened to be watching. The male bird, a bold chap slightly smaller than his female counterpart, decided the time was right to demonstrate his prowess. While we stood less than 20 feet away, the male spread his wings and jumped up and down as he poked at an unidentifiable object down by the water.

"What's he doing?" Jenny asked.

"It looks like there's something in the lake — maybe a snake — that he's trying to scare away," I said, before it dawned on me that we were observing the opening act of a sandhill crane mating dance.

Although I often see sandhill cranes strutting by or flying overhead, I have had a front-row seat for this avian spectacle on only one other occasion. In February 2009, I managed to capture on video a sandhill crane mating dance from start to finish.

Although that performance was amazing, the dance that Jenny and I observed the other day was even more special. Not only did we see it together, it also happened much closer. At one point, the birds were within arm's reach of where we were standing. Although aware of our presence, the pair of 4-foot-tall, gray-feathered birds with bright red crowns seemed sufficiently secure to go about their business without reticence.

As part of the courtship ritual, a male sandhill crane demonstrates to his potential partner how strong, powerful and protective he can be. He pokes at sticks, reeds or long grasses and sometimes tosses in them the air. He hops up and down, fluffs out his wings and shakes his tail feathers. He does all of this while standing quite close to the female, who tends to ignore the display. She turns her back and pecks for food as if the male weren't there.

Watching the cranes with my daughter was an unexpected pleasure. Jenny and her husband, Brett, had flown into Orlando from their home in Massachusetts to spend a long weekend with us. It was a rare opportunity for all of our grown children, their spouses and our one grandchild to spend time together. Chancing upon an up-close viewing of a sandhill crane mating dance – the first step in the cranes' own development of family matters – was not only stunning, it was an appropriate addition to our own family get-together.

"They got so close to us," Jenny said afterward. "It's as if they knew we wouldn't hurt them."

Maybe they do know, I thought. Maybe their presence at a time when our family was there to observe them was not just an accident of timing but an indication of acceptance. Perhaps the birds sensed our affection for them and felt secure enough to be at ease.

It's just as likely, however, that the whole thing was just a chance encounter. Sandhill cranes are among the least shy birds in North America. Mated pairs and extended families frequently wander through suburban neighborhoods, peer into porch windows and poke their sharp beaks into lawns in search of insect treats.

I'll never know why the two cranes chose that particular day and time to come into our yard and perform their mating dance, but I'm glad they did. Being privy to wildlife interactions always excites me, but being able to share such experiences with people I love adds richness and meaning to the moment.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Runaway pipevine is an incubator for swallowtail butterflies

The large, yellow-speckled purple pipevine flower is surrounded by the plant's heart-shaped leaves

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 31, 2010)

Sometimes you place a plant in your garden and forget all about it. That's how it has been for me with "Aristolochia elegans," better known as Dutchman's pipe, pipevine or calico flower.

Although I've been growing pipevine for about a decade, I've seldom paid much attention to it. This aggressive climber, which I started from a cutting, has been neglected since it was chopped back a couple of years ago to within a few inches of its woody-stemmed life. That means it has had the freedom to run wild.

Pipevines apparently thrive on a lack of human intervention because this year's growth is spectacular. My pipevine is a spreading mess in a once-tidy garden. The plant's thin, green tendrils have encircled everything within reach, including some plants that have met their demise beneath the pipevine's suffocating mass of heart-shaped leaves.

I suppose that such invasiveness should bother me, but it doesn't. It's hard to be upset about a plant that not only produces an abundance of large, odd-shaped, yellow-speckled, purple flowers but also acts as a host to two of the most beautiful butterflies around — the pipevine and polydamas swallowtails.

Swallowtails are a striking family of butterflies. Of the 700 or so species worldwide, eight live in Florida. Among those eight, the pipevine and polydamas have life cycles that depend on pipevines. After mating, female butterflies lay their round, orange eggs on the underside and stems of pipevine plants. About a week later, the larvae emerge to feed on the plant's leaves.

The selection of the pipevine as a host is not accidental. Plants in the pipevine family have chemicals that are poisonous to most animals, though not to these two species of swallowtail butterflies. When the hungry caterpillars munch away on pipevine leaves, toxic chemicals enter their bodies.

Those chemicals don't disappear. They stay with the larvae throughout its metamorphosis — from egg to larva to pupa to butterfly — and they poison any predator or parasite that decides to dine upon one of these attractive but lethal insects. So effective is this method of self-protection that other members of the swallowtail family mimic their cousins' appearance. Without having to consume the plant's poison, other butterflies have evolved into pipevine and polydamas lookalikes.

Most swallowtails are black butterflies with bright yellow, red and white markings. The pipevine swallowtail has beautiful iridescent blue hind wings and a curving arc of orange dots on its underwing. The polydamas swallowtail is also known as "gold rim" because of a band of yellow spots within the margins of the front and hind wings. The markings on both butterflies act as warning signals that tell would-be predators: Stay away!

Had I stayed away from the pipevine, I would have missed seeing all the caterpillars developing on the plant's leaves. Thanks to my daughter Amber, who was wandering the yard in search of cuttings for her own garden, we stopped at the overgrown pipevine and gave it a close look. It was probably the first time in more than a year that I had paid any attention to the plant. Although my intent was simply to point out the pipevine's peculiar flower — a large and suggestively shaped bloom that never fails to amuse me — what we discovered were dozens of swallowtail larvae munching away on the plant's leaves.

"Butterflies!" I exclaimed. "These little guys are going to turn into beautiful swallowtail butterflies!"

It's not every day you can plant a seed and grow a butterfly, but that's essentially what happens when the pipevine is added to the landscape. If that's not a redeeming feature, I don't know what is.