Monday, February 27, 2012

One tree - many visitors

Zebra longwing butterflies are among the wildlife attracted to nectar-producing bottlebrush blooms.

Simply Living
February 27, 2012

A bouquet of bottlebrush blooms is sitting on my kitchen counter. The red, bristly flower spikes add a bit of brightness at a time of the year when most plants are just beginning to awaken from their winter rest.

A flurry of butterflies, hummingbirds and bees hovered over the pendulous blooms as I snipped a few flowers from low-hanging branches. The nectar-covered blossoms attract so much attention from the buzzing and fluttering crowd I had to be extra careful when making my selections, not to get in the way of any stinging insects.

The bottlebrush's long blooming season adds to its popularity among people as well as wildlife. Although this woody shrub is native to Australia, it thrives in Central and South Florida's warm climate growing in all but the most alkaline soils. It tolerates dry, moist and even salt spray locations. Although susceptible to freezes, bottlebrush recovers quickly. During the last four winters — three of which were unusually chilly — cold damage was limited and each of the trees recovered without affecting the next season's bloom.

Bottlebrushes are compact trees rarely exceeding 20 feet in height. Their diminutive size makes them a fine choice for small, tight spaces. Many people also choose them because of their weeping willow-like shape, but bottlebrushes have something willows don't have — flowers. For most of the year, the tree is adorned with 4- to 6-inch-long cylindrical flower spikes.

A bottlebrush's floral display is quite the sight. Bright red flowers dangle from the ends of each of the tree's many thin, swaying branches. From afar, the blooms — which really do resemble bristly brushes used to clean a bottle's narrow neck — look like one long tube-shaped flower. Actually, each spike is composed of many individual flowers. Sweet nectar — the calling card for butterflies, bees, wasps and birds — forms on the tips of red, needle-thin filaments along with yellow pollen, and every flower contains clusters of filaments. Whenever I gather the red blooms for a bouquet they sparkle with droplets of nectar.

About twice a year, I give my bottlebrush trees a trim, a process not unlike cutting hair. Using hand-held clippers, I do my best to even out unruly growth. My aim is to prune the hanging branches to form a straight line just above head height so I can walk under them easily. It's not a difficult task and only takes a few minutes. Trimming low-hanging branches is the only care we give our trees. We don't fertilize them or treat with chemicals. The two trees in our yard receive a bit of irrigation when the lawn is watered but the young saplings that sprung up on their own do just fine on rainwater alone.

A bottlebrush tree is in the genus Callistemon, one of 34 species in the same family as melaleuca trees. Melaleuca is on the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council's list of highly invasive exotic plants (Category 1). The weeping bottlebrush tree (Callistemon viminalis), is listed as a Category 2 (less invasive) plant for South Florida but it is not considered an invasive species in the central part of the state. In the 15 years since we planted our two bottlebrush trees, only three volunteer saplings have appeared on our property.

In addition to colorful filaments, clusters of brown bead-like seeds form on each flower spike. When I'm out collecting plants for a dried flower bouquet, I often include a few seed clusters in the arrangement. The bottlebrush seeds can remain on the tree for years. Wildfires can cause the seeds to open and seed-eating birds help disperse them but the plant can also be propagated through softwood cuttings. Young trees are usually stocked by most nurseries and garden centers.

If you're looking for a hardy, low-maintenance ornamental to add to your landscape, consider a bottlebrush tree. It's not a Florida native plant but it certainly attracts native wildlife. One small tree will provide sustenance to countless birds, butterflies and bees with plenty of material left over for decorative indoor displays.

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