Monday, March 26, 2012

A cheery Florida native

Cheerful flowers that resemble black-eyed-Susan blooms cover a sprawling mass of Helianthus debilis

Simply Living
March 26, 2012

My daughter Amber brought me a gift — a rooted cutting of beach sunflower from her garden. Amber knows I'm partial to daisy-like flowers and beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis) fits the bill.

The 2-inch wide blooms of this cheerful looking Florida native are bright yellow with reddish-brown centers. Like many members of the Asteraceae family (the largest family of flowering plants in the world), beach sunflower has heart-shaped leaves with rough, hairy undersides. Although related to the tall sunflowers that adorn many gardens, this drought-tolerant groundcover stretches outward instead of upward.

Easily propagated from seeds, divisions or cuttings, beach sunflower does best when placed in sunny locations with sandy, well-drained soil. A single rooted cutting like Amber gave me, can span an 8-foot-by-8-foot area in one summer.

That's what happened at my daughter's house.

Last year, Amber planted a small sprig of Helianthus debilis in her front yard. She placed it beneath a palm tree in unimproved soil. The only irrigation the plant received was an occasional blast from the garden hose.
Despite the lack of attention (or maybe because of it!), the cutting thrived. After only a few months of hot weather, Amber's solitary plant had multiplied to such an extent it encircled the palm tree and was inching outward toward the driveway.

I find such aggressive behavior coupled with a need for minimal attention appealing in a plant, especially if that plant is a Florida native flower with a face that reminds me of a black-eyed-Susan.

"Take some cuttings," my son-in-law said one day when my visit included my usual raves about beach sunflower's beauty. "I just finished trimming a bunch of it growing into the lawn."

Beach sunflower will do that. Also known as dune sunflower because of its ability to tolerate salt spray in seaside locations, Helianthus debilis is not the right plant for tight places. If the intention is to line a walkway with a low-maintenance plant or to edge a narrow space with cheery color, don't plant this sprawling sun lover. In no time at all your initial planting will overflow its intended location and turn into a maintenance headache.

That seems to be what happened along a segment of the West Orange Trail.

A small patch of Florida native plants once grew in a garden bed located where the bicycle trail intersects Mohawk Street in Clermont.  That particular stretch parallels Washington Street, a road I frequent. Whenever my route took me down the two-lane, I paid special attention to the blooms that dressed up the macadam.

Week by week, I noticed as the plants grew broader, inching their way outward onto the pavement. Every now and then, someone would trim back the rambling growth, but inevitably the plant simply rebounded.
Then one day, as I drove down Washington Street, the triangular-shaped garden bed was bare. I was disappointed, but I can't say I was surprised. Despite being a drought-tolerant, disease-free native, beach sunflower's sprawling nature wasn't right for such a restricted location.

I don't have that problem where I live. Surrounded as we are by so much acreage, there are countless spaces for sprawling plants to grow. Unfortunately, years ago we made the mistake of filling many of our steep inclines and difficult-to-mow places with wedelia — a groundcover that is also in the Asteraceae family.

Like beach sunflower, wedelia is a low-growing, hardy perennial with long-lasting daisy-like blooms that spreads aggressively. Unlike its cousin, wedelia is not native to the Sunshine State. Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council lists it as a Category II invasive species because it forms dense thickets that crowd out other species.

I wish I had known about beach sunflower before planting wedelia so extensively. Not only do I find its flowerheads more attractive than those of wedelia, I'd also feel better if I knew my landscape included more native plants instead of invasive exotics.

But dwelling on "could-of-should-of's" is nonproductive. The important thing is to focus on the future.

Thanks to Amber's thoughtful gift, I have the start of a new direction in groundcover plantings. While removing all the wedelia is impractical, I can anticipate the day when butterfly-attracting stands of beach sunflowers will augment the landscape. Someday, the cheery blooms of beach sunflower will be sprawling over the ground, down embankments and filling in the dry, bare places where other flowers refuse to grow.

From one to many — that's my plan — but, this time, with a more appropriate plant.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The sweet smell of spring...

An alluring fragrance together with a succession of purple, lavender and white blooms make yesterday-today-and-tomorrow plant a stunning addition to the garden

Simply Living
March 19, 2012

Where's that sweet smell coming from?"

My daughter, visiting from Massachusetts with her husband and two young babies, had just come in from taking an outdoor shower where the natural aroma of blooming flowers overpowered the floral scent of soap and shampoo.

"Is it from the bottlebrush tree?" Jenny asked referring to the 15-foot tall Callistemon tree near the shower. "It's so full of blossoms."

"No, not the bottlebrush," I told her. "It's the brunfelsia — the yesterday-today-and-tomorrow bush — growing around the corner. Walk over there and you'll see. It smells amazing."

A few minutes later, Jenny returned.

"You're right," she said. "It was the brunfelsia. I had no idea its aroma could travel so far."

Brunfelsia does have a powerful fragrance. Not only does this early bloomer produce an abundance of small, pansy-like blooms, the multicolored flowers emit a far-reaching sweetness that always reminds me of springtime on Cape Cod.

One whiff is all it takes to reclaim old memories. As I inhale the aroma of the brunfelsia's white-lavender-and-purple blooms, I recall the scent of daffodils, grape hyacinths and those tiny white snowbells that used to pop up in our lawn after a muddy March thaw.

Florida's mild climate doesn't support those mainstays of a Northern bulb garden but other plants — including brunfelsia — are here to usher in the spring season with heady aromas.

Native to the woodlands of Brazil, brunfelsia is a small shrub (7 to 10 feet tall by 5 to 8 feet wide) with aromatic flowers that blooms profusely throughout the warm months. While there are about 30 varieties, brunfelsia grandiflora, brunfelsia australis and brunfelsia pauciflora are three of the most commonly grown species.

Brunfelsia likes a slightly acidic soil, grows best in somewhat filtered sunlight and has minimal pest problems. Although sensitive to cold, the plant recovers quickly. I've been growing brunfelsia for about 10 years and while it has frequently received cold damage, its blooms have never failed to scent the spring air.

My first plant came from Smith's Nursery in Mascotte. The entryway at this small, family-run nursery is flanked by a mature and incredibly beautiful row of yesterday-today-and-tomorrow plants. I can't imagine how any prospective plant purchaser who catches a glimpse of those amazing plants can leave the nursery without buying one. I certainly couldn't.

I planted my original 3-gal plant next to the west side of our house, around the corner from our outdoor shower. Since then, it has produced several "babies" nearby. Every now and then, I give the area a good weeding and occasionally — once every few years — add a top dressing of enriched soil.

Like most of my favorite flowering plants, brunfelsia can handle a large measure of neglect. The original plant is now about 6 feet tall and the babies are about half that size. I'm sure if they were pampered a bit — irrigated, fertilized and weeded regularly, etc. — they would look more like the stunning examples at Smith's Nursery, but even left alone the plants are impressive.

Brunfelsia's special quality — in addition to its ability to trigger memories of Northern spring gardens — is its unusual tri-colored floral display. Many plants have pretty, sweet-smelling blooms, but only brunfelsia supports three different colored blossoms simultaneously. Blooms begin as a dark purple flowers with a white center but because new ones are constantly opening, the bush is never covered without multiple colors. As the days go by (think: yesterday-today-tomorrow), flowers fade from dark purple to pale lavender to soft white. All the while, their scented message travels the airwaves to bees, butterflies, moths and people.

"Come hither!" they seem to call. "Come visit! Sweeten the moment!"

I'm glad my daughter was here to experience this special harbinger of a Southern spring. Florida may lack the lilac bushes, pussy willows, crocuses, daffodils and forsythias that Jenny enjoys up North but here in the Sunshine State we have our own floral indications of spring and sweet brunfelsia is on that list.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Pets versus wildlife

Although adult sandhill cranes are capable of defending themselves from many predators including dogs, they are less likely to nest and raise young in areas where domestic pets run loose.

Simply Living
March 12, 2012

Insistent bellowing drew me away from dinnertime preparations.

Sandhill cranes have a distinctive call when threatened. Their vocalization — a continual stream of guttural trills performed with uplifted heads — signals danger. As soon as I heard the sound, I put dinner on hold and ran outdoors.

It was almost dusk and the two cranes that spend every evening on a small island at the north end of the lake were not where they usually were at that hour. Instead of nestling in for a night of quiet repose, the gray-feathered beauties were about 300 feet away trumpeting their territorial claim in a tremulous staccato.

The birds were in intensive defensive mode and I didn't need to see the threat to know what was causing their alarm. My son had stopped by a short time before with a young dog adopted from the pound that very day. While I was fixing food, my son, husband and Chewy, a brown mixed breed similar in size and color to a coyote, were taking a walk around the lake. The dog, delighted with his sudden luck in not only having acres of space to explore but also a plethora of wildlife to chase, set his sights on the cranes.

Let me step back a bit to explain that I've always had a fondness for canines. Throughout my childhood, my best friend was a shorthaired white mutt named Happy. When Happy died, a collie-mix named Phoebe filled the void. I was in college when Phoebe passed on but a few years later the first of three successive terrier mixes — each named Dibs — fulfilled my need for canine companionship. Our own children were almost all grown when our last Dibs — a jolly 13-year-old who spent most days outside — had an unfortunate encounter with an alligator. A few months later, after both of our elderly cats died, my husband and I decided to take a prolonged break from domesticated animals.

The resulting hiatus coincided with an increase in wildlife on the property. Without a resident dog or cats to chase them away, populations of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles could safely proliferate.

Around the same time, I underwent a transformation that I found freeing. For the first time in 30 years, I didn't have young children or domesticated animals to take care of. I could concentrate instead on nurturing the environment and enjoying the antics of the burgeoning wildlife populations.

This leads back to the incident with my son's new pet. The unleashed dog did what any recently rescued canine might do — he demonstrated his boundless energy and appreciation of his newfound freedom by chasing birds. Fortunately, sandhill cranes are quite capable of defending themselves. By the time I rushed outside, Chewy was beating a path away from the bellowers. I don't know if the cranes' vocalizations scared him off or if another sighting or scent diverted his attention. What I do know is he came when called and I was able to bring him into the garage until my son arrived with his leash.

I know firsthand how much love and companionship pets can provide. I also know the deep sense of pleasure and pride derived from a life interwoven with the natural meanderings of wildlife. I'm glad my son adopted a young dog to keep him company but I'm also glad my life has turned in a different direction.

Fast forward a few days. It's dusk — the hour when the sandhill cranes arrive for their evening repose. The long-legged birds have settled onto their island perch without any surprise encounters with frisky pups. The night is calm. No bellowing warning cries fill the air.

Making acres of land inaccessible to unleashed dogs and outdoor cats can't ensure the safety of wild animals — they have plenty of natural obstacles to overcome — but it can level the playing field. When I gave up pets, I gained wildlife. Rather than losing valuable connections, I extended their range, scope and depth.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Tree swallow sightings trigger flights of imagination

Sherry Boas

The first time I saw the lakeside property where we now live, a flock of swallows was flying overhead.  The acrobatic birds – there must have been at least two dozen of them - took turns skimming over the water’s still surface before soaring upward, circling about then swooping down for another go-around.  I remember standing on the shore mesmerized by what looked like poetry in motion.  I felt privy to a private show.

I fell in love that day with a land and lake rich with potential.  Both held promise of many more performances to come.  The encounter with the swallows fed my imagination.  Because of them, I envisioned a future of wildlife encounters, a host of nature’s bounties.    

The deal was clinched.  Twenty years have passed since that day and I haven’t been disappointed.  Each time swallows reappear, I flashback to that magical first impression of our property. 

It happened again today.

Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) are seasonal visitors to Florida, venturing south in autumn to enjoy the warm winter climate before returning north in springtime to breed.  Not only are these small, forked-tailed songbirds agile fliers, they are also highly social animals.  They feed, roost and fly – up to 25 mph - in large groups called flights, performing their aerial dances en masse.  If you catch sight of a flight of swallows, you will see dozens of white undersides flash in sharp contrast to their iridescent blue-green upperparts. 

Consummate bug eaters, tree swallows, with their lithe, streamlined bodies, are adept at capturing insects on the wing.  Gnats, mosquitoes, mayflies, ants, beetles, spiders and grasshoppers are among the many bugs caught in their short, pointy bills.  While insects make up about 80 percent of their diet, tree swallows also eat some berries and seeds.  They are especially fond of the berries found on wax myrtle and bayberry bushes and will often feed on those berries on rainy days when the weather is not suitable for flying.

I don’t see tree swallows often and that’s one reason I find each sighting so special.  Another reason is the gracefulness of these birds in flight, especially over water.  Tree swallows travel with such ease of motion.  Simply watching them feels enlightening. 

I’ve often wondered what motivates swallows to intersperse their aerial displays with brief touchdowns upon the water’s still surface.  Are they after food?  A drink of water?  Are they taking a bath or simply having fun?  As it turns out, it could be any of those reasons.

Food and Water – Although they are experts at catching airborne insects, tree swallows occasionally seek out water-bound prey like water boatmen (hemiptera) and midges, miniscule bugs that live on a lake’s surface.  When the birds swoop down, their wide-open mouths act like scoops, skimming up insects as well as water to drink.

Bathing – A tree swallow’s bath is a two-in-one operation.  It’s a bath as the bird brushes the water with outstretched wings.  It’s a shower, as it shakes water off while regaining altitude.  Tree swallows also take advantage of rainfall to preen feathers and do a bit of personal grooming.

Just for Fun – It’s impossible to know what goes on in any animal’s mind, but it’s hard to imagine how these aerial artists could not derive some pleasure from their aquatic touchdowns.  Such fun it must be to fly as they do.  Watching a flock on the wing over water is the perfect combination of beauty with grace, utilitarian action with the sublime.

For most of Florida’s seasonal birds, March signals migration time.  Tree swallows will soon be gathering in large flocks – sometimes numbering in the thousands – for the long flight north.  They will return to homes throughout North America to find nesting sites in open spaces near marshes or water where they’ll mate and produce young.  The nests they build in either tree cavities or in manmade nesting boxes are soft cuplike structures lined with feathers and made out of whatever materials are close by – usually grasses, twigs and pine needles.

Although Floridians will miss the reproductive period of the tree swallow life cycle, we can take solace in anticipating their springtime return.  I know I’m grateful for whatever encounters I have with these avian beauties.  I consider each visit a gift as well as a reminder that 20 years ago my husband I made the right choice in selecting a place to call home.