Sunday, June 30, 2013

Grasses, reeds and rushes...oh my!

A "Simply" Extra
The thing I know best about grasses, reeds and rushes is how little I do know.  I have so much to learn!

Cattails, I can identify.  The ones growing in the shallow ends of our lake are just now beginning to develop white fluff, seeds that will soon blow across the surface of the water.

But what are some of the other plants growing along the shoreline?  Many, like the cattails above have developed seeds.  I've yet to identify the plants pictures below but on each, seed heads add a bit of color and showiness to an otherwise easy-to-overlook plant.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sweet white butterfly ginger

A "Simply" Extra
The butterfly ginger is blooming. Everyday more and more flowers appear.

Hedychium coronarium commonly known as Butterfly Ginger

I'm struck by its fragrance as soon as I step outside.  The sweet smell is so inviting and aromatic.

Sweet, delicate and fragrant

I can't resist putting my nose up close and inhaling deeply.  I step back...then do it again.

Homegrown avocados

Homegrown almost-ready-to-eat avocados...Hurrah!

A "Simply" Extra
The fruit on our avocado tree are getting so big!  I went out to check today and was surprised by how large they'd become.  To my untrained eye they seemed almost ready to pick.

June 27, 2013 - Looking like the real deal! 

This is the first year the tree has produced fruit and it's exciting to think we might soon have our own homegrown, organic avocados to eat.  Except...I really don't know when to pick them.

May 25, 2013 - Getting big but not big enough to eat...

April 21, 2012 - Little baby avocados just starting to develop

I have done a bit of research and from what I can tell, the only way to know if an avocado is ripe is to pick one and wait a few days.  If it starts to get soft that means it was ready to pick.  If it wasn't ready, it will begin to rot, remain hard or turn rubbery.

Here's what the University of Florida IFAS Extension says on the subject of harvesting avocados:

The easiest way to determine if your avocados are ready to harvest is to harvest one large fruit and place it on your kitchen counter top. A mature fruit ripens in 3 to 8 days after it is picked. If the fruit does not ripen properly (e.g., shrivels, becomes rubbery or exhibits stem end rot), select another fruit (again larger fruit are generally more mature than smaller fruit at the beginning of the season) and repeat the test.

Hmm...not a very precise or scientific approach but since there doesn't seem to be a better option, I guess we'll give it a try.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Waxing poetic over the humble wax myrtle

Wax myrtle is an evergreen shrub with aromatic leaves

It’s easy to overlook a tree that is neither bold nor ablaze with blooms.  Although landscapers may incorporate such plants into commercial and residential designs, they rarely garner much attention or excitement.  Instead, they tend to blend in with the environment forming a backdrop to our everyday lives.  When a tree is plain, we pay it little heed.

That’s how it is with the Florida native Myrica cerifera commonly known as wax myrtle, southern bayberry or candleberry bush.  Few people give it much notice.  It’s just there, part of the environment.
On our property, although we didn’t plant them, wax myrtles hug the shoreline.  Along some sections, volunteer myrtles are so dense they’ve formed an impromptu thicket.   

This fast-growing, shrub-like evergreen may escape human notice but birds, butterflies and assorted small animals pay attention.  Wildlife seeks shelter in myrtle’s thickly packed branches and dark green foliage.  Clusters of tiny blue-silvery berries (drupes) that form along the branches are a favored source of food for many birds including wild turkeys, quails, tree swallows, bluebirds, thrashers and waterfowl.  The red-banded hairstreak butterfly deposits its eggs on dead myrtle leaves that have fallen to the ground.  When the larvae hatch, they crawl up to feed on the host plant’s live leaves.

Photo credit:  Jerry E. Butler, University of Florida

I can attest to wax myrtle’s popularity with wildlife.  When I’m out rowing or walking around the lake, I rarely pass a stand without hearing rustling noises and wondering who’s making them.  Are the sounds coming from a rabbit burrowing into a myrtle’s leafy shelter or a nesting bird protecting its brood?  It could easily be either.  As I go by, I often see catbirds and cardinals flying to and from the bushy plants and spider webs adorn its branches.  Every now and then my presence disturbs a rabbit that will scamper away or an armadillo that ambles out from beneath the low-growing foliage.

In addition to providing food and shelter for wildlife, wax myrtles also supply food and protection for people.  If you have ever added dried bayberry leaves to flavor soup, you are using the leaves from either the wax myrtle tree or its northern cousin, Myrica pensylvanica, better known as the bayberry bush.  The spicy scent from all myrtle/bayberry trees also acts as a repellent to insects and deer. 

Before relocating to the Sunshine State in 1987, I spent 17 years on Cape Cod where candles made from the berries of Myrica pensylvanica (the northern bayberry) are part of Cape Cod history and popular culture.  Long before Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, Native Americans gathered the bush’s waxy, aromatic berries to make candles.  Native people shared their knowledge with the early settlers who despite the time-consuming, labor-intensive work (four pounds of berries yield just a pound of wax) appreciated the smokeless, soft white light the candles provided. 

The Southern wax myrtle also produces berries usable for candle making but without the historic significance of its New England counterpart.  Although I’ve never tried to dip wicks in bayberry wax, I have crushed the tiny orbs of wax myrtle berries between my fingers to release their aromatic scent. 

The humble wax myrtle may be a plain-Jane plant but its many attributes make it worthy of attention.

How to make bayberry candles  (Source: MotherEarthLiving)
The discovery of bayberry bushes in coastal areas permitted housewives to replace these fourth-rate sources of illumination with candles that produced a pleasant fragrance along with improved lighting. In autumn, just after the first heavy frost, settlers gathered their baskets and set out to harvest bushels of ripe bayberries, each one measuring 1/8 inch across or less. They heated rainwater to scalding, then dumped in the fruit. As the berries’ waxy coating floated to the surface, they skimmed off the wax and reboiled it to get rid of impurities. The kettle was kept by the fire, where the wax stayed melted. A housewife made wicks from recycled yarns or threads of flax or hemp. As she made her candles in pairs (sometimes two or three at a time), she would need a wick more than twice as long as the finished candle. Looping it over a hardwood rod, she lowered it into the wax, then lifted it out to cool and harden. She repeated the dipping and lifting until the candles were the desired size. If she could afford a metal candle mold, the production was speeded up significantly.

Friday, June 21, 2013

An abundance of dragonflies

A "Simply" Extra
I just came back from an interesting row.  I often see dragonflies when I'm on the water but during this evening's row they were especially active.

Eastern Amberwing dragonfly resting on a bog button

Scarlet skimmer (above and below) on more bog buttons

A beautiful Eastern pondhawk dragonfly

Atlantic Bluet Damselflies were all around!  

I'm by no means a dragonfly/damselfly expert but have tried my best to identify the ones I've seen.  If you believe I've misidentified any of these colorful winged beauties, please let me know.

Two easy ways to tell Dragonflies and a Damselflies apart:
Dragonflies rest with their wings open
Damselflies rest with their wings closed

Dragonfly eyes are on top of the head and often touch or nearly touch
Damselfly eyes are separated on the side of the face and don't touch

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A short but colorful stroll

Needing a break from the computer this afternoon, I grabbed my camera and took a walk outside.  Rain is predicted by evening but at midday the sky was still bright and sunny.

Everywhere I looked, butterflies were fluttering.

Monarch on orange cosmos

Monarchs hovered over the orange cosmos, which are blooming prolifically in the east gardens.

On the other side of the house along the clay wall, zebra longwing butterflies busied themselves with the purple and white duranta flowers.

Zebra longwing on white duranta

As I climbed the stairway set into the clay wall, butterflies became fewer but bird sightings increased.  At the top of the steps, a small peach orchard abuts a shady woods dominated by large, broad oaks.  Although the birds I saw there weren't unusual, they were certainly colorful.

Male cardinal in peach tree.  

I always hear bluejays before I see them.  These squawky birds have beautiful feathers

Just before I turned around to come home, a red-bellied woodpecker flew out of an oak and onto the top of an irrigation spigot before landing on an old cane of Oldhamii (Giant Timber) Bamboo.

Red-bellied woodpecker on irrigation spigot

Searching for dinner on a cane of Oldhamii Bamboo 

I'm guessing I was outside for less than 30 minutes but I saw so much.  It's important to take breaks.

Monday, June 17, 2013

It's raining it's pouring...

A "Simply" Extra
What a storm tonight!

The rain poured down, the wind picked up.  A beautiful storm

It started to storm just after we returned got home from berry picking. While unloading the car, I glanced at the lake and saw a sandhill crane in the distance, standing on the island where the cranes had their nest.

With all this rain, there's not much of an island left but one of the cranes still spends the night there occasionally

I haven't seen the family of cranes since they moved to an abutting property when the baby was 12 days old.  But every now and then the male returns to the island where they built their nest.

Seeing him makes me hopeful that one day the entire family - mom, dad and their baby - will come back to our property.  Baby cranes can fly when they are 70 days old and that's just about how long it's been since the fluffy chick hatched out of its egg.  Perhaps the male crane returns to the nesting site by himself to check things out before bringing back the whole family.  I like to think so anyway.

A couple other pictures I took today during the downpour:

Cucumber growing bigger by the minute with all the water coming down

Green peppers that we're hoping will turn red soon.  Maybe the rain will help.
And finally, a picture of the Blue Timber Bamboo by the clay wall.  Bamboos love rain.   It makes the new shoots grow tall even faster than they normally do, about a foot a day!  

On the hunt...for garden bugs

The tomato hornworm caterpillar is a garden pest that can defoliate an entire plant within hours.

It’s dark outside and although I’m still snuggled beneath a mound of covers, my husband is not by my side.  He’s been up for hours, outside and active.  It’s hunting season – not for deer or turkeys or game animals of any sort.  His target is garden pests - the slow-moving snail, slimy slug, smelly stinkbug and leaf-defoliating caterpillar. 

Although Ralph doesn’t carry a gun, he’s not without weapons.  In one hand is a flashlight, in the other a container of soapy water.  When prey is spotted, he swipes the offensive bug into the soapy mixture to meet its sudsy demise.

I’m still rubbing the sleep from my eyes when my bright-eyed husband concludes his hunt, shuts the door and comes inside. 

“You should see all the stinkbugs I caught!” he says while I totter unsteadily toward the bathroom.  “I found a couple big, black caterpillars.  You should come out and see.”

Stinkbugs are a menace in the garden as well as in the orchard.  A pair mate while clinging to an unripe mulberry.

I give him a look that I hope combines my support for his efforts with a strong dose of leave-me-alone-until-I’ve-washed-my-face. 

A half-hour later, a more coherent me joins him in the kitchen for breakfast.

“What time did you get up?”  I mutter while filling a tall mug with caffeinated tea.

“Around 5a.m.,” he replies.  “I couldn’t sleep so I thought I’d check on the plants.”

My husband is passionate about his gardens, especially his broccoli plants.  Unfortunately, many garden pests share his passion for members of the Cruciferous family (broccoli, kale, cabbage, etc.)  They nibble holes in the leaves, suck juice from the stems and gnaw their way into the inner chamber of cabbages.  

Although I'm holding it, my husband grew this beautiful head of broccoli, his all-time favorite vegetable 

Although Ralph is opposed to using toxic sprays in his garden, his arsenal does include a few biological weapons approved for organic gardens. 

Thuricide kills caterpillars by using Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) bacteria to paralyze their digestive tracts.  

Organocide is a sesame oil-based spray effective on a wide range of small soft-bodied insects.

Spinosad is a broad-spectrum insecticide that, like Thuricide, uses bacteria to cause digestive disruption.  In addition, it attacks insect nervous systems, killing on contact.

Although biological controls are effective for short periods, they only work well in dry weather.  The lightest downpour washes their potency away.  Handpicking pesky bugs, however, has no limitations.  Insects can be collected rain or shine, day or night, although nighttime seems to be their most active period.

A black caterpillar on the squash plant is about to be swept off into a bucket of soapy water
That brings me back to my husband’s pre-dawn, post-dusk and occasional midnight forays into the garden with flashlight and bucket in hand.  While I sleep, he’s doing his best to protect the food that feeds his family. 

When I think of hunters, I think of men in camouflaged clothing toting rifles or bows and arrows.  I think of men who get up early to follow deer tracks in the sand or huddle behind duck blinds in the marsh.  If they’re successful, they’ll bring home meat for dinner.

My husband doesn’t eat meat but that doesn’t make his hunting any less meaningful.  Thanks to his perseverance and persistency, Ralph’s efforts yield some of the freshest, tastiest vegetables I’ve ever eaten.  He grows, protects and diligently provides food for the table.  In that way, he’s not unlike the hunter stalking wild game in season.

I’m proud of Ralph’s efforts and applaud his successes.  If I have any complaint, it concerns his effusiveness.  While I find his unbridled enthusiasm endearing, I wish he’d restrain himself until I’m more fully awake.  One cup of tea – that’s all I ask.  If he’d only wait to tell me about his bug-hunting adventures until after I’ve had my first mug, I’d be ever so grateful.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Butterfly Sex

(A "Simply" Extra)

I walked outside today and chanced upon a cluster of Monarch butterflies, their colorful wings all aflutter, attached to one another on an unopened cosmos flower.

As I watched, the entire cluster - still linked together - fell to the ground.


landing on the sidewalk

Although the butterflies landed on the hard concrete surface, they seemed less concerned by their location than by the activity in which they were so completely engaged.

Copulation. They were obviously mating.  Not one-on-one sex or even menage a trois.  No, this cluster of must-do-it-now-ers were engaged in an orgy of butterfly love.

Soon after the foursome hit the ground, one Monarch detached and flew away.  Sated, I presumed by the prolonged attachment.

and then there were three

I thought of the children's song, "There were 4 on the bed and the little one said, "Roll over, roll over."  So they all rolled over and one fell off.  There were 3 on the bed and the little one said, "Roll over, roll over..."

A few minutes later, another butterfly separated itself and took off as well. Only two Monarchs remained.

The final two...

The remaining duo outlasted me.  I had to leave while they were still connected.  Butterfly sex...who knew the amorous exploits of winged beauties was a group activity!  Spontaneous sex on the wing, on the bloom, on the concrete walkway.

I wonder if they had as much fun as I did?

Monday, June 10, 2013

One Easy Day...

An eight-year-old photo of father and sons.  Ralph Boas flanked by Toby (left) and Tim Boas

With Father ’s Day less than a week away, dad-centered gift promotions are coming on strong.  Peruse the pages of any periodical or newsprint and you’ll see ads for everything from casual clothing and camping gear to grilling accessories, techno-gadgets and sports paraphernalia.  Advertisers are doing their best to convince us that the latest ‘This’ or hottest ‘That’ is the perfect way to tell Dad he’s special.

In our family, Dad (better known as "Papa") is a marketer’s nightmare.  On a scale of 1 to 10, his desire for store-bought gifts registers around minus 15.  Madonna may have sung about Material Girl but my husband is the proverbial Non-Material Man. 

That said, there is one gift my dear husband would like.  So kids (we have four), if you’re reading this, pay attention.  The one present Papa wants for Father’s Day is this:  One Easy Day.

One Easy Day is a day without problems to solve.  It’s a day without drama, trauma or strife.  It’s 24 straight hours without anything breaking or going awry.  The computer doesn’t malfunction, water pipes don’t leak and caterpillars are considerate enough to leave the tomato leaves alone.

On his One Easy Day your father is free to do whatever he likes without interrupting phone calls, distracting texts or attention-diverting emails.  He can busy himself in the garden, go for a swim, take a long walk and bounce on the trampoline.  He can exercise to his heart’s content or take a nap if he’s tired.  Instead of being social worker, counselor, judge or jury, he can just be himself doing the things he likes best.   

One Easy Day isn’t about ignoring the people he loves.  It’s about enjoying his family.  It’s a day of harmony, happiness and feelings of gratitude.  Although his problem solving skills are beyond compare, on this one day of the year my husband (your dad) would like to give those skills a rest.

When our children were little, presents weren’t necessary.  Sweet hugs and kisses were gift enough to prove their love.  As children grow older, they sometimes forget that the best gifts to give are the simplest pleasures.  A kind word (or two or three…), a gentle touch, an expression of appreciation means much more than anything bought.

One Easy Day is too special to be reserved for fathers only.  There are times when each of us needs a day when nothing goes wrong.  As good as we might all be at figuratively putting out fires, there something to be said for spending a few well-deserved hours in a flame-free zone.

On June 16th, when dads around the country are unwrapping boxes filled with flashlights, fancy phones and brand new socks, I’m going to give my husband a massage.  I plan to turn the cell phone off, put the computer to sleep and hope-hope-hope that nothing in the house or property demands his attention. 

And kids - if you’re listening – on Father’s Day, please do your best to give Papa a rest.  On June 17th I promise he’ll be back into full fledged fix-it mode, happy to answer your banking questions, offer advice about medical issues and listen to your relationship problems with every ounce of his usual patience.  

But just for this one special day, let’s agree to surround him with peace.  One Easy Day…wouldn’t it be nice.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Found plants enhance garden

White-tipped green foliage and reddish-pink blooms combined with ease of care make ‘Daisy Mezoo’ a lovely addition to garden beds or container plantings

Some of my favorite flowers had their start as tiny snips from another person’s garden.  Although I may not know the plant’s name or growth pattern, something about its appearance makes me brave enough to ask a stranger for permission to take a cutting. 

Occasionally, such uninformed decisions backfire. 

That’s what happened many years ago when I took a tiny snippet from a lovely blue-flowering morning glory vine covering a towering pine on the outskirts of Howey-in-the-Hills.  The fact that the tree’s limbs were almost entirely concealed beneath this climbing beauty should have been sufficient warning, but I was young and impetuous.  I loved the color – blue as a summer sky – and was determined to add it to my yard.

The beautiful blue flower of wild morning glory vine is quite alluring

Add it, I did.

Two decades later, wild morning glory vines continue to run rampant on our property.  While still awed by the beautiful blue blooms, I’m long past believing I’ll ever rid our property completely of the enchantingly insidious vine.  Although they could be controlled with herbicide, we opt instead to limit the area where they can wrap their greedy tendrils around whatever ground, shrub or tree they encounter. Outside the designated area, it’s a different story.  The vines are subject to the mower’s ruthless blades.

Regular mowing prevents invasive vine from growing out of control

Despite my morning glory fiasco and a few other less than positive found-plant experiences, my penchant for procuring free-for-the-taking plants remains strong. 

About a year ago while attending a Garden Web plant exchange in Oakland, I became enamored with a white-tipped green-leafed succulent cascading over the edge of the host’s raised bed.  After gaining permission to take a few snippets home, I proceeded to plant the cuttings in various locations around the yard, experimenting to see which would work best.

Plant lovers from around Central Florida gather at a Garden Web plant swap
At first, little happened.  The cuttings weren’t dead but most weren’t taking off like crazy either.  Considering what happened with the morning glory, I didn’t find lack of exuberant growth to be a bad thing.  I waited patiently, occasionally checking on the plants’ progress but in general, gave the cuttings little attention.  I didn’t even bother to discover their identity. 
Until recently.

A few weeks ago, while perusing the garden beds, pausing to pull a few weeds here and snap a few pictures there, I noticed that the cuttings rooted in the only container receiving regular irrigation was doing exceptionally well.  Not only was this one plant growing faster than any of the others – by now it too cascaded over the edge of its container - it was the only one with a surprise.  Tucked amongst the foliage was an abundance of reddish-pink, dime-sized flowers.  

The unexpected blooms were the push I needed to find out what exactly I had planted.

I posted a picture of the flowering plant on Facebook and asked for identification help.  My daughter Amber responded with a link to an article by Anne K Moore on the site entitled, “Icy Plant For Summer’s Heat.”  

The article described Dorotheanthus bellidiformis, also known as Livingston Daisy Mezoo Trailing Red and included an image that looked exactly like my plant.  More research ensued and before long I became well informed about my botanical find.  Daisy Mezoo Trailing Red is a variety of ice plant that works well as a groundcover, in rock gardens, hanging baskets or in mixed-plant containers.  While drought tolerant, it also responds well to regular watering, is unbothered by pests or plant diseases and requires little care other than protection from extreme cold.  From all I read, it does not have a tendency to become invasive, spreading out of control like my misbegotten morning glories.

I couldn’t be happier with this discovery.  Not only do found plants provide beauty and add variety to the garden, each cutting contains a memory of where it originated.  When I walk around our property and come upon morning glory vines enthusiastically engulfing an elderberry bush or banana plant, the blue flowers remind me of my own youthful exuberance.  For just a second, I’m back in Howey-in-the-Hills, clipping off a section of vine, filled with excitement to be bringing it home. 

Wild morning glories engulfing banana plants

Likewise, as I walk around the house pausing to observe the latest growth on my pretty ‘Daisy Mezoo’ succulents, I think back on that Garden Web plant exchange.  Each attractive leaf and unexpected bloom reminds me of the generosity of gardeners.  People who love plants not only like to share that love others with others, they enjoy sharing plants as well.

For those wondering how to start cuttings, I suggest buying a container of rooting compound called Rootone at your local garden center and following the directions on the container.  

Here's a link from the Rootone site that is very helpful:  How to start cuttings.  I'm also including a helpful video I found online on how to root cuttings that is also informative: