Monday, July 29, 2013

Begonias gone wild!


Begonias spread like weeds

I didn't plant them.  At least I don't remember planting them...

That hasn't stopped dozens of pale pink begonias from planting themselves.  They're growing underneath the raised pots of herbs and vegetables in our west garden.  They're not exactly growing in soil - at least not soil in the traditional sense.  Instead, their shallow roots have settled into the leaf litter and organic matter that accumulates on any outdoor surface.

Now that I think back, there may have been one begonia in a container at some point in the past but, if there was, I paid it little attention.  I certainly don't recall ever propagating it.  However, I suppose whatever I did or didn’t do is inconsequential.  The plant obviously had intentions of its own.  It was determined to grow despite (or in spite) of my personal involvement.

The begonias in our garden are leggy plants growing up to a foot tall.  When they get that big, they tend to flop over onto the pathways between the narrow rows of raised pots.  

Tall and leggy

My husband, whose passion for edibles far exceeds his concern for flowers, doesn’t like it when the begonias get in the way.  He thinks nothing about stepping on, knocking over or breaking off wayward blooms.

Ralph loves growing vegetables and herbs like these parsley plants but he's not as enthusiastic about flowers 

Even though I didn’t plant them, I’ve become protective of these volunteer blooms.  Since I don’t like to see them squashed, kicked over or broken off, I try to be proactive.  I transplant young starts to pots and break off some of leggier plants to root the cut ends in an available container. 

So far, my efforts have paid off.  All of the transplants and cuttings I’ve made are thriving.  Turns out, begonias are ridiculously easy to propagate (hence the proliferation of volunteer blooms in our garden.)  I’ve done my plant-rescues without using any rooting compound or fancy tools.  I just scoop out a young start with my fingers, stick it in an available pot with soil (no special soil mixture necessary), push it firmly in place and let it alone.  It doesn’t seem to matter if the location I put it in is sunny or shady.  As long as the transplant gets regular water, the begonia does fine. 

The same is true for cuttings.  I don’t bother with scissors, knives or fancy lopping tools, opting instead to break off a leggy section of an existing plant with my hand.  After poking a finger-sized hole in soil, I push the broken stem in, firmly pressing down on the dirt around it.  Other than regular water, it receives no further attention.  That doesn’t stop it from growing.  Within a couple weeks, the begonia has readjusted sufficiently to send out new growth.

Although begonias are native to India, their attractive foliage, long blooming period (they like hot weather) and invulnerability to pest problems, have made them highly desirable landscape plants.  They work equally well as bedding plants for shady areas, in hanging baskets, containers or as houseplants. 

Begonia cucullata is one of four species of wax begonias used to develop the thousands of different cultivars sold today.  I believe the volunteers in our garden are a type of wax begonia that has self-propagated from seeds.  Hundreds of too-small-to-be-noticed seeds develop inside brown papery pods, which, when released, disperse in the breeze, settling and rooting like weeds with minimal needs.

A comparison to weeds is not farfetched.  The pinkish-white-flowering begonias growing on the ground beneath our raised containers of vegetables and herbs have all the characteristics one would attribute to an invasive plant.  They appear prolifically in places where they are not necessarily wanted (at least by some of us…) aren’t bothered by pests and thrive without need for human intervention. 

I guess that makes them just another example of the old adage, “One person’s weeds are another’s flowers.”   

For me, the begonias are an unexpected surprise, a splash of color in an otherwise utilitarian space.  Perhaps my husband would like them better if he knew begonia leaves and flowers are also edible.  They are.  Although it’s not the best tasting vegetable in the world, the plant’s blooms and greenery make a pleasant addition to salads or cooked vegetable dishes.

I don’t know if that information will stop my vegetable-gardening husband from stepping on floppy flowers that get in his way but I hope it provides reason to pause before knocking one over.  After all, the volunteer begonias have demonstrated a strong desire to thrive in our garden.  They’ve obviously found a spot that meets their needs while inadvertently meeting my needs for unanticipated beauty.  They even have the potential for meeting my husband’s needs for more easy to grow edible plants.  It seems like a win-win-win situation all around.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Branching out

In early June, Ralph and I were thinning out the crepe myrtle trees by our house so they wouldn’t block the view to the lake.  While sawing away at one particular limb, I noticed its interesting shape.

The 10-feet long, four-inch diameter main trunk branched off in three directions making it resemble a long forearm leading to a handful of splayed fingers.  After giving the trunk a good look-over, I decided to lob off each of the three branches about two feet above the forked section.  I then set the entire piece aside because it had “future project” written all over it.

“What are you doing with that branch?” Ralph asked as we were loading the pruned wood into the truck.

“I’m not sure,” I told him, “but I’ll think of something.  I just like the way it looks.”

We filled the truck with our other trimmings but my “special” branch remained on the ground.  That’s where it stayed for several days until I had a plan.

One afternoon it came to me. 

“I know what we can do with that crepe myrtle limb,” I said.  “We can make it into a perch for the birds in the middle of the lake.”

In the center of our lake is a submerged peat island out of which one perch already stands.  Anhingas, cormorants, ospreys, herons and kingfishers regularly land there on a wooden platform mounted atop a bamboo pole.  A second bamboo pole used to protrude from the peat as well but last winter, it broke off and drifted away.  I thought the crepe myrtle branch with its sturdy limbs and mottled bark would make an attractive replacement.

A Great White Egret and Anhinga share the platform in the middle of the lake

Since I wanted the crepe myrtle perch to include a platform instead of just having its three “fingers” pointing upward, we decided to attach a round upside-down garbage pail lid to the limbs.  The concave cover, made out of black heavy-duty plastic, fit snugly between the three “fingers” and even had a center drainage hole. 

We attached a black trashcan lid to the crepe myrtle limbs

After fastening the lid to the limbs with screws, we placed the repurposed tree trunk in my boat and I rowed Ralph and my new perch out to the peat island.   

Despite the precariousness of toting a 10-foot long chunk of tree in a 14-foot long aluminum rowboat that also contained two people, a six-foot-long piece of PVC pipe and various tools, the actual installation went surprisingly smoothly.  Ralph pushed the PVC pipe deep into the peat and slipped the tree trunk into the pipe.  Tada!  New bird perch in place!

We installed the perch on June 6.  While the other perch gets plenty of visitors, I haven’t seen a single bird land on the new platform yet.  

A Great Blue Heron uses the old perch and ignores the new one..

I wonder if it is not being used because it’s new or because the birds don’t like the repurposed trashcan lid?

There is another possibility.  The birds might not be landing there because the tree is growing.

Leaves have sprouted out of the cut off crepe myrtle limb
As it turns out, if you cut off a substantial portion of a crepe myrtle tree, stick it into a mound of submerged peat and leave it alone during the hot summer months, said tree will take root.  Leaves will sprout along its base along with a flush of new leaf-covered branches.

So now what we have sticking out of the water in the middle of our lake are one metal pole with a wooden platform on top of it and one crepe myrtle tree with an expanding cap of green leaves.  Who knows - one of these days the crepe myrtle might even flower.  A flowering tree growing out of lake water…now wouldn’t that be something.

Will a blooming tree arise out of the water one day?
When I first saw it, I knew that cut-off chunk of timber had the potential to become something special.  My vision might have been different from what developed but I was spot on about it being special.   

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Beautiful butterfly...beautiful blooms

A "Simply" Extra
Butterflies are everywhere but they're especially drawn to the bush sunflowers.  When I saw this tiger swallowtail fly by, I ran outside to snap some pictures.  I couldn't decide which photo I liked best so I'm including them all.  If you have a favorite shot, let me know which one it is.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Today's bouquet

A "Simply" Extra
Bright orange coreopsis and cheery yellow and brown sunflowers sit in a repurposed saltshaker on an old marble tabletop in our hallway.

Both flowers came from "found" sources.  The sunflowers are an unnamed bush variety that I found in an abandoned field last year when we were picking fruit at Lake Catherine Blueberry Farm.  When we finished picking, I pushed my way through the overgrown grasses and broke off a couple stems.  When we returned home, I stuck the short sections into a pot of soil and put them in the vegetable garden where they received regular watering.  From those small cuttings, three large plants developed.

Bush sunflowers bursting with blooms

Lately, as flowering has begun to wane, I've been collecting seeds to spread about on our own untended fields.  My hope is that next summer there will be sunflower bushes filled with cheerful blooms all around the lake.

The orange flowers are a type of wild coreopsis that originally came from a yard in Kissimmee, Florida.  About 26 years ago, I knocked on the homeowner's door and told her how much I admired the blooms.  She graciously allowed me to pick a bouquet and offered me a handful of seeds.  That one handful turned into years and years of fantastic blooms, first at our Kissimmee home and for the past 21 years, here at Bare Lake Farm.

Duskywing butterfly on a wild orange coreopsis flower

Whenever I think of it, I go outside and collect seeds.  The old yogurt container where I keep them is gradually filling up and, as I plan to do with the bush sunflower seeds, I hope to spread the easy-to-germinate orange flowers around the property when I take my walks.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Seeds in flight

A "Simply" Extra
Sow thistle is a tall weed with spiky leaves and yellow dandelion-like flowers.  On a recent walk I came upon a single plant growing on the north side of the berm that surrounds our property.  While normally I might have just passed it by, I happened to pass the sow thistle just as its seeds were taking flight.  There was beauty to be seen in the fluffy white parachutes, each bearing the beginnings of a new plant.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Me watching bobcat...bobcat watching me!

A "Simply" Extra Video

I apologize for the occasional shakiness of the video.  The encounter was just so exciting, it made me a little shaky. 

The movie starts off with me watching the bobcat right after I encountered him sitting quietly looking out at the lake.  After a while he gets up, gives me one last dismissive look and walks off.

Although I tried to see where he went, he vanished into the woods.  So I went on and he did too.

The second part of the movie is of him watching me.

Apparently, as I continued on my way, the bobcat climbed up the berm to have a better look at this strange human in a wildcat world.  I had a feeling I was being watched so I looked around and spotted him looking down on me.

We stayed that way, looking at each other until I eventually readjusted my position, which apparently startled him enough to change his position as well into what looked like an "I'm getting ready to pounce on you now" stance.  Needless to say, at that point I stopped filming and moved along.

What an amazing experience! I'm glad I had the wherewithal to capture it on film.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bobcat encounter boosts mood


I was in dire need of a mood boost so I grabbed my camera, scribbled 
“Going for a stroll” on a note to my husband and headed outside.


Even though it was late afternoon, it was hot.  I didn’t mind.  In no rush, I sauntered along at a leisurely pace.  As I passed the orchard, I took pictures of the ripening figs and our soon-to-be first harvest of avocados.

I snapped several shots of an interesting caterpillar crawling along a leaf and of butterflies fluttering about.

Spicebush swallowtail

I was just rounding the narrow path along the north end of the lake when, about 60 feet ahead, something large caught my eye.  A bobcat was sitting in a small clearing facing the lake.  He was just sitting there looking at the lake in the same spot I often go to enjoy the view.   

Instinctively, I raised my camera and began taking pictures.  As the shutter clicked, the bobcat turned my way but didn’t run off.  Instead, he stayed put, his pink tongue panting in the heat, staring at me as I stared at him. 

We stayed that way locked in a staring contest until eventually he rose, turned away from the lake, gave me a dismissive glance and walked off toward the marsh.  My presence seemed to have no effect on his pace.  He didn’t act threatened, angry or defensive.  He simply looked like he’d had enough sitting.  It was time to move on.

At that point, although I knew the chances of doing so were slim, I moved on too, hoping to see where he’d gone.  Of course, by the time I got there, the bobcat had vanished.  He was nowhere in sight.  Happy enough to have had such a prolonged encounter with an animal I so infrequently see, I turned back and walked up the hill.

On our property, a tall tree-covered berm of mounded earth outlines the perimeter.  There are well-worn paths on each side of the berm and I was walking uphill on the inside path with the berm on my right.


Yet - even though I was alone in the woods - I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t.  I felt like I was being watched. 

I stopped and looked around.  It wasn’t just a feeling.


About 30 feet away, the stealthy feline lay sprawled across the top of the berm, his large amber-colored eyes following my every move.  
Apparently, while I took a path on one side of the mounded earth, the bobcat took the other.  Perhaps he was keeping an eye on me, a human interloper in a wildcat’s domain. 

Once again, we had a stare-down but this time one of us (the bobcat) had the advantage of being high up on top of the berm while the other (little old me) was down at ground level.  Also, instead of being 60-feet apart, we were much closer.


I tried hard to stay still, afraid too much movement would either scare him off or cause him to lunge forward.  Either way, I was motivated.  

My efforts at being motionless were rewarded with some wonderful close ups.  Through the camera lens, I watched the bobcat’s diaphragm expand and contract.  I zoomed in on his black-spotted tawny fur, pink nose, tufted ears, white chin and whiskers.


After a while, as ants crawled over my feet and mosquitoes buzzed about, my desire to remain immobile waned.  As I shuffled a bit to readjust my pose, I noticed the bobcat’s position shift as well. 

Anyone who had a housecat knows how a tabby looks when it’s about to lunge.  Haunches rise while the body crouches low, ears perk up and the mouth opens slightly.  The bobcat assumed such a pose as we continued to watch each other.


As much as I love wildlife encounters, I know when I’ve been outplayed.  I said goodbye to the bobcat and made my retreat.

When I returned home, Ralph was in the kitchen.  “How was your walk?” he asked. 

“Exciting!” I replied, regaling him with the story and pictures of what I’d just seen. 

And my bad mood – that one in such dire need of a boost before I set off on my walk - well, let’s just say it vanished as deftly as a bobcat in the woods. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Zebra with wings...

A "Simply" Extra
The Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia) is the official state butterfly of Florida. It is also one of the most commonly seen butterflies on our central Florida property.

While walking through the woods today, I came upon several zebra longwings fluttering over a sprawl of wedelia.

Zebra longwing on dwarf zinneas

And on porterweed

Several zebra longwings clustered around a bottlebrush bloom

Little things can mean so much

A "Simply" Extra
When I was rowing yesterday evening, I rested my oars and picked up my camera as I approached the north end of the lake where a tangle of willow, wax myrtle and buttonbush branches hang over the water.


Birds are always flitting around that area and I was curious to see what I might capture on film.

The first birds I saw were bright yellow, perhaps some type of warbler but they moved so quickly I was unable to snap a picture fast enough.

I was more successful with a curious little tufted titmouse that decided to come out of the brush to check me out.  After cocking his head left and right, he flew over to a limb where a passionflower vine grew.
Losing interest in me, he focused instead on insects crawling over a passionfruit hanging from one of the vines.

A few minutes later, I first heard then saw a pileated woodpecker in a nearby tree.  I wasn't able to get a good view of the bird but I was excited to see it at all.  We never used to have pileated woodpeckers on the property but this year, because many older pines have died, the large red-headed birds have taken up residence feeding on insects they find in the trees.

A poor picture of a cool bird

After a while, it was time to row back home.  I knew I had lingered longer than I probably should have and would be late to my daughter's house to babysit my grandchildren.  But I also knew they'd understand.

I'd had another stressful day and my evening row and quiet pause at the north end of the lake was my way of regrouping and returning to a state of mental calm.   Seeing the birds helped turn my mood around.

Little things can mean so much...


Monday, July 8, 2013

Miniature "pots" contain beneficial wasps


At first, I wasn’t sure what they were:  Four tiny round structures firmly attached to a thin willow twig in shallow water.

Four marble-size structures attached to a thin willow twig in the shallow lake water
Nests, I presumed, belonging to some sort of insect.  The dwellings – if that’s what they were – appeared to be made of mud, bleached white and dried by the sun.  Adding to their mystery and allure, each marble-shaped building had a single entry hole.  I was immediately intrigued.  Although I saw no insect entering or leaving, my gut said the nests belonged to some sort of wasp. 

Curious, I began researching as soon as I returned home.  What I discovered reinforced my instinct – a wasp did indeed make the nests.  More importantly, the information I uncovered introduced me to a world of wonder and fascinating facts about one of nature’s often unnoticed but important creatures.

The tiny structures I observed were built by Eumenes fraternus, commonly known as ‘potter wasp’ or ‘mason wasp’ because its small round nest looks so much like a miniature hand-thrown clay pot.  A potter wasp is just under an inch long, predominantly black with thin ivory bands along its thorax and abdomen and a noticeably elongated, narrow waist.

Potter wasps have very narrow waists and distinctive colors that make them easy to identify.  Photo credit:

Unlike social wasps that live in groups, potter wasps are solitary insects.  Adults feed on flower nectar and are not aggressive toward people.  They rarely sting, even when inadvertently touched and are considered beneficial because they control caterpillars that harm garden plants. 

I found little of note about the male wasp since his role centers on the act of procreation alone.  However, the female, who is larger than her male counterpart, has multiple jobs.  After mating, she must find a nest site, gather materials needed for the laborious job of building a structure and then procure enough food to secure her future offspring’s survival.  Only then does she deposit eggs – one egg per domed cell – before sealing it within the cell with more mud over the entry hole.  When all these tasks are complete, she flies off to begin the process again in the next structure.

Although the initial nests I found were on a willow twig growing in the lake’s shallow water, I’ve since discovered other potter wasp nests on window screens, attached to shrubbery and irrigation pipes.

Potter wasp building nest on our irrigation pipe

Apparently, the main factor the female wasp seeks in a location is to be somewhat close to a source of mud, since mud is the main component of the soon-to-be-built nest.

A potter wasp nest is an architectural marvel.   The female wasp begins by finding a wet patch of sandy soil.  Using her mandibles, she rolls a portion of the muddy soil into a ball, which she carries back to deposit on the nest site, spread out and mix with saliva to increase its hardness.  This tedious procedure involves repeated mud-gathering trips until an adobe-like round brood cell takes shape.  When the structure is an appropriate size (big enough to accommodate one egg and enough food to sustain its growth) the female flies off to stock the larder with caterpillars. 

This is when things get interesting. 

When the wasp finds a caterpillar, she stings it just enough venom to cause paralysis but not death.  She then lugs the inert bug back to the cell to stuff inside the small round opening she left in the jug-like structure.  After much effort, the hole is filled with anywhere from one to twelve caterpillars.

The sex of the future wasp depends upon the number of the caterpillars upon which it will feast.  In nests containing more than five caterpillars, a female wasp will emerge.  If the nest contains fewer caterpillars, the wasp will be male.

Once she has secured an adequate food supply, the female lays a single egg suspended above the caterpillar mass by a strong thread, backs out of the hole and covers the opening with more balls of mud moistened and smoothed out with saliva.  At this point, her responsibilities to that particular egg are over and she is ready to repeat the procedure for her next future offspring.

Meanwhile, inside its mud incubator, the developing wasp larva feeds on the fresh meat of the unfortunate caterpillars until the food is gone and the wasp is ready to leave the nest.  At that point, the emerging potter wasp drills though the side of its adobe abode to begin the cycle anew.

I had no idea my discovery of four white, round domed shells attached to a willow twig would trigger such a wealth of new information.  

Every time I observe some previously unfamiliar object like the potter wasp, I can’t help but wonder how many other unknown marvels I miss even though they are right there in plain sight. 

The discovery of the potter wasp nest was my latest reminder that nature has so much to offer if I only take the time to look. 

A "Simply" Extra
I found a fascinating 8-minute video online documenting how a potter wasp builds its nest, stuffs numerous caterpillars into it and then seals it up tight.  You can watch it by clicking on the following link:  Potter Wasp or Mason Wasp - Master Architect.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Today's bouquet

A bouquet of wild sunflowers brightens up the kitchen

A "Simply" Extra
The tiny sunflower cutting I rooted a year ago this month, has grown into a sprawling feast of cheerful blooms.  I found the sunflower growing wild in a field while we were picking blueberries last year at Lake Catherine Blueberry farm.  Just before we were ready to go, I broke off a small branch and brought it home.  The branch sat in water for a couple days until Ralph planted it for me in a 15-gallon pot.  There it stayed, growing steadily until it eventually bloomed.

That winter it died back. Ralph, eager to have the leggy plant away from his precious vegetable, asked me where I wanted to put it.

"I'll take care of it," I said knowing full well, it would be while before I got around to it.

Nonetheless, the plant hung in there.  This past spring, I finally got around to putting it in the ground, planting the sunflower by the garage where I wouldn't be in the way.

Planted in a bed by the garage with plenty of room to spread
One month later...!

As the days warmed the plant grew.  And grew.  And grew.  It now stands taller than me.  Butterflies and bees are constantly landing on the bright yellow blooms and I fill vases with its floral beauty.

Bees and blooms...

Blooms and butterflies...

I have no idea what kind of sunflower it is but it doesn't matter.  What I do know is that it flowers profusely, wildlife love it and it tolerates neglect.

That good enough for me.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Tricolored heron...I think he likes me

The tricolored heron busily hunts for fish in shallow water


One solitary tricolored heron spends considerable time in our lake.  I see him early in the morning, just before dark and most times in between.  Of all the water birds that frequent our 12-acre pond, this medium-sized wader is our most consistent visitor.  He’s also the least skittish when it comes to interacting with people.    

The tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor) is a busy bird.  Whenever I see him, he’s in shallow water hunting for food.  Many wading birds look like statues - standing still, poised to strike when prey is sighted. 
That’s not how the tricolored heron does it. 

His hunting technique is more like a dance.  Egretta tricolor prances about on his long yellow legs, tucking in his neck then stretching it out.  His wings open and shut in rapid succession as the bird darts forward before ultimately spearing prey with his pointed beak.

The food he likes to eat is mainly fish supplemented by the occasional frog, crustacean, spider, worm, leech, mosquito and other insects.  Shallow water is his preferred habitat, which is why I always see the tricolored heron along the water’s edge.

Tricolored heron with fish in its sharp beak

Saying that I “see” this 26-inch tall bird with bluish-grey, white and purple plumage might be a misnomer because he blends so seamlessly into the reeds and grasses.  Quite often, I don’t realize he’s present until I’m almost upon him. 

Unlike the great blue heron, great white egret, ibises and other water birds, Egretta tricolor doesn’t fly away as I approach.  Instead, he stops hunting, stands still, extends his long, slender neck toward me and pays attention.  It’s as if he’s thinking, “Is this human a threat?”
I wonder if he recognizes me as I do him.  Does he realize I mean him no harm?  Does he allow me to approach closely because he knows I would never hurt or scare him intentionally?

Probably not. 

The more likely explanation is that over time, tricolored herons have developed a more trusting nature toward people than most other wild birds.  It’s a trait they share with scrub jays, sandhill cranes and chickadees.  Although I have no idea why certain animals are less timid around people, I’m grateful for the close encounters their tolerance enables.  I like being able to row my boat within a few feet of the tricolored heron without causing him to fly away.

Such a beautiful bird

We humans enjoy developing close relationships with animals.  We cuddle with our dogs and cats and make pets out of birds, reptiles, amphibians of all shapes and sizes.  Some of us have livestock or keep horses.  Although we provide food, housing and medical attention for the animals under our care, the relationships we develop with them are hardly one-sided.  They nourish us as well. 

While I no longer keep pets or have livestock, my need to feel accepted by members of the animal kingdom is as strong today as it has ever been. 

As I row around the lake, I find myself taking mental note of the different water birds’ reaction to my presence.  Great white egrets, blue herons, wood storks or ibises might abandon their hunting when they see me approach but thankfully, the tricolored heron - a slender bird with a broad tolerance for inquisitive humans – does not. 

Not only is Egretta tricolor a bird of beautiful plumage, with wonderful coloring and a fascinating hunting technique, but more than most water birds, he tolerates my presence.  I like him for that and maybe, just maybe, he likes me too.