Monday, October 28, 2013

To plant or not to plant...

When I visit my daughter in Winter Garden, I often take back roads instead of the highway.  I find back roads more interesting with their twists and turns, pretty views and occasional surprises.  Sometimes I see unexpected wildlife, but more often, I spot an unfamiliar wildflower growing along stretches of yet-to-be developed land.

Last week on the drive to Amber's house, I noticed an reddish-orange-flowered vine scrambling over the underbrush along a yet-to-be developed stretch of roadside.  

Long after I returned home, the pretty vine kept twining through my mind.  I wondered what it was and if it was a native plant or an invasive exotic.  Over the years, I’ve learned to be careful with vines.  All too often I've made the mistake of introducing attractive climbers to our landscape only to find out after they became established how difficult they are to control.

One of my (many) mistakes was adding wild blue morning glory vine to the landscape

Although I didn’t pull over last week to take clippings of the unfamiliar bloom, my resolve weakened a few days later when I found myself along the same stretch of two-lane road. 

It only took a couple minutes to pull onto the shoulder, hop out of the car - clippers in hand – and snip off a few lengths of the sprawling vine.  While there, I snapped a few pictures as well.  My plan was to look up and identify the vine when I returned home then post pictures online before planting.  If I received enough positive feedback – reassurance that it wasn’t a known problem plant and wouldn’t spread like crazy – maybe I’d add it to our landscape.

The plant turned out to be Ipomoea cocchinea (CQ), native to the eastern United States.  It has many common names including red or scarlet morning glory, scarlet creeper and redstar, a moniker referring to the star-shaped, pale orange throat of the flower’s small tubular blooms.  

Scarlet morning glory climbing across shrubs

To help me with my decision, I posted a picture of the plant to a Facebook group called Florida Botany asking if anyone had personal experience with the plant.  Before long, several members responded.

“I love these,” wrote a member based in the Florida panhandle.  “When we had them, they died back good in winter, allowing me to control their growth.”

Sharing her enthusiasm was a member based in the state’s central east coast.  “I had a volunteer show up in my mom and dad’s yard sometime ago and have not found it to be invasive at all.  In fact, I wish it would show up more, as I love it!”

Three hours later, the first negative comment arrived.  “My experience with I. Cocchinea is a little different,” wrote a Stetson University biology professor.  “I love them but have had them completely overgrow small trees.  One vine almost completely covered a dahoon holly.  Now that they are established, I get tons of seedlings every year.”

While the first two posts offered encouragement, the professor’s comment gave me pause.  His description of the vine’s aggressiveness mirrored my previous experiences with several other “found” species that I unwittingly introduced to the landscape. 

Reading over these and other comments as well as doing more online research provided much to ponder. 

On the plus side, the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council does not consider Ipomoea cocchinea invasive.  And wildlife like it.  The vine’s small but bright colored flowers attract any number of butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.  Who wouldn’t want to add a natural hummingbird magnet to their yard?

On the negative side, it sounds like Ipomoea cocchinea will self-seed prolifically, popping up in unwanted spots like my husband’s vegetable garden.  Not a good thing.  Also, as my past experience with blue morning glory (Ipomoea indica) proved, once established it will be nearly impossible to eliminate.

While I stood by my computer weighing the pros and cons, a new comment popped up on Facebook. 

“I’ve found them to be pretty aggressive,” wrote a Florida Botany member from Crawfordville.  “I sure wouldn’t put them in my garden but might allow them out by the roadside.”

His comment offered the kind of compromise that made sense to me.  Red morning glory vine, I think you found a new home. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A walk through the marsh

A Simply Extra

I went for a walk around the lake this afternoon and instead of taking one of the paths, I decided to forge a trail through the marsh grasses and do a little exploring.

It was pretty in the marsh.  Autumn colors of gold and white, tan and green with a splash of pink every now and then.

The farther into the marsh I went the muckier it became, but I didn't mind because I was intrigued by all the animal footprints I was seeing.


I'm not sure what kind of animals left their impressions in the peaty mud.  Perhaps raccoons, armadillos or maybe even bobcats.  Some of the paw prints were quite large.

Most of the plants in the marsh were tall grasses and small flowers but a few wax myrtles took root in slightly elevated areas.  I was surprised to see how many berries were on the bushes.


Although the berries could be gathered to make candles, I was content picking a few to crush in my hand, releasing their aromatic 'bayberry' scent.

Although I was only admiring the wax myrtle bushes and its fragrant berries, a little white-eyed vireo seemed rather anxious about my presence in its territory.

After leaving the marsh, I went back on one of our regular paths around the lake.  I saw a pretty passion flower that had climbed up and over a bunch of brambles.

I passed by two large holes dug out in the side of the berm.  The holes are obviously used by some animal, but I don't know who.  It could be made by an armadillo, fox, gopher tortoise, snake or...? Every time I pass that spot I always hope I'll see who lives there but so far, no luck. That doesn't mean I'll stop looking.

I did see one very unusual wildlife sighting on this particular walk but the animal was not alive.  A partially eaten body of a rabbit (I'm pretty sure it was a rabbit) was splayed across the branch of a tree.  The dead animal looked like it had been recently killed.  Maybe I scared away an owl, hawk or eagle as I was walking through that part of the forest and it left behind it's unfinished meal.

It was fun to take a walk through a different part of the property for a change although really, it doesn't matter which way I go.  I've yet to come back from any walk without seeing something - usually many somethings - memorable and exciting.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Blame it on the birds...

I’ve always considered the birds on our property to be good neighbors. The bare land we purchased in 1991 is now lush with plants, thanks in no small part to the unintended aid of avian seed dispersers.

A seed-eating male cardinal

While my husband Ralph and I use shovels to plant trees, vines, flowers and shrubs, seed-eating birds spread botanic wealth by dropping pre-fertilized nuggets onto the ground.  Sometimes those seed-containing pellets take root and grow, diversifying the landscape.  Because of the birds and squirrels, I never know what I’ll find until I walk through the many paths we maintain.

Recently, I came upon a flowering plant that made me rethink my “good neighbor” relationship with birds.

“I wonder what plant this is,” I said to Ralph and we approached a new vine with familiar leaves entwining a pine tree.  “It must be some sort of legume.  And look!  It’s flowering.”

A new plant with legume flowers, pods and leaves

Beneath a cover of compound leaves, a cluster of lavender blooms shielded several newly-formed flat, green, pea-shaped pods.  A little lower, I noticed two more pods in a different stage of development. Instead of being small and green, they were large, brown, brittle and open. Inside each dried up pod were four bright red and black “peas.”

Dried pod exposing distinctive red and black seeds

Since I had no idea what the plant was, I snapped a couple pictures to help me find out exactly what new botanical wonder was growing on our property.  As it turned out, discovering the plant’s identity was the easy part.  Figuring out what to do next proved more trying.
The vine thriving at the edge of our pinewoods is Abrus precatorius, commonly known as rosary pea because the seeds are used to make rosary beads.

Although a member of the legume family, rosary pea is not edible.  The seeds — those attractive bright red and black orbs within the dried pod — contain a poison called abrin, one of the most toxic in the plant kingdom.  One pea contains enough abrin to kill any horse, cow or person who unwittingly consumes it.

Birds, however, are unharmed by the plant’s potent poison.

Yes, I fear my feathered friends are responsible for the introduction into our landscape of an invasive species listed as a “Category 1” plant — the worst — by the Florida Exotic PestPlant Council.  While I may not agree with every council listing, there’s no doubt rosary pea is one plant I definitely don’t want on our property.

The more I researched Abrus precatorius, the more determined I became to eradicate this invasive exotic before it establishes an even stronger foothold.

Image courtesy of

However, rosary pea, in addition to being toxic, is extremely difficult to get rid of.  The root delves deep into the ground while the vine climbs high over trees, shrubs and anything else it can grab.  In addition to being spread by birds dropping seeds, it also spreads by sending out new shoots.

I’m not a proponent of herbicides, but this plant’s toxic nature offers few other options.  Although the organic gardener part of me wants to chop down, uproot and bag the few vines we currently have, my more cautious self says, ‘Spray them with Roundup and be done with it.’

Unfortunately, while I’m deciding what to do, cheery little songbirds are probably consuming more seeds and thus spreading additional rosary pea plants across our property and beyond.

Western palm warbler

I’d like to think the birds and I work together to make the land we share a more beneficial habitat for all creatures, but I’ve come to realize our agendas differ.  I want a land filled with harmless botanical beauties.  Birds?  Well, they’re just after a safe place to live and good food to eat.

Rosary peas might provide birds with nourishment.  To me, they are just another problem to solve.

According to the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, category 1 plants are “invasives when they are altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives. This definition does not rely on the economic severity or geographic range of the problem, but on the documented ecological damage caused.”

To learn more, visit the council’s webpage:

Monday, October 14, 2013

'Eat Cake' is a sweet read

A favorite book is like an old friend.  You may not be together often but when you are, it feels like you’ve never been apart. It’s one of those relationships that span time and space to supply a much-needed embrace with every encounter.  

That’s how I felt recently when I reread Jeanne Ray’s 2003 novel, Eat Cake.  More than any other book on my shelves, Eat Cake has provided nourishment and encouragement in times when I’ve felt a loss of both.

Despite its title, Eat Cake isn’t a cookbook, although Ray includes recipes for all the cakes mentioned in the story.  It’s also not a book about vampires, psychotic killers, gun-slinging detectives or alien invaders.  For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, those topics seem to permeate so many of today’s popular novels, movies and TV shows. 

Rather than taking the reader on a nightmare-inducing journey into an imaginary landscape of evil and wrongdoings, the Tennessee-based author serves up a sweet and satisfying slice of modern day life complete with believable characters attempting to overcome everyday obstacles and stresses.  Much to my delight, the 225 pages of this homespun tale are filled with humor and optimism instead of despair and sordidness. 

I remember the first time I picked up Eat Cake.  I was lying in bed next to my husband.  After only a few pages into the book, I began laughing.  When Ralph asked me what was so funny, I went back to the beginning and began to read the first chapter aloud: 

“This is the story of how my life was saved by cake, so, of course, if sides are to be taken, I will always take the side of cake.”

The main character, Ruth, goes on to explain how a class on stress reduction at the local Y taught her to visualize a place where she felt completely safe and peaceful.  While her classmates chose their childhood bedroom or a beach in Jamaica, Ruth found herself visualizing a cake, specifically “the warm, hollowed-out center of a Bundt cake.”

“It’s about being inside of cake,” Ruth explains, “being part of something that I find to be profoundly comforting.”

Comfort is definitely lacking in Ruth’s complicated home life shared with her suddenly unemployed husband, college-aged son, sullen teenage daughter and elderly mother.  When her estranged father moves in too because an accident immobilizes both of his hands, Ruth’s world begins to fall apart faster than a slice of crumb cake. 

Fortunately, a good baker knows what to do to keep the pieces together.  With a little bit of this and a touch of that, with the right combination of hard work, humor, cooperation and positive attitude, almost any obstacle can be overcome.

I like realistic books that provide encouragement and hope in exchange for the investment of a few hours of time.  I like books that make me feel better at the end than I did before I began reading.  Eat Cake may not be as deep a read as some might prefer but, like a good piece of cake, its very lightness and sweet flavor denotes quality. 

Eat Cake is the kind of book meant to be shared with others.  Over the years, I’ve given copies to family members and close friends.  Like all of Jeanne Ray’s novels - she has written four other books as well - Eat Cake is a tasty treat that will be remembered long after the last page is read.  A review in the Library Journal said, “Funny, believable, and full of surprises, this novel, like time with a good friend, is over far too soon.” 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Dragonflies...Yes. Mosquitoes...No

Dragonfly resting on redroot flower

In the late afternoon, Ralph and I were sitting in the gazebo talking with a visitor when the topic of mosquitoes came up.  “Do you have many?” our guest asked.  With a lake within sight, I’m sure he imagined our response to be, “Yes.” 

Instead, we told him “No.  Thanks to dragonflies and bats, mosquitoes aren’t that bad here.”

Our response was reinforced that evening when Ralph and I took a pre-dark dip in the lake.  As we lolled in the sun-warmed water, a swarm of dragonflies filled the sky. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many dragonflies at once,” I exclaimed as a battalion of drone-sized fliers zoomed back and forth above our heads. 

The dragonflies were large – two to three inches long – and they flew with intention, showing no signs of hesitancy or indecision.  They didn’t land upon reeds as they do during daytime nor were they chasing each other in territorial battles or mating maneuvers.  Instead, they flew fast and furious, focused, it seemed, on a single mission: Catching bugs.  
I was awestruck watching them sweep across the lake, fortunate to be protected by troops of aerial warriors.

Red skimmer dragonfly on bog button
Between dragonflies and bats, which appear shortly after the dragonflies, the mosquitoes that live around our lake have much to fear.  Both consume quantities of bugs.  Although dragonflies and bats are both voracious carnivores, a dragonfly’s predatory skills are so well honed it manages to catch 95 percent of its prey.  In addition to mosquitoes, dragonflies also eat flies, gnats, bees, moths, butterflies and even the occasional spider in whose web they might find themselves entangled.

Bog buttons seem to be favorite landing pads for dragonflies of all colors and sizes

The wind wasn’t blowing as Ralph and I enjoyed our soak, and after the dragonflies appeared, it remained calm for about 15 minutes.  Then suddenly, a strong breeze blew in and our airborne navigators vanished.  We were still in the water a short time later (it felt too pleasant to get out) when the wind subsided and the dragonflies returned.  Around the same time, about half-dozen bats swooped in to do their sonar-directed search for supper above the lake and surrounding shoreline.

“Do you think we did anything to attract them,” Ralph asked as we dried off with towels on the way to the house.  We’d finally managed to extract ourselves from the lake’s warm water, leaving the dragonflies and bats behind to continue their feeding frenzy without a human audience.   

Although I didn’t have a definitive answer to his question, I presume dragonflies and bats live on our property because they find the habitat suitable.  There are plenty of dead trees for cavity-roosting bats to live in, shallow, marshy areas for dragonflies to frequent and no harmful pesticides or herbicides to disturb natural rhythms.  I also realize their presence could just as easily be the result of chance.

A few days later, we once again found ourselves lolling in the warm water in the twilight hours after a busy day of work.  As usual, dragonflies flew overhead albeit fewer this time than before.

Close-up of blue dasher dragonfly

“I love watching dragonflies,” I said from my semi-submerged perch.  “I may not know why they’re here, but I’m glad they are.”

As daylight diminished, we headed inside for dinner, happy to know that while we were dining on a vegetable stir-fry, a contingent of natural predators was zooming back and forth above the lake feasting on meals of their own.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Hello beautiful spider!

A Simply Extra
I've been posting a lot of spider pictures lately, which I know creeps many people out, but to me spiders are not only beneficial but beautiful critters.  I love learning about their unique features, habits and lifestyles.  

Below are three pictures of Nephila clavipes, a gorgeous web-spinning arachnid that is especially prevalent in the woods during late summer/autumn.

Many people know Nephilia clavipes by its common names of golden silk orb weaver or banana spider

The golden silk orb weaver's web really does look like spun gold as it shimmers in the sunlight 

I took these pictures along the outer edge of a grove of Vivax Bamboo where the spider's web stretched across a distance of about 10-feet