Monday, August 25, 2014

Learning to listen

Our oldest grandchild just started kindergarten, and his sister is about to begin her first year of preschool.

While handling those changes, their mother — our daughter — is also in the midst of a major do-it-yourself home renovation project. As she and her husband attempt to put their expanded house back together, their "babies" are stepping out into the world, meeting new people and experiencing new situations. It's a difficult period fraught with both physical and emotional exhaustion.

I remember that stage of life. Our children were also little when my husband Ralph and I built our first house on Cape Cod, a do-it-yourself venture where we did everything from designing the floor plan to stuffing insulation. As I walked across my daughter's newly-installed wooden floor to her freshly painted kitchen, I looked up and noticed a small unpainted section of wall by the ceiling.

"Oh that," she said as I pointed it out. "Yeah, it was too high to reach. We'll get back to it at some point and finish it up."

Her words triggered a memory flashback.

"Finish it now," I wanted to say. "Don't make the same mistakes we did. Don't wait for 'someday' when you'll have more time and motivation because tomorrows like that are few and far between."

But I didn't say those words. I know how hard it is to juggle multiple projects and knew it wouldn't help to add more tasks to my daughter's already overburdened schedule. Instead of offering advice, I simply nodded and listened. I tried to practice one of the new lessons I've been trying to grasp — when to offer suggestions to our adult children and when to be quiet.

Our grandchildren may be just starting school, but Ralph and I are still in the midst of our own education. As much as I'd like to be that wise fount of knowledge and advice to our adult kids, I know how important it is for children of all ages to learn things on their own.

No stage of life is free of challenges. Medical issues, home repairs and financial concerns all generate complicated questions as do the problems of figuring out where to live, what type of work to do or if you should send your children to preschool. As a parent of adult children, I've come to realize how my parental role has changed. It is no longer my job to supply fast solutions as much as it is to lend an ear, to be there for support, encouragement and sometimes simply to listen.

When my kids were little, I healed most hurts with hugs and kisses. Although I no longer have that power, my two daughters do. As I watch them attend to the needs of their own children, I catch a glimpse of the transitions of time as we experience different degrees of empathy, love, passion and reaction to the everyday challenges of life.

The end of August is a time of transition. Kids begin school, and patterns change as families rush to complete summer projects and adjust to different schedules. It has been a long time since I felt the tug of society's tether, yet recent visits with my adult children and grandchildren have refreshed the memory of those busy days.

Do I miss the turmoil of those earlier years? Not really. Do I mind the loss of simple fixes? Maybe, just a little. The truth is, I wouldn't want to relive the time when I was too overwhelmed to finish projects and too tired to care. Sometimes it takes a little corner of unfinished paint to remind us of how far we've come and how much there is still is to learn.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A short walk yields many flowers and a few critters

A few pictures from my walk around the house yesterday later afternoon.

Blackberry lily - also called leopard lily

Pink 4-o'clocks and blue porterweed flowers 

Purple duranta, also called golden dewdrop

White duranta - it too is often called golden dewdrop

The fruit on our starfruit tree (carambola) are starting to get big

Cutleaf coneflower with katydid - can you find it?

Cutleaf coneflower without katydid

Grasshopper on coneflower leaf

White plumbego

Ginger with pretty pink flowers...but what kind is it?

White begonia gone wild in the gardens

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Fuzzy wuzzy was a...caterpillar?

Look what I found on a rain lily leaf today.

It may look like the insect version of a tiny dog...

But it's really a caterpillar, a Southern Tussock Moth Caterpillar.

With all those pinkish-grey tufts it looked very soft and touchable but I managed to restrain myself. Some caterpillars are poisonous and since when I first saw it, I wasn't sure what kind of caterpillar it was, I kept my distance. Good thing I did. As it turns out, touching the hairs of some species of Tussock Moth caterpillars can result in a mild but itchy sting.

Just like a cute little dog that will bite your finger if you try to pat him, it's sometimes best to admire caterpillars from afar.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What a surprise!

Three days after my friend Susan posted a picture of her Stapelia gigantea blossom, my Stapelia flowered too!

Until I saw the picture Susan posted on the Florida Flora Facebook page I had been feeling undecided whether or not I would even keep the plant which I had gotten about a year ago at a local plant exchange.  I had no idea what kind of succulent it was, how big it would grow or the type of care it required.  Before seeing Susan's post, I didn't even know it bloomed.  Fortunately, I saw the picture and realized I had the same plant.

As it turns out, Stapelia gigantea, commonly known as Starfish Flower and Giant Zulu, is a clumping succulent with upright green stems.  Native to the desert climate of southeastern Africa, Stapelia gigantea is a carrion plant, which means when it blooms it exudes an odor that smells like rotting meat.  The putrid smell attracts flies that land inside the bloom and wander around in search of the food that they think is there. As they do so, pollen collects on their feet. When they fly off again, they transfer pollen to the next bloom.

The flower, a large, five-pointed blossom edged with white hairs is a annual occurrence that doesn't last long.  After noticing Susan's post and reading comments made by other members of Florida Flora, I went outside to check my own plant where much to my surprise, I saw a bulging appendage that I had never seen before.

Needless to say, I watched it closely. Within a day, the pale green bulge grew bigger until it finally burst open revealing a pink and white speckled interior with a magenta center.

Although I never noticed an offensive odor in Stapelia gigantea, I'm hoping some flies did.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sex in the garden

Love is in the air, and butterflies know it.

Yesterday, while standing by the bottlebrush tree, I watched a pair of Gulf fritillaries engage in Lepidoptera foreplay.

The female chose a bottlebrush leaf, lit upon it and held on tight. While she stayed still, her male counterpart landed on her back and flapped his wings furiously. A few seconds later, the pair parted only to reunite a after the female resettled on a different leaf. As I watched, the couple repeated their pre-mating ritual several more times.

Although it looks like one butterfly, it's actually two gulf fritillaries performing a pre-mating ritual

I might have continued watching the fritillaries amorous activities longer if the sight of two other butterflies had not distracted me. Another romantic rendezvous was taking place.

Eastern black swallowtails are almost twice as big as Gulf fritillaries. With large black wings edged by a series of bright yellow spots and highlighted in the center of the lower wings by two orange “eyes” and several blue dots, they are stunning to behold. I suppose the swallowtails found each other stunning as well — they participated in an airborne lovefest.

Eastern black swallowtails are one of many species that woo potential partners by performing aerial acrobatics. While I stood quietly by, the two butterflies fluttered up, down and all around the bottlebrush tree. They flew together in a closely choreographed dance. Not only did I find the prelude to butterfly procreation interesting to observe, it was beautiful to watch.

Butterflies in pursuit of passion

Beautiful though it be, a butterfly’s life is brief. After emerging from the chrysalis, most live less than a month, and some species last only a few days. During that short time, they must accomplish two tasks — find food and mate. To help with the latter, both sexes exude scent secretions called pheromones from pockets on their wing patches. Male butterflies patrol the air in search of females or perch patiently on a twig, leaf or flower until a member of the opposite sex passes by. Either way, once the male senses or sees a female, he puts on a show to prove his worthiness as a reproductive partner.

One day last year, I encountered a tangle of four monarch butterflies hooked together in what looked like a butterfly bouquet. With wings flapping, the orange-black-and-white beauties fluttered a few feet above our front walkway before eventually settling down together on the concrete path.

Until that day, I had never seen such an entanglement of butterfly bodies. I later learned that males of some species exhibit this type of behavior to attract the attention of a nearby female who then chooses one of the participants as her mate. I don’t know if the monarchs I watched last year were successful at attracting a partner but I do know they put on an impressive show.

Butterflies mate only during warm times of the year. Because they are coldblooded, they depend on warm weather to regulate their body temperature. When it is either too cold or too hot outside — below 50 degrees or above 108 degrees — butterflies are unable to fly. Lately, it has been perfect weather. A butterfly’s search for food typically is met by a ready supply of nectar from flowering plants, leaving only the drive to find a partner and mate.

A pair of queen monarchs mating

Reproduction is a basic need of every species, humans included. I find it odd that many people spend more time watching acts of violence than displays of affection. We could all do with more examples of amorous attention. There’s reason to care when love is in the air.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Swallowtails in the garden, but which kind?

It's not easy to identify butterflies when they're fluttering around flowers.  Even when they've stopped to sip nectar and have settled down long enough for me to take a picture, I often find myself unsure of what specific species I'm photographing.  

Below are a few of different kinds of swallowtail butterflies (and one look-alike mimic) that have visited our gardens over the years. 

A palamedes swallowtail (Pterourus palamedes) on bottlebrush bloom

The pattern on the back of a palamedes swallowtail (above) reminds me of a heart.

Red-spotted purple (Basilarchia astyanax) is not a swallowtail at all even though it looks like one. 

Instead of being in the Papilionidae family like swallowtails, the Red-spotted purple (above) is actually a member of the Nymphalidae family. It is said to mimic the appearance of the pipevine swallowtail in order to fool potential predators.

Spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troitus)

The spicebush swallowtail (above) is one of the swallowtails I find more difficult to ID because I think it looks very similar to the female Eastern black swallowtail (below).

Female Eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Not all swallowtails are as easy to tell apart as the male (below) and female (above) black swallowtails.  To me, the two look like entirely different species instead of just different sexes.

Male Eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Since the wings of tiger swallowtails (below) are predominantly yellow with black stripes instead of being mainly black, they are much simpler to recognize than most other swallowtails.  

Male Tiger swallowtail (Pterourus glaucus) on bush sunflower blooms

In Tiger swallowtails, to tell the sexes apart, look for the colors.  The female (below) has noticeably blue highlights on her lower wings while the male's wings (above) lack that coloration.

Female Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on bamboo

And last but not certainly not least is the Giant swallowtail (below), which has a distinctive wing pattern that makes IDing it just a little bit simpler.

Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)

Hopefully, I've labeled the above butterflies correctly but if you think I'm wrong, please let me know. I want to improve my ID skills and am always open to help from others. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Homegrown Avocados

Our seven-year-old avocado tree is covered with large, pear-shaped spheres of potential goodness. My husband Ralph and I did a tentative first picking of the season today, harvesting a half-dozen samples to test for ripeness.

Although most people consider it a vegetable, the avocado is actually a fruit that grows on a medium-sized evergreen tree. Beneath the fruit’s green-skinned exterior are mounds of soft edible flesh surrounding a single pit, or seed. Related to cinnamon, sassafras and camphor trees, this member of the Laurel family is native to Central America, where the Aztec people considered it such a powerful aphrodisiac that they kept their daughters indoors during harvest season. Avocados were introduced to Florida in 1833 and to California 23 years later.

The rich-tasting, smooth and buttery flesh inside an avocado is incredibly versatile. In addition to being the main ingredient in guacamole, avocado-based products include items as diverse as ice cream, puddings, smoothies, soups and cosmetics.

An avocado smoothie (photo credit:

While I find the idea of an avocado facemask intriguing, my preferences for its use run more along more culinary lines. I enjoy eating the fruit by the scoopful, sliced on a sandwich or as a lumpy mash mixed with homegrown tomatoes, parsley, garlic and onions and sprinkled with lemon juice.

Guacamole (Photo credit:

Recognized as a nutritional powerhouse, avocados are high in fiber and rich in minerals such as potassium and magnesium as well as Vitamins A, C, D, E, K and eight kinds of B vitamins. An avocado is a source for monounsaturated “good fats,” which have been shown to improve cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation and lower the risk of heart disease.

With so many beneficial attributes, not to mention an appealing taste and texture, it’s no surprise I’ve been eagerly anticipating the harvest of our own fruit. But the problem with avocados is knowing the right time to pick.

Unlike other fruits that change colors as they mature, most varieties of avocado remain the same color throughout their growth. The size of the fruit, however, does not stay constant. Its length and girth increase as the weather warms. Experts say the best way to tell if an avocado is ready to harvest is to pick one when it looks big enough, bring it inside and then wait a few days to see if it ripens. Not what I’d call a scientific approach, but I’m willing to give it a go.

Watching our avocados grow

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been telling my husband that the avocados on our oldest tree are getting big — store-size big, which to me says, ‘Time to pick.’ Ralph’s response to my observations has been an assorted mumble of unintelligible grunts. The other day, however, tired of being ignored, I insisted he look at the tree himself.

Sure enough, once he stood beneath it and looked up at all the large fruit hanging down, he admitted I might be right.

Naturally, the biggest avocados were way out of reach, but by using an extension pole picking device, Ralph was able to snag a few of the larger fruits from the upper limbs. Since they were all still hard, we set the shiny-skinned fruit in the pantry to ripen. In a few days, they should soften up and be ready to cut open and taste.

If they do ripen properly, we’ll need to start harvesting the remaining fruit. A single tree can produce 60 to 150 pounds of fruit. While I doubt if our tree will be that productive, even half as many pounds of avocados is more than two people can eat.

It’s a good thing we have family and friends to share the bounty with and, of course, there’s always guacamole to make. If we get tired of that, a quick Google search for avocado recipes yields more than 19 million results, so finding a few new concoctions shouldn’t be too difficult. If I get desperate for something to do with all the avocados — who knows? — I might even whip up a facemask.

Recipe for avocado facemask at