Monday, September 29, 2014

Got questions? Get answers at Wings & Wildflowers Festival

Have you ever noticed an unfamiliar bird in your yard and wondered what it was? Maybe you’d like to create a butterfly garden but are unsure what plants to include. Have you always wanted to explore a local waterway but don’t know where to go?

You can find the answers this weekend (Oct. 3-5) during Lake County’s 3rd Annual Wings and Wildflowers Festival based at Venetian Gardens in Leesburg.

Faithful Beauty Moth (Composia fidelissima) on Chicksaw Plum

I always look forward to the festival because it focuses attention on something I value — Lake County’s diverse and bountiful natural wonders. From kayak trips to tram rides, rare plant hikes to scrub jay sightings, there’s a field trip, lecture, outing or adventure to spark the interest of anyone with curiosity about local plants and wildlife.

Florida scrub jay

With more than 100 programs and events to choose from — most free or for a small fee — people of all ages can gain a better understanding of the world outside their door. Pre-registration has been going on for more than a month at the festival website,, but there’s still time for last-minute festival goers to sign up for a wide range of offerings.

Anyone interested in attracting hummingbirds to their yard might want to check out Naturalist Lavon Silvernell’s free Friday afternoon program, Hummingbird Habitat. Silvernell, who recently retired as director of Trout Lake Nature Center in Eustis, will explain how the right configuration of native plants, water and shelter can draw these diminutive feathered beauties to any patio garden. Her program runs from 2 -3 p.m. at the Venetian Gardens Community Building, 103 E. Dixie Ave., Leesburg.

Hummingbird drinking nectar from Wendy's Wish Salvia

Another free program presented by a local expert is apiarist Billy Fussell’s class, “Beekeeping 101,” which runs from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Friday at the community building. Fussell, owner of Bee Fussy Apiary in Leesburg and president of Lake County Beekeepers, is bringing a variety of different honeys from around the region for participants to sample. What a sweet way to learn.

Bee approaching bottlebrush bloom

Although Venetian Gardens in Leesburg is the festival’s home base this year, many of its programs, especially field trips and water adventures, take place at locations throughout the county.

There are still seats available for the a two-hour pontoonboat tour of Lake Dora and the Dora Canal for $27 a person. It is set for 2-4 p.m. Sunday, departing from the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora. Attendees can ride in comfort while a guide from Premier Boat Tours points out 2,000-year-old cypress trees, herons, ibises, egrets, osprey, alligators, turtles and maybe even a bald eagle or two.

Bald eagle in pine tree overlooking water

For birders in need of a bit of relaxation, head over to the Birds & Beer event from 4-6 p.m. Saturday at the Leesburg Boat Club TikiBar, 31 Dozier Circle, Leesburg. JayMc & The Mountain River Band will provide a free concert of old and new country music, including many original tunes. Mingle with fellow birders while enjoying a cool brew in a shaded waterside setting.

More into butterflies than brewskis? If so, bring the kids to the Florida Scrub-Jay Trail at 11490 Monte Vista Road, Clermont, all day Saturday to observe butterflies in the garden and learn about the cycle of birth from egg to newly hatched Monarch butterfly during Cathy Brown’s continuously running program, “Butterflies are Free.”

Learn how monarch butterflies are tagged at the "Butterflies are Free" presentation

The festival’s website is the place to learn about the three keynote speakers, Birds & Blooms magazine editor Stacy Tornio;

Stacy Tornio

author, botanist, photographer and naturalist Roger L. Hammer,

Roger Hammer
and birder Greg Miller, whose 1998 cross-country quest to view 700 species of birds in a single year is the true story behind the 2011 film “The Big Year.”

Greg Miller

You can also sign up online to save your spot in any of the programs, including meet-and-greets with the keynote speakers and other presenters.

Even if you don’t have time to participate in any of the scheduled events, stop by anyway to check out the vendors and exhibits. Last year, while browsing through the vendor area, I found three new Florida-friendly plants to add to my garden.

One of my Florida-friendly plant finds:  Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica)

This year, in addition to poking around the plants-for-sale section, I’m looking forward to seeing the ongoing exhibit of nature-inspired art by the Pastel Society of Central Florida.

With so much going on, it may be hard to decide what to do first. My suggestion: Pick one and have fun. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A fruitful harvest

For breakfast, I filled a bowl with small slices of starfruit and bite-size chunks of pineapple topped off with a few spoonfuls of pear sauce and a dollop of maple syrup. The maple syrup came from the local grocery but everything else was homegrown.

The starfruit, also known as carambola, grew on a small tree next to our house while the pineapple bore fruit in the shade of a dwarf bamboo in and among a sprawl of wandering Jews and rain lilies.

I had picked the pears — hard Florida pears with a vastly different texture and appearance than the more familiar store-bought Bosc or Bartlett pears — from an abandoned orchard on a neighbor's property.

A few evenings earlier, I sat in front of the TV surrounded by two large stainless steel bowls, a cutting board, one paring and one chopping knife plus a moist towel to wipe stickiness from my hands. Peeling Florida pears is a messy, time-consuming job, but I didn't mind. Producing pear sauce has become an annual autumn activity. One taste of the smooth sauce that follows a long slow boil of the peeled and mashed fruit replaces any negative thoughts with the sweet flavor of homemade food.

I have last year's mild winter to thank for my morning meal. While Florida pears can tolerate winter frost and temperatures in the teens, pineapples and starfruit are not nearly as forgiving. Until last year, the previous four or five winters in our part of Central Florida were brutal. Chilly temperatures caused tropical plants of all types, including fruit trees, to suffer greatly. Unless covered, heated or otherwise protected, many either died or died back.

That changed last winter when mild weather persisted from late autumn through early spring. Our 10-year-old starfruit tree, which died back during previous cold spells, finally made it through the winter of 2013 unscathed. New limbs appeared and in early spring, small white flowers dotted many of the slender branches, the first hint of the fruitful season ahead.

A few of my pineapple plants also survived. For several years, I have been saving the tops of every store-bought pineapple I'd eaten — about two a month — and planting the spiky green crowns wherever I could find space in the garden. Pineapples are a type of terrestrial bromeliad with a shallow root system, minimal water requirements and a preference for acidic soil in a sunny or semi-sunny location.

Although they are low-maintenance "air" plants, their long growth period requires quite a bit of patience. It takes approximately two years for each crown to produce a single fruit. During that extended growth period, these heat-loving plants must stay out of the cold. Most of my young pineapples died during winter 2012. The ones that escaped harm were either sheltered from chilling by neighboring plants or had been planted during a period when their growth wasn't halted by frigid temperatures.

After so many years of disappointment, it's been exciting to once again harvest fruit from some of our more cold-sensitive plants. While the starfruit tree is just beginning to produce fruit, I don't have more pineapples to pick. But that's OK. Yesterday my husband Ralph and I cut down a small hand of bananas and the persimmons on our trees are almost ripe. There is fruit in our future — homegrown and fresh picked. Breakfast couldn't look better.

Persimmons almost ready to pick

Monday, September 15, 2014

Friendship blooms

I have a new BFF.  In garden-speak, that means Best Flower Friend.


Her name is Rudbeckia laciniata, but I like to call her Cutleaf Coneflower.  While my new BFF is a Florida native, she grows just as well in Zone 3 as she does in Zone 9.  During an early August trip to western Mass, flowery displays of Cutleaf Coneflower were ubiquitous in the residential neighborhoods I visited.  Although less common in Central Florida, this member of the Aster shows off her yellow daisy-like flowers in late summer, continuing to paint the landscape with cheery color throughout early fall. 

Related to the more familiar, Black-eyed Susan, one of the main differences between the two perennial plants is their central disc.  In Black-eyed Susan, the petals extend from a dark black circle while in Cutleaf Coneflower the central orb is slightly green, growing darker and more raised as the flower matures.  The greenish tone is responsible for one of Rudbeckia laciniata’s other common names, Green-headed Coneflower. 

The more familiar black-eyed Susan has a much darker central disc than cutleaf coneflower and petals that without a noticeable droop 

However, no matter what you call her, there’s no denying this flower’s impressive height.  Topping out between 3 and 12 feet tall, my lanky friend towers other many of the neighboring blooms.  While not a demanding plant, Cutleaf Coneflower does have her preferences.  She prefers a partially sunny location with enriched, irrigated soil.  In my gardens, I planted this new addition on the southern side of the house in two locations where broad trees and a clump of dwarf bamboo filter some of the sun’s rays. 

For the first few months of our acquaintance, a mound of large, lobed foliage was the only present this plant presented.  As the months went by, the leafy crests grew bigger and broader and I found myself wondering what I’d gotten myself into.  What kind of flower, if any, would this new plant produce?  Admittedly, the foliage was pretty.  But did I really need another non-blooming plant taking up valuable garden real estate?

Before blooms appeared, the only indication of the plant's beauty were large mounds of dark green, lobed leaves 

The answer arrived at the end of July, shortly before I left for New England.  Cutleaf Coneflower was finally ready to show her true colors.  Suddenly, my garden was ablaze with abundant blossoms.  Bright yellow petals emerged atop tall flower stalks and I wasn’t the only one to notice.  Bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds were also paying attention.

Once the plants began blooming, bees buzzed about gathering pollen

The other day, in need of a bit of garden therapy, I positioned myself on a plastic chair in a corner of the garden in hopes of catching a wildlife show.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Within moments, I began to see bees.  Lots of bees.  Pollen sacs on the bees’ forelegs grew noticeably fuller as, one after another, the bees derived sustenance from the profuse yellow blooms.  

Gathering pollen from Cutleaf Coneflower blooms may have increased the load for the bees to carry home to their hives but watching so many beneficial insects visit the garden made my load feel lighter. 

I suppose that’s what friends do.  They make us feel better.  Cutleaf Coneflower is generous without being demanding, beautiful without being boastful.  My new BFF may not be human but it doesn’t matter.  I give her a place to grow and flourish and in return, she provides soothing relief from everyday stresses.  It’s a good deal both of us -  I think the bees are happy too.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Learning to live with 'widow' spiders

Over the last two weeks, Ralph and I have been busy readying one of our rental homes for the arrival of new tenants.  In the process of clearing the yard of debris and cleaning up exterior and interior messes left by the previous tenant, I’ve encountered several brown widow spiders.

A brown widow spider guards her egg sacs and newly hatched spiderlings

Although black widow spiders are more notorious, they are only one of four members of the genus Latrodectus. The southern black, northern black, red, and brown widow are all in the widow family.  Of those four, the brown widow spider (Latrodectus geometricus) is the one most likely to settle around our homes, yard, sheds, boats and vehicles.

Black widow

Like its better-known cousin, a brown widow is easily recognizable by a brightly-colored hourglass-shaped marking on the underside of its bulbous abdomen.  Both spiders are about an inch long with legs extended, but unlike a black widow’s shiny black body, a brown widow’s upper body is grayish-brown with light white markings. 

Brown widow

I realize most people aren’t going to take the time to note subtle color differences between black and brown widows.  When they see a spider – a widow or most any other kind – their first reaction is to kill the eight-legged beast.  That’s unfortunate because of the 40,000 spider species worldwide, the vast majority – even widows - help humans by eating harmful insects.  In Florida, only 7 of the 900 species of spiders, which includes the four widows and three kinds of recluse spiders, pose a threat to people.

Comic by Bruce Thomas,

Although I know venomous spiders are capable of inflicting lethal bites, I also know the risk of that happening is minimal.  According to Dr. Steve A. Johnson of the University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, only seven people in the U.S. die from spider bites annually on average.  To put that figure in perspective, about 21 people die from dog bites each year while stings from bees and wasps are responsible for about 53 fatalities annually.


Entomologist, Fred Santana, of the Sarasota County Extension Agency states on a University of Florida IFAS website that widow spiders are generally non-aggressive and will retreat when disturbed.  Bites usually occur when a person sticks a hand in recessed areas or dark corners and inadvertently presses against a spider.

It was in just such dark spots where I encountered brown widow spiders at our rental house.  One was in the upper track of a sliding glass door, another outside in the recessed top corner of a double-hung window and a third was hiding underneath an aluminum railing in the screen porch.  In all three cases, I noticed brown widow egg sacs before I saw the spiders.

Brown widow egg sacs are easy to recognize.  Larger than a pea but smaller than a marble, each tan-colored orb is covered with small pointy projections that give it a prickly appearance.  Each egg sac – there are usually several – is secured within a three-dimensional conical-shaped web diligently guarded by the female spider who is usually hidden in a corner of the web during daylight hours.  Widow spiders are nocturnal and are generally inactive during days.

Brown widow egg sacs are prickly while the egg sacs of a black widow spider (below) lack bumpy projections

Photo credit:

Because they were at one of our rental homes, I killed the spiders and crushed the egg sacs.  I knew my incoming tenants, who have young children, would not be want to share their new home with potentially dangerous arachnids. 

The thing is, spiders are everywhere and we need to learn to coexist.  Sure, we should take precautions like cleaning regularly and straightening away messes to prevent unnecessary interactions, but that doesn’t mean we should go crazy with fear and kill every spider we see. 

It’s important to learn about the creatures that share our ecosystem.  As knowledge grows, fear decreases.  Once we understand the habitat, behavior and lifecycle of these insect-eating critters we realize even ‘bad’ spiders like those in the genus Latrodectus, are not as bad as we’ve been led to believe.

Comic by Teal,

Monday, September 1, 2014

Our resident cranes are back

A pair of sandhill cranes has returned to our lake. The tall, redheaded birds arrive at dusk to spend the night on a tiny wisp of weedy land surrounded by water.

Flying in to spend the night on an isle in our lake

Shortly after daybreak, they busy themselves with a bit of preening and stretching before flying off to destinations unknown. Although the birds never stay all day on our property, they stop by occasionally to probe the soil with their sharp beaks in search of seeds, bugs, berries or lizards. Inevitably, they leave, returning to the tiny island only when some inner clock tells them it's time to roost.

Sandhill crane morning rituals include extensive preening and stretches

Our lake has been a way station for sandhill cranes ever since a mated pair built a nest on a small island that appeared in the middle of the lake in 2001. Sandhill cranes like to raise their young on protected places such as small land masses surrounded by water or wetlands. We had a period of extreme drought 13 years ago and although lake levels have fluctuated widely since then, the cranes' commitment to our property hasn't wavered.

Unusually low water levels in 2001 exposed a long island of peat in the middle of our lake.  That year a sandhill crane couple nested on the island and hatched out two babies. 

Most years, a pair nests on one of the tiny isles in the north end of the lake and succeeds at raising one or two babies. There have been seasons, however, when the birds didn't reproduce at all or their young failed to survive.

During the especially wet spring of April 2011, the sandhill cranes abandoned a nest with 2 eggs in it when water levels rose and flooded them

As a group, sandhill cranes are doing well with about 500,000 birds worldwide divided into six subspecies. Three of those subspecies, the Greater, Lesser and Canadian sandhill crane, are migratory birds while the other three, the Mississippi, Cuban and Florida sandhill cranes, live their entire lives in limited regions. The migratory populations — cranes that nest in the northern climates and fly south for winter — are either stable or increasing, but the outlook isn't as bright for the non-migratory birds. Mississippi and Cuban sandhill crane populations are dwindling with both subspecies listed as endangered. The Florida sandhill crane population is doing a bit better even though it consists of only about 5,000 birds. The Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission lists the Florida sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pratensis) as threatened.

Large flocks of migratory sandhill cranes come to Florida in the winter

Because I see them in summer when migratory cranes have returned to their northern homes, the pair that spends the night on our lake is among that small group of year-round residents.  I suspect they are the same pair that we've been seeing for years.

Our resident crane couple with their most recent offspring

One of many interesting behaviors is their tendency to return year after year to the same nesting place. The cranes, which can live up to 20 years in the wild, are monogamous birds with both parents participating in the care of their offspring. Young cranes are called colts. A sandhill crane nest usually includes one or two eggs that hatch after about a month. Occasionally, both baby birds will grow to maturity but often only one bird survives.

Baby cranes that do live stay with their parents for about nine months before leaving to join a flock of other juvenile birds. These gatherings of immature, non-breeding cranes provide the young birds with opportunity to find mates and engage in courting rituals that include extravagant dancing behaviors. (Click below to see movie of mating dance.) Once mates have been selected, partners often stay together for several years before the successfully raising babies.

Like many Floridians, I find our resident sandhill cranes fascinating. These large birds are not only beautiful, but also surprisingly tolerant of humans. They often forage for food in our lawns and rest in the shade of our trees. Yet, because we see them so frequently, it's easy to take our resident sandhill cranes for granted.

The sandhill cranes foraging through our front yard in 2012

Although I often wish the sandhill cranes that spend the night on our lake would spend the day on our property, too, with a population of less than 5,000 birds, I try to be grateful that they come at all.

Please visit my YouTube channel to see several more videos of our resident sandhill cranes and their babies.