Monday, August 31, 2015

Learning to appreciate a plant I don't like

Primrose willow, Ludwigia peruviana, grows along the shoreline of our lake. It’s a broad, bushy plant dotted with flat, four-petal, lemon-yellow flowers. The flowers bloom almost continually during most of the year.

A bee buzzes by a yellow primrose willow flower

Even though it is a flowering plant, neither my husband nor I care for primrose willow. Something about its sprawling growth pattern and invasive nature prevents adoration. We especially dislike how quickly it takes over the shoreline, blocking views and access to the water. In our eyes, it's a nasty pest, and the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council agrees.

Primrose willow is a wetland plant that sprawls along the shoreline in front of our house

In 2013, the council listed it among the worst invasive plants. That doesn’t mean it is without admirers, especially among a particular member of the lepidopteron order of insects. The banded sphinx moth, Eumorpha fasciatus, uses primrose willow as a host plant.

A sphinx moth rests during the day and flys at night 

Adult female moths lay eggs on the underside of the plant’s leaves and when the caterpillars hatch, they grow huge on a diet composed entirely of primrose willow leaves.

Most of the primrose willow plants I saw while rowing along the lake's perimeter the other day were at least partially defoliated. It seemed like every bush had at least a few bare branches. Knowing nothing defoliates a plant as effectively as a hungry caterpillar, I rowed close for a better look. Sure enough, I spotted three caterpillars munching their way through the remaining foliage on three different branches of the same plant.

Almost ready to pupate, this banded sphinx moth caterpillar grows huge on a diet of primrose willow leaves

All three were banded sphinx moth caterpillars, distinctive because of their bright-colored, plaid-like patterns on their bodies. While each of the three caterpillars was large — three to four inches long — one looked decidedly different from the other two. Instead of having a red-black-yellow-white pattern, one caterpillar was mainly green, the same color as the leaves, with a series of thin, white swooshes and tiny black and white “eyes” on its sides.

Pretty in plaid, a banded sphinx moth caterpillar nibbles away through a branch of primrose willow leaves

During its caterpillar stage of life, the banded sphinx moth goes through five different stages of development. During each stage, its coloration changes as its body grows longer and thicker. From the look of the long, chubby bodies of the three caterpillars I saw, the two patterned insects had already reached their final stage, and the more green one was close behind.

Can you find the banded sphinx moth caterpillar in its green-colored stage of development?

Soon all three will pupate, that stage in Lepidoptera development when a larva stops feeding and becomes immobile while its body undergoes an intense physical transformation. For that to happen, the banded sphinx caterpillar must climb down the plant on which it has been feeding and crawl into a shallow underground burrow until its metamorphosis is complete and it is ready to emerge as a moth.

Once each caterpillar turns into a banded sphinx moth, it will have attractive A-shaped brown and white wings with a wingspan about four inches wide. It is slightly smaller than a hummingbird and because of its similar size and feeding habits, it is often called a hummingbird moth. The banded sphinx moth has a long furled proboscis that it uncurls to sip nectar from flowering plants, acting as a pollinator in the process. It feeds at dusk and throughout the night and rests during daylight hours on the leaves of plants.

Hummingbird moth sipping nectar from a pickerelweed flower

Learning about the importance of primrose willow to the banded sphinx moth’s lifecycle has tempered my attitude about the plant. While I still don’t like its unruly growth pattern or invasive nature, it helps to know it serves a purpose in nature. Will that stop me from hacking back as many primrose willows as I can from the lake’s perimeter? Probably not, but it does provide a bit of respect for a plant that up until now I saw only as an unworthy pest.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Butterflies, blooms and a bunch of yellow aphids

Just returned from a few days at the beach so naturally, one of the first things I did was walk around our Groveland gardens to see how the plants fared in our absence.  The plants were fine and the butteflies were happy too. My short stroll yielded a number of fluttery finds.

Gulf fritillary on tropical milkweed along with numerous yellow aphids

Giant swallowtail on tropical milkweed

Tiger swallowtail on blackberry lily

Tiger swallowtail on tropical milkweed

Zebra longwing on pink echinacea

Gulf fritillary on aptly named butterfly bush

Monday, August 24, 2015

Ants in pants? Not yet. But everywhere else

The good thing about tawny crazy ants is that they don't bite people. The bad thing about tawny crazy ants is that there are so many bad things. The worst thing just might be our inability to prevent these persistent pests from invading property.

And invade they have. Over the past 13 years, tawny crazy ants, which are native to South America, have infiltrated Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. In Florida, they have spread through 27 of the state's 67 counties, including Lake.

About a year ago, brigades of the brazenly aggressive insects, identified scientifically as Nylanderia fulva, took up residence in and around our house. What initially looked like mounds of brown dirt on our garage floor turned out to be masses of 1/8-inch long, reddish-brown ants.

Dirt?  No.  Ants. Crazy ants in our garage.

That disturbing discovery caused us to look elsewhere. Our findings were even more upsetting. Not only were ants in the garage, we also found them in the gardens, the lawn and along the lakeshore. They were even in the house. To combat the problem, we hired a pest control company. Yet, the ants keep coming. We have managed to keep them out of the house but have been unable to quell their outdoor presence.

Unlike most ant colonies that have one queen, tawny crazy ants serve multiple queens and aren't picky about where they nest. Instead of excavating their own holes, they seek out any available existing cavity or space into which their large colonies can fit. They especially like warm, moist locations, which on our lakefront property is just about everywhere.

They are called crazy ants because they act erratically, traveling helter-skelter in search of food. These voracious omnivores eat the sweet parts of plants and also "milk" aphids, mealy worms and other insects that secrete sugary substances. They have been known to destroy entire honeybee colonies, eat baby birds and decimate populations of native insects.

On the positive side, they also wipe out fire ant colonies, although I'm not sure the tradeoff is worth it. A careful person can avoid contact with fire ants but once tawny crazy ants invade property it's impossible to walk outside without the little buggers crawling up your legs.

Despite a substantial size difference, a smaller tawny crazy ant is able to overcome the much larger fire ant because it's able to detoxify itself after being stung. (Source: Live Science)

Although it hasn't happened to us yet, one of the most detrimental results of a tawny crazy ant infestation is the destruction of electronic equipment. These particular ants have a propensity for short circuiting electronics. They have been known to wreak havoc on air conditioning units and damage transformers, car engines and appliances. Even computers and cell phones have fallen victim to the tawny-colored devils.

Tawny crazy ants have no natural predators and don't respond to normal ant bait. Cold weather deters them but in Florida, where winter is short and rarely severe, populations rebound quickly when spring rolls around.

The pest control company we hired has worked diligently to tackle the problem. Chemical compounds have been applied and while each application provides temporary relief, the ants inevitably recover and come back in full force.

Anyone who has ever felt insignificant should pay attention to the tawny crazy ant. One ant alone is inconsequential, but put that single ant in a colony with a million other small beings and an insurmountable powerhouse is created. They are living proof of strength in numbers.


On the lighter side...
Just saw this drawing by cartoonist Isabella Bannerman.  I added it to end this post on an upbeat note.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015


I have a special affection for chickadees.  When I was much younger with far fewer demands on my time, I spent hours outside our Cape Cod home patiently waiting for chickadees to eat sunflower seeds from my outstretched hand.  When the birds finally trusted me enough to land, it was the most incredible feeling.

Flash forward a good 40+ years and my affection for chickadees is as strong as ever.  While I no longer feed these sweet little birds from I hand, I enjoy watching them eat seeds from the birdfeeders in our yard.

Below is a recent picture I took of one of the many chickadees that now frequent our central Florida property accompanied by a few lines from a song I wrote when we were still living on the Cape.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Which do you like, yellow or white rain lilies?

A new flower is growing alongside an old favorite in the garden: Yellow rain lilies, Zephyranthes citrine, are now producing bright lemon-colored flowers on slender green stalks next to pink rain lilies, Zephyrantues grandiflora.

Although much smaller than their pink relatives, yellow rain lilies are a wonderful addition to the landscape or container garden 

Of the 70 species of rain lilies, pink rain lilies are the ones most commonly found in Central Florida landscapes. I planted my first pink rain lily bulbs more than 20 years ago and since then, the six-petal beauties with the trumpet-shaped flower have expanded exponentially. Pink rain lilies have found their way into flowerbeds, poked their slender stalks through the soil of assorted-size pots and appeared unexpectedly throughout the lawn and around the property. Many of these cheery-faced flowers were self-propagated while others were inadvertently moved from one location to another in the process of weeding or digging up dirt.

Pink rain lilies naturalized in the lawn

Like most plants that grow from bulbs, rain lilies multiply rapidly. One plant becomes two. Two plants become four and before you know it, you find yourself looking out your window after a summer downpour at large clumps of perky flowers filling the yard with their sunny faces.

What began with just a few lilies soon turned into large clumps of the sunny flowers surrounding a planting of Dwarf Buddha Belly Bamboo

I love growing pink rain lilies and have always wanted to add yellow and white specimens to the landscape. Although I have yet to find a source for white rain lilies, a plant exchange two years ago in Winter Garden yielded a few tiny bulbs.

Rather than place the new bulbs directly into the ground — I was afraid I might forget where I planted them — I placed the pea-sized starts in a small pot that already contained pink rain lilies. It’s a good thing I did because it took more than a year before the yellow rain lilies matured enough to produce flowers.

Like all Zephyranthes, which are members of the amaryllis family, rain lilies produce six-petal flowers after a downpour. Just when the weather is most dismal, rain lilies open wide to welcome the sun and remind us that the sky doesn’t stay gray forever.

A floral reminder that the sky doesn't stay gray forever

My first yellow rain lily bloomed in January, and the original planting has already multiplied within the container so that now several flowers appear simultaneously after a shower.

Although yellow rain lilies are closely related to their more familiar pink-tinted brethren, the two varieties have distinct differences. The pink rain lily produces a flower atop a 12-18-inch tall tubular stem. It is much taller than the yellow-flowering plant, which rises only 8-10-inches above the ground on a much thinner stalk.

The flowers and leaves of each species also are different. Pink rain lily petals are at least three times as long as those of yellow rain lily petals, and the lily’s leaves are flat like the broad blades of grass. The thin leaves of yellow rain lilies resemble chives and because its yellow petals are short, its pollen-covered stamens are more easily visible than those of pink rain lilies.

Although the pink rain lilies aren't blooming in this photo, their long, broad leaves visibly contrast with the narrow, thin blades of the yellow rain lilies

However, the most important difference between the two plants is the method of reproduction. While the pink rain lily reproduces by offset — producing ‘daughter’ plants genetically identical to the mother plant — the yellow rain lily propagates via seeds. As soon as each individual yellow rain lily flower finishes blooming, it develops a seedpod that contains about a dozen flat, black seeds. The seeds, which are about the size and shape of flattened watermelon seeds, soon drop to the ground where they sprout easily in warm, damp weather.

Yellow rain lily flowers, closed seedpod, open seedpod and empty seedpod growing in the same container as pink rain lilies

As soon as I discovered yellow rain lily sprouts growing on the ground beneath the container, I began transplanting them to other pots and directly into the garden itself. In its own way, yellow rain lilies, my new addition to the landscape, are proving to be just as hardy, prolific and beautiful as the pink rain lilies that have been filling the landscape with cheerfulness for more than two decades.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Where am I...

Virginia?  Nope.

New England?  No.  Not there either.

How about just a few miles from home.

Yesterday, Ralph and I were driving through the backroads of Yalaha, 40 miles northwest of Orlando and about 10 miles from our own rural property.

The horse farm I photographed is located on Number 2 Road, Yalaha. You can tell you're in a rural area when roads have names like 'Number 2'.

It's a winding two-lane that goes up and down hills and passes by more small homesteads, nurseries and handbuilt homes than tract houses in subdivisions. Fortunately, it still remains a relatively pastoral area and hopefully will for many years to come.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Gardens make me happy

I like a garden that blends together with plants leaning close like friends sharing secrets showering the ground with their soft petal whispers.


I like a garden where leaves, branches, flowers and fragrances mix and mesh into a single mass of bucolic bliss. I appreciate the confluence of different sizes, textures, shapes and colors. Incongruous though it seems, harmony can evolve from dissonant species.

Plants in all shapes, sizes, colors and scents just outside our porch door

I like a garden full of surprises. Unexpected statues peek through leaves. Shells and stones trigger memories. Plaques bearing meaningful words sit on tables while wind chimes and mobiles sway in the breeze.

Statues and plant stands and an old teapot turned flowerpot

I like a garden where whimsical wonder is more important than perfection, where weeds exist but haven’t taken control.

A pair of old boots find new life in the garden

I like a garden with places to rest. Chairs and benches, stools and tables provide cozy spots to observe and reflect.

A place to rest in the bamboo grove

I like a garden abuzz with action. Birds and bees fly about. Butterflies flutter. Snakes slither through foliage. Anoles posture from their plant stand posts. From the tiniest insect to broad spider webs, something is always going on in a garden.

Gray hairstreak butterfly on basil flowers

I like a garden alive with activity yet peaceful and calm, a floral sanctuary. I like a garden that’s a world apart. 

Hummingbird sipping nectar from firespike blossoms

My gardens – and I have many (too many to take care of my husband might say) – are all works in progress. This morning as I stood looking out the bedroom window, I realized how similar my garden style is to the way I live the non-horticultural parts of my life.

Like my diverse range of plants, I have many interests. I could never be a person devoted to one passion anymore than I could plant a garden of a single color. I knew a person a long time ago who had many different plants but all of one hue. It was an all-white garden. Hers was lovely, but it could never be mine. My garden, like my life, is rich in variety.

Although an all white garden is pretty, I'd always be tempted to add a splash of other colors to the mix

Like scattered seeds that grow tall and broad, my thoughts tend to ramble and pop up unexpectedly. Yet, with a little attention – a sprinkling of focus - they come together in harmonious union.

If my garden has weeds, so does my house. My home is tidy but far from squeaky clean. Just as I can tolerate a few weeds in the garden, I don’t mind some smudges on windows or a bit of crunch underfoot. When things get too bad, I settle in for an intense session. Be it vacuuming, window washing or pulling out stubborn weeds, there’s satisfaction gleaned from getting work done.

My husband’s gardens are different than mine. His are utilitarian with edible crops filling containers on waist-high tables for easy access. He plants his rows straight and focuses on production. He tends his no-nonsense garden with dogged determination. He doesn’t need benches or whimsical doodads. His priorities center on achieving healthy specimens.

My husband's gardens have straight lines of container plants placed at a uniform height.  It's practical and productive and designed much differently than my more fanciful flowerbeds.  

Different though they are, we both love our gardens. More importantly, we appreciate each other’s approach to gardening and life. It doesn’t matter whether a garden has straight rows or curved beds, vegetables or flowers. It doesn’t matter if it is well tended or wild. What does matter is that the work we do yields a satisfying harvest, a crop of contentment, a bouquet of pleasure.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Love in the woods

A poetic rhyme popped into my mind when I saw this tree on a bike ride through a park at New Smyrna Beach...

Admittedly, I have a thing about trees, especially trees with branches entwined.  Below is another poem and drawing I did a long time ago to illustrate this theme.

And one more image .  This time it wasn't exactly the trees themselves that inspired the thought but a heart-spaced growth on the tree bark that spoke the same theme.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Turmeric - from grocery bin to garden bed

I just came in from the garden. I wanted to see how the turmeric was doing.

Flowering turmeric in my garden

We've only recently begun growing turmeric, but my husband has been cooking with the orange-colored spice for a couple years. He started out adding liberal sprinkles of the powdered seasoning to stir-fries and egg dishes before he began grating small amounts of the fresh roots directly into his cooking. I'd buy turmeric roots whenever I was in Orlando, either pre-packed at 1st Oriental Market or sold individually at Whole Foods Market.

Prepackaged turmeric roots from 1st Oriental Supermarket in Orlando

Eventually, instead of using purchased turmeric, we decided to sprout some of the rhizomes I bought and grow our own.

Turmeric, Curcuma longa, grows well in Central Florida. Native to southwest India, this member of the ginger family grows just under three-feet tall with broad leaves surrounding a single multi-flowered bract boasting pink and yellow flowers. It's a pretty plant with a compact footprint. It doesn't take up too much garden space and does well as a container plant, too. While it prefers sunny, moist locations, I've planted it in assorted areas including shady, drier spots, and it seems to be performing well in them all.

Turmeric growing on the edge of a bamboo grove

Like many other gingers, turmeric's top growth dies back when the cold weather arrives. In Florida, the underground rhizomes remain unaffected by the cold and send up new shoots the following summer as temperatures warm. However, in colder parts of the country, rhizomes must be dug up and stored inside until spring when they can be replanted. Either way, the underground rhizomes multiply during the growing season, producing an ongoing supply of roots for cooking.

We haven't entered the dig-up-and-use stage yet. Our turmeric plants are just beginning to mature. Of the five individual rhizomes I planted last year, one has multiplied into a small clump with several of the plants starting to flower. It's doing exceptionally well even though it's growing in a somewhat shady, non-irrigated location.

One turmeric root multiplied into several, forming a clump of leafy plants

The other year-old plantings, which are all growing in less well-tended beds, are slightly behind in their development due to competition from other plants. Within the last two months, I planted about a dozen more rhizomes from products purchased at both of the Orlando markets. Now that the weather is warm and rains are frequent, each one has started to send up young leaves.

A single root planted in irrigated soil sprouts its first leaves

Part of the reason turmeric does well in Central Florida's summer heat is because it is native to the warm climate of southern India where it was first cultivated more than 4,000 years ago. Throughout history, it has been widely acclaimed by numerous cultures for its culinary, medicinal and textile dye properties.

Although you may think you've never tried turmeric before, if you had a meal of curry or have bitten into a mustard-slathered hotdog, you've eaten turmeric. It is the main ingredient in curry and is also responsible for the yellow color in mustard. In recipes, it is a less expensive substitute for saffron and when combined with annatto, it gives dairy products like butter, yogurt and cheese a bright, golden color.

Even Buddhist monks take advantage of turmeric root by using it as a textile dye for their saffron-colored robes.

Turmeric dye produces a bright orange color 

Medicinally, turmeric has been a part of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It is recognized as an anti-inflammatory agent used to treat liver problems, digestion issues, skin diseases and wounds. More recently, its curative properties have also been embraced by Western medicine. The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, is a powerful antioxidant that has been proven to be effective against several chronic, debilitating diseases.

While my husband has incorporated turmeric into his diet because of its medicinally curative and preventative potential, I like the plant because of its beauty in the garden. 

All that and a pretty plant to boot!

Turmeric bears an attractive flower tucked tightly within large broad leaves. I like the way it pops up every year when the weather warms and quickly grows into a compact but attractive addition to the landscape. It's also fun to grow a plant gleaned from the grocery aisle instead of a garden center.