Monday, August 29, 2016

Pineapples - easy to grow, yummy to eat

When I go to the produce department to pick out a pineapple, I look for one with the greenest leaves and at least some yellow on its rough outer skin. I also give it a sniff hoping to catch a whiff of sweetness. Following those three indicators - bright green leaves, yellowy skin, sweet scent - dramatically increases my chances of selecting a tasty fruit.

With homegrown pineapples, choosing a sweet, ready-to-eat fruit is simpler. There’s only one indicator - the color of its skin. When the entire pineapple turns yellow it’s ready to pick.

Homegrown pineapple with bright yellow skin

Using a knife, cut the yellow pineapple off close to the base of its stalk. Take it inside. Slice it open, cut it up and take a bite.

Delicious homegrown pineapple
The flavor and texture of this homegrown edible is so incredibly sweet, fragrant and delicious edible you might wonder if it can really be the same fruit as its store-bought counterpart? 

It is and it isn’t.

All pineapples are bromeliads, a type of air plant that requires minimal care, soil or water in order to produce fruit on a sturdy stalk growing out of the center of a swirl of sharp, stiff, sword-like leaves. 

Young pineapple growing resembles other types of bromeliads

In Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Costa Rica, where most commercial pineapples are grown, fruit intended for grocery bins is often sprayed with a plant growth regulator called Ethephon a week before harvest to induce yellowing. This is done because, unlike fruits that continue to ripen after picking, pineapples stop developing upon harvest. No commercially grown, sprayed and shipped pineapple will ever taste as sweet and flavorful as a homegrown fruit left to ripen on its own.

Fortunately for anyone with a desire to taste the difference between commercially grown and homegrown pineapples, this tropical treasure is one of the easiest fruits to grow. 

Easy and fun to grow in a container or in the ground

A pineapple plant takes up little space, can be grown in the ground or in a container and thrives on neglect. It can even be grown indoors in cold climates as long as it is placed in a sunny location. The main requirement needed to secure a sweet harvest is patience because it takes about 18 months for a pineapple to reach maturity.

A homegrown pineapple normally begins with the cut off crown of a store-bought fruit. 

A cut off crown placed directly into the ground will produce another pineapple in about 18 months

While many websites offer complicated instructions on pineapple propagation, the method I have used for years is not only effective but ridiculously easy. I slice off the leafy top along with about an inch of flesh and skin - the part normally thrown away - and stick it in the ground right away. I don’t place it in a bowl of water like some suggest or let it dry out for a few days before planting. I also don’t try to remove all flesh and plant only the leaves. The most important step is choosing the right spot for planting.

Pineapples like dry, sunny or partially shady locations. They do well in places where other bromeliads grow - beneath the base of trees or out in the open. However, it is important to make sure the selected location is not wet. Too much water will kill pineapple plants. The plant’s leaves and flowers, which fuse together to form the fruit, collect as much water as they need all on their own. They also don’t require much soil. When I’m planting a pineapple, I merely scratch the surface of the ground before inserting the cutoff crown into the dirt. Fancy soil mixtures aren’t necessary nor are fertilizers or fuss of any kind.

No need to dig a deep hole or add any special soil amendments.
Just place the cut off crown slightly beneath the dirt and leave it alone. 

Once planted, a pineapple is a forget-about-it edible that rarely needs attention except when harvest time approaches and competitors take note. People aren’t the only ones savoring the flavor of homegrown pineapples. 

Raccoons, squirrels and opossums also like to bite into the fruit’s juicy sweetness. I recently lost one of my almost ready to pick pineapples when some animal - I never did find out what kind - managed to sever the entire ripe pineapple from its stalk and take it away without leaving behind any trace of either the chewed up fruit or the thief’s identity.

Although I was disappointed that an animal stole away one of my homegrown goodies, I wasn’t devastated because, I knew I could grow more. Sure, it would take a while - a good year-and-a-half - to reap another harvest but that’s not important. Any fruit that requires such little effort to produce such an amazing contrast to its store-bought counterpart is worth waiting however long it takes.

Friday, August 26, 2016

30 seconds of breeze, bees & flowers

Bumble bees fly through a strong breeze to sip nectar from orange cosmos flowers in our porch garden.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A flower friend returns

There's a flower in my garden that hasn't been there for several years. It's an orange-colored cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus, a bright-faced beauty that blooms prolifically, stands tall and grows broadly when sown in a sunny spot.

A Gulf fritillary butterfly sips nectar from an orange cosmos bloom

I first discovered this floral wonder shortly after relocating to Florida in the late 1980s. I noticed it growing in a neighbor's yard when I lived in Kissimmee, and although I didn't know the homeowner, her gardens drew me in. I knocked on the door to say how much I admired the yard, especially the orange flowers that filled her beds. We spent a while talking, and by the time I left, I had a new friend and a handful of seeds — half-inch-long, brownish-black spikes from the orange flowers we both appreciated.

Those few seeds began three decades of blooms although there have been long periods when I've been lax at cultivating seeds. I recently came out of such a period, found new seeds and spread them about liberally in two different garden beds. Cosmos sulphureus is considered a hardy annual but in Florida it performs more like a perennial because it is such a prolific seed producer and effective self-sower.

Once each bright-colored, multi-petaled, two-inch wide flower fades, numerous seeds develop from the spent bloom. The seeds, protected by a hard-hulled case, eventually fall to the ground where they patiently await proper germination conditions.

Orange cosmos does best in a well-drained sunny spot with rich soil, but it can also survive less ideal locations. Seeds that land in a shaded, dry flower bed with typical Florida soil produce 12- to 18-inch tall plants with thin stalks and sparse blooms. However, the same seeds sown in a sunny spot with soil rich and organic matter will practically leap out of the ground with joy as they yield taller, thicker-stemmed plants with more branches and a profusion of saffron-colored blooms.

Orange cosmos by bamboo leaning out toward the sun

It's a profusion of bright, sunny faces that thrills me so much about this plant. Each morning when I look out my kitchen window, I'm greeted by a garden aglow with floral smiles as butterflies sip nectar from the blooms. Standing just about head height, each plant's main stalk is thicker than my big toe with multiple branches extending from every side covered with orange-petaled beauties.

My cosmos have grown unusually large this year because I've gone a little crazy adding multiple layers of grass clippings gathered after each mowing. I've always liked grass clipping mulch because it is so readily available, easy to collect and well-suited to careful mulching of even the tiniest, most delicate sprouts. It makes an attractive, dense mat that helps keep weeds at bay. As the clippings decompose, they release nitrogen into the soil, which stimulates vigorous plant growth. It is important to only use grass clippings untreated with herbicides to prevent harming mulched plants.

A profusion of blooms

Unusually vigorous plant growth is what I've achieved this year with my orange flowers — maybe too vigorous. I've had to stake some cosmos plants with bamboo poles because their relatively shallow root systems are unable to support such tall, multi-branched plants. However, even falling over doesn't stop cosmos from blooming. It simply continues to spread happiness from it spot on the ground.

For other people, cosmos sulphureus might be just another easy-to-grow, attractive addition to the garden. But for me, this simple bloomer represents more. It's a reminder of being a newcomer to Florida and discovering new plants and people who share my passion for natural beauty. Each seed sown carries with it memories spanning a period of 30 years.

I've picked many a bouquet during those years and some of my favorites have included orange cosmos blooms. To me cosmos sulphureus is more than just a flower. It's an old friend that has come back to visit, put down roots and will hopefully be a garden fixture for many years to come.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Thieving gulls try to steal pelican's meal

Everyone likes to eat in peace.  Even brown pelicans.  But gulls make that difficult.  

When a gull notices a brown pelican diving for fish, it swoops down in an attempt to steal the fish away from the larger bird before the pelican can swallow it. Sometimes a gull will even land on the pelican's head - like it does in the following two videos - in order to get closer to a potential meal.

Monday, August 15, 2016

One of the good guys

I was working on a column when my husband Ralph asked me to come take a picture of a huge snail in the garden. Garden snails are my husband’s nemesis. Some men take aim at deer or wild hogs but my vegetable-growing spouse hunts snails and armyworms. He called me away from my work so I could document this latest find in his ongoing quest to rid the garden of leaf-nibbling critters.

Dutiful wife that I am, I stepped away from the computer, grabbed my camera and went outside to find a shell-bedecked mollusk moving at a snail's pace along the exterior wall of our house. With his vegetable plants nearby, Ralph was eager to have this larger-than-usual snail gone. I snapped off several shots then went back into the house leaving my husband to do what he usually does to an unwanted garden pest - drop it in a bucket of soapy water.

While Ralph was outside enacting his role as Plant Protector, I returned to the keyboard. I was just a few sentences into a new paragraph when he poked his head back inside to ask if I’d found out yet what kind of snail it was. This unexpected new task prompted me to set my present project aside and begin a new search. I typed ‘garden snail florida’ into google images and within moments had confirmed the mollusk's identity.

The critter I had photographed was a rosy wolf snail, Euglandina rosea, a type of land snail found throughout South and Central America and the southern United States. I discovered that rosy wolf snails are predators that - oh no! - dine exclusively on slugs and other snails. That’s right. My snail-hunting husband had inadvertently killed a fellow helper in his battle against leaf-eating garden pests.

The more I read about this snail- and slug-devouring carnivore, the more upset I became. I ran to outside to share my news with Ralph.

“The snail you found was one of the good guys,” I said. “It eats other snails and slugs that eat your plants.”

I quickly filled Ralph in on rosy wolf snail facts as we peered into the five-gallon bucket full of soapy water and dead snails. Our hope was to rescue the pink-shelled gastropod but both of us realized its chance of surviving a sudsy water bath were slim. Unfortunately, we were right.

“I feel terrible,” Ralph said a little later in the day after rain forced him inside. “I wish I’d known what it was beforehand. I wish we had more rosy wolf snails to help control the other snails.”

Motivated by his words, I grabbed an umbrella and went on a search. From the research I’d done while he’d been gardening I learned that rosy wolf snails often come out from beneath shrubs or debris at night and after daytime downpours. These hermaphroditic creatures like to congregate on vertical surfaces to mate. Since both sexes have reproductive organs, their mating involves mutual insemination. My wish was to witness some mollusk lovemaking in the damp drizzle but the only rosy wolf I found was more interested in making its way down the leg of an old metal chair than it was in hooking up for some one-on-one action.

Despite the lack of amorous activity, I thought Ralph would still be interested in observing the rosy wolf snail I’d found. He came to watch it with me and even though this particular mollusk moves three to four times faster than other snails, watching it wasn’t exactly a heart-pounding experience. After awhile we both went back inside leaving the beneficial gastropod to do its job of eliminating bad snails without our overview.

If I’d stuck around longer, I might have seen the rosy wolf snail feed. Prey is found by using chemical sensor cells in its lips to detect a slime trail left behind by other snails and slugs. It then follows that trail until prey is found. Once located, smaller snails are devoured whole - shell and all - while the consumption of larger gastropods involves inserting the rosy wolf snail’s slender body parts deep into its prey’s shell to suck out its meat.

This morning’s request by my husband to photograph something in his garden started out as an interruption to an article i was working on. I had no idea it would take on a life of its own delving me deep into the surprisingly fascinating world of mollusk entomology. Prior to my research, I assumed all snails were garden pests in need of control to prevent damage to edible vegetables but today’s encounter proved differently. It was a reminder that like most things in this world, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover - or in this case, a snail by its shell. Rosy wolf snails are among the good guys and I’m glad to have made their acquaintance.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Hungry gopher tortoise gobbles up grass

If you think tortoises and turtles and slow moving critters, think again!   I watched this reptilian beauty munch its way across a weedy field at Cape Canaveral Seashore in New Smyrna Beach.

Fast?  You betcha!  I guess the greens-loving, pink-mouthed animal was in the mood for an eat-on-the-go meal proving that not all fast food is junk.

Discovering a crab that's not really a crab at all

My husband Ralph and I were at the beach recently. It was early in the morning and we had the ocean mostly to ourselves. Only a few other early risers were wandering the shoreline and one of them, a woman, was bent over what looked like some sort of large, dark colored, rounded creature. Curious about what she had found we hurried along to check it out.

“Wow!” I said when we got close enough to see what she was looking at. “That’s a huge horseshoe crab. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so big.”

Much bigger and broader than Ralph's foot

During the years we lived on Cape Cod, MA, horseshoe crabs were an ubiquitous feature of bayside beaches. However, until that morning in New Smyrna Beach, I had never seen one in Florida, which is surprising since the North American habitat for these saltwater swimmers includes the Gulf and Atlantic coasts from Maine to Mexico.

Despite its name, the horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, is not actually a crab at all. Instead of being a crustacean, this hard-shelled arthropod is categorized as a Merostomata, the sole member of a classification that means ‘legs attached to mouth.’ It is more closely related to scorpions, spiders and ticks than it is to lobsters, shrimp or crayfish.

A horseshoe crab has three body parts, ten legs, two feeder pincers, nine eyes and six pairs of flap-like gills that enable it to breathe underwater. With its helmet-shaped shell and long spiked tail, it’s easy to see how an uninformed beachgoer like the woman we were standing next to might find this unusual looking sea creature potentially threatening or at least intimidating. 

The horseshoe crab's hard, spiked tail is not dangerous.  It is used like a rudder when swimming and as a means to right itself when flipped over. 

However, there is nothing dangerous about horseshoe crabs. They don’t bite, stab or sting people. Their purpose in life centers on finding food and reproducing.

Horseshoe crabs mating

Foods eaten by these nocturnal hunters include aquatic worms, algae, mussels and clams with the occasional meal of carrion for culinary diversity. When prey is located, a horseshoe crab uses its legs to dig through sand for the catch. Once secured, the predator employs its pincers to squeeze and mash prey before stuffing it into its mouth, which is located on its flat underside.

Fossil records of horseshoe crabs ancestors date back 450 million years, a good 200 million years before the existence of dinosaurs and their relatively unchanged anatomy during that vast period of time has earned them the title ‘living fossils.’

The hard exoskeleton of the living fossil Ralph and I encountered was covered with barnacles and seaweed. We estimated the size of its carapace to be about 16 inches long and around 12 inches wide with a 7 or 8-inch long tail. 

Ralph and I were both fascinated by our find but Ralph felt a need to take a more hands-on approach to our discovery than I did

Horseshoe crabs can live for up to 40 years and judging from the size of the one we saw, it must have been an elder statesman of the horseshoe crab clan. During its early years, it managed to avoid becoming food for a wide variety of shorebirds and as it matured it evaded capture by sharks, sea turtles and humans, who harvest horseshoe crabs for bait as well as for medical purposes. These days, more than a half-million horseshoe crabs are harvested annually for their blood, which has properties that help scientists identify bacterial contamination in humans.

Unfortunately, this large scale use of horseshoe crab blood for medical purposes has substantially reduced their population. Although not yet on the endangered species list, horseshoe crab populations are under study to determine whether they need to be protected.

Swim on, living fossil of the ocean

Neither Ralph, I nor the woman who first noticed the large dome-shaped creature sidling quietly through the shallow water wished the slow-moving arthropod any harm. We were all just happy to have had a chance to encounter yet another of nature’s fascinating creatures. One can only hope that a saltwater inhabitant who has managed to survive for more than 450 million years can hang in there for millennia to come.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Well hello Mr. and Mrs. Owl!

I heard the owl before I saw it. Actually, the loud screeching noise coming from the edge of the woods sounded more like a small animal under distress than a large bird bellowing its call in the fading light of early evening. Yet an owl it was. A great horned owl, Bubo virginianus.

Hello there!

I followed the sound until I came to a pine tree, one of many two-decade-old slash pines about 50 feet back from the lakeshore. Looking up, I spotted a large, big-eyed, tufted-eared bird perched on a branch looking down at me. Obviously, the owl’s spotting skills were better honed than mine.

So well camouflaged!

The longer I stood watching — about 15 minutes — the less concerned the owl became with my presence. Instead of flying off or trying to scare me away, the owl graciously ignored me after a short assessment. The raptor’s large yellow eyes shifted away from my face and refocused on surveying the surroundings.

Mr. (or Mrs.) Big Eyes

In most situations, being ignored feels offensive but when it comes to observing wildlife an animal’s willing disregard is a gift. When the owl tired of looking at me, it returned to its previous business and so did I. I began snapping photos and a short video. 

I watched the bird turn its brownish tan head almost completely around to check out perceived sounds or movements. I was surprised by how puffed out its white-feathered throat became when it emitted muffled calls and I chuckled inwardly at its animated display of head-bobbing. I saw the owl’s brownish-black beak open and snap shut. 

Bored by me already

I watched it yawn and eventually I followed its flight as it flew off the pine bough on wings so silent that, had I not been there watching, I would have missed it entirely.

Since the evening when I first discovered the great horned owl in the pine tree, I’ve seen the same bird several more times and a second bird, too, which I assume is its mate. Now that I know what to listen for, my ears perk up whenever I go outside. Especially at dusk or just before sunrise. I’ve seen the owls most often in the early morning when I’m out rowing. The two birds are usually in the same tree where I spotted the first one. 

Can you spot both owls?

Even if I don’t hear its call, my eyes still scan the pine branches carefully as my oars cut quietly through the still water. Quite often my diligence has been rewarded by discovering one or both owls perched patiently in the tree.

Great horned owls are considered common birds. Breeding populations are estimated at about 3 million throughout the U.S. with another 3 million spread across Mexico and Canada in almost all habitats except tundra and treeless grasslands. Their diet is almost as diverse as their widespread range. These 2- to 3-pound carnivores eat everything from small mammals such as squirrels, skunks, house cats, mice, moles, rabbits and rats to larger mammals including bobcats, raccoons and young alligators. As equal-opportunity feeders, they willingly prey upon frogs, fish, eels, songbirds, shorebirds, snakes, scorpions, even other owls and the occasion meal of carrion. By examining owl pellets, biologists have identified 250 different species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and invertebrates consumed by these dietarily indiscriminating predators.

The hunting skills of these large owls are aided by exceptionally well-camouflaged plumage, fine-tuned hearing, excellent eyesight and extremely large, sharp talons with which to grab, stab and instantly kill their projected targets. Although the usual method of these stealthy nocturnal hunters is to patiently wait on a tree branch for potential prey to pass below, they’re not averse to also wading in water, walking on land or gliding slowly just above ground in search of food.

Although I have now been able to observe the pair of great horned owls on our property several times, I have yet to see one actually catch prey. But that just gives me another experience to look forward to.

Whether observing from the water or while walking quietly through the woods, my senses are on alert for a new-to-me critter that has taken up residence on our property. Lucky doesn’t begin to describe the swell of emotions I feel for this recent addition to our wildlife roll call.