Last Sunday, during our 73rd Annual Ramble Festival, a great egret (Ardea alba) was seen walking around the plant sales area, probably looking for plants to purchase. It was, as the British birders say, "confiding," and allowed photographers to get close before flapping away.
I saw it again yesterday (Monday). I'm not sure it is the same individual, but it is still the same species. It was walking among our plantings with those wide black feet so carefully stepping like they do. Its neck sways like a snake charmer's cobra. I noticed when the swaying increased, and the bird lowered its neck it was about to strike!
Within five to ten minutes this egret caught and consumed two snakes and a lizard as I watched. This predation occurred among the plants across the lawn from the Garden House. I often bemoan the apparent lack of snakes, but this shows they are out there. I was saddened to see the two snakes only in the final moments of their lives, but I have to believe the egret is keeping the balance in check, as it should be. Nevertheless, I can't help imagining having to slide down that long egret neck on the way to being digested!
|Great egret consuming a struggling snake (I believe it is an immature black racer, Coluber constrictor priapus).|
Carnivorous plants are a fascinating lot. I remember as a very young kid wanting my mother to buy me the plants I saw with her at the grocery store. I don’t know why, but I just wanted them. When I saw my first Venus flytrap, I was enthralled. Of course I killed it quickly.
Venus flytraps, Dionaea muscipula, grow naturally in the wetlands of the Carolinas and other eastern coastal states. It’s by far the most commonly encountered carnivorous plant in cultivation, and you can find them for sale in gardening stores and nurseries. They have a reputation for being difficult to grow. I believe the difficulty exists in maintaining one of the constants they need to survive: consistently and constantly damp soil. They cannot be allowed to dry out. While most plants can’t tolerate “wet feet,” the flytrap requires it. Its soil should not be saturated, however, since the roots can rot. The best solution I’ve found is placing the potted plant into a saucer and keeping the saucer full of water. I also had success transplanting my flytrap into pure sphagnum moss (or peat moss, provided it’s NOT fortified with fertilizers), which you can find wherever orchid-growing supplies are sold.
The flytrap evolved to survive where other plants cannot: in nitrogen- and phosphorus-poor environments, such as in bogs. In fact, do not fertilize them at all! They get their supplemental nutrients by digesting insects in their infamous traps.
While not a tropical plant, they do thrive in our direct summer sun, provided the water doesn’t run out. They also require some “down time” in the winter when they can go dormant, so don’t use artificial “grow” lights to supplement the sun during our sub-tropical winters.
The other kinds of carnivorous plants you may encounter are:
Sundews (Drosera), which resemble an octopus with outstretched arms. They trap prey on the sticky arms and slowly wrap them up and digest them. Some sundews are tiny plants, and would fit on a quarter. Sundews are some of the most varied of the carnivorous plants, with nearly 200 species in the genus Drosera.
Pitcher plants (Nepenthes), famous for their pitcher-shaped traps. Insects fall into the pitchers seeking sweet-smelling secretions only to be unable to exit, due to the pitcher’s downward facing hairs. They die, and are digested inside the pitcher. Pitchers can make the most beautiful houseplants, as they are often multiple shades of green variegated with purple and maroon markings, with “lids” atop the pitcher, making them look like lidded German beer steins.
|Nepenthes 'Mata Hari' in Fairchild's Conservatory|
Butterworts (Pinguicula) look like innocuous little plants, with a rosette of leaves resembling almost a ground-hugging kind of fern or lichen. Their leaves often appear glistening with moisture, probably a way to lure insects, which are then trapped by sticky secretions, and digested (sundews use a similar luring strategy). Like other carnivores, they prefer nutrient-poor soil.
Carnivorous is really inaccurate, since these plants are insectivorous and don’t consume other types of “meat”. Well except for Attenborough’s pitcher plant (Nepenthes attenboroughii) It lives in the Philippines, and has been documented to have eaten a shrew, and Nepenthes rajah from Borneo, known to occasionally snack on lizards, and supposedly rats from time to time.
You can imagine I was thrilled to learn we have vendors at this year’s Ramble selling carnivorous plants! I even ran into one of the vendors at another local event. They were extremely helpful and knowledgeable, with beautiful plants for sale. Come to the Ramble this Friday, Saturday and/or Sunday and you might just get hooked and leave with some new bug-eating friends.
I just always find something new around the Garden. Same is true for my own garden, but it’s quite a bit smaller than Fairchild. Nevertheless, last Wednesday I was hunting for mushrooms and lichen to photograph along the mulch path of the Allee (which, by the way, is defined as a walkway lined with trees or shrubs). Instead, I looked up and spotted a turtle. South Florida lakes have a ton of turtles, but it’s not so often I see any box turtles.
Terrapene carolina bauri is the Florida box turtle, a subspecies of box turtle endemic to Florida and extreme southern Georgia. It makes sense that I don’t see Florida box turtles near lakes, since they do not usually enter water deep enough to swim in, preferring instead to remain in damp or swampy areas. This seems to be a female based on its yellow to brown eyes; males have red eyes. The Florida box turtle is distinguished by its beautiful yellow stripe patterns. They are protected by law.
Well today, another nice encounter: Our chief operating officer alerted me to a bird that seemed to have been stunned by possibly flying into a window. We went out and I caught it after several very clumsy attempts. It’s a palm warbler Setophaga palmarum (possibly an immature version, based on its dearth of yellow plumage), a migrating bird probably heading to Central or South America, or maybe the Caribbean.
We kept him/her — who I’ve named Corbin since he/she was found near the Corbin Building — in a box to rest for a little while. I later released Corbin outside the Gallery Building, and he flew, weakly, up into its lower branches. So Corbin’s still recovering; his wings seemed intact, and didn’t appear broken or awkward. Good luck, Corbin!
For a couple weeks now some rather large, doorknob-shaped mushrooms have been sprouting up on the lawn between Cycad Circle and the Glasshouse Café outdoor seating area. At first there was one very large one, then as that one started becoming moribund a few other small white buttons began to emerge a few inches apart.
|The false parasol mushroom, Chlorophyllum
At one point a fairy ring of mushrooms nearly formed. I visited them just about every morning, since I can practically see them on entering my office. After a little research online and in my National Audubon Society field guide, I was able to determine they are the false parasol mushroom, sometimes referred to as the green-spored lepiota. To avoid confusion, I’m going by Chlorophyllum molybdites.
According to my guide, these are pretty common across the U.S., especially on lawns. Though not deadly, they are listed as poisonous, and are a common source of mushroom poisoning. The result of consuming them is said to be a few days of “violent purging.” Yikes.
I wasn’t 100% certain of the species—I’m not as patient as I should be in identifications—until I got a shot with my phone of the underside of one of the mushrooms. The spores, and as they mature, the gills, turn from off white to a sordid grayish green.
Chlorophyllum molybdites trio
|Chlorophyllum molybdites gills—they eventually turned
an even grayer green.
While taking a quick walk outside the Gallery building this morning I spotted a red caterpillar against the olivey-green leaves of a coontie (Zamia integrifolia). Then another, and another. It had to be the larvae of the atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala), which is infamous for depending on the coontie as its host plant. On close inspection, they are more like a brilliant glossy magenta scarlet, more orange towards their undersides, with two rows of seven yellows spots along their backs. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, coontie roots were ground up for food; processed and washed to remove their toxins, which are known to be carcinogenic, among other nasty qualities.
|An atala (Eumaeus atala) butterfly larva feeding on
a coontie leaflet.
The resulting starch had been used for flour for centuries by southeastern Native Americans, and later with almost devastating efficiency by Florida pioneers. The starch is sometimes called arrowroot, but that name may apply to starches derived from quite a few different plant sources. Arrowroot biscuits were very popular in Victorian times, and the name can still be found on some products. The USDA banned arrowroot production—as derived from coonties—in 1925.
|A circa 1890 coontie processing mill.|
With the ban on coontie arrowroot, and the demand for arrowroot being supplanted by other starches, the coontie plant dodged the bullet of extinction, along with the atala butterfly. In fact the atala was thought extinct (a Lazarus taxon) for decades. Its larvae, aka caterpillars, feed exclusively on coonties and a few other similar cycads. No coonties, no atalas. Thankfully, the coontie and atala seem to have rebounded.
Coonties are found in multiple locations throughout the Garden, but the examples hosting atala larvae that I encountered are in Plot 123a, near to Cycad Circle.
|Atala pupae within chrysalises|
Did you know there is a species of basil native to South Florida? Ocimum campechianum is known by many common names, like wild sweet basil, wild mosquito plant, Least basil, Peruvian basil, and a few others. It is native, though not endemic, to extreme southern Florida. While it has become quite rare here—unfortunately earning the status of Endangered from the USDA—it is more common throughout parts of tropical America, including the West Indies.
This annual grows to about 18 inches to two feet tall and produces small pink flowers on terminal clusters similar to traditional basil (Ocimum basilicum), and in fact the two are members of the same genus, Ocimum.
Native basil seems to prefer rocky, sandy areas with exposure to direct sunlight—a common setting in South Florida. Being an annual, it lives for about ten months to a year, but can reseed itself continuously, providing a supply of native edible basil.
According to our Senior Horticulturist Mary Collins, “It yields an incredible warm, spicy aroma . . . the warmer its location, the more intense the fragrance.”
Native basil, Ocimum campechianum.
I’ve searched a bit on the web for seeds and plants, but have come up with nothing. Otherwise, our native basil will be offered for sale at the Members’ Day Plant Sale on October 5, 2013, 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Event details can be seen at http://www.fairchildgarden.org/Events/?date=10-2013&eventID=750
It rained heavily this morning, by the end transforming the daily noon steambath into cloudy, breezy, and tolerably cool conditions. So instead of trying to let my mind go blank during a quick lunchtime break today, I took a 20-minute walk around the Garden. I like to walk and poke around dark, brambly areas people avoid, like basements. Those less trodden areas appeal to me; maybe because they are usually quiet, and slightly ignored. But they are very much appreciated by ferns, fungi and other inhabitants of the wet, dark floor where overlooked treasure may be found.
Fungi creep people out because they seem so unnatural. Their sudden yet ephemeral appearance, their fantastic forms, plus their association with decay (and therefore death) combine to give them an “ick” factor. But I like them. A lot. So since we had a bit of a downpour this morning, I was looking for something a little unusual. The kingdom of fungi did not let me down.
I spotted these twisted, bent-looking shapes barely peeking up above the little tufts of grass growing in a brightly shaded clearing between larger plantings. They at first look like decaying, fallen palm fruit, but are instead attached to the ground. They are fungi, or more precisely the fruit of a fungus, i.e. a mushroom. They are devilishly difficult to identify (especially for me), but I can occasionally get to a general idea of what kind of fungus I’m looking at, for example, puffball, stinkhorn, russula, etc. Not this time.
Can anyone help with this ID? I challenge (and implore) you!
Note: The best lead I found was Calostoma cinnabarinum the orange stalked puffball fungus.
|Another in the same area|
Update 9/10/13: I believe this is a Glaziella species, possibly Glaziella aurantiaca.
We so truly value our Fairchild volunteers. They make day-to-day operations possible, not to mention our special events like Mango Festival and many others. I’ve met so many dedicated volunteers in the three+ months I’ve worked here, and they are all really friendly, and deeply knowledgeable in ways that can only come from devotion to a labor of love.
Some kinds of volunteers however cannot remain in the Garden. This Triplaris cumingiana, sometimes called an ant tree, grew up on its own, and therefore is considered a “volunteer” addition to the Garden. Just because it’s a volunteer doesn’t mean it is automatically removed; however this one was in the wrong place and had to be felled. The ant tree is so called because it’s known to be inhabited by Pseudomyrmex triplarinus, a venomous ant, none of which I saw on this particular tree, thankfully.
|Triplaris cumingiana coming down—click for full size.|
Fairchild Arborist Bob Brennan expertly and safely removed this towering tree and allowed me to watch. He began by threading a rope through its crown to help guide its fall. Then, Bob cut a wedge from the base of the tree and the rest is history. Living Collection Manager Jason Lopez assisted and held the guide rope—an unnerving task from my point of view.
|Fairchild Arborist Bob Brennan and Living Collection
Manager Jason Lopez
It fell exactly where the guys wanted it to (or so it appeared to me!) in about two seconds with a “CRASH.” I’m watching for interesting fungi to appear on its stump, which remains near the outdoor seating area across from Cycad Circle. This is a sample of some of the maintenance that has to be carried out daily throughout Fairchild’s 83 acres—a whole lot of yardwork!
Some more information on the symbiosis between these ants and trees can be found at:
So I always plan to garden in the fall, but usually fail. “What? It’s April already? I thought it was still September,” I’ll often be heard to say. Not this fall though. I’ve started the garden already and there’s no turning back now—money has been spent!
I definitely want tomatoes, the old standard. But I want something really, really good. I don’t know exactly what that is, but I am pretty certain I can’t get it locally. I therefore ordered seeds online for Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes. They look really big in the photos. Hope I get similar results.
I also was fortunate to receive some Seminole pumpkin seeds (Cucurbita moschata) from the Fairchild Farm. These are remarkable for being native to the southeast, reportedly still growing wild in the Everglades, and thriving in our brutally hot and wet summers. The vines are said to climb trees and when they fruit, the appearance is that of a pumpkin tree! The fruit looks like a cross between a small pumpkin and a gourd, with a beige skin like a gourd. I planted some seeds in small pots, and one week later the plants are already nearly three inches tall.
Along with the tomato seeds I also ordered Nicotiana rustica, wild tobacco. I don’t plan to smoke any, but it looks to be an attractive little plant, growing to about 15 inches tall. I like its connection to Native Americans, as it was (according to the seller) used as a ceremonial tobacco by Delaware Lenape people. I’ve sown a portion of those seeds (they are tiny, like dark grains of sand) only in one small pot so far. No growth yet; it’s only been three days.
I plan on starting the tomatoes very soon, with hopes of having something in four to six weeks substantial enough to transplant into large pots and the ground. That would make the date early or mid October. Hopefully I’ll be able to “harden” the plants to full sun by then. My concern is the sun will still be too strong for tomatoes at that time of year, but as I am taking a “Vegetable Gardening” class at Fairchild tonight, I’ll find out from the experts and report back.
I built an eight-foot-wide by two-and-a-half-foot-deep raised bed out of wood for the tomatoes. I hope to include arugula and basil to fill in the lower areas once the tomatoes are established. I’ll report back with photos and growth updates here. We’ll see!
I had quite the little adventure one day last week during a midmorning break. I’ve become fascinated with the many land crabs (Cardisoma guanhumi) living here at the Garden. It makes sense they’re here. They like low-lying areas near the coast, and usually aren’t found more than five miles from the coast, having to return to the ocean to disburse their eggs. (Note: I once saw one in my backyard in Country Walk, a good eight miles or so from the nearest salt water as the crow flies. It scurried into its burrow behind a banana plant, never to be seen again in my decade living there).
I’ve walked around the Garden’s lakes trying to sneak up on crabs, but instead there is a nice little view of our Sunken Garden from a break in the palms, aroids, ferns and rock wall cordoning it. From above, one can sometimes watch the land crabs outside their burrows. They don’t seem to do much, but then again, here I am crouched over a bunch of buttons moving my eyes, fingers and not much else. I even brought a nice telephoto lens to get some shots from on high, but every time I have the camera, no crabs. If I leave the camera home, there’s a great chance I’ll see the crabs. The one I am really interested in is a particularly large crab who lives right at the edge of the pond in the Sunken Garden. Prime crustacean real estate! I don’t know why I find them companionable; they scurry into their holes at the first sign of movement, and are pretty common here in the south. Maybe it’s the one large claw (asymmetry is unusual). They are purple-ish/red when young, ageing to blue, gray, sometimes white. Females are often lighter in color. Maybe the duality of their lives appeals to this Gemini: semi-terrestrial during most of life, having been born in the sea, and needing to return there to reproduce, amphibian like.
I’ll get a good photo of them. In the meantime I satisfied my curiosity by sticking my iphone into their burrows to pay them an unexpected visit.
|Land crab guarding its burrow|
|Why, you could knock before coming in you know.|