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Fun with Old Christmas Trees

Mon, Jan 06, 2014 at 01:16:17 PM

How sad to discard an old Christmas tree! If you have the time and energy, I suggest the following:

• Take the tree into your yard and using a handheld clipper, trim off as much of the foliage as you can. Or even better, use an electric hedge trimmer.

• Cut the branches into smaller pieces and spread it around between plantings to act as mulch. It'll keep down weeds while decaying and adding nutrients into your soil.

• Alternately, you can toss the cuttings into your compost.

Now as for the trunk, you can cut it with a saw into maneagable sections. And if you are the adventurous type, let the wood dry outside for a few months, and you can burn it in a fireplace or outdoor firepit. Or for the ultimate in holiday recycling, you can go to the extreme and carve the dried wood into Santa figures to decorate next year's tree! Or maybe not. But do avail yourself of the free mulch/compost if you can.

Recycle your tree
What became of my Christmas tree.


A Rare Bird— La Sagra's Flycatcher

Wed, Dec 18, 2013 at 10:52:24 AM

I had an impromptu bird walk yesterday. After reading about a rare vagrant bird being spotted at nearby Matheson Hammock Park, I thought about going to look for it, since it was reported to be close to the Fairchild visitor center. It’s a rather small, plain looking bird, the La Sagra’s flycatcher (Myiarchus sagrae), but one sought after by birders since it is rarely seen in South Florida, usually content to stay put in its native Cuba, Bahamas, and Grand Cayman.

La Sagra's flycatcher

I was doubting my ability to find it; I can spot things on the ground easily, but staring up at a tree for a tiny bird whose job is to eat and move on without being eaten, it just makes my eyes ache thinking about it. However, I encountered expert birder and birding leader Larry Manfredi near Fairchild’s South Florida Butterfly Garden. He and I ventured right outside Fairchild’s doors and found the rare bird. I have to admit, I would never have spotted it on my own. Never.

It was part of a feeding flock, or feeding aggregation (there is a difference:, along with the quite similar great crested flycatcher, black and white warblers, an amazing and huge pileated woodpecker, vireos, and other regulars. Amazing!

La Sagra's flycatcher

If you want to learn a lot more about birding, particularly in South Florida, check out Larry’s website at


Keeping Things in Check

Tue, Nov 12, 2013 at 11:23:43 AM

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 and black racer
Great egret consuming a struggling snake (I believe it is an immature black racer, Coluber constrictor priapus).


Carnivorous Plants Invade The Ramble

Tue, Nov 05, 2013 at 11:53:16 AM

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'
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.


Of Migratory Warblers and Resident Turtles

Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 03:32:56 PM

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.

Florida box turtle

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.

 Palm warbler release

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!

Palm warbler in cannonball tree


The False Parasol Mushroom

Tue, Oct 01, 2013 at 10:52:15 AM

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.

Chlorophyllum molybdites
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

Chlorophyllum molybdites trio


Chlorophyllum molybdites gills
Chlorophyllum molybdites gills—they eventually turned
an even grayer green.


The Atala and Coontie—a Comeback Saves Two Species

Fri, Sep 27, 2013 at 03:02:37 PM

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.

Atala larva on coontie
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.

Circa 1890 coontie mill
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 pupa in chrysalis
Atala pupae within chrysalises


Native Basil—an Endangered Plant for the Kitchen!

Mon, Sep 16, 2013 at 12:17:06 PM

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.”

Ocimum campechianum

Native basil, Ocimum campechianum.
Photo: Mary Collins

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


Ah the Fecundity—You’ll Never Know What You Might Find

Mon, Sep 09, 2013 at 02:54:55 PM

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.

Fungus in situ
Orange fungus.

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.

Fungus in situ 2
Another in the same area

 ex situ mushroom

Update 9/10/13: I believe this is a Glaziella species, possibly Glaziella aurantiaca.


Not All Volunteers Pass Muster

Fri, Sep 06, 2013 at 02:39:49 PM

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.

Tree cutting
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.

bob and jason
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:


Found at Fairchild Blog
Found at Fairchild Blog
Explore the Garden with Fairchild blogger Ken Setzer. More