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Archive - September 2013

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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
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