Gardening with Georgia

Archive - August 2009

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Fri, Aug 28, 2009 at 01:15:13 PM

Gardens are full of beautiful vignettes, surprises and delights – if you take a few moments to look for them. Strolling with my camera through Fairchild not long ago I came upon two such garden moments: a curled Cecropia leaf and lichens on a palm trunk.

Lovely Cecropia leaves, even when fallen.

Cecropias are pioneer trees in the rain forest.  They have short-lived seeds that germinate in the full sun of a light gap and then race upwards at a dozen feet a year. There are several species of this tree and they are found in varying conditions, from wet to dry, from sea level to mountaintop. Their palmate leaves are quite large in order to soak up enough sun to produce such prodigious growth, and when they fall and dry, the under sides are beige-white. Some cecropias live with a particular species of ant in their hollow stems. The ants fight off other insects that might eat the leaves in exchange for glycogen that the tree kindly produces at the base of the leaf stems what are called Mullerian bodies.

Colorful lichens on a palm trunk.

Lichens are a combination of an alga and a fungus, living together to benefit each other. Some are rather flat, others leafy, and still others are “shrubby.” Lichen fossils have been dated to 400 million years ago. Many lichens are sensitive indicators of air pollution. They like dry conditions, relatively speaking, and form on trees, rocks and in areas such as the scrub ecosystem of Florida – hot, sandy and windswept. There, you’ll find reindeer moss, round and puffy lichens covering the sand. They don’t have roots, but get moisture from dew.


Small but beautiful

Fri, Aug 28, 2009 at 12:53:06 PM

Episcia cupreata is a Conservatory beauty..

You have to stoop down to really see them, but the flowers of Episcia cupreata are dramatic once you make the effort. Their tubular flowers have fringes on their edges and red markings in their yellow throat. In the Conservatory, the bright “flame-violet” nestles near the pineapple ginger. Episcia is a member of the gesneriad family, tropical herbs that are often found in the under story of rainforests where humidity is high and light flecks illuminate first one spot and then another. The leaves are hairy, marked with light green and silver. The little plants send out stolons or runners, like strawberries, and for that reason can be used as a ground cover in a tropical garden. I remember seeing a lovely garden in Costa Rica with episcias as a ground cover. There are neotropical gesneriads, such as Episcia from Venezela, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, and Old World or paleotropical gesneriads, such as African violet from South Africa and lipstick plants (Aeschynanthus), which roam from India to Java. Most people who like them in South Florida grow them in containers or even terrariums. These charming plants are likely to keel over in cold winters – say temps below 60. They like excellent drainage, rich organic soil and bright light but no direct sun. 


A nifty native

Mon, Aug 17, 2009 at 02:48:47 PM

Fruit of the Simpson stopper
is brightly colored and at-
tractive to birds.

Among the Florida native plants surrounding the Museum House are Simpson stoppers, now bearing bright red berries that are attractive to a wide variety of birds. Stoppers are under story trees of the evergreen hammocks that generally bear small leaves, white flowers in spring, followed by orange or red fruit. Simpson stopper is Myrcianthes fragrans, and it is useful in a number of ways: as a small tree; in a grouping of other stoppers used as a screen; as a small tree beneath larger trees in a native planting. It has wonderful cinnamon-colored peeling bark. I use several of these, along with Spanish and white stoppers, along a fence, with a hedge of wild coffee planted in front of them. During our really dry spring, I had to water one of the trees that had wilted in the group.  I prune the coffee hedge about twice a year to maintain it at hedge level. I mulch with leaves from the oaks or black olive, and that’s that. Take a look at the planting on your next Fairchild visit, and make a note to add this to your landscape. It will be available at the 2009 Members’ Day plant sale on Oct. 3, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.


Saving our songbirds with trees

Mon, Aug 17, 2009 at 02:29:52 PM

Can warblers find food here?

Guided by the stars, the winds, and the Earth’s magnetic fields, migratory songbirds – the warblers, thrushes, vireos, tanagers and buntings that spend the summer in North America and the winter in the Caribbean and South America – are beginning to pass through South Florida now. Traveling from 30 to 100 miles a day, the birds need twice the amount of food during migration as they otherwise require. But will they find enough food here to help them continue their journey?

The answer is a disheartening “perhaps not.”  There are not enough fuel stops along the avian highways. 

  That means that many of the songbirds leave and arrive undernourished and must struggle to make the journey between wintering and nesting grounds.  Because of the stress, they lay fewer eggs and fledge fewer young birds. In some cases, the birds stay longer at each temporary landing to search harder for food, competing with each other for limited resources. They then must race to the next stopover because they have lost time, again depleting their nutrient supply.  Others gamely try to make the next stopover, sometimes  failing.

 “This unfortunate pattern is no longer conjecture,” says John Ogden, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon of Florida.

As a result, songbirds are disappearing from our skies and our yards.

But that could change with help from you and Fairchild joining forces in the Urban Oases Project for Songbirds.

Ogden says one of the reasons these incredible species are suffering severe losses is because they can’t find enough habitat and food when they leave for the winter and arrive back.  This lack of fuel is particularly crucial here, where birds fly up to 15 hours over open water and must fatten up before leaving and replenish their food stores coming back.  In coastal areas, where their needs are highest, development has drastically depleted green space; stopover oases for the birds are tiny, scattered and unfamiliar.

Tuesday, Ogden and senior horticulturist Mary Collins led a team of birders and Fairchild staffers through the Garden and Matheson Hammock looking for areas where volunteers can identify songbirds and the plants giving them sustenance. With help from Fairchild and residents throughout the South Florida area, a new movement can begin to provide back yard food sources for these amazing avian migrants.

With $20,000 in seed money from Disney, Ogden and Michelle Frankel, conservation biologist with Audubon of Florida, are working with Fairchild, Tropical Audubon, and Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation to set up a public-private partnership that will help identify and encourage the planting of trees and shrubs vital to the millions of migratory birds that pass through south Florida each spring and fall.

Garden trustee Sue Steinberg, along with Mary Collins and Marilyn Griffiths from plant records joined Roger Hammer and Jim King from the County’s parks department, Brian Rapoza and Laura Reynolds with Tropical Audubon, to decide on sites where volunteers can work and develop a protocol for the project.

Checking bird hotspots, from left: Sue Steinberg, Jim King, Michelle Frankel,
Brian Rapoza, John Ogden, Marilyn Griffiths, Mary Collins, Roger Hammer
and Laura Reynolds.

Beginning the last week of August, experienced birders can monitor this fall’s migration, reporting on what plants are important to the departing migrants in five areas of the Garden: the arboretum, the pineland habitat, the Keys coastal Habitat, the Bahamas section of the lowlands and the rain forest.

There are some known food sources already here: wild tamarinds, live oaks, white ironwood, Jamaica caper, soldier wood, beautyberry, and Bahamas strongback.  Others such as the tree Neomillspaughia emarginata from the Yucatan, Belize and Guatemala, which is in full flower in the arboretum and attracting lots of insects, may or may not be important to birds. Insect eating birds will change their diet to fruit during migration for more calories, said Ogden. It is a tree to watch.

Once additional trees and shrubs are verified and identified, the Urban Oases project and cooperating botanical gardens, local nurseries, and garden clubs can begin to propagate and distribute them.  An education campaign will be launched urging residents to plant these avian lifesavers in their yards. This is a pilot program that can be expanded to the Caribbean and along the Atlantic Flyway through other Audubon programs and ultimately, perhaps serve as a national model.

If you are an experienced birder and would like to volunteer to identify songbirds and their food plants, please contact Brian Rapoza with Tropical Audubon Society:

To learn more about Urban Oases for Songbirds, contact John Ogden:

To follow the James A. Kushlan Bird Trail at Fairchild, pick up a map at the Visitors Center entrance to the garden. It will guide you to birding zones within the garden.



Put what in your pipe?

Thu, Aug 06, 2009 at 03:04:47 PM


Blooming on the vine pergola is Aristolochia maxima, the Florida Dutchman’s pipe, which has the

Aristolochia maxima shows
hairs that trap flies.

shape of an old-fashioned meerschaum pipe.  It is not native to Florida – it grows from Mexico through Central America and into Venezuela -- but has naturalized here. The clusters of flowers on this woody vine, or liana, are brownish, without the outrageous liver color and really bizarre shape of the larger flowered species, such as Aristolochia gigantea. After taking pictures of the pipes, I was trying to find a characteristic leaf and noticed a fairly young leaf with three caterpillars of the Polydamas Swallowtail.  Rich Cech (who was at Butterfly Days recently) and Guy Tudor describe the Polydamas in their book Butterflies of the East Coast, An Observer’s Guide, as a tropical butterfly living at the edge of its range in Florida. The black caterpillars with orange tubercles feed in clusters when young, although I’m not sure three qualify as a cluster.  Aristolochia maxima is pollinated by flies. Mary Collins, senior horticulturist, says the tiny flies are drawn to the pipe, fly inside and then cannot get back out because of the downward facing hairs.

Polydamas swallowtail

 The calico flower, Aristolochia littoralis, has become a pest plant in some areas of Florida, and was listed in Category II in 2007 by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council. (This means it has increased in abundance but not yet altered plant communities to the extent shown by such plants as melaleuca and Old World climbing fern.)

To grow Aristolochia maxima, you’ll need a strong support, such as a heavy trellis where it can find full sun to partial shade.  Vigorous vines can be pruned back to their main stem and branches after flowering, and fertilized in February and October.  Aristolochia maxima has been recorded blooming nearly year-round in the garden.



The state of orchids in the wild, brought home

Thu, Aug 06, 2009 at 02:42:38 PM

The Coalition for Orchid Species' annual symposium Aug. 2 brought speakers from California, Texas, New York and Miami to the Garden House. About 80 people happily spent hours focusing on their favorite topic: orchids that occur in the wild. Because of habitat destruction, orchid species are sought by growers and collectors looking for increasingly rare plants. COS was organized in 1990 to stress conservation and educate the public about the diversity of the flowers found in nature.

Lee Moore


Lee Moore from Miami, who started growing orchids in the 1950s, used slides from the 1950s and ‘60s to transport the crowd into the jungles of Peru, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Those were days when orchid collecting from the wild was legal and adventuresome. (CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which was ratified in 1974, prohibits collecting orchids and other endangered plants from the wild.)  Moore, who has a nursery in Peru, discovered many bromeliads and orchids now bearing his name, such as Cattleya mooreana and Catasetum mooreanum. Today, he stressed, it is even illegal to collect orchids from the wild when the wild is being cut and burned for agriculture and illegal timber harvesting.

Moore was with orchid grower Michael Kovach in Peru when they were shown the huge rose-lavender slipper orchid now called Phragmipedium kovachii  in 2004. The orchid was brought back to the United States by Kovach, identified in Sarasota at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, and then catapulted into orchid history with the arrest of Kovach for orchid smuggling. That is ancient history (Kovach was given two years probation and fined $1,000), and the rose-purple flower has since been shown in Peru orchid shows. Peru has allowed the export of some lab- and nursery-grown plants. New Yorker Glen Decker, who specializes in slippers at his commercial nursery Piping Rock Orchids, spoke about many South American slipper species, including Phrag. kovachii, which he grows and uses in his orchid breeding program. The largest Phrag. kovachii  flower  to date measured 9 ½ inches across, he said, making its size as well as its color desirable for creating hybrids. Poachers cleaned out the plants from their habitat not long after the discovery, said Decker, who traveled to Peru to see it with another slipper specialist, Harold Koopowitz. “There were 3,000 plants there and we were offered them for $10,000. We couldn’t buy them because it’s illegal to collect orchids from the wild in Peru.’’

Poaching also happened to the Peru habitat where Phrag. besseae was discovered in 1981. Libby Besse of Sarasota found the small red slipper orchid. Because a red slipper orchid had never been seen before, the plant caused a sensation and reignited interest in slipper orchids around the world. Decker said that some 20 years after the rocky habitat of besseae in the eastern Andes was stripped of plants, a few are beginning to reappear. But often, he said, poachers will burn an area after ripping out orchids so seedlings won’t grow, making their illegal orchids even more valuable.

Neither Phrag. besseae nor Phrag. kovachii can be grown in Miami because the nights are too hot, Decker said. But South American slippers without vivid color grow well here. Such phrags include Phrag. lindleyanum, Phrag. caudatum, Phrag. hirtzii, Phrag. wallisii  and Phrag. pearcei.  The best advice for phrags in South Florida, he said, is to set plants in saucers of water, or grow them with vandas and water them twice daily.  (Joyce Kelly and Larry Cox, two expert  slipper growers in Miami-Dade, do not grow their phrags sitting in water, but rather double the amount of water-holding material in their growing mix.)

Manuel Aybar flew in from Houston to talk about the orchids of his native country, Dominican Republic, including many Epidendrum species. Epidendrum rigidum, Epi. nocturnum, and Epi. ciliare are found in many a South Florida orchid collection, but not Epi. wrightii, which is a bright orange-red species found only in the Dominican Republic.  That country does not yet have commercial orchid nurseries with sophisticated propagation and export capabilities, he said. Another bright orange orchid that is endemic to Hispaniola is Neocogniauxia hexaptera, which is pollinated by hummingbirds.

Tolumnia is a genus of miniature orchids that includes several species from Dominican Republic. Among them are Tolumnia calochilum, with a lemon-scented yellow flower; Tolu. henekenii,  which Aybar called the miniature tarantula orchid because of its resemblance to a spider (it now is Hispaniella henekenii), and Tolu. variegata, “which is found everywhere in the Dominican Republic and ranges in color from lavender to white.” Quisqueya is a genus that bears the Indian name for Hispaniola.

Dry-growing tolumnias, which most people in the audience had tried and killed, should be grown in a 3-inch pot with ½-inch pieces of gravel as a medium, Aybar said, to keep from over watering them.

 Finally, Weyman Bussey, who grew up in Belle Glade but now lives in California, talked about his passion, Mexican orchid species. Many of species that used to be classified as Oncidium now are called Trichocentrum, and include Trichocentrum cebolleta,  Trctm. ascends, Trctm. luridum and Trctm. andrianum, all Mexican. Two especially attractive Mexican species are Sobralia macrantha, a rosy purple flower, and Sobralia xantholeuca, which is yellow.

Bussey’s advice for growing orchid species: Remember that orchids are people, too. “Think of what makes you comfortable and give that to your orchid,’’ he said. Orchid needs are water, air, nutrition, the right temperature and sunlight.

Breakfast buffet of fresh fruit
and pastries.

Buying orchids was a big part of the day.