Gardening with Georgia

Archive - March 2010

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Seeking rare butterflies in the Keys

Wed, Mar 24, 2010 at 04:06:59 PM



My respect for butterfly conservationists just shot up a thousand percent -- especially those who identify and photograph these aerial jewels.

Tuesday, I tagged along as Jaret Daniels led a group of butterfly conservationists to Bahia Honda State Park and the National Key Deer Refuge in the Florida Keys. They were searching for the state-listed endangered Miami Blue butterfly as well as Bartram’s hairstreak and the Florida leafwing, two candidates for federal listing.

Armed with his butterfly net – which he uses with such a swift forehand you’d think it was a tennis

Jaret Daniels has found a larva of
the Miami blue butterfly on new
growth of a gray nickerbean.

racket – and many years of study, Jaret showed us the host plants in remnant habitats for these remarkable insects.

Jaret is an assistant director for research at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity in the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology and the Florida Museum of Natural History. He’s trying to save the Miami Blue butterfly by captive breeding and reintroducing it into the wild. It’s his idea to run this three-year workshop, teaching zoo and botanical garden curators about imperiled butterfly conservation and management. He won a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences so the participants are on full scholarships. They’ve met at the Toledo Zoo, in Gainesville, and from Fairchild, their training takes them to the Oregon Zoo and the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

Hillary Burgess, who manages Fairchild’s butterfly garden, pine rockland and other collections, arranged for the group of 25 plus 10 faculty from other institutions to spend the week here. Sam Wright from the Center for Tropical Plant Conservation told them Monday about his work with the atala butterfly on Key Biscayne, where the whole community pitched in to plant coontie for that endangered butterfly. And Aerin Land from Everglades National Park explained how the Park is learning to manage its controlled burns in the pine rocklands to help save the Bartram’s hairstreak and the Florida leafwing.

A Cassius blue butterfly.

Midday Tuesday found more than 30 folks gingerly turning over thorny twigs of gray nickerbean, looking for Miami blue larvae. The nickerbean and balloon vine are the larval host plants for this tiny butterfly. It often is mistaken for the Cassius blue, but has a more vibrant blue color. Jaret netted a Cassius blue to show us the striations on its wings. Even spotting one of these takes some getting used to. They’re about the size of a fingernail. And they move in a jerky pattern, rather like skippers.

We climbed the berm that once held Flagler’s railroad tracks. The berm divides the southern end of the island, where the main colony of Miami Blue butterflies remains. When a storm comes off the ocean, it shelters the Florida Bay side and when a storm comes off the Bay, visa versa. Nickerbean, which has bright green compound leaves and thorns to beat the band, rambles over the sand and mixes with Melanthera and Spanish needles, flowers of which provide nectar for the three kinds of blue butterflies on this island. The weedy nickerbeans were damaged in the 2005 hurricanes, and the number of butterfly sightings dropped. However, they rebounded somewhat in recent years.  There may be in the neighborhood of 200 to 250 in the colony, although we didn’t succeed in finding one. We did see the Ceraunus blue, which is even tinier than the other blues. It was drinking from Sida aculeata. Some of us tried to photograph it.

Horace's duskywing has a
wingspan of about an inch.

After lunch, we headed to Big Pine Key and the National Key Deer Refuge. Chad Anderson, a ranger there, said he had seen but a single Bartram’s Hairstreak since last fall, and that was the previous day. He pointed out pineland croton, Croton linearis, the delicate-looking host plant for the hairstreak and the leafwing. The caterpillars typically skeletonize the leaf tips on these plants so you can tell if they’ve been feeding in the ‘hood. With the disappearance of the pine rocklands, the butterflies have been dwindling to ever-scarcer numbers. The cold winter seems to have put a damper on butterfly activity, and yet the butterfly folks took that in stride. We did see and photograph one Horace’s duskywing, a skipper that held still for about a nanosecond, providing a small success for the day.







With orchids galore, it's a splendid festival

Fri, Mar 12, 2010 at 03:38:34 PM

A cart of orchids about to go home
with Giovanna Abreu and Edith

Neighbors Giovanna Abreu and Edith LaRiva drove in from Doral and were bargaining hard Friday afternoon at Fairchild’s 8th International Orchid Festival. “We come every year; we wait for it,’’ Giovanna said.

Sissy Scott drove from Orlando and sat with a full cart of orchids in the early afternoon with her friend Lori Godinez. “I’m just starting out,’’ Sissy said. “I have 15 or 18 orchids. My best friend Lori has taught me how to grow them. I have them on my porch in Orlando.’’

Lori’s cart contained a huge Cattleya guatemalensis destined for one of the hooks on her back fence.

“My husband says, ‘I hate this,’” she said. “Then he’s out there with the hose watering. I say ‘What are you doing?’ and he says, ‘Protecting my investment.’”

Shopping at Water Orchids were Roma Laurent and Antoinette Etienne, who confessed they come

Roma Laurent, left, and Antoinette
Etienne buying orchids Friday.

every year from North Miami. "I have a yard but not a shade house,'' Antoinette said. "I hang orchids in the trees."

Orchid flowers reflecting every color of the
rainbow are displayed in the Garden House.

Inside the Garden House, the Orchid Society of Coral Gables and nurseryman Tod Anderson created a lovely central display, complete with waterfalls. One glorious orchid after another is highlighted among the bottle palms and ferns of the tropical setting. Commercial vendors built tabletop displays, filling in the perimeter of the Garden House with perfectly grown flowers -- despite the cold weather this winter. Robert Randall of Carib Plants outdid himself and won a gold medal from the American Orchid Society judges for his exquisite display.  Check it out and be wowed.

Carib Plants won a gold medal for
this tabletop display.

Lectures will go on all day Saturday and Sunday, so you can buy an orchid and learn how to grow it, or visa versa. Saturday I’ll be signing Growing Orchids in South Florida, the second in a series of handbooks we’re developing around the theme Gardening with Fairchild.

Oh yes, about all that liquid sunshine. It is supposed to disappear Saturday and Sunday, and the forecast is for perfectly beautiful weather.  Join us!


Lettuce now praise the raised bed garden

Wed, Mar 03, 2010 at 12:21:32 PM

As I watched cold batter my landscape, the one part of the garden that seemed to thrive in January and February was the vegetable garden.

Beautiful broccoli.

One broccoli plant measures an astounding 44 inches tall. The large head of unopened flowers sits 32 inches above the soil in our raised bed garden. We’ve already harvested one large head, and use the subsequent small side shoots in salads.

Weird looking, this kohlrabi is a
cabbage relative.

A tiny cauliflower is forming on our single cauliflower plant. Kohlrabi is fat as a baseball. We will harvest it soon. This cabbage relative forms a bulbous area on its stem above ground, with leaves emerging from the bulb. We can eat it raw or cooked.

Our tomatoes have been small, but our cherry tomatoes have been prolific. Two sizeable bell peppers have formed on our single pepper plant, which hardly looks strong enough to support them.

Leaf lettuce continues to grow, and we harvest tender leaves daily for salads. We mix leaf lettuce and peppery arugula with broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes and occasionally parsley, which has outdone itself in one corner of the raised bed.

The pepper plant hardly
looks strong enough to
support these peppers.

 Mint, sage and oregano seem to love the cool weather. Our okra suffered from powdery mildew in the hot weather of December, as did our purple beans. But the beans have been replanted and are growing beautifully.

I bought the cedar-plank raised bed from Miami Victory Gardens. It came with a rich supply of compost and soil. We have not side-dressed or added any other fertilizer to the mix, and are amazed at the production that has come from an 8-ft. by 4-ft. by 12-inch-deep bed. 

This is one year when our home efforts at urban food gardening have been a boon and not a boondoggle.