Monday, October 19, 2020

Simpson's Stopper

 Simpson's stopper, Myrcianthes fragrans, generally grows as a shrub or small tree up to 25 feet tall.  It is vary variable in form, and also can be pruned into any shape desired. It's formally pruned in many parking lot hedges, which is kind of too bad, since the constant whacking back vastly reduces flowering and fruiting. So even though many people in South Florida see it regularly, they don't notice it. On the other hand, the resulting dense growth produces a good nesting place for mockingbirds. 

 The Simpson's stopper in the front yard could be healthier, which is worrisome.  It's one of my very favorite plants, and it plays a vital ecological and esthetic role in our yard. Anchoring the front landscape design (such as it is), is not the least of its virtues. If it goes, it will leave a big hole. 




It started out as a multi-trunked containerized plant. I liked the outward spread of the trunks, so I left them. As it grew, I removed lower branches, partly because they were intruding on the path. The open, tiered canopy that developed is one of the plant's charms now. I just wish it were a bit fuller. "Limbing" it up also reveals the gorgeous bark, sometimes a perfectly smooth pale tan, as though it were sanded, and at other times turning reddish and peeling, a little like a crepe myrtle. The smooth bark phase is likely the source of one common name, "naked-wood."




Removing lower limbs also keeps the landscape more open and less-congested. It makes a nice screen between us and our neighbors to the left, but it isn't so dense that I can't see through it to their magnificent large Opuntias or the houses across the street.  No matter what your viewpoint is, you can see through and beyond the plant, so you are tempted to explore further. One of these days I am going to relocate one of my waterlilly pots so that birds can flit down for a drink or bath, and then retreat into the protective shade of the stopper.

The plant is evergreen, with opposite, mostly ovate leaves about 1 to 8 cm long,  and 1 to 4 cm wide. They are tough and leathery, with slightly underturned margins to reduce water loss. Depending on sun exposure, the leaves range from bright yellow-green to dark olive. The underside is a paler green. The leaves are covered with small glands, which appear as bumps on the upper side and as black or green dots on the underside.  I've never noticed any fragrance emanating from the leaves like it does from firs or spruces. Crushing the leaves, though, releases a fresh minty aroma something like eucalyptus oil. That's not surprising, since both are members of the Myrtle family, Myrtaceae.




In contrast with the leaves, the flowers really live up to their species epithet,  fragrans.  The plant blooms and fruits several times a year, depending on rainfall and temperature. When Simpson's stopper is in flower the air around it is filled with a spicy sweetness somewhere between the heavy, almost cloying odor of gardenias and the light, fleeting sweetness of citrus. When it is flowering I visit it several times a day, especially in late afternoon or early evening, just to breath deeply, as though I somehow could capture an olfactory  memory. Who needs mind-altering drugs when it is possible to wallow in pure sensation just by standing near a fragrant shrub and inhaling?




The all-white flowers grow in clusters on stalks that arise in the angle between leaf and stem. I think normally there are 5 tiny petals, though the one in my sketch above has 4. The numerous fine white stamens provide the main attraction, though. They practically obscure the petals, and a Simpson's stopper in full bloom looks like  the fairy godmother has waved her sparkle-trailing magic wand over it. The flowers are constantly humming with various pollinators, including beetles. Butterflies don't seem particularly fond of them, though. 




Flowers give way to rounded or somewhat pear-shaped fruits, often borne in pairs  - hence another common name, "twinberry stopper." They eventually reach a size somewhere between a blueberry and small olive, starting out green, then passing through yellow and orange stages before their final bright red. Mockingbirds gorge on the fruits, and if they happen to be frequenting the yard at the time, bluejays and cardinals also gobble the berries. The fruits are edible, somewhat sweet and not too dry, but for me leave an unpleasant bitter aftertaste. Volunteers pop up around the yard, evidence of the bird's activities. The plant also suckers, and probably could be propagated by severing them, too.

Apart from its other virtues, the Simpson's stopper functions as a kind of activity center in the yard. Even when they aren't feeding, birds like to perch on its branches. One July morning I made notes of what was going on around me while I sketched the fruits. I sat quietly enough that a mockingbird that had been flushed by my initial setup returned to the opposite side of the plant to continue eating. A shiny June beetle had its head stuck into a fruit, so intent on gorging that it let me manipulate foliage around it to make a photo. You can see a bit of my finger at the top of the photo.




Small bees and wasps buzzed amid the foliage and remaining flowers. Two other species of beetles were devouring fruits. Two strange insects that I couldn't ID were mating in the shrub's interior. A green darner dragonfly reconnoitered in search of prey or just patrolling its territory.  




I am wearing out the phrase, "superlative native plant," but that is because so many Florida native plants are, indeed, superlative. From its undemanding nature, repeated flowering and fruiting, glossy evergreen foliage, wildlife and landscaping value, Simpson's stopper certainly qualifies. It needs little water or fertilizer after it is established, and ours has survived major hurricanes Wilma and Irma with minimal damage. Though it gets pretty well defoliated by the salt-laden wind, it recovers quickly. 

It is named in honor of Charles Torrey Simpson (1846-1932), a noted South Florida plant explorer, snail expert, naturalist and nature writer. True stoppers are in the genus Eugenia, which also is in the Myrtle family. Simpson's stopper resembles them superficially, hence the most common common name.




Tuesday, September 22, 2020

August

This August has been something of a slog. And now we're already in the 3rd week of September! Medical procedures, mounds of paperwork, and heat indices into the 'teens have combined to keep me inside. Outside, things are occurring in the yard at a frantic pace. While spring ushers in a flurry of new growth in anticipation of rain, late summer shows a mad rush to grow and reproduce before the dry season begins.

There have been several waves of polydamas swallowtails after I blogged about them in July. In fact, a new adult was flying around last week. Predatory yellow jackets have been in evidence most, but not all, of the time. I don't know whether the butterflies hatched here or flew in from elsewhere. I've looked for chrysalids, but our badly overgrown yard offers a vast number of places to hide one. 

Our yard is home to many native plants. While they may struggle in their actual habitat, put them into a garden where they receive a modicum of care in somewhat amended soil, and they can run rampant. Mother Nature doesn't know a lot about sharing, and just about any plant that grows reasonably well here will try to take all the space. I try to scan all the bushels of vegetation I pull out or  prune back for evidence of caterpillars, cocoons or chrysalids, and baby tillandsias, but I'm sure I miss some.

 I  keep several water garden pots though I don't have any native waterlilies or lotus. The waterlilies bloom most of the time, which reminds me that I haven't even gotten around to fertilizing these heavy feeders yet. The lotus are mostly bloomed out by the end of July, and even beginning to go dormant by this time, but I had a few isolated late bloomers much to my delight.



                                                    Lotus, "Green Maiden"


Coral honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, blooms most of the year here. It was in full flower in the middle of March. It may not make as impressive a show now, but the flowers haven't stopped. I couldn't get it established in Georgia, where it is native, but it flourishes here in sw Florida, which is south of its normal range.  It is a favorite of hummingbirds during their migrations to and from more southern climes, as well as many species of butterflies. Problem is, I've got it planted along a fence on the side of the house, so we miss most of what goes on with it. It is another proverbial "trouble-free" and "drought-tolerant" plant, and it also tolerates our flooding rains.


                                                Coral Honeysuckle

I finally got the bird pepper (Capsicum annuum, var. glabriusculum) that I bought way back in March  into a bigger pot. It was beginning to decline seriously before I did anything, but has responded beautifully to better circumstances. The birds weren't finding it where I put it, so I moved the pot to under a Simpson's Stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans), which is a favorite perching and foraging space for mockingbirds. Some of the fruits have disappeared, so something is eating them. 

This tiny pepper is a form of the ancestor of all our  peppers. It has a real bite, but the sting doesn't continue to linger and burn like many hot peppers. It's a great addition to all sorts of dishes, especially Tex-Mex and stir-fry. It's a  diminutive plant for starters, and its structure is so dense and compressed that it's hard for me to figure out just how things are arranged.




An invasion of Eurasian collared doves was an unwelcome event. Sadly, they discovered the Jamaica Caper, and literally shook the small tree with their clumsy weight as they stripped its fruits. The mockingbirds got some, but these aliens, imported years ago for hunting, probably got most. Our native mourning doves are delightful and coo melodically, but these boors have a call like "Raaaalf!" I always think of somebody barfing when the Eurasian collared doves are around.

The starry rosinweed (Silphium astericus) which I bought at the same time as the bird pepper, but planted right away, has outdone itself and already formed a second flowering clump. It has dark green, coarse leaves that can get 6 inches long or more, and the basal rosette is persistent. The erect, branched flowering stalks grow at least 18 inches tall. It has been blooming nonstop since late April/early May. I think I have the variety simpsonii, which occurs naturally along Florida's coastal plain, and is more tolerant of heat than some other forms. It will be interesting to see what it does once the rains stop. The butterflies and other pollinators were quick to discover it.  




                                        Starry Rosinweed

Elliott's aster (Aster elliotii) has produced its usual weedy-looking mass of skinny stems. I keep it because it is so stunning in full flower. Otherwise it is something of an eyesore, and since it spreads by rhizomes it will colonize any area that is even slightly moist. No illustration here - it is surprisingly difficult to draw or photograph a mess!

Last, but not least, one of my ponytail palms, Beaucarnia recurvata, bloomed. This one was a sort of gift from my late next door neighbor who didn't want it and suggested I take it. I have a problem letting things die ( one reason the yard is so overgrown - I don't pull out all the volunteers) so I took it. It was humming with honeybees and perhaps some other smaller pollinators.




This stem succulent has a very swollen base, and is not closely related to palms at all. It eventually will grow too large for this yard, but by then I will be long gone. Given the way old houses here are scraped away and replaced with narrow, 3-story mansionettes built all the way out to the setbacks, my tiny piece of semi-natural habitat will vanish too. It's a melancholy thought.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Florida Elephant's Foot

I've been remiss in keeping my nature notes this year. The first reference to Florida elephant's foot (Elephantopus elatus Bertol.) in our yard is a sketch done on July 30th, but it already had been blooming so long that I was afraid it was now or never in terms of drawing it. My notes from 2019 mention it around the end of June, which is not to say that it wasn't flowering before then. It's late August now, and the flowering is still going strong.



Florida Elephant's Foot - Individual Florets at Bottom Right
The foliage is much grayer and hairier than depicted.


Unspectacular, even slightly ungainly, Florida elephant's foot belongs to that class of plants delightful mainly to the observant eye, for it easily gets lost in a crowd. A flat rosette of coarse leaves wider at the tips than at their bases sends up grayish, wiry branching stalks which can reach up to 3 feet tall according to the books. Mine are closer to 18-24 inches. Each branchlet (in botany language a pedicel)  ends in a pyramidal structure composed of 3 overlapping bracts packed with individual disk florets. Florets are a delicate pale lavender-pink. The florets in any given head open  somewhat sequentially, not all at once, so the effect is subtle, hardly spectacular. 


Florida Elephant's Foot - Habit

                                                

The gray-green clusters and delicate florets seeming to hover untethered over lower-growing plants, or  among grasses, give the scene a wonderfully airy and ephemeral effect. My plant is being supported by the grassy leaves of spiderwort ( Tradescantia ohiensis). Spiderwort isn't native to this part of Florida, but does pretty well - in fact, too well at times. I will have to thin this batch to keep it from overshadowing and outcompeting the elephant's foot. I suppose elephant's foot would have to be staked in a more formal garden, but loosely, so as not to destroy its peculiar charm.

There are 4 species of Elephantopus native to Florida, but elatus, the "tall elephant's foot," is the only one that occurs in SW Florida. This species is found in throughout most of Florida and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. In Florida its status is "Threatened." It can take rather dry to reasonably moist situations, and is commonly found in pine flatwoods.The Florida Native Plant Society lists it as a "short-lived perennial." 

Though it is quite drought-hardy, and used to sandy soils, I find that the plant does better in our hot yard with a little moisture and shade. I don't need to water it in its present place where it gets runoff from the eaves and protection from the afternoon sun, but the ones I planted elsewhere, in full unabated sunlight, died out. 




A Head and Ray Florets
(I've rotated this photo several times and still can't figure out which end is up)



Over time, Florida elephant's foot will form clumps, like many plants in the Aster Family. It also grows from seed. In our yard it goes dormant in the dry season, disappearing entirely until the rains resume.

Though it works wonderfully blended with other plants, a large plot of Elephantopus alone in bloom is quite and quietly spectacular. When he was still in high school my much younger brother tilled up a section near the woods to grow corn. The raccoons got most of the corn, but there obviously was a dormant seedbank for elephant's foot, because it flourished in that spot thereafter. More than 40-50 years later, there are still scattered plants there in spite of repeated disturbance. In fact, the plant in our yard is a descendent of these north-Florida individuals.




Colony of Elephant's Foot  under Serenoa repens
Naples Preserve



Florida elephant's foot doesn't seem overly attractive to butterflies, but is very popular with wasps and bees. The photo below shows what I believe to be a spider wasp nectaring. Spider wasps paralyze spiders and inter them as food for their larvae. They can manipulate a spider far larger than they are themselves. Though they can sting, they usually aren't aggressive. This one didn't mind my getting up close. 





Florida elephant's foot is so named because from overhead, the outline of the basal rosette supposedly resembles the footprint of an elephant. That takes some imagination. For one thing, the elephant would have to have toes  all around its foot, not just in the front. 

A garden full of divas would be pretty jarring and incoherent. It needs a complement of modest and unassuming plants like Florida elephant's foot to furnish the backdrop so the stars can shine.









Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Polydamas Swallotail

The Polydamas Swallowtail, Battus polydamas, is named after both historical and mythological figures from Greek history. Battus I founded the colony of Cyrenaica and its capital Cyrene on the coast of present-day Libya around 630 BC. Impressive ruins are all that is left. 

Polydamas figures in the Illiad as an advisor and friend of Hector. Polydamas of Skotoussa, who won the Olympiad in 408 BC, was an athlete of prodigious strength. Some of his feats appear on Greek pottery. The subspecies that occurs in Florida is Battus polydamas lucayous. I haven't been able to find a reference for "lucayous." 

The polydamas is the only swallowtail in the U.S. that doesn't have tails. This butterfly is sometimes called the gold-rimmed swallowtail as well for the row of yellow patches on the edges of its wings. Their larval food are pipevines, species of Aristolochia. In our yard they feed on the exotic Giant Aristolochia, and this year pretty well denuded the massive vine.

One year, when I didn't have any caterpillars I "imported" a batch from a friend about 25 miles north of me whose polydamas larvae were on the point of starvation after completely stripping  her Aristolochia plants.

 (The pipevine swallowtail, which also feeds on Aristolochia species, looks quite different. It has short tails, and it's deep black wings are brushed with bright blue iridescence. It has creamy patches near the margins on the upper wings, and large, bright orange patches on the undersides. It does not make it quite as far south as Collier County).

The polydamas is a strong, vigorous flyer, with a rapid, almost "nervous" wingbeat. I never have seen one basking. Even when nectaring, they keep up their fluttering, and I wonder whether they may actually feed on the wing like hummingbirds now and then. The ones in our yard fly about 5-10 feet off the ground when patrolling, swooping down mainly to lay eggs or take a sip of nectar.




Polydamas Checking Out Pipevine
Notice Yellow-Jacket Patrolling lower left


This is the best year for polydamas swallowtails in our yard for a long time. The last few years a few adults have showed up, some even laying eggs. But predators seemed to clean out the caterpillars, and repeat appearances by adults were rare.

This year I noticed the first polydamas in early May, and they pretty much stayed with us through mid- July. After about a week of no sightings, I see a brand new adult as we near the end of the month. Some of the adults who emerge probably stay here, but timing of appearance suggests that I also have had some visits by newcomers.

 I have seen polydamas swallowtails here as early as late February and as late as mid-November. They range up to north-central Florida, but may stray farther north. A subspecies occurs in coastal south Texas. Otherwise, they inhabit the Bahamas, Carribean Islands, southern coastal Mexico, Central America, and south to Argentina in South America. There are many sub-species.




Polydamas Swallowtail


The above quick and dirty, and not neurotically accurate color pencil drawings were made from a battered dead specimen I picked up years ago. I'm  not at all happy with the brown undersides. I tried layering different colors, but still did not pick up the elusive, reflective warm brown/black coloration.

The female lays a cluster of orange-yellow eggs on tendrils and tender young leaves. At first the caterpillars stay close together. There must be some evolutionary advantage in this behavior, but it also makes them very vulnerable to predators. A wasp can wipe out a brood in a matter of minutes. When they get about 3/8 to 1/2 inches long they go their separate ways.



Ovipositing Female



Young caterpillars are orangish tan to brown, with many bristles. The older caterpillar looks like a fat brown slug with orange tubercules protruding from its body. The larvae absorb toxins from the aristolochia, so they are distasteful to birds and lizards. But nothing saves them from hornets.

Too many times, I have watched a yellow-jacket methodically hunting the larvae amid the leaves and devouring them one after the other. All that is left is a little puddle. I'm lucky if even one or two individuals in some broods make it to adulthood. I  have had 3 sets of egg-laying so far this years, and apart from the first brood, the yellow-jacket has been there every day looking for prey. I'm hoping it  missed one here and there, but a successful brood may depend on timing with the emergence of adult  wasps. I just don't know. The interrelationships in the natural world are so complex. And we may be getting a distorted view of it on our tiny 60x110-foot plot.

The caterpillars are sort of dumb, even for creatures that low on the intellectual ladder. I've seen more than one start eating the stem between it and the plant, and then plop down to the ground once it has severed the connection. It doesn't seem fatal, though.



Polydamas Caterpillar



One year I got fed up with the yellow-jacket's gluttony and brought several caterpillars onto the screened patio. I cut new Aristolochia leaves and stems for them faithfully, but something went terribly wrong. None were able to form a complete chrysalis, and one never got beyond the J-stage. I don't know whether I deprived my larvae of some vital nutrient by feeding them cuttings, or whether they contracted some kind of disease. Now, even though the predation distresses me, I just leave nature to take its course. Besides, the yellow-jacket feeds its larvae with liquified caterpillars, and there's a place for them, too.

Butterflies usually leave the host plant to pupate, but I have found a lot of chrysalides tucked in along the vine. They resemble twisted leaves, dead or alive - some are green and some are brown with orange markings. They are very "architectural," and remind me of miniature sets of armor. The brown chrysalis in the sketch below has been parasitized. The spot that looks like an eye is the hole from which the parasite emerged. The chrysalis may hang vertically or horizontally.



Polydamas adults are particularly fond of the weedy Madagascar Periwinkle(Catharanthus roseus) that has been in south Florida most likely for centuries. It flowers at the end of the stems, and doesn't start blooming before it is pretty tall. The stems quickly get 3 feet tall or more, and it takes no time at all for them to lose a lot of leaves along the way, and look leggy, scraggly and bare. That's when I cut them all the way back. By the way they show up in the yard, they produce plenty of viable seeds. I also have a pinkish-magenta form, which the polydamas likes too. The center of the white ones usually is dark rose-magenta, but also can be green-yellow. The center of the pink ones is a dark rose.

A member of the dogbane family, Apocnyaceae, Madagascar periwinkle is quite poisonous. It is a prime exhibit for the argument of preserving plants, for potent anti-cancer drugs have been developed from its sap. While it is a ubiquitous escape in Florida, it hasn't been classified as invasive. I hope it doesn't reach that status because many kinds of butterflies love it, and it provides clumps of cheerful, clear whites and pinks all through the year. It actually is endangered in Madagascar, its place of origin.


White Madagascar Periwinkles


When I was taking high school biology I laughed at the naivety - even stupidity - of the early theory of "spontaneous generation" to explain how animals originated. But when it comes to establishing a pollinator garden in the world of tidy, chemically-coddled suburban lawns, the possibility doesn't seem that far-fetched. Just plant some flowers, preferably natives, get some larval host plants established, and the butterflies, bees, flies and wasps show up. How they found and find me still seems pretty magical. Sadly, in the 26 years we've lived here, the sheer numbers and the number of species have declined, but I'm not giving up just yet.

Good Sources of Information:

Emmel & Kinney. Florida's Fabulous Butterflies. World Publications. 1997.

Gerberg & Arnett. Florida Butterflies. Natural Science Publications. 1989.

Glassberg, Minno & Calhoun. Butterflies Through Binoculars: Florida. Oxford University Press. 2000.

Hall. Polydamas. entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/bfly/polydamas. This article is particularly informative. I tried to create a link, but had no success. You can find the article just by searching "polydamas" and scrolling to it.

Minno & Minno. Florida Butterfly Gardening. University Press of Florida. 1999.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Spanish Stopper

June has come and gone, and I can't say where it went. The first half of the month was very wet, and the second half was unusually hot, with heat indices hitting 3 digits by 9 AM. Salt-water mosquitoes also were abundant, but I try not to complain about them because they are so important in the food chain. Probably not so coincidentally, we had lots of dragonflies too.

The yard just erupted with flowers, butterflies, new growth and new weeds. I'm hoping for cooler temperatures so l can restore some order there as well as resume outdoor sketching. Instead of trying to catch up, I am just going to jump in where we are now, with Spanish Stopper in full bloom. This year's flush is probably the best we've ever had, so I'm hoping for a lot of berries.


Delicate, Ephemeral Flowers of Spanish Stopper


Spanish Stopper (Eugenia foetida) is a shrub or small tree to about 20 feet tall in the Myrtle family. It is native to southern Florida, somewhat farther north along the state's east coast, the West Indies, Bahamas, and Central America. Despite its name it does not have a fetid odor, in or out of bloom.  Some sources claim the flowers of Spanish stopper smell unpleasant, but I can detect only a faint odor, and it's not at all unpleasant. The same goes for crushed leaves. Pruning cuts do stink for a few hours.


Eugenia foetida, habit


So I either have an outlier, or the species name foetida is a misnomer. The stink honor goes to the white stopper (Eugenia axillaris), whose leaves emit a pronounced skunky odor, which is picked up and transported by the breeze. Oddly enough, your neighbor down the street is more likely to notice it than you would standing right by the plant.

Spanish stopper has a very upright, rather than outward-spreading form, so it is good for small or tight spaces. The leaf posture accents this impression, because the leaves often are held upright, with the lower ones overlapping those higher. You may see more leaf undersides than topsides because of this ascending habit. In "botanese" the leaves are "obovate," which means that the bases are quite narrow while the tips are broad and rounded. Spanish stopper is the only one of our native stoppers whose leaves do not come to a sharp point at their tip.

Leaves are opposite, have quite short petioles, and smooth margins. Veins are not very noticeable, with only the midrib prominent on the underside. The leathery leaves are dark green on the top side, and a lighter, somewhat gray-green on the underside.




The bark is gray to brownish-gray, with newer twigs somewhat rusty in color. It is not deeply fissured, but the closely-spaced leaf scars make good "hold-fasts" for lichens and bromeliads.

Flowers appear in the angles between branches. Up close the small blooms are spectacular, with 4 white petals and numerous long stamens. At first glance they appear to be stuck directly to the branches, but if you look closer you'll see that they grow from tiny stems. The buds resemble miniature golf balls set on tees. The flowers do not last long, and the blooming season is  short. In only one or two days, the ephemeral white flowers are already shriveling. But if you are lucky enough to catch it at the right time, a Spanish stopper in full bloom, with masses of delicate snowy white flowers wreathing the stems, is truly beautiful. The fruits are globular, turning black when ripe, and are attractive to birds.


Spanish Stopper Flowers


Though our stopper is putting on its quiet show now, blooms actually may appear throughout the year. Blooming may be triggered by rain after a dry spell, or warmer weather after a cold snap.

Spanish stopper is a pioneer hammock plant, and well-suited to Florida's highly alkaline soils. Once established it is absolutely bullet-proof. I rarely water ours, and it never has shown any signs of insect or disease infestation. Though it isn't spectacular, it does have its place in the landscape as a trouble- free evergreen with wildlife appeal. It can be pruned to any shape or height desired.

Like its relatives, it derives its name from accounts that a tea made from its leaves or berries effectively treated diarrhea.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Destroy Nature - Destroy God

A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith (1984, Pineapple Press) is a must-read for anybody making his home in Florida. It follows 3 generations of the MacIvey family struggling to survive and prosper in the Florida wilderness, interwoven with the parallel story of the Seminole  Tiger/Cypress family experiencing the destruction of their way of life. It is painted against a canvas of harsh scrubland of palmettos and oaks, crystalline springs, panorama of vast prairies and impenetrable swamps, and the magnificence of the once vast Everglades. Magnificence, abundance, and tragedy are constant themes.

The MacIveys undergo years of near-starvation and privation, eating flour made from ground cattails, and often surviving on nothing more than boiled pokeweed. The friendship and help from Keith Tiger are key to their success.

It is a riveting story, covering Florida from 1858 to 1968, touching on the state's role in the Civil War, the injustices done to the indigenous people, natural disasters, the coming of the railway, and the Florida boom. A seemingly irreconcilable conflict between human progress and the survival of the natural world is always in the background. While the courage, integrity and indomitable spirit shown by the MacIveys is admirable, their survival is also partly the story of the exploitation and degredation of the land that supports them.



Scrub Near Estero, Florida, West of US 41, 1971


Florida's rich history (and current status) as a cattle state might surprise many new residents. After they relocate near present-day Kissimmee, the family does prosper, rounding up and branding cattle, which they take in months-long drives to Punta Rassa, fattening up the lean cattle on the abundant wild grasses. The descriptions of the vast prairies and swamps that that they traverse are heart-breakingly beautiful. It is also a brutal life, as they lose herds to sudden floods, quicksands, and other natural phenomena. Frontier life takes its toll on life and health. Trouble with other people begins when more people settle in the area, blocking off rangeland, and fencing. Range wars and cattle rustling become chronic problems.



Marsh Trail, 10,000 Islands Refuge
Seemingly Endless Expanse


If for no other reason, the novel should be read for its panoramic descriptions of wild Florida. If it were filmed, it would call for the wide-screen format. It chronicles a magnificent landscape, abundant with life. Take the father, Tobias's first glimpse of Payne's Prairie:

"They gradually left the pine land to come into a forest of tall magnolias, live oaks, and cabbage palms. Then suddenly they stepped over a slight bluff overlooking the edge of the savanna. ...The plain was as flat as a table top and stretched away to the horizon. There were no trees to break its vastness or to judge distance... As they descended into the basin, the ground was spongy to their feet. There were great flocks of birds everywhere, ducks and coots and bitterns and plovers and rails. Hawks and eagles circled overhead, and tall sandhill cranes danced out of the way as the men made their way through the marsh. There were also vast herds of deer, and frightened bobcats scurried out of grass clumps at the sound of approaching feet and hooves. The entire area teemed witih life..."
(pp.37-38)

Tobias refuses to buy land, but his son Zech realizes that it is necessary, and uses some of the wealth they have accumlated to gain title, and to fence their holdings. They make so much money from the cattle that he buys thousands of acres of prairies and swamps. As the beef  market changes, Tobias and Zech plant acres orange groves.

The middle generation, Zech, is the only one who fully senses what is happening. His parents have had to focus on survival, and while Zech continues their fight against the elements, he realizes that he is losing something essential:

 "One night as Zech listened apprehensively to the lonesome cry of a wolf, realizing that it was a harmless lone voice and not a pack, he wondered what the future held for old adversaries like wolves and bears and for all the other creatures that depended on the land for survival. ...Perhaps animals are smarter than men, he thought, taking only what they need to live  today, leaving something for tomorrow. Even the hated wolf kills only for food...Maybe it is man who will eventually perish as he destroys all the land and all that if offers, taking the animals down with him." p.270.

Zech and Tobias make a trip to the Big Cypress area to visit the Keith family. The descriptions of the vast "river of grass," that made up the northern Everglades, the custard-apple swamps, vast flocks of egrets, herons and spoonbills create a glimmer of the incredible expanse and beauty that once graced that landscape. He sees for the first time, "the great marsh Pay-Hay-Okee- ... a land so overwhelming in its vastness that it caused Zech to blink his eyes in wonderment...". (p. 196). He buys vast sections of land south of Lake Okeechobee partly to preserve it.



Fakahatchee Strand
Part of the Big Cypress



Zech appreciates the wilderness he has bought, thinking that he has made it safe, but, tragically, he does not convey this sentiment to his son. After the death of his parents, the son, Sol, does what the MacIveys always have done - clear the wilderness for agriculture and settlement, rationalizing that there is plenty left.

His half-brother, Toby Cypress, confronts him: "It is not just swamp . . . It is God you are killing. He put the land here for all creatures to enjoy, and you are destroying it. When you destroy the land you destroy God. Do you not know this? Go now and stand in the middle of your fields. Count the deer you see, and the alligaors, and the fish, and the birds. Count them, Sol, and tell me how many are still there. You have crushed them with your damned machines, and if you do not stop what you are doing, there will soon be no more! They will be gone forever!"

Toby Cypress is not referring to a god in a religious sense, but as the sanctity and integrity of a space in which all the elements are still coexisting. This "god" encompasses the whole and the parts, the individual and the process, the present, along with past and future generations. That is why. in 2020, we have to work even harder to preserve what is left of this great natural network, far beyond our comprehension despite all our scientific advancements.

Sadly, the history of Florida is to a large extent the history of the exploitation and degradation of its natural resources. So much has been lost that the land of Keith Tiger and Tobias MacIvey exists now largely only as a "land remembered."





I hope my photographs convey something of the sensation of vast space in the Florida wilderness. Sadly, they are virtually all devoid of wildlife. That is partly because many were taken during the time of day when the wild things are resting. But it's partly because the wildlife population has been decimated so drastically. The pythons infesting the southern part of the state are devouring wildlife at a horrendous rate. They are just another manifestation of our carelessness with the beautiful land in which we live.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Pluchea rosea - Rosy Camphorweed

Pluchea rosea,  "rosy camphorweed" or "(salt) marsh fleabane," has been blooming since mid-February. It is an attractive, well-behaved native that generally isn't available even in the native plant nursery business. That's a shame, because this plant has a lot going for it. I dug my clump from a vacant lot probably 20 years ago. I'm glad I did, because now that lot is mowed regularly, and also used as a parking lot, sometimes for heavy trucks and trailers.



Pluchea rosea - Rosy Camphorweed


Pluchea is a member of the aster family, which is notable for its flowering system. Members of this family have numerous tiny flowers arranged in clusters called heads. What looks like the center of a daisy is actually an agglomeration of disc flowers, and what seem to be petals actually are individual ray flowers. Some species have both types of flowers, while others may have only ray or disc florets. Pluchea has only disk flowers, which are arranged in flat-topped clusters.


Pluchea rosea - Detail of Individual Flower on Left


The plant behaves like a standard perennial for me. If the weather gets too dry it may go dormant or semi-dormant, but new growth always emerges on schedule in the spring.

Pluchea rosea is quite undemanding, but it does like a little water. Their preferred habitat is marshes and wet flatwoods. In our yard they occupy a spot that stays somewhat moist for a good part of the year, but I imagine they would really like it wetter. They also get some dappled shade part of the day. We are in the middle of a drought now, and I have been giving them some water, but in general they do well enough on their own.



Pluchea rosea with Closeup of Flowering Clusters


I sound like a broken record with my refrain, "One of our prettiest native plants ...," but Pluchea rosea qualifies. It is quietly spectacular, creating a soft gray green "cool" spot in the landscape, and its  heads are a lovely maroon-pink. The books say they can get up to 4 feet tall, but mine stay shorter, probably due to their somewhat dry location. Cutting down the dead stalks from the previous years' growth, and trimming away the old heads to encourage new flowering are about the only maintenance required.

The leaves are somewhat thick, verging on succulent, and feel like pieces of felt. They alternate around the stems, which are branched. The leaves can be anywhere from oval to somewhat arrow-shaped, and have serrated edges. The leaf's apex often ends in a tiny hair or thorn.



Pluchea rosea with Enlargement of Single Head on Left


In all these years I've never noticed any chewing or disease damage. That likely is due to the plant's pungency and extreme hairiness. It is one hairy plant for sure - stems, leaves, bracts, flower heads. Even parts you can't see without a microscope are hairy. The otherwise gray-green leaves can shine a brilliant silver when the sunlight reflects off of them.

Unfortunately, due to their somewhat out-of-the way location in the yard, I haven't been able to tell how attractive they are to butterflies or other pollinators, but naturalist Roger Hammer calls the plant, "a supurb butterfly attractor," and he should know.



Pluchea rosea


Somebody once told me that Pluchea was one of the very few plants that goats wouldn't eat. I used to keep goats, and their lust for things like thorny blackberry canes and other seemingly inedible plants is truly astounding. I guess neither they nor insects care much for a mouth full of fuzzy mentholatum!

Seven species of Pluchea occur in Florida, and one of them, P. longifolia, is endemic. P. saggitalis is an escape native to South America. Rosy camphorweed occurs nearly throughout the state, and indeed, much of the United States, especially coastal areas. It also is found in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America.

The genus has wide ethnobotanical history in the Southern US, Caribbean, and Asia. It has many medicinal uses, and some species have potential as anti-cancer agents. There are many forms of pluchea as a supplement on the internet. Sure wish the plants themselves were as readily available!

The complexity of the flower heads and the difficulty of rendering the texture of the leaves has discouraged me from trying anything beyond rough watercolor sketches, but maybe it's time to take the plunge.