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 Hornet 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 hornet 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 hornet 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 hornets and other 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 hornet'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 hornet distresses me, I just leave nature to take its course.

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. I don't know whether the polydamas likes them because I see only the white ones from the windows. The center of the white ones usually is dark rose-magenta, but also can be green-yellow.

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. 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..."

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.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

All Native Plant Nursery

Just before the "stay home" order I got to visit the All Native Plant Nursery in Fort Myers with one of my sisters. What  a treat! It had been far too long since my last visit. I bought too many plants - our yard is already crowded. My reason for going was the need for a Bahama Cassia, but of course, I bought more than that one plant. (For some reason I can't link back to my own blog, but in "The Butterfly Effect," posted on 1/23/20, I talk about Bahama Cassia).

A wonderful mix of "minty" fresh foliage and the heady fragrance of several varieties of viburnums enveloped us as soon as we entered the sales area.  I really wanted one, not only for the fragrance, but also for birds, but it is too unruly for our small yard.

I planted one once, and after a few years had to dig it out - not an easy job. It had suckered exuberantly, and was showing no sign of slowing down. Still, if any space should open up, I will definitely consider some of the newer, more compact varieties of this multi-purpose shrub.

We didn't look at the big trees. That would have been fun, but we didn't have time, and while we could use the shade in our yard, again, there's no room for a live oak or a majestic gumbo-limbo.

Apart from the delight of so many flourishing native plants, just strolling the shaded pathways was a pleasure. I would love to return with my sketchbook and just draw for a few hours.

Shady paths and an abundance of plants - A gardener's dream
Sunshine Mimosa in foreground

Against better judgment, I bought a beach morning glory, Ipomoea imperatii. This morning glory doesn't climb, and in our loose, sandy "soil" expands its territory quickly. I hope I can keep this one in check in a large pot. I'll let it sprawl down the sides some, and with any luck I'll keep it tidy.  The dark green foliage and the white flower, with just the slightest hint of yellow-green, are very attractive.

I  had one some years ago, and it not only overran our yard, but was in the process of marching through the one next door. There was nobody living there at the time, so I didn't have to fess up to my sins or explain what I was doing  with trowel and hand rake on somebody else's property.  I overdid the cleanup, though, because it vanished from our yard as well.

Ipomoea imperatii - Beach Morning Glory

The  basal rosettes of  starry rosinweed, Silphium astericus were incredibly vigorous. It wasn't the promise of bright yellow flower heads, but the fantastic raspy leaves that made this plant irresistible. I can't wait to try to draw it. I planted it in an area that gets strong sun, but also some shade. It's doing well, and growing upwards.

Starry Rosinweed - Silphium astericus

A lovely trellised Pentalinon luteum, wild allamanda, or hammock viper's tail, was another "must-have" once I had seen it.  There is one in our yard, but it suffered with Hurricane Irma in 2017, and had been looking puny. I wasn't even sure if it would survive another year. Sure enough, as soon as I planted the "replacement" nearby, the old plant put out a burst of new growth. That's great. As far as I'm concerned, you can't have too much of this gorgeous flowering vine. The large, tubular flowers are a glowing lemon-yellow. They last only one day, but there's always another bud getting ready to bloom.

Pentalinon luteum in Full Bloom

Pentalinon blooms profusely, and over a fairly long period. Its shiny bright yellow-green leaves make it attractive even when it is not flowering. (If I don't irrigate it during our dry and windy winters and early spring, it may lose some or most leaves and go into a brief period of semi-dormancy).  Now and again various species of oleander moth chew on it, and they have the irritating habit of going after the flowers before tackling the leaves. Unless the infestation is particularly serious, I usually let it run its course, because the day-flying oleander moths are beautiful too.

Pentalinon luteum, Flower and Buds

We almost overlooked the bird peppers (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum) sitting on a bench in partial shade. Bird pepper is the ancestor of all our hot peppers. In the U.S. it occurs  naturally in Texas, Arizona and Florida. It also grows in the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and parts of Mexico, Central America and Columbia.

 You've got to pick the fruits fast, because the birds, especially mockingbirds, gobble them. The peppers have a nice burn that is great for imparting extra flavor to what you are cooking. It's another plant I killed by neglecting it totally.  I'm still looking for just the right place for it. There are plenty of spaces where I could tuck it away, but I want it close enough to the patio so that it's easy to tend, and also so we can watch the birds. I may decide on puttiing it in a large pot for now.

Last, but not least, sea lavender, Argusia gnaphalodes, a member of the Borage Family. Decades ago I saw it in Aruba and fell in love with it. I had never seen it on a Florida beach. The linear leaves are a pale, felty gray. It is a resident of sand dunes, and an important beach stabilizer. It is endangered now because so much beach habitat has been developed.

It's not frequently available, due to the difficulty of propagating it. I placed it in a barren spot near the seawall, where the soil is scarcely rich, and where the drainage is almost too good. The site is in easy reach of the garden hose, though, so I am pampering it with plenty of water until until it has established itself. Then it should be pretty much a "cast-iron" plant that will thrive on neglect.

I also bought a book, A Land Remembered, by Patrick D. Smith, that chronicles 3 generations of a "cracker" family coping with the Florida wilderness, and the changes brought by increasing settlement. That's a pretty impressive haul, but there were so many more things, especially wildflowers, that I wanted to try, or even multiples of the same plant.

Having a good native plant nursery within reach is a real luxury. When I first moved to this area in 1993, native plants generally were available only once a year at the plant sales hosted by  local chapters of the Florida Native Plant Society. Most of the plants had to be brought in from Florida's east coast. We owe the founder and owner of All Native Garden Center, John Sibley, who is a stalwart supporter of the Florida Native Plant Society both statewide and locally, a huge thanks.

And now that I have a selection of beautiful new plants, I need to get back to my sketchbook!

Pentalinon luteum

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Tillandsia fasciculata - The "Cardinal" Airplant

 Tillandsia fasciculata is in the process of blooming now. Some in the yard have flowered already, but others are just getting started. It is one of our most striking Tillandsias, and people often mount it on driftwood or trees in their front yards. This species of Tillandsia makes pups, and will form large colonies over time. Sometimes people traveling through the Big Cypress mistake large T. fasciculata colonies in the treetops for squirrel nests.

The colony below started as a tiny rosette - the windblown seed obviously found a foothold in the rough bark of the palm tree. I didn't put it there. It's even bigger now, because this photo is several years old. The plants in our yard were here when we bought the property in 1994. They have grown exuberantly over the years. I have several additional young specimens that obviously started from seeds.

Tillandsia fasciculata
Probably var. densispica

This species sends up a branched inflorescence. As is the case with Tillandsias, the bracts, not the flowers, are the main show. Immature bracts are mostly pinks, yellows and greens. The illustration below isn't the greatest, but it  gives some idea of the colors and shape of the immature inflorescence.  Side branches are just beginning to form.

Young Bloom Spike, Tillandsia fasciculata

As the plant matures the bracts take on much more saturated colors. The sketch below shows one fully opened purple flower, and 1 flower bud. Both the mealy, "scurfy" texture of Tillandsias and the shininess of the bracts can be hard to capture in watercolor. To suggest the scaly surface, I have tried light applications of colored pencils, dry brush watercolor technique, going over the dried surface with white watercolor or marker,  granulating watercolors, and combinations of techniques. (Granulating watercolors are made of pigments that don't dissolve evenly, but form little clumps of color as they dry. They are great at creating the illusion of texture. I use them for things like bark, rocks, sand, rust, or hairy surfaces). I still haven't found a one-size-fits-all technique.

Reds and greens in watercolor look shiny while wet, but dull considerably as they dry. (This actually can be a problem with watercolor in general). In the study below, I went over some of the red bracts with colored pencil to give them more punch. It's pretty obvious which ones I retouched.

Watercolor and Colorerd Pencil Study
Tillandsia fasciculata

 The scurfy texture of  Tillandsias  comes from specialized structures covering the leaves called trichomes. "Trichome" in general is a term meaning hair, or hairlike extension. In the case of Tillandsias, it refers to specialized structures consisting of both live and dead cells which absorb water and nutrients. On these species they are roughly cup-shaped, and mounted on a stem leading to the middle layers of the leaf where photosynthesis occurs.

Rough Sketch of Much Magnified Trichomes covering Tillandsia Leaf from  Above
Stems don't Show

The trichomes are very good at reflecting light, often giving the plants a silvery or "haloed" appearance. This feature reduces water loss by the leaves, and also protects them from harsh sunlight.  Most of Florida's native tillandsias look more silvery than hairy, but the trichomes are obvious under magnification. (Tillandsia pruinosa, the "fuzzy-wuzzy" airplant, is the exception).  In general, the hairier  the  plant, the more drought it can survive.

Tillandsias also reduce water loss by using the photosynthetic process seen in cacti and many succulents, "Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, or CAM. It's complicated, so I'm just going to say here that the stomata of the leaves stay closed during the day, and open at night. Another way of putting it is that it is sort of the opposite of regular photosynthesis, which goes on during daylight hours.

Once common, this airplant is now state listed as threatened due to illegal collecting, habitat loss and the ravages of the Mexican bromeliad weevil. In the early part of the 20th century, truckloads of blooming Tillandsias and orchids were harvested for sale "up North." Though the beetle has been documented in our county, the Tillandsias in our yard have been spared so far. I  keep an eye on them and hold my breath.

Tillandsia fasciculata
Briggs Nature Center Boardwalk

Tillandsia fasciculata grows in hammocks, cypress swamps and pinelands. It occurs in the Florida Keys through the north-central peninsula, Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, and northern South America. There are several varieties.  I am assuming that the ones here are var. densispica, because the other native varieties are rare and limited to Dade County. Tropiflora Nursery in Sarasota sells a rare white variety, Tillandsia fasciculata var. densispica alba.

They receive no care at all in our yard, but are protected in or under shrubs or trees. If I am watering something  nearby, I may give them a sprinkle too. If one falls off onto the ground, I stick it back between branches to reduce the chance of rotting.

Insects, lizards and other small animals may shelter in their leaves. Once a beautiful corn snake crawled out from a large bromeliad I had brought indoors to draw. Catching it to take it back outside was no easy matter! I have seen a photograph of a Florida panther sheltering/hiding behind a large Tillandsia fasciculata colony.

All in all, it is yet another of Florida's beautiful native plants, and like too many of them is besieged by our activities. 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Tillandsia balbisiana - The "Coke Bottle" Airplant

For the last couple of days I have been working hard on a drawing, as opposed to a sketch, of Tillandsia balbisiana. Eventually it will become the base for a watercolor painting, but it is arduous going. Some of its common names are "northern needle leaf," "inflated wild pine" and "reflexed wild pine." "Pine" here refers not to the tree, but to pineapple. Tillandsia is a genus in Bromeliaceae, sometimes called the "pineapple family."

Quick Sketch of 2 Tillandsia balbisianas

A more descriptive common name, "Coke bottle airplant," refers to  the way its leaves come together about half way up the plant, almost as if tied, and then spill over a more bulbous base. The leaves, which continue up the bloom spike for quite some distance before the flowering bracts form, curl and intertwine gracefully. Figuring out which leaf starts where isn't always easy. Aggravating as it can be, this plant makes me want to draw it again and again.

It is in the process of blooming now. The first sign of impending bloom is the appearance of a spike in shades of pinks and mauves, as opposed to the regular gray greens of the leaves.

Beginning Inflorescence - Watercolor and Pencil Sketch

The inflorescence eventually will branch. While the leaves have a powdery, scurfy appearance, the stem and  flowering bracts are smooth and shiny. The flower is purple, but the bracts, which become a deep rosy red at maturity, are the real show.

Intermediate Stage in Flowering
Note the difference in texture between stem, flowering bracts, and leaves

Tillandsia balbisiana also forms pups. Several colonies of this species are scattered through the scrub oaks of the Naples Preserve, and various trees along the boardwalks of Corkscrew Swamp and the former Briggs Nature Center. (The nature center now houses offices of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, but the boardwalk is still open). It is a rather small airplant, but considering the flowering spike, can get a good 28 centimeters tall.

The leaves of this plant vary from a sweet green to almost silver gray or even reddish, depending on how much sunlight it gets. In the United States it occurs in only in the southern and central Florida peninsula. It also grows in as the West Indies, Mexico, and Central and South America. It is neither rare nor common in Florida.

It once was considered neither rare nor common, but now is state-listed as "threatened" due to habitat loss and the damage from the accidentally imported Mexican bromeliad weevil, Metamasius callizona, which has devastated vast stands of Florida's native Tillandsias. So far, research in finding effective biological control has been inconclusive at best. The plant is sometimes available from select nurseries licensed by the state. The plants in our yard are descendants of rescues which I was allowed to keep.

Tillandsia balbisiana
Watercolor by Jeanette Lee Atkinson, 2008

Non-writing or non-drawing people sometimes think that those of us who do just somehow "shake it out of our sleeves." In spite of the implication that we don't have to work very hard, that we somehow are more talented than they are, or know some secret that they don't, I think it's meant as a compliment.  But it's much more a question of fanny-in-chair time rather than inspiration. And while said fanny is occupying said chair, other things are happening all around that don't get drawn or written about, because there just isn't time. And there's always the laundry.