Virginia Swamp Mallow, Pretty in Pink and Diesel Powered

Kosteletzkya pentacarpos (better known as K. virginica)


Kosteletzkya - John's photo. Can you pronounce it?

Kosteletzkya – John’s photo. Can you pronounce it?

Yesterday John and George hankered for scrub, so we wandered the dunes of Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge across the Intracoastal Waterway from the Isle of the Rich and Famous, none of whom read this blog.  An extra bonus of HSNWR, even if tough to see, is a brackish coastal pond nestled among the desert dunes.  Decorating the wet oasis is a pretty shrub fond of brackish wetlands, Virginia Swamp Mallow.

The flat fruit. Photo from Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

The flat fruit. Photo from Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

The shrub looks like a Hibiscus and is related, differing by having the woody capsule squashed flat, and splitting to release the seeds along the middles of the seed chambers as opposed to splitting at the edges.  No doubt every reader will remember this gripping detail!

Spotting Virginia Swamp Mallow is a treat, standing tall with big eye-grabbing pink blossoms.  The flowers exemplify textbook hummingbird-pollination, and the hummingbirds do hum there.  But life never obeys the textbooks.  Bee and butterfly visitation are reported too.  More interestingly, the flowers have a self-pollination backup system.  If the birds and bees disappoint, the stigmas (the five pollen-receptive knobs visible in the photo below) curl down to the pollen-producing anthers (the yellow organs below the stigmas) and take care of business independently.  Floral closure at the end of the day helps with the selfies.

The blossom, by John Bradford. The stigmas are the five lobes at the tip of the central column.  These are surrounded by hundreds of yellow anthers  along the column shaft.

The blossom, by John Bradford. The stigmas are the five reddish lobes at the tip of the central column. These are surrounded by hundreds of yellow anthers along the column shaft.

Bioengineers like self-pollinated salt-tolerant species.  The hungry world has expanding areas of under-utilized salinized (salty) soil, and brackish irrigation water is increasingly plentiful though obviously not applicable to many crops.  Problem?  Opportunity?  One forgiving salt-tolerant crop is today’s Kosteletzkya; its seeds are miniature oil wells.  Black gold!  Texas tea!  Lucrative opportunity!

A recent U.S. patent is dedicated to improving and farming Kosteletzkya and reaping diesel juice.  As a side thought, there must be a fine line between freely farming a posie and squeezin’ its seeds, and enforcing a patent claim onto the little gushers!  (Maybe someday we’ll have Roundup-Ready Swamp Mallows.)

One place where the squeezin’ occurs, at least at an experimental level, is coastal China with spreading tidal marshes where you can generate green fuel using crowd-pleasing flowers, stabilize the soil, and empower diesel-fueled migratory fowl.

Now for the daydreaming.   That today’s pinkie oozes oil is no surprise, given a close relationship to cotton, as in cottonseed oil.  And, speaking of China, they already grow much cotton there.  Cottonseed oil is in the diet in parts of China, where it has caused temporary (I hope) male sterility.  Or to the glass-is-half-full crowd, a potential male oral contraceptive.  So on top of all the other wonders, could a Hobe Sound swamp bush loaded with unsaturated fatty acids have a future as Newman’s Own Reduced-Baby Salad Dressing?  Call my patent attorney!




A tree house, taken in Las Vegas last week in honor of our blog friend Uncle Tree, and his wonderful and popular poetic blog Uncle Tree’s House.



Posted by on August 16, 2014 in Kosteletzkya, Virginia Swamp Mallow




Bloodberry, Rouge Plant, Pigeon Berry, Turkey Berry, Baby Peppers

Rivina humilis

Phytolacccaceae (or Petiveriaceae)


[Because I’m leaving on a trip instead of our usual Friday field outing tomorrow, the blog goes up a day early today and may not appear next week.  (I may fail to reply to or to approve commentary, but John might chime in.)  Here is a link to our upcoming free on-line class.]

No nature enthusiast overlooks the curious Bloodberry.  You see those scarlet “baby peppers” everywhere, and I mean everywhere, around the world with ecological tolerances as broad as they come: dark dank shade, sun-baked beachside dunes, soggy inland hammocks, and more.  Famed wood anatomist Sherwin Carlquist noticed the internal wood structure to indicate adaptation to dry conditions despite frequent encounters in moisty places.  Part of our berry’s life strategy seems at a glance to be tolerance for drought and salinity once established, allowing a full reproductive cycle in spots with a flippy-floppy wet-dry cycle.  Knowing that, Bloodberry as a (riparian) Arizona wildflower or pest in arid South Africa is not surprising.

Bloodberries (by John Bradford)

Bloodberries (by John Bradford)


The original natural native boundaries are tough to pin down for weeds, in today’s case probably from the southern U.S. down deep into tropical America and the Caribbean.  The red-berried wonder now spans the warm climate world, and here is a case where our well-behaved local wildflower is an invasive menace scattered on the other side of the globe.

How does BB jump those miles?  Answer #1:  Those scarlet berries are bird candy.  Back to that in a moment.  Answer #2:  Who’d be surprised if this often-coastal plant floats a bit. More on that momentarily.   Answer #3:  Gardeners see it as a shade-tolerant dash of color, and who’d be surprised if ancient folks had a hand in relocation too…those red berries are striking and have ethnobotanical histories, especially, according to botanist Dan Austin in treating diarrhea.

Are the berries safe to eat?  No.  Commercial interest in this question stems from the possibility of using the juice as food coloring.  The red pigments are akin to those in beets.  Laboratory rats tolerated the juice, short-term…but leave these plants out of the kitchen!  They are related to pokeweed, which has subtle toxins effective at minute concentrations, which makes me nervous about Bloodberry.  But who needs subtlety and low concentrations?  A little Google-tickling reveals poisonosity.  Question answered.  (Gardeners and nibblers take note.  The dangerous berries might appeal to children.)  By the way, keep the cow away, the toxins taint the moojuice.

The flowers (by John Bradford)

The flowers (by John Bradford)

Every plant has its weird point.  And here it is, drumroll please:  The seeds are hairy.  Big wup!  No, hang on, that’s not it, so here is the weird part—the hairs are not really hairs; they are the inner layers of the fruit wrapping the seed coat in inflated bumps.  That’s so contrived there must be a good reason for the contrivance.  We can speculate:

Often small seeds and seedlike fruits—especially in moist habitats—have varied bumps, lumps, and “hairs.”  Flotation help?  Devices for clinging to muddy bird legs for dispersal?  Padding?  Protection? Nobody really knows, probably all of the above in varied doses depending on the species.  If we take those bloody berries to be essentially bird-dispersed, my guess is that the bubble wrap protects the seed’s passage through a bird, grinding gizzard and all, just like bubble wrap protects a glass bowl’s passage through Fed-Ex.  And once the seed pops free of the bird, maybe a little extra flotational padding helps the pretty and poisonous species invade exotic places.

The bubble wrap seeds (U.S. National Seed Herbarium photo)

The bubble wrap seeds (U.S. National Seed Herbarium photo)


Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Bloodberry


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Free Online Native Plants Class Information

Native Plants of South Florida

An Introductory On-Line Course by George Rogers and John Bradford

Open Enrollment! Any tree hugger can join in!

Free! (except for book purchase)

Register now.  Begins Sept 1 2014

  •  16 habitat-based lessons. View the course at
  •  You’ll need our self-published book: Guide to the Native Plants of Florida’s Treasure Coast.  To see the book, preview the class, open Lesson 1, and click a link to the book vendor. We make no money from the book—any revenue supports our web site.
  •  Grab a field trip For each habitat type (most types span multiple lessons) you take a field trip on your own with camera in hand. We list suggested sites in our general area.
  •  The class evolved in Palm Beach and Martin Students from anywhere are welcome.
  •  There’s a quiz each lesson, and three Non-credit students use these as review exercises.
  •  The mission is learning to recognize wild plants. There is no attention to gardening or landscaping (but see the book offered below).

To register or for more information:  John Bradford ( or George Rogers ( After Aug. 18: George Rogers 561-207-5052

Why a free class? (Except that book.) Merely spreadin’ the joy.  The motive is good green fun.

This on-line class is an open-enrollment public-access derivative of George Rogers’s “Plants of Florida Ecosystems” (ORH2511) taught on-line and in the field at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens.  It is possible to take our on-line class for college credit, and it is possible to register for a credit-only field trip version of the class Fall Term 2015, perhaps after taking the free on-line class non-credit now.

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Posted by on August 1, 2014 in Uncategorized


Grass Roots Movement

Fire Ants and Native Plants

Solenopsis invicta  


Attention Attention Attention—-Now open for registration: our nearly free native plants identification course, to begin Sept. 1.   We are sending out a flier at the same time we’re posting this post.

Today John and George skipped northward to St. Lucie County to wade through Paleo Hammock, a beautiful site with Water Hickories, meadows of weird Garlic Weed, ancient Native American mounds, distant thunder, and water up to your ankles.

There are so many lovely beautiful species there, why in the world write about the most detested species on Earth…the imported invasive Fire Ant!?  Boo!



If you can rise above old grudges, however, they are mighty interesting.  John had fun stirring them up with a stick.  POKE HERE   Fire ants and their associates extend last week’s theme of unexpected twists and turns in why plants (and ants, and sucking insects) wind up where they do.

Often fire ant1 mounds are centered conspicuously around the bases of fibrous-rooted plants, frequently Grasses.  Of course this raises a chicken and egg question:  which comes first, the ant mound or the Grass? Does the ant plant the Grass in the ant mound, or does the ant colony build its mound around the preexisting Grass clump?

Fire ant mound around Eragrostis grass. Cell phone photo.

Fire ant mound around Eragrostis grass. Cell phone photo.

Speculative answer:  The Grass probably comes first, as we see it, because the clump is “always” rooted dead-center in the mound.   If the mound came first, we’d expect the grasses to sprout at different points on the mound, not necessarily the bulls eye.  But if the mound is built around the established Grass, the clump is “ground zero,” and its radiating brush of roots may help define the mound dimensions.  (Maybe)

Let’s pretend Grass-came-first is correct, then why would Fire Ants build around it? (Related question:  Why are they such turf pests?)

Here are possible answers with mixed fact and speculation:

1. NEST REINFORCEMENT.  The Grass could provide ant nest-reinforcement against wind and water, maybe even a little shade.  And more interestingly…

2. FOOD. Fire ants are omnivores.  Although usually thought of as predators, they need plant-based carbs, including roots (fact), and (speculation) possibly root exudates. So maybe the Grass roots are a salad bar right in the nest. And the plot thickens…

3.THIRD PARTIES. Fire ants tend tiny sucking insects underground or at the root crown as sources of sugary honeydew (fact).  Turf managers are aware of associations between fire ants and subterranean aphids on grass roots.  The honey-makers include mealybugs and root-dwelling aphids.  These tiny root-hugging micro-cows seem to have much to do with the fire ant- plant friendship. Read on…

A broad 1994 study of mealybugs showed the little suckers to pester 250 families of plants.   The most-infested family was—and this may surprise you—the Grass Family, with mealybugs bugging 585 Grass species.  If I were a fire ant trolling for a mealybug, I’d start with a Grass. And even more to the point…(the point being involvement of sucking insects)…

In 2011 biologist Shawn Wilder and collaborators in Arizona showed honeydew from diverse sucking insects to boost fire ant colony development, evidently enhancing their competitive ability and fostering their geographic spread. And more specifically…

In 2012 and 2013 Biologist Aiming Zhou and collaborators documented a win-win relationship between fire ants and an invasive crop-pest mealybug named interestingly, Phenacoccus solenopsis.  It’s a love triangle.   The ants get sweet tasty honeydew from the mealybugs and possibly additional root benefits from the plants.   The mealybugs get a safe home, and are ant-tended and spread around.  And the plants enjoy protection from the most ill-tempered creatures on earth, as well as possible soil enhancements.  The relationship helps the fire ants drive away native ants.  The Phenacoccus solenopsis mealybug is an infamous cotton pest, and it occurs in Florida, living on roots and also above the soil line on many host plants, including Grasses.



So what exactly is going on here and now with fire ants,  Grass plants, and probably sucking insects is not clear.  What a fertile area for research for a motivated student with tall waders and an EpiPen.  There aren’t many competing researchers, and who needs to travel to exotic field sites when compelling ecological relationships are playing out right in the back yard?


1We’re no ant experts.   Perhaps we see also mounds from other small reddish grumpy ant species. But if it walks like a Fire Ant, quacks like a Fire Ant, and burns ankles like a Fire Ant we’re calling the critters fire ants. Do not trust us.


Posted by on August 1, 2014 in Fire Ants



Seeds of Change

Seeds of Change

Today John and George were so busy putting the finishing touches on our upcoming Native Plants MOOC (yea, it’ll be mobbed).  We didn’t take much field time, except to look at something you see every day but ponder once a decade—native woody plants coming up seemingly isolated where you don’t expect to see them.

That led to some thought on why plants wind up growing where they do.  Oh, I know the answer!   The wind, or a bird, or a bear in the woods drop a seed, and the seed grows.  Got it, but events aplenty happen between the bird ingesting the seed and a tree grows in Brooklyn.  Nature does not work in a human time and space.

For starters, that seed had to arrive from somewhere.  Maybe merely across the creek, or then again, perhaps from across the sea.  There are plenty of transoceanic examples, and the Bottle Gourd stands out.  The species has an archaeological history widespread in the Americas dating back 10,000 years and in Asia almost that long.   Botanists have debated for decades how this species could seem to be native around the ancient world so long ago.  It did not originate twice, on both sides of the Pacific.  Did very very ancient people move it thousands of miles?  One notion is that Easter Islanders took it westward to the Old World.  Another idea is that the first Native Americans brought it from Asia.  Or maybe it floated a few thousand miles.  To test the bobber theory, researchers floated some for about a year in sea water, and let them sit another six years;  the seeds sprouted like new.  Take home lesson:  seeds get around.

So then, the seeds arrived from somewhere near or far, and now they can grow.  Hold on, not so fast.  How long a delay between arrival and growth?   Maybe the season is not right this month.  Maybe conditions aren’t right this century.  How about another thousand years?  Seeds can be patient, and can await environmental cues, such as disinterrment.  In 1879 Professor William Beal at Michigan State University buried in glass jars seeds of several wild species, leaving a time capsule experiment that remains running.  The seeds are tested at intervals, and some remain willing despite attrition.  Going back farther, barley seeds from King Tut’s tomb reportedly sprouted in modern times, although the claim is disputed.

Free of dispute, Canna seeds 600 years old from an Argentinian grave spawned pretty new Cannas.  And their circumstances were weird.  The Canna seeds from the grave were inside walnuts.  Ancient biotechnicians understood how to insert Canna seeds into immature living walnuts, allowing the nuts to mature into rattles.  In 2012 30,000-year-old seeds of a Carnation relative buried (by squirrels) in Russia grew like Rip Van Winkle awakening.  That’s probably the all-time seed nap record.

Native Florida Canna.  Were its seeds 600 years old? (By John Bradford)

Native Florida Canna. Were its seeds 600 years old? (By John Bradford)

Right, so the seeds came from places unknown, then they waited patiently in the soil seed bank.  Now it is time to boogie!  The seed sprouts dutifully, and hello world!  Hello drought, hello shade, hello sun, hello frost, hello competition, hello drowning, hello bugs, hello fungi, hello hungry bunnies.  The perils facing a tender green sprout remind me of leaving home at age 18!

Obviously the conditions must be suitable—that goes without saying doesn’t it?  Probably, but even that boring observation gains interest if the seedling’s establishment requires relationships with other species.  (We’ll come back to this next week.)   It also becomes more interesting if the overall conditions are changing…oh for example, let’s say by Global Warming.  Just this year the Sunshine State figured in an eye-opening example.  In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, January 2014, biologist Kyle Cavanaugh and collaborators applied 28 years of satellite imagery to discern, as they say in their own title, “poleward expansion of mangroves is a threshold response to decreased frequency of extreme cold events.”   Where a mangrove might sprout has shifted in just 28 years.  That’s not my lifetime, but that of my son.

Mangrove headed north! (By John Bradford)

Mangrove headed north! (By John Bradford)

Today we looked at a lonesome Gumbo Limbo sapling with its secret history,  a single Pineland Pinweed 10 miles from any known others, and where did that baby Hercules Club come from?  A little imagination beyond “bird dropping” makes it more fun.  Maybe the guilty birds were the last flock of Carolina Parakeets in 1920.   Who can say it ain’t so?

Hercules Club (by John Bradford)

Hercules Club (by John Bradford)


Posted by on July 25, 2014 in Uncategorized


Orange-ya Glad for Wasps, Bats, and Potatoes?

Two Leaf Nightshade (Twin Leaf Solanum)

Solanum diphyllum (FL Exotic Pest Pant Council Cat. II invasive exotic)


Today John and George enjoyed the mangrove swamp at Peck’s Lake near Hobe Sound, a short boardwalk long on biodiversity, including wasps.  We had one of those wasp experiences I sorta like—wasps can be our pals.   (Stockholm Syndrome.)  We somehow riled up the hive, and 133 (I counted) wasps stormed out with gusto and buzzed our heads in a friendly but earnest warning.   We took the hint with equal gusto, and nobody got hurt.

All plant photos today are Solanum diphyllum by John Bradford.

All plant photos today are Solanum diphyllum by John Bradford.

As I arrived at the parking lot, John was already photographing the plant of the day…Two Leaf Nightshade, a member of the genus Solanum, with several additional species in Florida, including spuds.  With odd mismatched leaf pairs and highway-worker-vest orange fruits in pretty clusters, Solanum diphyllum gathers a lot of “likes” on its Facebook page.  You could spot those clustered little oranges from a helicopter.

John was shooting this photo as I arrived on the scene, July 18 at Pecks Lake.

John was shooting this photo as I arrived on the scene, July 18 at Pecks Lake.

The species is native to Mexico and Central America, and like a good weed (and as a garden species) it is scattered elsewhere in the warm climate world, maybe with a helping hand from Global Warming and gardeners in addition to wild creatures.  Today’s invasive exotic decorates the shores of the Intracoastal in Hobe Sound and likewise decorates the shores of the Nile in Egypt, where it fascinated Egyptian biologist Fatma Hamada of the South Valley University  as much as it fascinates us.  Hamada’s 2013 doctoral dissertation is a monograph on Solanum diphyllum, looking into everything from its beautiful internal anatomy to its cytotoxicity against human cancer cell lines. (so, no, those fruits are not for us to eat).

The "orange blossoms"

The “orange blossoms”

One of her findings was particularly intriguing.  Many plants of arid or salty places protect themselves from drought and salinity by accumulating extra dissolved materials in their tissues.  This is true of our Solanum, and here’s the good part: adjustably.  Apparently, and in need for more research, the plant build ups anti-drying compounds when dry, and later secretes the stuff from the leaves when dry times abate.  Maybe.  Another “maybe” is what seem to be patches of natural “sunblock” embedded in the leaf surface.  This little weed has some stuff goin’ on!   Now back to those fruits oranger than an orange.  Univ. of Miami bat expert Dr. Theodore Fleming described (citing earlier work in South American tropical forest) bird-dispersed fruits to be mostly white, black, red, blue, or purple in contrast with mammal-dispersed fruits predominantly orange, yellow, brown or green.  (Please no e-mails:  These are broad perceived trends—with overlaps and exceptions.)

So is Solanum diphyllum mainly a mammal berry?   Probably, although its dispersal in Florida with almost no fruit-eating bats implicates helpful birds and maybe a quadruped or two.  Research in the shrub’s native Mexico proves fruit eating bats to carry the seeds, not necessarily to the exclusion of birds or others of course.  Quibblers may raise a hand, and say, “bats are blind as a bat, so ixnay on the orange uit-frays.”  But recent research reveals increasingly sophisticated vision in bats, including living color.  Here is a quote (2001) from bat biologists Jorge Ortega and Ivan Castro-Arvellano on the Jamaican Fruit Bat widespread in the native haunts of the Two Leaf Nightshade:  “A. jamaicensis uses vision and olfaction to find fruits with brilliant colors and strong odors.”  By the way, bats don’t like getting tangled in twigs at night.  Note how the fruit clusters are presented for EZ access. Now back to Egypt, where as we already know, the Nightshade grows up and down the Nile.   Guess what was first discovered at the Great Pyramid of Giza, and flutters nocturnally up and down the Nile (and far beyond).   The Egyptian Fruit Bat.   Could it be that the corresponding Nile distributions of the Solanum and the bat are mere coincidence?   A connection might seem tempting to contemplate if Egyptian Fruit Bats go for orange-colored fruits.  Who knows?

Egyptian Fruit Bats at the midnight buffet. (From

Egyptian Fruit Bats at the midnight buffet. (From


Posted by on July 19, 2014 in Two Leaf Nightshade


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The Long Deteriorating “Fishing Ground of Presidents,” St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

George Rogers:

This deserves to be distributed.

Originally posted on Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch:

Harold R Johns, posing with a large tarpon, early 19920s, Stuart, St Lucie River. (Photo from Stuart on the St Lucie by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)

Harold R. Johns, posing with a large tarpon, early 1920s, Stuart, Florida, St Lucie River. (Photo from Stuart on the St Lucie by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)

When the pioneers permanently opened the St Lucie Inlet in 1892, it killed the freshwater grasses that filled the waterways creating a brackish estuary that due to the convergence of tropical and temperate zones, and the nearby warmth of the Gulf Stream, became “the most diverse estuary in North America.” (Gilmore)

After a short period of time, sportfishing thrived in the area, and fishing guides called Stuart the “fishing grounds of presidents” as US president, Grover Cleveland, vacationed and fished the area in 1900 and years after.

In spite of long standing issues with the health of the estuary,  as late as the 1970/80s Dr Grant Gilmore of Harbor Branch documented over 800 species of fish living and breeding in the then healthy seagrasses around…

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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


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