White Indigo Berry, bob bob bobbin’ along

Randia aculeata


John and I today botanized Maggy’s Hammock near Pt. Salerno, Fl, one of the nicer and botanically rich hammock remnants we know in Martin County, complete with massive oaks,  handsome hickories,  lancewoods,  and graytwig bearing fancy stinkbugs.   In flower was one of my all-time favorite plants, White Indigo Berry, Randia aculeata. (Aculeata means thorny.)    This gnarly, spiny slowpoke ranges from Florida through the Caribbean to South America.  It is poorly studied, which is a pity, because this idiosyncratic shrub clearly harbors secrets.  We’ll guess at some.

Randia aculeata 1 - Copy

W.I.B.  Photos today by John Bradford.

A member of the Coffee Family, it is related to Gardenia, and thus has fragrant flowers looking like those on coffee itself.  Even smellier, the related Randia ruizana a perfume plant, called Angel of the Night.   Bees, butterflies, and who knows what else visit our species, perhaps moths?

As a good member of the Coffee Family, Randias are little green Big Pharmas.    Every plant you encounter has some history in medicine somewhere, or some positive medically compelling screening result,  but species of Randia  have more historical and present-day points of medicinal interest than you can shake a stick at,  serving for everything from parasitic worms to easing pain,  an attribute well known in other members of the family.   In Mexico White Indigo Berry is traditionally the Rx for venomous serpents.  Just what the doctor ordered when the doctor is a snakebite specialist known as a culebrero.   (Culebra = snake.)  Silly legend?   Now hold on, before that derisive snort  consider a study by the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City illuminating multifaceted ways  Randia aculeata extract protects mouse tissue from toxic venom.

The fruit has a specialized structure.   When ripe it is about the size of a marble and white or creamy on the outside.   Inside, though, the seeds are plastered in a dark blue pulp.    The blue goo gives blue dyes for skin and fabric, including calico.

Randia aculeata 2 - Copy

How it looked today

I guess the pulp might be more or less edible (?) although not attractive, although the many bioactive contents worry me.  Randia eaters might prefer Randia formosa (Rosenbergiodendron formosum)  known as Blackberry Jam Fruit, which offers more-luciousness.

Randia aculeata 4 - Copy

The goo shrinks and coats the seeds.

General experience around White Indigo Berry shows a lot of the fruits not to wind up as bird food, although many perhaps do too.    I think we have a case of an originally fleshy birdfood fruit evolving into a bobber riding the ocean waves.  Did I mention that Randia aculeata favors maritime habitats?    The dark inner pulp shrinks,  coating the seeds and creating air space.

That flesh is called “pulpa.”   It is not ordinary fruit flesh, but instead comes from the innermost fruit layer in intimate contact with the seeds.   I bet this material contains germination inhibitors to keep the seeds safely asleep while afloat, like Astronauts in suspended animation for 1000 years en route to a distant galaxy.

To descend deeper into shameless speculation,   species of Randia, like many plants, make mannitol.   In the plant world as well as in the hospital, mannitol can help restore or alter electrolyte balance,  which is why it works as a laxative, drawing water osmotically into the intestine.    A fruit floating in the salty sea may need to draw in water osmotically too, given its bath in the water-sucking salty sea.   Mannitol in the pulp might help, and/or it may retain precious water elsewhere in the plant coping with a dry sandy salty habitat.    Mannitol or not, that tar covering the seeds obviously protects them physically, and the toxic ingredients probably suppress stowaway bacteria and fungi during the voyage.


Posted by on June 25, 2016 in Uncategorized


Match Weed

(with many silly English names having to do with fogs, and frogs, turkeys, and tangled feet you see in books but never hear any real person use)

Phyla nodiflora (Lippia nodiflora)


Too hot and stormy for fieldtrips today, so John and I worked inside, where I learned a photo thing or two from the Master.

If you live in a warm region anywhere from West Palm Beach to India, chances are you can go outside and within a few minutes find Match Weed. There’s one near you.   This pantropical weed grows anywhere it is warmish and not too dry, including sun, shade, lousy turf, canal banks, mud flats, and on and on.   Some see it as a lawn replacement. Many see Phyla as a medicinal plant.   It is related to the natural sweetener Lippia dulcis. To others it is an invasive exotic menace.  Some sell it.  Some sell herbicides to destroy it.    And speaking of toxic herbicides, this plant makes its own to suppress the competition.  Is the species native to Florida?  Well, “native” is tough to pin down with worldwide weeds.

phyla jb

Photos, except microscope view, by John Bradford

This pretty plant is a mighty weed.   A horizontal running stem scoots across the ground like a road seen from a helicopter, every few inches producing nodes (nodiflora)  bearing a tuft of leaves, a cluster of roots, and a stalk a few inches tall with a compact flowering spike.   Each node can “stand alone” if the sprawling plant fragments, or the interlaced runners can carpet the ground as a single genetic individual.   Immortal.

If the weed decides to reproduce in a fashion besides fragmenting its stems, there is a plan B, plus a plan C to make baby Phylas.  Fog Fruits. Frog Fruits. Turkey Tanglefoots.

phyla nodiflora jb far

Plan B is good old-fashioned pollination.   This is a “textbook” butterfly-pollination species, supplemented by reported suspected pollination by bees and even by ants.  The anthers at the entrances to the teensie flowers near the ground are ant-accessible.   The spikes mature slowly from base to top, having old spent flowers below and unopened young buds above.    The flowers change color, as many blossoms do, first sporting a yellow eye, later transitioning to a purplish eye indicating altered nectar-availability status.

Plan C covers the contingency of no pollinators.  A handy skill for a mobile weed, the flowers can pollinate themselves without help, thank you very much, and make seeds independently.

Phyla nodiflora 3

Matchweed has matchless eco-superpowers.  It inhabits a sandy meadow behind my house,  and yet you could find some far away in a seasonal lake bottom,  or on nasty gypsum,  or most remarkably in salty  wetlands subject to occasional maritime flooding.  A study from California found Phyla exuberance enhanced by increasing salinity to a point.   The leaves have tiny salt-secretion glands.  Pass the salt!  No worries.

phyla hair

All aligned the same way, these bumpy anklebiters cover the underside of the leaf.   I am not sure, but the scattered small dots might (might) be the salt secretion glands.   Highly magnified microscope view.

Match Weed is not just a butterfly nectar plant, but also larval nursery for multiple species of lepidopterans, including the Common Buckeye Butterfly.   Maybe all those caterpillars help solve a mini-mystery.  On the undersides of the leaves are of specialized “hairs” all lined up in the same direction.  The hairs are roughly T-shaped, broad at the center, and tapering to a sharp point at each end.   Attached at the center they look much like the cleats used to secure a rope to the deck of a boat, if nautical cleats had wicked sharp ends.    Or maybe that twirly spinning sprayer thing on the floor of a dish washer. Weird, and scary looking.    Similar deterrents occur in other plant families, and are called “malpighiaceous hairs.”   In any case, a caterpillar cruising the leaf and munchin’ the free salad might get the point.


Posted by on June 17, 2016 in Phyla, Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , ,

Tarflower is Tacky

Bejaria racemosa


Today John and George beat the rain to the Haney Creek Natural Area in Jensen Beach, Florida, always a joy to visit with ponds, marshes, scrub, and pinewoods all jumbled. It was pretty there today, with Liatris starting to bloom, Cinnamon Ferns in  morning sunflecks, and Tarflower showing off all around.

Bejaria racemosa 4

Tarflower as it looks in June.  The photos today, except for some details to show specific points, by John Bradford.

Tarflower is a curious shrub in the Azalea Family representing locally a genus of about 15 species otherwise in Tropical America, mostly high-elevation South America.   Good lookin’—with big white and pink-infused flowers aplenty, followed by woody capsules resembling sliced bundt cakes.  So striking yet skimpy in the nursery trade?    Reportedly a nuisance to propagate, and presumably fussy about its conditions.

If you live in the scrub your ecology is automatically interesting, and today’s species has notable quirks.   You seldom encounter another shrub with a bristly-er stem, which makes Tarflower easy to recognize at any age, any season.    An aphid’s nightmare.

Sierra Exif JPEG


A more notable quirk gives the shrub its name.   Clear, super-sticky viscous stickum covers the flower.   Sometimes enough to form drops.  It reminds me of freshly applied varnish.

Bejaria racemosa sticky

Strong glue

And why does the plant pump it forth?

Possibility number 1.    The obvious first thought is it’s tanglefoot to protect the flowers.    Cooties may come looking to munch soft petal tissue or to pilfer pollen.  They check in, but don’t check out of the Tarflower Hotel.    Wouldn’t it be something if the goo had insecticidal or antibiotic ability along with being passive flypaper?     People who don’t get to Dollar General have actually used it as flypaper.    (Remember that when you go off the grid.)  Yes, arthropod stiffs often mar the delicate alure of the floral display.  With no data or evidence, possibility number 1 disagrees with my hunches.

bejaria racemosa trapped bug

Shoulda listened to Mom!

Possibility number 2.    Why do you varnish a picnic table?  Tarflower makes big, abundant, kinda-delicate flowers in the nastiest conditions: wind, drying, pelting rain, withering heat, UV.   John and I aren’t tough enough to stay in the scrub long.  Maybe that stuff is Scotch Guard.

Bejaria racemosa stickum

The plant makes a lot of the sticky syrup.  Here it is literally dripping from the flower today.

Possibility number 3. Tarbaby bugs pegged to the posies suggest a third explanation, put forth long ago by the late Cornell University Professor Thomas Eisner, who has repeatedly suggested the shrub to be a carnivore.   That may seem unlikely if you start wondering how ephemeral flowers might ingest flesh before they drop away.   That dropping is the clue.   Suppose the petals with attached insects fall to the earth where the roots and symbiotic fungi snag the buggy booty.    There is probably much flower-to-ground recycling in the plant world.   If the flowers arrive at the root zone bearing protein bars, well that’s nifty, especially on the nutrient-starved sandy soils where Bejarias abide.   What we need in order to to check it out are radioactive flies to determine if their scintillating nitrogenous components wind up in the roots, shoots, and fruits.


Posted by on June 10, 2016 in Uncategorized


Slime Molds Are Smarter Than The Average Lowlife

All alone at twilight in the deep dank woods, you might happen upon mysterious little beings…not elves or pixies, but silent creepers stranger than fiction, Slime Molds.   One visited my pal Pat Bowman this week in Virginia….who, entranced, showed the Blob to her granddaughter, snapped some pictures, pointed to the right music, and suggested this life form for the blog.    Right on!  And three cheers for a groovy grandmother who shows slime molds to the children.    A gift more precious and real than Disney.

Slime molds may sometimes look like the dog hurled, but others come in rainbow colors, and some even glow in the dark.  They are smart too…more on that in a moment.  They may be slimy, but are not terribly or always so.    And they are not molds, that is, they are not fungi.

SM’s haunt their own little corner of evolution.    Even with DNA evidence, their relationships remain a little murky.   We’ll gloss over the textbook material by saying they are Protists probably most closely related to amoebas, although that doesn’t tell us much.      Slime Molds come in two (or three depending on your standpoint) different types, but I don’t want to slip into academic taxonomy.    Better to get acquainted in a friendly way with something any native plant enthusiast may discover out in a natural habitat, or overlook.   Here’s a good jumping off point link for those wishing to look deeper. CLICK 

Slime mold JB

By John Bradford (Fuligo septica?)

You might say a slime mold resembles (or is in a sense) a giant amoeba, sometimes as large as a saucer, although its mass originates from aggregation of smaller cells during their odd life cycles.   In any case, during the “big amoeba” stage the slime mold slithers and streams, engulfing organic nutrition as it flows.  Seen with time lapse, some seem to pulsate as they go.  Enjoy this video, remembering this is a single cell, sort of:  CLICK

You don’t see Slime Molds each day, and if you don’t look, you might never unless one shows itself on old wet wood mulch, then looking like a melted candy bar.   The relatively common plasmodial slime mold Physarum polycephalum is bright yellow and easy to spot.   Smaller cellular slime molds are variable in size and aspect, often hiding in decaying wet wood, or on moist manure.  Spot them by their Tootsie Roll Pop spore cases, sometimes in vibrant colors.   When the going gets rough, slime molds disappear, some forming dormant stages able to sit tight 75 years or more.


I suspect the golden globes to be the slime mold Trichia decipiens, but never trust a guy who lies down in a meadow and contemplates hog manure.

“Plants” and other life forms can be intricately responsive to their environment in ways previously under-observed and under-appreciated, now more visible via various technologies.  Sometimes the intricacies from an anthropomorphic standpoint look like intelligent behavior.   Slime Molds are darlings of the “plant intelligence” fanciers, and of pundits who like to self-promote by misrepresenting overblown semi-science as we gasp in rapt awe.   That said, a humble lowly Slime Mold can achieve  surprising aptitude in efficient streaming, which is far from random or disorganized.

physarum 2 pb

Physarum on old mulch, by Pat Bowman

Applying the results of broad “exploratory” slithering, Slime Molds can organize themselves into networks connecting food sources in optimal patterns, when viewed from above suggestive of road systems linking major cities.   Or to a different imagination, maybe something ectoplasmic out of Ghostbusters.


slime mold john

Photo by John Bradford.  Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa?


After a probing slither, they abandon foodless cul-de-sacs to stream only where there’s a reward.  Some overcome “inhibitions” and cross initially intimidating barriers, as I might hesitate to cross a frayed rope bridge  until spotting a cheeseburger across the chasm.    I always thought of an amoeba as a nasty germ that caused dysentery,  not as the Brainiac of the lower life forms.   Live and learn. (Slime Molds do.)


Posted by on June 4, 2016 in Uncategorized


Royal Palms are Giant Featherdusters

Roystonea regia

General Roy Stone 



No fieldtrip today.  John and I both had other obligations, thus a step back to horto-historical themes otherwise dominating my earlier week, such as Florida horticultural titans Pliny and Egbert Reasoner.  Among a million accomplishments, they introduced to horticulture in the 1880s one of the the largest and most important native South Florida trees, the Royal Palm.  Their historic house came down about a year ago.

But, oops, back up already.    How do ever know who in a world of millions of citizens who really first brought a species into cultivation?    Unknowable, so we’ll just give the Reasoners credit for major early prominence—they have no deficit of acclaim—and the fact is, there may have been an earlier introduction, of sorts.   Wind back another century.  In 1774 another icon, William Bartram,  described what were apparently Royal Palms near Astor, Florida by the St. Johns River  a couple hundred miles from their warmer natural range in southernmost  Florida and points south.

reasoner grapefruit

How Bartram wrote of vanished tropical palms substantially too far north has been the subject of about as many speculations as the vanished Jimmy Hoffa.   Ideas include that Bartram had described a different species, that Bartram had actually seen the species on a boat trip in coastal South Florida, that a former Royal Palm population near the St. Johns River had existed but died (by a big freeze in 1835, or by fire, or by exploitation to manufacture walking sticks).    I don’t know.    The old repeated explanation I find most pleasing without critical analysis is that Native Americans took them there from South Florida, and that the trees had matured between lethal frosts.    Anyhow, back to the accomplished Reasoners.

Pliny Reasoner came alone from Illinois to the Bradenton area in 1881 riding an early wave of southward expansion, and founded at what is now Oneco (part of Bradenton) arguably the oldest, biggest, most important, longest-running plant nursery in Florida.   His endeavor, soon joined by brother Egbert and other family members, sold just about everything from pink grapefruits to Royal Palms.    Their catalogs were literary works.   Pliny’s term in Florida ran from age 17 to death by Yellow Fever at age 25.   In that blink of an eye he founded a business empire, wrote a still-useful bulletin for the USDA, became internationally famous, and brought Royals Palms into cultivation, naming the nursery the Royal Palm Nursery, later changed to Reasoner’s Tropical Nursery in rebirth after The Depression.

Roystonea regia Breakers

Here’s how it happened.   Pliny befriended another famous horticultural character who appeared last week in this blog, Charles Torrey Simpson.    Male bonding occurred on a sheriff’s posse to track down the infamous “Sarasota Vigilance Committee” (band of lowdown murderous varmints).   The manhunt worked out pretty well, and the wisp of the friendship relevant today is their explorations of the SW Florida coast on a small sailboat boat called The Permit owned by a friend of Simpson’s.   Simpson was a salty old sailor, whose very pregnant wife did not seem to enjoy coming along for the ride.

Together Simpson and Pliny brought Royal Palms from near Cape Sable, and the rest is history.    Years hence Simpson with other friends toted additional Royal Palms back from Royal Palm Hammock (Paradise Key), and Simpson knew a stand in what is now Miami.  To his dyspeptic annoyance, a “brutal greedy man” destroyed the site “in the hopes of making money from tannic acid in the bark of mangroves.”  (The culprit failed…but what the heck, subsequent development would have nuked them anyhow.)

A taxonomic question I do not want to engage is “Florida Royals” (R. elata) as a species distinct from those in Cuba and points south  (R.  regia).   Modern taxonomists recognize just one broad species.  Ancient interchange of Royal Palm fruits between Florida and Cuba and elsewhere is easy to envision by birds, fruit-eating bats, flotation, and prehistoric canoe.

Three cheers for Royal Palms!—if one of those hefty fronds doesn’t fall on the baby carriage.   We all love them.    Well…not everyone.   Let’s end with yet another rock star of Florida horticulture:    Landscape Architect William Lyman Phillips, who designed landscapes for everyone from the rich and famous to the WWI dead,  wasn’t a fan.    One of the greatest planting planners in Florida history called the trees “feather dusters.”

Roystonea regia

1 Comment

Posted by on May 27, 2016 in Uncategorized


Rattleboxes and Rabbit Bells

Crotalaria species



This morning was a time to help John photodocument the aftereffects of fires in Jonathan Dickinson State Park,   although charred boonies aren’t all that aesthetic.  Scattered around the park are yellow flowery Rattleboxes.   Rattleboxes are species of Crotalaria;  Rattlesnakes  are  in part species of Crotalus.   What do rattleboxes and rattlesnakes have in common?  Beyond the rattle…poison.   Showy Rattlebox, C. spectabilis, has killed horses, sometimes after a prolonged delay.     Researchers apply the toxin deliberately to suppress an animal’s blood pressure.

Crotalaria spectabilis Jan1

Showy Rattlebox (by John Bradford)

But don’t they eat Rattlebox seeds around the world?   Yes, but…There are hundreds of species of Crotalaria of unequal nastiness.    Being on the menu is no guarantee of complete safety, as not every culture has a long life expectancy,  and diet-related illnesses may be cryptic.     (Rattleboxed horses sometimes die in the possession of their next owner.) Here’s the obvious thing:  do not eat wild plants.    Read about them in Treasure Coast Natives,   take beautiful photos, and then buy veggies properly.


Showy Rattlebox by Wendys

Showy Rattlebox is abundant locally, with pizzazz yellow blossoms an inch across.  It differs from most local relatives by having simple (vs. compound) leaves.  Such a showboat might be assumed to have come from its native tropical Asia as a garden flower, but no.   The Florida arrival is more interesting, so read on:

The superstar plant introducer in  earlier Florida—and there were many—was David Fairchild, immortalized at Fairchild Gardens in Coral Gables.  Fairchild was not a mere plant introducer on steroids but equally a  champion “social networker.”   His friends,  associates, and patrons included the rich, influential,  and famous of that era, including notables in science and industry:  Henry Flagler,  Charles Deering of International Harvester (his brother built Vizcaya),   Glenn Curtiss of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company,  Orville Wright,  Thomas Edison,  and you get the idea.    Fairchild’s father-in-law was Alexander Graham Bell.    Accounts vary, but Fairchild was directly or indirectly responsible for the introduction of a couple hundred thousand exotic species, crops, varieties, and cultivars of plants.

A tree Fairchild brung from China and distributed in the U.S. 1905-1907 was Tung Oil (Aleurites fordii),  then valuable in products from printing ink to ammunition.  In the early 20th Century Tung  supported 400 growers in and near Alachua County,  but then it fell into disgrace as a  Category II invasive exotic.   Times change.

This all leads back to Crotalaria spectabilis.   Tung farms grew predominantly on poor sandy soils left denuded from pine deforestation.   The system needed enrichment, and Fairchild introduced  Showy Rattlebox in the U.S. around 1914 as a sand-loving, heat-tolerant, nitrogen-fixing legume to goose up the Tung.  And as an added benefit, Fairchild suggested Showy Rattlebox to deter nematodes, especially among papayas.   He apparently was not fully aware of the dangerous livestock toxicity.    As with Tung, Showy Rattlebox slipped from celebrity to invasive weed and veterinary menace.

Farmers could not afford commercial fertilizer during The Great Depression.   Growing Crotalaria for nitrogen fixation and as green manure was a comparatively cheap alternative.   One agricultural agent reported purchase of over 20,000 pounds of Crotalaria seed (C. spectabilis and C. pallida) in and near Orange County during 1931.   (Crotalaria pallida is another showy introduced Crotalaria, called Smooth Rattlebox, easily distinguished from C. spectabilis by having three-parted leaves.)

Crotalaria rotundifolia 5

Rabbit Bells (JB)

The native Ornate Bella Moth is a Crotalaria specialist feeding naturally on indigenous Crotalaria species.  Due to dietary and ecological expansion, the moth may be a natural biocontrol for the invasive exotic crotalarias, damaging them with gusto while hopefully remaining in better ecological balance with the native species.    There are four native Crotalaria species in Florida, and about 10 invasives.  The moth will be busy for some time, as the seeds can survive 60 years in the soil.

Let’s close with one of the native species, common in JD Park, Crotalaria rotundifolia, better known as Rabbit Bells.  It is just a lil’ rattler, with simple leaves, on sunny sandy soils.    This variable and vaguely defined species makes big poofy inflated pods.    Why should this or any plant make fruits resembling dirigibles?    Simplistic speculations are possible and not mutually exclusive:  for flotation, for temperature insulation, for padding, for isolating seeds from pests and parasites (with perhaps the gas within inhospitable to tiny varmints), or for containing vaporized hormones.   Botanists have discerned another more subtle explanation for inflated pods in other plants.     Seeds respire and give off carbon dioxide.   Carbon dioxide is the main input into photosynthesis.  So why waste it?  In poofy pods the internal air space seems to be a carbon dioxide tank, capturing the “waste” carbon dioxide coming out of maturing seeds and feeding it to the inner pod wall to photosynthesize.    Perhaps out in the bright sun those translucent pods can use light on their otherwise passive inner surfaces, and make the seeds pay their own way with a CO2 toll for the zeppelin ride.

Crotalaria spectabilis pods

Showy RB inflated pods


Posted by on May 20, 2016 in Uncategorized


Boston Fern…A Tale of Three Cities

Nephrolepis exaltata


The weekly Friday field trip got swatted down by waiting for the nice repair man in my kitchen as I write. So I’ll back the camera up to a fun green Wednesday meeting with the Broward Co. Native Plant Society at the Secret Woods Nature Center in Ft. Lauderdale.

A great part of “botanizing farther south” is more ferns.   A dominant species at Secret Woods is Boston Fern, not that it is rare up here in Palm Beach County.    But why is it called Boston Fern?  (Be patient, we are getting to that.)  Boston Fern was once a huge single-species industry, interestingly dating back to the turn of the 20th Century orgy of unfettered exotic plant introductions.     Sort of ironic that a pillar of the early Florida nursery industry was a native.    I grew up with a big one hanging from the fireplace mantle.

Nephrolepis exaltata 1

Today’s pictures by John Bradford

In 1897 the proactive Soar Brothers, John and Francis, started a plant nursery in Miami following the arrival of the Flagler RR in 1896.  Population of Miami:  50.

Six years later, naturalist Charles Torrey Simpson moved there from Washington DC, having lived in Bradenton previously.   Simpson had about as wild and diversified life as humanly possible:  marching to the sea with Sherman, sailing the seven seas in the Navy, mining coal, as “Charley Carpenter,” befriending horticultural icon Pliny Reasoner (whose mother disapproved of the friendship), conducting an extra-marital affair that bit him deservedly in the butt, serving on a sheriff’s posse catching bad guys, farming in Nebraska, working at the Smithsonian as a malacologist, and THEN becoming a founding father of Miami horticulture and Everglades conservation.   (A retirement hobby.)   Before enduring the 1926 Miami hurricane, and being robbed.

Nephrolepis exaltata 3

The leaf dots are the “sori” where spores form.

In 1903 the Soar Brothers, Simpson, and friends took a grueling multiday field trip to what was then called Paradise Key (now Royal Palm State Park).    They brought back three items of note:  royal palms, Boston ferns, and a stinking deceased rattlesnake.    The plants made it into cultivation.  Lugging the awful toxic snake on his sweaty back took the blame for making John Soar dangerously ill.    He survived, and the Soars may have been the first growers to popularize Boston Fern.

Nephrolepis exaltata 2

Now a brief space and time warp…to 1912.    Frank Ustler worked for a greenhouse in Massachusetts growing Boston Ferns (originally from the Soars?).   Ustler figured tropical ferns to grow more cheaply in Florida than in Massachusetts, and came to Orlando for a try.  It worked.  After hassles raising venture capital,   Ustler took over an abandoned pineapple shed and launched a Boston Fern industry as well as a family dynasty, Ustler Brothers Nursery.  Of courses, as the years went by,  Apopka branched into additional ferns, and then all manner of foliage as well as vegetables.  With his brothers, the nursery moved in 1917 to Apopka, which became dubbed “Fern City.”    Joining the menu later was the non-native Leatherleaf Fern, according to contradictory legends discovered by local growers as either packing material in orchids, or as a houseplant at a florist’s.    In any case, dominated by these two ferns, one native and one not, “Fern City” was shipping a million ferns a year in 1927, including probably the one on my mother’s fireplace mantle.

Note.  Several similar Nephrolepis  ferns cultivated and wild in Florida are related to Boston Fern.    Boston Fern is easy to distinguish.  Look at the bases of the leaf stalks.   BF is having a “bad hair day” with light tan monotone scales (hairs) sticking out at rakish angles.   The similar invasive exotic Asian Sword Fern has its scales with a dark center, and pressed flat up against the leaf stalk.    Also common and an invasive exotic, the Tuberous Sword Fern is the only one with rounded leaflet tips (not pointed) and underground tubers.  Giant Sword Fern, generally regarded as native, has its leaflets on distinctive little stalks.  An unusual garden escape around Miami, Scaly Swordfern, has coarsely  irregular leaf margins (in all the others the margins are nearly smooth, or have tiny serrations).

Nephrolepis exaltata 4

Bad hair day in Boston

Nephrolepis multiflora scales

Scales on invasive exotic Asian Sword Fern – dark centers, mostly pressed to the stalk


The leaflet bases on Giant Sword Fern, probably native, have little stalks.   The cultivated Macho Fern is derived from this species.


Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Uncategorized


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 216 other followers

%d bloggers like this: