Invasive Exotic……Wasp? (on purpose??)

Dielis dorsata (Campsomeris dorsata)


Last several days I’ve been enchanted by a patch of Skyflower (Hydrolea corymbosa) in the mud at the edge of a bald cypress swamp near my home.  The wildflower has sky-blue blossoms.  

Both photos John Bradford

I’m not the only one who loves those blossoms.    Sit down there for 15 minutes and watch a parade of pollinators:  bees of many types, skippers, and wasps.

The visitor that raised my eyebrows is a wasp, easy to spot by its orange abdomen, Dielis dorsata, aka the Caribbean Scoliid Wasp, recently “written up” by UF entomologist Anthony Abbte and collaborators in the Florida Entomologist. Most of what I have to say here is a “book report” on that.

Dielis dorsata
Dielis dorsata

Today’s wasp is in a group that parasitizes Scarab Beetles by burrowing into the earth to sting and lay eggs in the beetle larvae. Quite a feat! And a useful skill.   Such wasps were introduced into the U.S. deliberately to control Japanese Beetles, disappointingly.  Japanese Beetles are not much of a problem in S Florida but sugar cane pest beetles are. Today’s orange wasp was introduced in the 1930s from Puerto Rico to attack those.

It took hold, and mission-crept beyond sugar cane.  The study mentioned above found the wasp entrenched in Miami-Dade County and some in the greater Tampa area, probably preying on grubs in residential and sports turf.  An isolated occurrence was notably far north, in Osceola County.  None in Palm Beach County, well, not until it turned up pollinating Hydrolea this week.

The worry with importing pests of the pests, of course, is that sometimes the introduced warriers don’t know to limit their destruction to the target pest species.   Beyond the scope of this little blog, there have been cases where introduced  biocontrol agents “went too far.”    I’m sure we’d all like healthy sugar cane, and reduced grubs in the turfgrass as a surprise side-benefit.   I’m just hoping that Dielis dorsata is “behaving itself” in the Cypress Creek Natural Area, pollinating Skyflower and messin’ only with “bad beetles.”


Posted by on July 17, 2021 in Uncategorized


Floating Hearts and Crested Floating Hearts

Nymphoides aquatica and Nymphoides cristata


Out and about today, the pretty encounter was with Crested Floating-Heart floatin’ & flowerin’ along the shores in the Winding Waters Natural Area. They look like little Water-Lilies but are unrelated, merely sharing convergently a similar lifestyle and consequent appearance. Crested Floating Heart, N. cristata, is not native. It appeared in S Florida maybe 30 years ago, probably dumped from aquariums,  has spread to other states, and in places can overdo it a bit. 

Nymphoides cristata infestation, Larry McCord, Santee Cooper,

Crested Floating Hearts is so similar to the native Floating Heart, N. aquatica, the two can be a challenge to distinguish.  Most obviously, the crested invader has a wavy white wing like the fin on an eel rising from each petal.

N. cristata–crest visible on top petal

Nymphoides cristata tends toward slightly more-elongate leaf blades.  Trouble is, the size of the “fin” varies, and S. aquatica has a ridge on its petals.   The similarity of the two species is certainly one example of many of close similarities between plants of eastern North America and eastern Asia.

by John Bradford

A more subtle difference is in the flower structure.  Nymphoides aquatica is dioecious, that is, has separate male and female plants.  Nymphoides cristata, by contrast, has bisexual flowers with both sexes together, at least so far as known in Florida.   Across its much broader range, the breeding system varies, and having been introduced to Florida more than once, it may have some surprises if studied statewide.   The flowers in Winding Waters today were bisexual.

In the aquarium world, Nymphoides aquatica has the name “Banana Plant,” because the floating plants form banana-shaped roots in the water up near the leaves.    Nymphoides cristata has tuberous roots too, but thinner.  In both species, the tuberous roots break off and disperse the plants.

In tropical Asia where N. cristata is native, it has some value as a food, although please do not try that, as it also contains bioactive compounds, including ephedrine and coumarins.   In years of studying plants, you see just about every conceivable use, but one “new to me” is grinding the plants with oil to use as a salve on bug bites.    I’m tempted to try that.

1 Comment

Posted by on July 9, 2021 in Uncategorized


Canadian Horseweed: Spaceforce!

Conyza canadensis (aka Erigeron canadensis)

(Conyza is an ancient name for flea-repellent powder from a similar plant.   Conyza canadensis grows from Canada to the tropics.)


The point here today is to look at the “world’s fastest evolution,” flashing right before our eyes with the native plant Canadian Horseweed.  The species is arguably sort of attractive sometimes.  John Bradford’s close-ups of the flowerheads bolster the iffy case for a little pretty.

By John Bradford

The plant starts out as a rosette sprawled on the ground, then rises, often symmetrically and branch-ily, to, oh say, 4-5 feet with leaves at right angles from the stem, and a million little flower heads, white with yellow centers.   The fruit looks like a tiny seed on a parachute.   They blow forth and multiply,  and to help take hold far afield, the flowers can self-pollinate.


Saying Canadian Horseweed is native is an understatement.    It grows across most of North America, and is distributed further, naturally or unnaturally, pretty much around the green earth from near-Arctic to the tropics.   It is everywhere, lots and lots of it, welcome or not.  

Canadian Horseweed is a fearsome pest in farms fields, plant nurseries, orchards, vineyards, and everywhere plants are grown.   They thrive under any conditions: wet or dry? Yep, even desert. Acid? Yes. Alkaline? Sure. Sun? Of course. Shade? OK.  Terrible soil?  No worries. Rich soil? Even better.  I could go on even more boringly, but you get the idea.   Hey, if you have trouble making plants grow, try a Horseweed!  The species is allelopathic, that is, it can suppress other plants, sometimes reducing crop yields as much as 90% by some combination of competition, altering the soil ecology, and allelopathy.

Canadian H-weed got real interesting with the advent of Round-Up Ready Soybeans.   Around 1996, soybeans resistant to the famous herbicide Round-Up came into common use.  The idea was if the crop is immune to the herbicide, then spray a lot, spare the beans, and smite the weeds.  Just three years later, in 1999 there were Round-Up resistant strains of Canadian Horseweed in multiple states.  And we thought evolution takes eons!

If I spray a field inhabited by 10,000 Horseweeds and 9,999 die, that sole survivor has some mutation that renders it immune.  And remember they are self-pollinating, so that lonely mutant can spawn a documented 200,000 seeds, many, most, or all with the resistance mutation.   Repeat that a few generations, and poof!, we have just evolved a whole new strain untouched by Round-Up.  Such untouchable strains are now widespread.

No problem we say, if Round-Up won’t work, switch poisons.   That occurred, and now Horseweeds (not all of them everywhere) are resistant as follows:

Speaking of mass tort attorneys trolling TV for clients, Horseweed is also resistant to Paraquat (and its cousin Diquat).  Atrazine got into litigation when a University of California Professor raised an alarm about deformed frogs, implying deformed humans you might say.   Horseweed resistant?  Yes, as is so for the similar Simazine.

A whole family of herbicides is based on similarity to the plant nutrient compound urea.  Horseweed is resistant to several of these, including Diuron.  A comparatively recent family of weed killers, the sulfonylureas may be the solution?…oops, nope, them too.

All this instant evolution suggests a remarkable ability for the seeds to wander and mix genes with other Canadian Horseweeds.     Not only are the seeds wind-dispersed like so many plants, they are outta this world.   The teensie parachutes zoom at 60 feet/second over flyover country in the atmospheric “Planetary Boundary Layer.”    And, come to think of it, a plant does not have to disperse seeds to disperse its genes, given that pollen grains can have the same effect.  Although the research is preliminary, it seems that may happen too, even if CHW is mostly insect-pollinated.

Why called “horseweed”?  Among many historical uses, the plant was a medicine for horses, probably the reason for the name.   Of those many recorded uses, and I have not tried it personally, Seminole men wishing to be rid of their wife rubbed it on their bodies (on their own bodies, I think)….I don’t know if it worked the other way around too.


Posted by on June 18, 2021 in Uncategorized


The Other Big Oak: Laurel Oak

Quercus laurifolia


Palm Beach County residents know Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) as the dominant street tree hereabouts and far beyond, and present in many natural areas.   Our second big-growing oak, Laurel Oak, is encountered less often in landscaping, and is mostly restricted to wet habitats.  (Although gorgeous and happy to grow, Laurel Oaks have comparatively short lives, suffer from internal decay, and have medium-low hurricane resistance, all unfortunately limiting the ornamental use of this lovely tree.)

Taken in 1916

The best places to see Laurel Oaks are in lowland alluvial river floodplains, including Riverbend Park in Jupiter.   The largest individuals I’ve personally noticed in Florida, the trunks 4 feet or more in diameter, are along the Hillsborough River near Tampa. Fact is, the Florida State Champion, almost 6 feet in diameter, lives along a creek in the Hillsborough River watershed.    The largest specimen on Earth is in Virginia, about 8.5 feet in diameter.   Although not competing with those giants, the Laurel Oaks along the Loxahatchee River in Riverbend Park are respectable enough. 

Taken today (different tree, duh)

Laurel Oaks differ from live oaks by having hairless leaves, and having the mature acorns sit directly on the branches, not having separate stalks of their own.  Compared with Live Oaks, the trunks of Laurel Oaks are straighter and more upright, and lichens love them including the small twigs.  Individuals can be symmetrical, and can be bushy from the top all the way to the ground.

Many floodplain tree trunks have broad bases with lobes at the attachment points of massive shallow horizontal roots.  Thick radiating roots are unwelcome when Laurel Oaks are cultivated close to pavement. 

In river bottoms and similar places, the growth is strongly seasonal, which shows up in the wood grain, as does that tendency to early decay, making wood useful where irregular patterning is an aesthetic “plus,” such as counter tops.

Trunk lobed at the base with radiating roots. Lichen love em’.

Living in a periodically flooded habitat poses special problems for the trees, which must withstand the associated stresses of unrooting by flooding, and drowned roots, and at the same time be able to recolonize to replace lost individuals.    They are experts at spawning new seedlings, as put so well by an article from 1916:

They used to be called “Darlington Oaks” because they once were grown commercially and distributed from Darlington, SC.
Darling little Darlingtons geting ready to take possession of a piece of land.

The tough leaves have a quirk of interest to climate scientists.  Cellular patterns on the leaf surfaces adjust visibly to wet vs. dry weather.  The patterns remain visible on the waxy coating even years after the leaves have fallen to be preserved in wet, low-oxygen peat under the trees, deposited in layers by annual flooding. Their relative age is determined by their depth of burial.   The same patterns are preserved with precise dates on museum specimens, which can date back into the 1800s or even before.   Such precise “wet-spell/dry-spell” fingerprints allow reconstruction of weather patterns in relation to specific years, and in relation to geography.

Although I have no awareness of relevant reports on Laurel Oak itself, oaks in general are regarded as often strongly allelopathic (able to suppress competing plants).  Some of the individuals in Riverbend have almost clear ground beneath: allelopathy? shade? leaf litter?

Bare ground all around.


Posted by on June 12, 2021 in Uncategorized


Feay’s Prairie-Clover

Dalea feayi (Samuel Dale was an 18th Century British naturalist. William Feay, 1804-1879, was an American botanist active in Florida.)

Fabaceae (Legume Family)

This week John and I visited a favorite (literally) hot spot, Seabranch State Park near Hobe Sound, FL, sun-cooked white sand scrub,  mostly to see Bluecurls, Trichostema dichotomum. Our curiosity was inspired by recent research by North Carolina botanist Kevan McClelland.  As intriguing as that species is, its interpretation belongs to Kevan, not to blog writers.    We also saw our old arachnophilia friend, the Red Widow Spider, always a thrill.  

The June rains have given the scrub a shot in the arm,  as evidenced by delicate white Clammyweed flowers,  parasitic Black Senna and Golden Chrysopsis rising fast, Palafox in bloom,  and winning “best in show,” Feay’s Prairie-Clover blossoming like there’s no tomorrow.  It is amazing that such a showy species is nearly un-studied except for its classification and fire recovery.  It is tough to be an instant Google-expert on this one.

Prairie-Clover by John Bradford

The flowers do not look at all like Legume flowers they are. It is in the “pea and bean” subfamily of Legumes, but good luck seeing why!   Pea-type flowers are kinda exclusive with respect to pollinators, but in Dalea they seem to have lost their specialization and accommodate all comers.  The flowers are in globe-shaped heads resembling the Aster Family, and even more similar to those of Buttonbush in the Coffee Family.   It is a “get-pollinated a lot now” machine.   They may need to draw every pollinator around when they can before heat, drought, blazing sun, or fire spoil the party.   We have seen, and seen reported by others, almost every sort of pollinator you might imagine on Prairie-Clover:  bees of many species, butterflies, moths, and wasps.  When the flowers are clustered in a head, one visitor probably services many flowers.  Each makes a tiny little seedlike pod to flutter off into the sandy seed bank for the next time it is rainy and favorable.


Mature individuals can return from a licking.   They can regrow from a thick root after bad events.  The root is orange, which make you wonder why…probably protective toxins.   “Blister glands” on the leaves and stem likewise say pick your poison.  What’s up with that?


If we can extrapolate from other Dalea species, they show a commonsense feature I’ve never seen documented, probably out of sheer ignorance.  They have a differential distribution of antibiotics, with antibacterials in the roots, and chemicals that suppress lepidopteran caterpillars in the leaves.  That’s a good thing for caterpillars able to tolerate the toxins, maybe even sequester them.   The Southern Dogface Butterfly uses various Dalea species as a larval hostplant. This yellow butterfly, with its southern limit in or near Martin or Palm Beach County belongs to the family of Sulphur Butterflies, which often use Legumes as larval hosts. (It is call “dogface” due to a dark blotch on the wings that may look like Fido if you want it to.)

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 5, 2021 in Uncategorized


Dwarf St. Johnswort wanders the globe, buries its seeds, and fertilizes itself

Hypericum mutilum

(Hypericum means “above image” in reference to placing St. Johnsworts above religious icons to deter evil. Mutilum means mutilated, and I have no idea what Linnaeus thought was mutilated about this species. He gives no clue in his 1753 original description.)


Like every individual person, each individual species has its own wondrous remarkability.   With Dwarf St. Johnswort, its whereabouts and why are remarkable. There’s no way to pinpoint exactly its origins, or to know when or how it got everywhere it is.    The species probably originated in eastern North America, where it occurs from chilly Canada to sunny South Florida.  Old, perhaps ancient, populations are in Europe and South America, so old that Brazilian botanists regard it as native.

Hypericum mutilum today

Botanists speculate that the tiny seeds of this wetland species migrate stuck to the legs of migratory waterfowl.  Any better ideas? Could the seeds survive transcontinental floating?  (Doubt it.)  

These whistling waterfowl dropped by the mudflat while I examined the H. mutilum. Seems they had a point to make. Go forth and migrate!

It sure trots the globe, from Hawaiian hogs


Belarus bogs

And what is it doing in the Azores, Japan, and New Zealand?

H. mutilum distribution, open source map from Global Biodiversity Information Facility

Adding to the puzzle, Dwarf St.  Johnswort is unlikely to be moved about by humans either on purpose or inadvertently.  It has no horticultural or agricultural involvement,  has no value to induce settlers to take it along, and lives in specialized wet habitats, most notably seasonally inundated mudflats where people don’t go all that often.

Looks a little mutilated.

Mudflats are remarkable habitats. You see species there you don’t often see in other places, and mudflat species tend to have a special ability:  to lie dormant for years or decades (or centuries?) under wet mud and water, to germinate someday they surface on a sunny Memorial Day in Riverbend Park.   Ecologist Carol Baskin and collaborators took a sample of mudflat soil and patiently tested it for several years thereafter for seed germinations.    Hypericum mutilum kept coming up from the 1990 sample until 2003, that is, it can sleep in the mud at least 13 years.

Now then, we’re all wondering…if a species can establish from a seed transported in mud stuck to a bird’s leg, what pollinates a lone waif on an island in the middle of the Pacific, or middle of the Atlantic?  A close look at the flower late in the days gives the secret away.   When the day is done, the petals are withered, and maybe no pollinator brought pollen, the flower has  pollination insurance.  It pollinates itself.  In the picture below one or two pollen-making anthers (on the left) were caught on candid camera dabbing pollen onto the pollen-receiving stigma of the same flower (arching on the right to contact the anthers).

The red line shows the place where the stigma (at the end of the arch coming from the right) is receiving pollen from one or two anthers in the same flower. Late in the day back-up system. The petals are shrivelled.

Posted by on May 31, 2021 in Uncategorized


Red Widow Spiders, Saw Palmettos, Mystery Wasps, and Buckeye Caterpillars

Today John and I sweated across the sunbaked sands of Seabranch State Park north of Hobe Sound, to see if the Red Widow spiders survive prescribed burn(s).   This initiative dates back a few years to John discovering the spiders there, and learning to love them.    I’m the tagalong, authorized to put them in the blog (again).   John took all of the spider pictures, except for the one with the false eyes. 

Red Widow by John Bradford.

A thorough search of the area where we knew the spiders well years ago, all gone!   Frustration! Sorrow!  Then, returning to the cars basically giving up, and roasting in the heat, tried a Hail Mary by taking a quick peep at a different portion of the park.  There they were!  Is the whereabouts of the Red Widow determined by fire history?  Their population levels vary dramatically from year to year.

The Red Widow is not an everyday spider…it is big, colorful, rare, and weird.  Yes it is related closely to the Black Widow.  And yes its bite is venomous, well, the female’s bite. It is tough, however, to comprehend how a human would ever run afoul of these retiring creatures in their extreme habitat.  The Red Widow lives exclusively in central and southern Florida sand pine scrub, where entomologist James Carrel found its habitat constraints to be enforced by a narrow diet of scrub-dwelling scarab beetles.

Red Widow with egg masses, by John Bradford

The spiders weave funnel-shaped nests in in the tunnels formed by curled Saw Palmetto leaves, and lurks down in its shaded lurkim waiting for prey.  The base of the web, densely woven, lines the leafy tunnel and is the spider’s refuge.  The rest of the web extends loose, sloppy, and cobwebby up out of the tunnel attached among the tips of the saw palmetto leaves like a cat’s cradle on your spread-out fingers.  Beetles attempting to fly past snag in the upper web, and you know the rest.  The upper web captures wind-blown pine needles, a visual aid when seeking the spiders. The spider is most active at night.

Future population, by JB

In the lair the spots on the abdomen almost seem to glow, and they resemble the eyes of some larger scary creature.  Maybe the false eyes deter hungry birds.

The Latin name for the genus of widow spiders, Latrodectus, means “secret-biter”, referring to the bite being painless, at first.   The species name bishopi honors Marshall Bishop, a naturalist who had a reptile museum in Miami. Bishop made collections and observations critical to naming the species.

Buckeye caterpillars were hanging around too, on Black-Senna, Seymeria pectinata.

Bishop noticed a physical association between the Red Widow’s nest and an unidentified small paper wasp* prone to building tiny nests on Saw Palmetto.  Presumably the spider uses the wasps as body guards, remaining near them while hiding in its tubular tunnel. 

Note the wasps.

As far as I can tell using Google Scholar, nobody seems to have ever looked into this association beyond Mr. Bishop’s initial report, or determined whether the wasps and spiders have an ecological relationship or merely co-occupy a similar niche.  At first glance the spider-wasp seems plausible:  while viewing Red Widows today we saw multiple small paper wasp nests hidden in recesses on Saw Palmetto leaves, and commented on the prospect of stirring up angry wasps.   Our “sampling” was not adequate to be sure if the wasp nests and spider nests were truly associated.  Gathering data to show that convincingly will be quite an endeavor.

*Prime suspect. The paper wasp Mischocyttarus mexicanus nests almost entirely on Saw Palmetto.


Posted by on May 13, 2021 in Uncategorized


Four Petal St. Johnswort, a Native Valentine

Hypericum tetrapetalum


Well, here it is Valentines Day.  What plant goes with that?  Red Roses?   Not for a wildflower nut, if you want hearts, Four Petal St. Johnswort is Cupid’s green gift, pesticide-free and less expensive.  

Today’s journey is a question we could ask about any species, so why not this one? It has an interesting history   How did a pretty little wildflower from the edge of the marsh wind up being described in  1797 in France by the storied French naturalist  Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck?    Now, anybody who ever took a  biology class knows one thing about Lamarck, that his theory of evolution was off the mark. Big surprise…he was a generation ahead of his time, and when the time came,  Darwin who did get it right credited Lamarck with getting the ball rolling.   In any case, Lamarck did much more than develop a discredited theory.   One of those things was naming Hypericum tetrapetalum.  Let’s see, here is that occurrence in Lamarck’s own words:

That’s nice, the christening of the species, and look at the final word, cordatis, heart-shaped, as in cardiologist.  But our question is, how the heck did Lamarck get ahold of  the little green hearts?  He tells us in the final line of his writeup below:

So then we see, sent from Virginia by Monsieur Hingston.  Gee thanks, not even a first name. But perhaps we can track it down.   Was there an American colonial-era botanist named Hingston?   No.  Okay then, what was going on in Virginia around 1797 besides the American Revolution?  The happening place  was the Potomac area, you know, George Washington, Mt. Vernon.  Alexandria was one of the most important seaports in the U.S. then. They still unearth old sailing ships there. Ships coming and going,  including to France, given that the French were American Revolution sympathizers.   Maybe Monsieur Hingston rubbed elbows with the first president,  and sent the plant to France from Potomac region Virginia, back then likely Alexandria, across from present-day DC.  To thicken the plot, Hypericum tetrapetalum grows only in Florida, Georgia, and a toehold in Alabama.  How did it get to Virginia to begin with?  Sounds like seeds.

Let’s play Clue.  I guess Hingston did it, with seeds, around Alexandria, Virginia.  The beauty of this case is that detailed historical records back into the 1700s exist  for Alexandria, and even better, somebody put it all on-line.   We can easily check for a seedy Hingston.

And, sure enough,  he was well recorded.  No single narrative, but Monsieur Hingston pops up repeatedly…in a  real estate transaction, a legal case worth $3 involving a horse-drawn buggy, and he even bought newspaper ads.  His first name was Nicholas, born 1750, died 1830.  Here is one of his newspaper ads verbatim:

NICHOLAS HINGSTON, Respectfully informs his friends and the public in general, that he hath removed his store to king street, next door to Mr. Jos. Thornton’s, where he hath for sale an extensive assortment of SEEDS, Both of English & American growth. The former imported this fall per the ship Sheperdess, captain Wells, via Norfolk.

There it is.   He was buying and selling seeds acquired from U.S. soil and beyond, involving ships coming up the Potomac.  The of the era.

Further snooping reveals he sold gardening tools, flowerpots, root glasses, groceries, and liquors. He printed fliers with instructions on growing the seeds he sold, and bought ½ acre at the (then) margin of Alexandria for a plant nursery.   Maybe Lamarck in France was on the e-mail list.

There is a second kink to the life and times of Hingston, involving yet another famous French naturalist who had his own (amazingly accurate) pre-Darwin theory of evolution, Constantine Rafinesque.  He lived most of his adult life in the eastern U.S., traveling widely.    Rafinesque was interested in everything from archaeology to poetry to plants.  Rafinesque must have met Nick Hingston, and maybe even picked up some seeds, as Rafinisque named a pretty sunny-flowered Virginia native wildflower Hingstonia exaltata, better known as yellow crownbeard (and now called Verbesina occidentalis).


Posted by on February 14, 2021 in Uncategorized


Sicklepod, Smelly Food of the Future?

Senna obtusifolia (Cassia obtusifolia)

(Obtusifolia means “blunt leaves.”)

Caesalpiniaceae (one of the legume families)

Weeds are cosmopolitan travelers modest at first glance, but  with intriguing exostic secrets.   Each nondescript roadside resident has  a story to tell if we listen (which Google makes easier to do).  And so it is with  Sicklepod, in flower and fruit  right now with its trademark bent knitting needle fruits.   Not rare, not small, but  still under the radar.   It is native, allegedly, although that is often a tough call with global weeds.

All photos today are Senna obtusifolia, as it appears now.

 In the U.S. the species might be best known as a soybean pest, thus a prime target for Round-Up herbicide.  In Australia it takes over vast areas as an unwelcome monoculture.  In Florida it crops up here and there on disturbed sites. Being a Senna, it has a natural laxative effect, as in Senokot, and is a livestock toxin. 

North Africa is where Sicklepod has found love and respect, centered in beleaguered Darfur, western Sudan, also along the Nile. it is cultivated for a cluster of reasons, from ornamentality to making mats and fences .  The roots and leaves yield black, blue, and yellowish dyes.  It is host to a fungus processed to control  nematode pests in food crops.  That’s all cool, but we have not gotten to the good stuff yet….a fermented protein-rich food called kawal produced low-budget in horrid growing conditions.   Ethnobotanist Hamid Dirar at the University of Khartoum, Sudan, back in the 80s richly documented this botanical gift.   That a high nutrition food from an aggressive weed may feed millions was not lost on Dr. Dirar. You can grow it on terrible soil, even on a garbage dump. No fertilizer, no pesticides, no irrigation.

Bent knitting needle pod.

Before we go farther, todays’s vocabulary word:  zeer, useful to know if you have a Z in Words with Friends.  A zeer is an earthenware jug or urn used in North Africa and in the Middle East as an off-the-grid  food chiller based on evaporative cooling.    You know, like when you step out of the pool wet and feel cold on an 85-degree afternoon.   Water evaporating from the clay surface of the zeer has the same effect.  A zeer can be buried in cool most sand.   Best of all, it  can take advantage of “burying” and evaporative chilling at once.   To do this, a small zeer is nested in a larger earthen pot, with a layer of moist sand between the two pots.  Evaporation draws water from the wet sand through the outer pot keeping the zeer’s contents cool, calm, and collected.

It may also be useful to know that sorghum is a big tough crop grass from North Africa used as livestock feed and as a cereal staple in some warm regions. Now let’s get to the business at hand:

As a Fur woman in Darfur related in the 1980s  to Dr. Dirar, here is how to make kawal (don’t try this at home—there are real hazards.)

Leaves are gathered, cleaned, and pounded into a wet paste.

The paste is packed into a large zeer and smothered with sorghum leaves.   The zeer is sealed and buried to its  neck in shaded sand. (Use of  sorghum leaves and sealing techniques vary regionally.)

Every three days, after removing the sorghum, the paste is stirred and supplemented with new leaves. At this time the paste becomes covered with cottony fungus, which is stirred in.  Soon the mixture becomes sufficiently acid to kill the fungus, and  the bacterium Bacteria subtilis takes over. This bacterium, which can inhabit the human digestive system harmlessly, and which is key in other fermented foods, has become a tool in biotechnology and in microbial pest control.

After 15 days the kawal is removed, formed into balls, and sun-dried five more days.

The kawal balls, with 20% protein and a peppery flavor, are usually served in a stew containing okra and sorghum.  During fermentation a pungent  juice separates from the leaf paste and goes into the stew.

Now if I were marketing kawal, this might not be in the brochure, but the locals say, “when you eat it with your right hand you smell it on your left.”  [Note added after posting…see reader comment below by PTB adding a plausible interpretation, not for the squeamish.]  The large strong kawal plants to six feet tall are  valuable as a windbreak for sorghum.   Sometimes a large spontaneous stand of kawal is  cleared in the center to grow protected sorghum, or kawal may be planted as a perimeter around sorghum.  In either case, the  windbreak is so critical  that those caught brewing kawal before the sorghum harvest are punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Leave a comment

Posted by on January 22, 2021 in Uncategorized


Sand Pine Has a Lopsided Sex Ratio

Pinus clausa (Pinus is an ancient name. Clausa comes from Latin for closed, referring to the uptight cones.)

Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Today’s nod to Sand Pine results from the brain of Sally Brodie. Best suggestion ever, to acknowledge this fetching species!   Palm Beach County is home to just two native Pines: Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii) of pine flatwoods and of turpentine, and Sand Pine of sand.  Sand Pines are strictly scrub species, on sterile thirsty white scrub sand. The tree is mostly a Florida species, trespassing over the state line to the northwest. There are two separate scarcely different populations, one on the Florida peninsula,  the other in the Panhandle plus.

All photos today are Sand Pine, taken this week. Dig that crazy sand!

Sand Pines differ from Slash Pines by having on average smaller statures (to about 60’ tall and 60 years old), smaller needles, and smaller cones.  They grow in every shape and mis-shape possible, from tall and thin to short and clumpy, gnarly, twisty, wind-sculpted, and contorted.  An artist’s dream.  They are not as determined as Slash Pines to shed their lower branches.

Sand Pines have witch’s brooms.  Witch’s brooms are regions of abnormal congested branching occurring in many plant species.  They can result from pathogens, buggy infestation, extreme weather, air pollution,  and mutations.   The last-mentioned, being built into the DNA, can be useful. Those in Sand Pine are probably mutational   Brooms caused by weather or pathology would probably be clustered, whereas in Sand Pine they are unusual and widely separated.   The tight compact growth of a WB looks almost “normal” if you ignore the rest of the tree.  Perhaps it is an ancestral condition, you know, like humans born with tails.  WB mutations may result from UV exposure, like skin cancer.   Those in conifers are abundant in high UV environments, such as mountain, and sun-baked Florida white sand dunes.   Different mutations sometimes appear  at the tops of Sand Pines, in particular, yellow needles.

Witch’s broom.

Horticulturists harvest witch’s brooms to generate small bushy versions of wild species.  Some enthusiasts comb the countryside seeking them out.   To be honest, I wish they would find a new hobby, because the growths are intriguing, pretty, part of nature, slow-growing, on property collectors do not own, and limited in numbers. (No harm IMHO in removing with permission small snippets for grafting, tissue culture, or research.)  Beyond ornamentality, witch’s brooms in lumber species  are potential gene sources for tree crop improvement.   Sand Pine has minor commercial significance for pulpwood. 

They are in their mating frenzy right now.  The trees are covered with thousands of pollen-making “male”” cones fertilizing  a grand total of, say, a half-dozen pollen-receptive “female” cones on an entire tree.   The male/female ratio is  my guesstimate 10,000/1.  Perhaps environmental circumstances can influence that balance.

Pollen cones

The pollination-ready female cones are about the size of a bumpy yellow pea.  The tree holds them aloft like cell phones at an Elton John concert, situated to snag pollen from the wind.   Often they are paired.    After fertilization the female cones close up and grow up.   I don’t know how long they take to reach full size, but a guess, two years.   The closed cones persist on the tree for years until eventually opening to free their seeds.   The  Sand Pines on the Florida Peninsula keep the cones hermetically sealed (they are called “serotinous” ser-OT-ah-nus cones) until release by time, hot weather, or most notably trial by fire.   Fire whacks the competition and apparently sometimes causes enough of a seed release (and seed stimulation?  and setback to the parent generation?) to start a new wave of even-aged Sand Pines.   The separate population in the Panhandle does not keep its cones sealed.  

Female cone held high and exposed for wind-borne pollen.

A reasonable question about any Florida scrub species perched on a mound of sugar sand is, “where are the roots”?   Some dune dwellers spread shallow roots far and wide to catch every raindrop.    Others drive roots down deep, even below the white sand.   A glimpse of SP roots appears at sites where the trees are on elevated dunes.   Due to erosion and human activity, roads through scrub dunes can be sunken several feet alongside the bases of adjacent trees,  exposing to view their massive roots headed for China.   Despite being hurricane targets, you seldom see the remains of an uprooted Sand Pine, the roots being apparently too “rooted” to be dislodged.   Instead, hurricane victims  are fractured above-ground, or sometimes bent.

Young seed cone up close.
Old seed cone with papery seeds exposed.

You usually don’t see many epiphytes except maybe Spanish-Moss on pines, at least not on Slash Pines, but Sand Pines often host Tillandsia (Bromeliad) species, including one you do not encounter often in other habitats around Palm Beach County,  the Banded Airplant (Tillandsia flexuosa).   Kinda suspect the abundance of this species may have been diminished by collectors. 

Banded Airplant on Sand Pine

Sand Pines are not only friends of the epiphytes…they can be nurse trees too.    Go to any desert and look under the trees.  There you find smaller species huddled in the relatively shadier moister wind-protected microhabitat.   A trip to a Sand Pine stand looks like Arizona, and same thing:   Happy campers under the pine boughs. For instance, Florida-Rosemary seems to like it there.


Posted by on January 15, 2021 in Uncategorized

%d bloggers like this: