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


Lawn Weeds Galore…Don’t Tell the HOA

My lawn is not the envy of the neighborhood.  Actually I’m surprised the HOA has not run me out, but what I lack in turfcare pride I make up in biodiversity.  Made a list today of weeds in the lawn just for kicks.   Two dozen species, listed below.


Now let’s get something straight.  A weed is  not “a plant out of place.”  Their social media profile is as rugged pioneers, which is exactly what makes weeds interesting, special adaptations.  Weeds have broad tastes in soils usually on disturbed sites,  general preference for bright sun, fast generation of prolific “cheap” seeds or fruits dispersed chiefly by wind or birds,  often seeds able to sleep in the soil disturbance,  and  specializations to cope with the rough pioneering lifestyle: fires, grazing, and flooding.  Their competition arena is colonization.   Go forth, multiply, and go forth again.  Yes, there are exceptions.

Creeping Dayflower

Of the 24 weed species in my yard:

All withstand frequent mowing (as a surrogate for that grazing, burning, flooding) by means of different means of keeping their heads down, for example:  rhizomes (Kyllinga), runners (Woodsorrel), taproots (Buttonweed), tubers (Pouzol’s Bush), or slithering (Creeping Cucumber).   Jack in the Bush initiates zillions of seedlings, all clones, most of them mowed down, but give one  a few weeks unmolested, or let it get into an unmowed corner, and hello Jacks!   Every surviving Jack in the Bush in my yard (or in all the U.S.) is a clone, one plant genetically speaking.  Wouldn’t it be weird if humans had the ability to send countless self-copies out into the world  with 99.9999% perishing,  but  each rare survivor a “win” prone to clone anew.


Ten of my homegrown weeds are natives trying to reclaim their habitat.  The infamous Dollarweed so shameful to proud suburban lawnowners is naturally a wetland species grateful for generous irrigation systems. Like many wetland plants, dollarweed loves nitrogen, as evidenced by its massive growth in water reclamation ponds such as Wakodahatcheee Wetlands, and in fertilized lawns.    It usefully sucks up heavy metals from polluted water, which is nice, but then what do you do with tons of dirty Dollarweed?  The species has medicinal value,  well, at least for Minnie Mouse with insomnia.   Here is a study:

Protective effects of Hydrocotyle umbellatavar. bonariensis Lam. (Araliaceae) on memory in sleep-impaired female mice

(I wonder if weedy lawn angst keeps them awake at night.)

False Pimpernel

Eight of today’s weeds are native to Tropical America.  Perhaps Global Warming warmed their welcome to comparatively chilly Florida. Seems likely, at least with Grassleaf Spurge, whose arrival from South America and Mexico is recent and well documented.  Its northbound migration up Florida 1982-2018 is shown in the map below, where arrivals in the counties marked in lighter colors are older (to the south) and earliest documentations in the darker-colored northbound counties is more recent.

Grassleaf spurge move north in Florida

It is moving into states north of Florida,  and far beyond the Sunshine State, such as Taiwan (2005), Nigeria (2012), Bahamas (2013), and Italy (2016).

Japanese Hawkweed

Seven of my weeds are native to the Old World, and have wandered far and wide.  I wonder how and why one got here from the Mascarene Islands on the far side of Africa. Mascarene Island Leaf Flower was reported introduced to Florida in the 1920s.  Maybe for its “medicinal value.”  Sometimes called stone-breaker, not because it grows between rocks, but some believe it busts up kidney stones like its close relative Phyllanthus urinaria. (Forget it:   toxic.)

Bitcoin Weed

Weeds often have tricks for getting around.  Mascarene Island Leaf Flower and Woodsorrell can both launch seeds explosively.   Japanese Hawkweed and Purple Tasselflower float dainty parachutes onto the gentle breezes.   Two of my yard guests cling to passersby (Drymary and  Ticktrefoil).  Drymary frags are stuck to my socks as I type.  It uses sticky droplets squeezed out of hairs like Crazy Glue forced from its tube.

Sticky hair on Drymary

The weed can regrow (at least in a lab) from lil’  pieces.   This species offers an example of harnessing weed power in the service of humankind.  It can blanket the ground like green earthfrosting.  That’s bad, right?   Yea, unless you happen to want ground blanketed.   In Costa Rica researchers found a covering of Drymary to protect disease-susceptible young tomato plants from virus-bearing insect hosts.  And it Is a living mulch in coffee and tea plantations. 


Posted by on January 8, 2021 in Uncategorized



Myrsine cubana (Myrsine punctata,  Rapanea punctata,  Myrsine guianensis  +++)


Wandering through the sunny woodland today at Cypress Creek savoring temperatures in the 70s, wazzup nature-wise in winter.  The Aster Family in their prime,  not to mention Dahoon Holly berries, American Bluehearts,  yellow Ludwigias, Pond-Cypress already regrowing leaves, and “Florida Snow” along the sleighride home.   The most eye-catching displays were the flower-laden Myrsine branches overhanging the trail.    Similar to its neighbor Wax Myrtle, Myrsine bears its flowers directly on the upturned young stems.

All photos taken today

Here’s the thing with Myrsine.  Thousands of flowers even on a single branch.   Nice! But where is the fragrance?  None.  Where are the bees?   Absent.  Today bees were all over the Asters but not a buzz to bee heard on the Myrsine blossoms, despite outnumbering the Asters 1000/1.  Weird.  Although there is no study of Myrsine pollination in Florida, Myrsine is a large genus, and botanists regard it broadly as a wind-pollinated offshoot from insect-pollinated ancestors.  

There is a correlation between wind pollination (anemophily, ah-nem-AH-filly) and having separate male and female plants (dioecy, DI-ece-ee).   Sure enough, with a few exceptions Myrsine has separate male and female plants.    Apropos to the wind pollination and the separate sexes, in 2014 botanist D.L. Peng and collaborators found, “Dioecy was strongly associated with inconspicuous, pale‐colored flowers [YUP], anemophily [YUP], and shrubs [YUP].”   Separate male and female mammals have different sex chromosomes, you know, X and Y.  Geneticist R. Silva in 2015 found preliminary evidence for sex chromosomes in Myrsine too.

Female (Those dots are the source of the name “punctata.”)

Myrsine fruits have their own oddity.   Try to find a ripe blueberry or ripe blackberry in South Florida.  Ha ha…the birds beat you to it!   But you can have all the Myrsine “berries” (drupes) you desire. Birds do consume and disperse them, but reluctantly.  Blueberries, blackberries,  and other luscious fruits compete for birds, offering  sugars and deliciousness.   Works great, but costly. 

Fruit scraped open. Look how thin the flesh is. Angry birds!

Myrsine, by contrast, cheaps out…it makes lotsa fruits, but each is about 95% “stone” with only a smidge of tasty purple pulp.   They take a year to mature, ripening in the winter for hungry birds without access to better berries.  Think of a tourist destination where in-season the tony restaurants compete by offering snobbish wines and imported White Stilton, but in the off-season the locals settle for Cabernet in a carton and Cheese Puffs at 7-11.


Posted by on December 29, 2020 in Uncategorized


Southern Needleleaf—a (Kinda) Parasitic Bromeliad?

Around Jupiter in a couple sites are huge ancient Live Oaks.  Odd that some of don’t have many epiphytes (mainly tillandsias, ferns, and occasional orchids) riding  up on their branches. Others are overwhelmed.   In Riverbend Park just west of Jupiter there’s a stand of magnificent live oaks, including the “Tree of Tears,” allegedly watching over the Battle of the Loxahatchee in 1838.   Several of the big old oaks in the park are covered with the Bromeliad known as Southern Needleleaf, Tillandsia setacea.  

When I say covered, I mean blanketed, coated, festooned, dripping,  and smothered, the bromeliads jammed edge-to-edge on every surface except the trunk and main vertical stems. The tillandsias are like frosting on a cake on tiny twigs and massive branches alike, sun and shade, toward the inside of the trees, and the periphery. 

Utterly festooned

Let’s make a fake ballpark calculation.  Suppose a big old live oak has 10 major branches, and each of those has 10 secondary branches, and each of those 10 minor branches, and each of those 10 branchlets, and every one of the branches and branchlets hosts (easily) 100 tillandsias,  the imaginary tree has 1 million hitchhikers, and I’ll bet that estimate is low.  Even if our math is dubious and dirty, you get the idea.  To continue to speculate,  say each tillandsia weighs on average 2 ounces,  we then  have 62 tons  of Tillandsia setacea on one tree, and that is not counting soaking wet in a strong wind, nor the decayed leaves at the base of the tillandsias.

That’s a lot of biomass, and it isn’t just sitting there doing nothing.  Any botany textbook will tell you in simple terms that epiphytes are not parasites…they are just getting a free perch “at no cost” to the host tree.   That that may not be always accurate is largely untested.  Botanists back in the 70s David Benzing and Jeffrey Seeman  wondered if certain Florida bromeliads…Spanish-Moss and Ball-Moss, were parasites on their host trees. They checked to see if the roots penetrated or choked the oak bark, and the answer was “no,” but what they found was arguably more significant, if not surprising.   The epiphytes are parasitic in their own fashion.

Live oaks tend to live in nutrient-poor soils where they depend on recycling essential nutrients from their own dropped leaves.   But what if somebody steals those essentials before they hit the ground?    Although not much studied,  Tillandsia setacea has what you might call a “trashbasket” leaf collection system (discussed in an earlier blog) where its clustered knitting-needle  leaves trap falling debris, such as oak leaves.  The falling leaves compost in the company of an arthropod fauna, in the tree presumably nourishing the Tillandsia way up in its perch.  The Tillandsia additionally has absorbent leaves able to capture dissolved nutrients from stemwash and drip-through, before they percolate to the oak roots.  Benzing and Seeman concluded that the nutrient theft is sufficient to cause decline in the host tree.  You might say, well, eventually the Tillandsia dies, and that would return the critical elements to the soil.   True, in part,  but 62 tons of organic matter tied up in an uninvited guest shading your branches is a lot of your own flesh & blood tied up permanently useless to the tree.  And some of that escapes altogether as the Tillandsia disperses seeds onto the wind. The oak is feeding an ever-growing massive “tapeworm” on its branches.

(Thank you to everyone who ordered a weed book!)

To dig deeper on parasitic tillandsias CLICK. Here are a couple snips from that article:


Posted by on December 6, 2020 in Uncategorized


Baldcypress—A Peek Under the Mud

Taxodium distichum (including  T. ascendens and T. mucronatum)

(Taxodium means, roughly, resembling Yew.  Distichum means “two rows.” That is how the leaves are, usually.)


You may now think we’re going to skip down Bald-Cypress Knee Lane, but no, been there done that.   Today it is about Bald-Cypress underground.   Not that it is easy to know much about its hidden subterranean (or submarine) life, given  the pesky overlying water and mud pudding guarded by cottonmouths.  Yes, I met one recently researching Bald-Cypress (I was researching the tree too).  

You ever wonder why Bald-Cypress trees almost never topple, despite living with shallow roots in jello?   They form a huge woven mat under the mud.   This explains two things: 1. Even hurricanes don’t push them over.   2. It is hard or sometimes impossible to match roots to individual trees.  The way the roots work, how they transport  air at least 25 feet horizontally under mud and water, is to this day still mysterious.    Arguably the best case for air exchange is through dead but still-intact water-conducting cells repurposed and re-filled with air. UF former doctoral student Helen Fisher several years ago conducted experiments on this ventilation system for Slash Pine roots, and suggested the same for Bald-Cypress. So far nobody has taken the bait and conducted a modern study on this suggestion.  Why?  Repeat: those roots are IMPOSSIBLE to access.

Speaking of swamps, let’s start with Washington DC.   The heart of the nation’s capital floats atop  a former Bald-Cypress swamp discovered during building projects  in the 1920s,  and dating back perhaps 100,000 years, with stumps still persisting 20 feet beneath the lobbyists and legislators.   Some of those stumps are 8 feet in diameter and 1700 years old when they were buried.

Maybe those old DC Bald-Cypresses were Mastodon food.    In Florida Mastodon Dung is preserved to this day in deep cold water in the Aucilla River.  Guess what the main ingredient in the Mastodon droppings is:   masticated Bald-Cypress. 

Actually 1500 years old is a baby.  There are Bald-Cypresses alive today in the Carolinas up to 2600 years old.   That boggles the mind….the trees came into existence about the same times as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.   Their annual rings are useful for comparing ancient growth patterns over time, for example to check on climate changes from ancient times through the Industrial Revolution to present times.   Twenty-six hundred years is old, but younger than a famous Bald-Cypress no longer standing due to a fire in 2012: The late “Senator,”  right here in Florida, was a BC around  3500 years old. Now that’s BC!

Some Bald-Cypress is put underground on purpose.  Ft. Jackson guarding the Mississippi near New Orleans is a prominent example. How in a swamp in the 1820s did  you build a stout brick fort able  to withstand Civil War bombardment and  two centuries of hurricanes?    On a solid foundation available on site.   The fort rests on, you guessed it, the indestructible wood of Bald-Cypress.   All still there, the fort and its underpinnings, although not in great shape.

Let’s wind up with linked stories of survival and utility.  As Kansas biologists Benjamin Tremmel and Craig Martin described,  a Bald-Cypress was planted in the 1870s in a ravine on the campus of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.  Around 1900 the ravine was filled in. The tree had half its trunk interred abruptly under the dirt fill.  It rose anew.   In 2000, a century later,  new construction forced destruction of the still-living tree which had sprouted roots on the buried trunk like a gigantic “cutting” rooting over a century in plant propagation. This swamp dweller has no issue with sediments accumulating up its trunk!  Aztecs in Mexico applied the same ability near present-day Mexico City.   To expand flooded land in Lake Texcoco would normally have required building enclosures of  vertical logs in the water, then filling in dirt.  But the Aztecs found a better way…plant taxodiums crowded in a line like a picket fence, and they soon become indestructible rot-proof living seawalls oblivious to the fill dirt applied over their roots. There are still ancient taxodiums in the Lake Texcoco site dating back to Aztec horticulture.   You can see some, and one of the largest trees in the world,  a Mexican Bald-Cypress photographed  and discussed  by David Creech in his blog “Life on the Green Side”

As deplorable a loss to the natural world draining a Bald-Cypress swamp may be,  and I’d never advocate it for research,  when one is sacrificed  for “The March of Progress,”  wow, would I love to be first on the scene to see what goes on with those roots!

Photo by Dave Creech – see blog link


Posted by on November 27, 2020 in Uncategorized



Cenchrus polystachios (Pennisetum polystachion)

Poaceae, Grass Family

There’s a tropical invasive grass oddly not comfortable it seems in southernmost Florida, and not in northern Florida either, but in a belt a little south of the middle, including Palm Beach County.   

The species is introduced and pesky all over the tropical world from Australia to the Loxahatchee Slough.  It owes its spread to introductions as a pasture fodder, as well as to accidental introductions, such as hitchhiking in hay.   The species came to Florida no doubt among many brought as cow chow, although the place and moment are murky, before 1950. 

Missiongrass is eye-catching, being almost as tall as you are, or taller, with big feathery golden amber seedheads looking  like an image from a beer ad.   Kinda pretty.

The species is an example of the “Africanization of American grasses.”  Long story short, African grasses compete well in the warmer parts of the New World, probably tough and resilient because they are adapted to grazing by huge hungry herbivores.   About 12 important Florida grasses are African natives, including most of the large invasive bullies.

One way for a species to compete well is diversity, but who ever heard of a single species where the chromosome numbers are 18, 36, 45, 48, 52, 53, 54, 56, and 78.  That diversity reflects some form of crazy history. be interesting to know if the Florida population all has the same number of chromosomes, and if those are the same as those in Texas.  Finding out would hint at how many times the grass may have been introduced, and would take a ton of effort.   

What is interesting about all those wacky chromosome numbers is that, without delving  into a lesson on the birds and bees, for  making sperms and eggs, chromosomes generally have to match up in pairs.  That’s screwed up in Missiongrass and for it,  making seeds is not reliable.    The species has at least two workarounds….the grass can grow from fragmented stem pieces which is boring, and more interestingly, its flowers can clone directly into baby plants without that pesky sperm, egg, and embryo sex business, although that sort of trickery is it not (yet) documented in Florida. Keep your eyes open because sometimes the clonal babies start growing conspicuously while still on the parent seed head. 

It would fun to know where the name “mission” came from.   Maybe it was introduced as cattlefeed at a remote mission. Or perhaps the name refers to the grass’s “mission” to spread all over the world.


Posted by on November 20, 2020 in Uncategorized


Marlberry is a Sooner

Ardisia escallonioides

(Ardisia means “pointy,” probably referring to pointy anthers. Escallonioides means “resembles Escallonia,” a genus popular with gardeners.)


Marlberry is beloved by native plant gardeners for many reasons, too well documented on the Internet already to re-re-re-hash.   You can Google it plenty.   Still, being in flower today after the deluges,  and smelling so nice, let’s see if we can delve into something “different” about it.

By John Bradford

First of all, why flower in the autumn?    Whether or not there is any advantage to it, the answer might be as simple as the big flower clusters form on the current year’s growth, and all that growth depends on the summery rainy season.  


Something more  interesting is the pattern of flowers in a single flower cluster.   They do not all open at once.  Instead there is a mix of stages from still-unopened to early fruit development. 


The mixed stages matter because some of the flowers require contact by bees before they open, and depend on neighboring open flowers to draw the bees.  The reason flowers require pre-opening bee visits is that the pollen-receiving (female) style sticks out of the bud in a bid to get pre-pollinated sooner than a flower should.   Why?    The plants are and capable of self-pollination which defeats the benefits of the sexual pollination cycle.  A style receiving pollen before the flower becomes otherwise functional has an  enhanced chance, if no guarantee, of being pollinated by bee-borne pollen brought from a different plant.  

Stigma and style trying to get pollinated before the flower opens.

And remember…John and I offer the revised PBSC horticulture program weedbook for the low low (below our cost) of $10. If you email George at with your address you can have one too!


Posted by on November 10, 2020 in Uncategorized


Tags: ,

Golden Polypody is a Twofer on a Tree

Phlebodium aureum

(Phlebodium refers to veins, as does the medical condition Phlebitis. Aureum means golden. Polypody means “many feet,” referring to the fuzzy stems.)


Take a look at a Cabbage Palm in the woods or in a yard.  Chances are it hosts a Golden Polypody fern hanging out of the old dead leaf bases, or even among green ones up top. 

All photos today are Golden Polypody by John Bradford.

As plant perched up on another plant, Golden Polypody pushes the envelope on the term “epiphyte.”  Its massive snakelike stem burrows intimately among the leaf bases.   It does not pull free easily, and then there are mycorrhizae.  Mycorrhizae are fungi embedded in plant roots, one end in the root, the other engaged in decaying organic matter, sending a share to the fern root.  Where are those Golden Polypody mycorrhizae going?   There’s no evidence the fern and its fungal friends penetrate into the living tissue of the palm, or cause it any harm.   Still, if you used radioactive fertilizer on the palm, would radioactivity turn up in the fern?    Funny—come to think of it—-some fertilizer can be a teensie tiny bit radioactive.

What’s known slightly better is the ability of Phlebodium ferns to suppress competitors.  There you are, a fern growing on a palm trunk.  Wouldn‘t it be convenient to poison other ferns, mosses, vines, and competitors who would like to share the palm trunk?   If you look at a lot of palms with Golden Polypodys you might conclude that they do seem surprisingly free of competing trunk-dwellers.   Hard to certain about that, but the ability has been lab-tested.   Interestingly, the fern suppresses other plants only when the fern leaves are present.   Other ferns can stifle Golden Polypody too, it is warfare! Much more study needed.  Speaking of chemo-warfare, the fern also produces a false insect hormone, polypodoaurein, no doubt to confuddle buggies who cause the fern distress.

The truly odd thing about Golden Polypody  is that it is really two species for the price of one.  This fern is a perfect example of something that is not rare in the plant world:   it has not the normal two sets of chromosomes,  but rather four sets, two from a species called Phlebodium pseudoaureum and two from Phlebodium decumanum, both of these native to Tropical America, not Florida.    (It may be a useful reminder that you and I have two sets of chromosomes, one set from your mother and one from your father. Whem mommies and daddies make a baby the baby does NOT have four sets of chromosomes.) ((Unless it is Phlebodium aureum.))

The brown dots are clusters of spore cases.

Now then, isn’t that something—-neither of the parental fern species live in the U.S. but when the two are combined into Phlebodium aureum,  it can live all the way to Georgia.    Although not studied adequately to be sure of the full situation, and for reasons I don’t want to attempt to explain in a short blog,  the two-species-in-one Phlebodium aureum is self-fertile, giving it the ability to colonize new places, such as Florida.   Come to think of it, on a much smaller scale, self-fertility is handy for a fern living isolated on a tree trunk.

Does Phlebodium aureum live together with its two “parent” species?   Yes, in Puerto Rico Phlebodium aureum (with its four sets of chromosomes) crosses with its “parent” species, each with two sets of chromosomes, the offspring having, you guessed it, three sets of chromosomes.

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 26, 2020 in Uncategorized

%d bloggers like this: