This afternoon was hot! John and I sweated 90 degrees to sink to our ankles in warm stink-mud near Jensen Beach, Florida to behold a zillion Bladderworts. The site is about half overpowered with invasive exotic species and about half restored to an intriguing dried pond carpeted with carnivorous yellow Bladderworts.
Because we’ve covered these greedy meat eaters previously, let’s turn to the invasive exotic species. For most of the hundreds of unwelcome escaped plants in Florida it is easy to surmise how they got here: running away from gardens, or feeding livestock, or hitchhiking as seeds or spores. Some pests have have more-interesting histories.
Let’s take a shot at the novel cases, with a disclaimer that just because somebody introduced a species once does not mean nobody else did before or after. That is impossible to pin down, and records are murky.
Sisal is a Category II invasive exotic species looming large in hot dry habitats locally. It dates back to Florida’s first well documented horticulturist, Dr. Henry Perrine.(1797-1840). Dr. Perrine had an eventful life, first as “The Little Hard Riding Doctor” in Illinois, where, oops, he accidentally drank a bottle of arsenic. That mishap drove him to Mexico, the toxic damage causing a craving for a warm climate. In Mexico Perrine doctored a cholera epidemic, which he caught of course, and yet survived as his second brush with death.
In addition to doctoring, Perrine served as U.S Consul to Mexico, coming under a presidential executive order to ship Mexican crop plants back to the U.S. He sent them to Indian Key in the Florida Keys, and took a special interest in Agaves, including Sisal, writing a book on the plants. Sisal was and remains a commercial source of fibers. To this day Indian Key houses Sisal Agaves, as does much of South Florida. Perrine retired from Mexico moved to Indian Key to tend his introduction garden, and to be a doctor where one was needed, but never lived to see the literal fruits of his labor, as he suffered “strike three,” death at the hands of angry Indigenous People in 1840, and thus ended Florida’s first botanical garden.
Water Hyacinths are lovely floating plants with spikes of attractive purple flowers.
All well and good if under control, but Water Hyacinth broke out and conquered Florida waters and beyond, sometimes smothering watery acres with millions of itself, clogging waterways and interfering with ecology. Maybe it should become a biofuel.
How did a bad deed like that get started? A careless lily pool owner? No. Hyacinth Hell traces back to the 1884 New Orleans Cotton Exposition (World’s Fair), where they had a mammoth greenhouse with mind-blowing horticultural exhibits. Not bad for 1884! But that is not exactly where the Hyacinth originated. Each Fair visitor received one as a keepsake, only to go home all over the South and unleash the scourge. CLICK for cinematic documentation.
Mirror mirror on the wall, who was the biggest plant introducer of them all? That is easy, David Fairchild (1869-1954), namesake of Fairchild Tropical Garden in Miami. No space here for a long biography, so suffice it to say Fairchild had a penchant for cultivating the rich and famous, and for marrying their daughter. He was Alexander Graham Bell’s Son in Law, and hob-nobbed with luminaries of the era, oh say Orville Wright for instance. The opportunities and funding from his VIP connections put Fairchild and his team in a position to travel the world and introduce, via the USDA maybe 200,000 different plants into the U.S.
Included in his voluminous records are species of Crotalaria, beautiful yellow-flowered Rattleboxes, species now scattered abundantly in every disturbed site locally. Some gardeners know Sunn Hemp (yes with double-n) as one example, although it is not commonly escaped in Florida. A similar, gorgeous species is all over our area, well named “Showy Rattlebox.” It is so colorful this species must have come as a garden ornamental. Wrong.
Fairchild and his crew cultivated Showy Rattlebox and related species as companion crops for citrus and other fruit species. Fairchild thought C. spectabilis dated to around 1920 in his Miami experimental gardens.
Beyond good looks, the species has nitrogen-fixing nodules, as a good legume should. And willing to prosper unwatered on terrible soil in brutal sun. Maybe that ability should have been a red flag, but trouble took time to appear. In the meantime, Fairchild and others waxed eloquent on the virtues of Showy Rattlebox, not only for nitrogenating fruit crop soils, but also for fighting soil parasitic nematodes attacking Papayas.