Category Archives: Uncategorized

Southern Needleleaf (revisited)

Tillandsia setacea

Bromeliaceae (Pineapple Family)

Tree of Tears
Live Oak – Quercus virginiana


Today John had obligations so I did something botanical I enjoy near my home, perpetual exploration of Riverbend Park on the Loxahatchee River west of Jupiter, Florida,  living proof you do not need to go far for good times with Mother Nature.

Riverbend Park and the  contiguous Loxahatchee River Battlefield Park,  in these paragraphs jointly called “the park,” is the site of the two-phased 1838 Battle of the Loxahatchee where 1500 U.S. troops killed an unknown number of indigenous people to make room for St. Augustine grass lawns.

A park icon is the “Tree of Tears,” an old Live Oak in poor condition, where the Seminoles allegedly sheltered their battle dead and dying.   The historical connection between that specific tree and the battle history might be a little tenuous in a “scientific sense,” and it seems tacky for a modern author selling a book to dub the tree the “Tree of Tears.”  Apparently the Seminoles did not bestow the name on their tree.

tree of tears day 2

Tree of Tears

Whatever its true history, the tree is a big gnarly old Oak among similar old gnarly Oak neighbors in the close company of likewise large Bald Cypresses and Water Hickories.  A magical, and noisy,  place with a drumline of three woodpecker species.

Tillandsia setacea seeral on branch

Southern Needleleaf on or near Tree of Tears

The massive Oaks are home to literally thousands of epiphytes representing numerous species,  with by far the dominant one being Southern Needleleaf,  Tillandsia setacea, a Bromeliad relative of Spanish-Moss, Ball-Moss, Cardinal-Airplant, and several others.      The Southern Needleleaf clusters can occupy the old (and sometimes young) Live Oaks lined up along the branches so numerously the tree looks like a Pine, since the epiphyte’s leaves are the size and shape of pine needles, although usually with a reddish cast.   This species has entered the blog before, and I feel moved to a redo.

Southern Needleleaf can occupy different host species, but in my experience around here it has a powerful predilection for Live Oaks.    Vigorously growing Live Oaks can sustain countess Southern Needleleafs which seem to shun the adjacent Bald Cypress and have little love for the Water Hickories.   Interesting pattern—Why?

Could it be the Oak leaves?   Let me explain.   Epiphytes share a problem:  they are rooted high, dry, and nutritionally deprived up on tree branches.   No roots in the earth.   They each have their own fascinating special  tricks for coping within treetop living.    Tillandsias in general, including today’s species, have a covering of umbrella-shaped scales on the leaves able to absorb water and nutrients in the water.

Tillandsia setacea fuzzy base

Southern Needleleaf basal covering of absorptive scales.

Tillandsia setacea leaf base outside

The scales magnified.

Southern Needleleaf has its umbrella-shaped scales concentrated at the bases of the long spindly leaves.   That is exactly the same place the leaf cluster functions as a trashbasket capturing fallen Oak leaves and other debris, including possibly insect frass. (Frass from insects…suggesting symbiosis?   Ohhhh,  that’s pushing things a little too far for the moment.)

Tillandsia setacea trashbasket

Southern Needleleaf catches debris in its trashbasket at the same level as the heavy covering of scales.

The leaf blades have the upper-inner edges rolled into a vertical groove, especially at the leaf base trashbasket zone.   Picture a drinking straw slit along one edge.    The grove is perfect for catching water and organic debris, which is present and sometimes stuck to the scales inside the groove.


The groove at the inner-upper side of the leaf base.

Now, of course there are no data, no proof,  but those scales and that groove at the debris-catching level look to me like this plant’s pantry.

Tillandsia setacea leaf groove

Microscope view inside the groove, with trapped compost stuck to the scales.


Lark Daisy and the Nanobots

Centratherum punctatum

(Centatherum possibly comes from Latin for “central prickle,” referring it seems to the flower head of a related species.  Authors differ on interpreting this name.  Punctatum means spotted, referring to the foliage.)

Asteraceae, The Aster Family

In Halpatioke Park, where John and I traipsed today, is a secret meadow sporting luscious regal purple wild flowers proud in the dappled sun.   The meadow looks more like a garden than a woodland.   It is a rogue garden.

Centratherum punctatum 2

Today’s photos by John Bradford.

We are accustomed to non-native plants.   Of the roughly 4000 species growing wild in Florida, well over 1000 are visitors.   It is not just melaleuca and Brazilian Pepper.   This blog is not a soap box, so ranting shall be not.  Suffice it to say that it jolts even the long-standing jaundiced eye to see garden flowers intruding in the woods.    Just ain’t right!  And I say that ruefully as director of a college horticulture program.  Yes, we have skeletons in the potting shed. That’s for a different blog.

We’ve got the uninvited purple posies so we might as well own them.  And, even if in the wrong place, at least pretty.  So say hello to Lark Daisy, a side-steppin’ garden flower distributed from South America to Africa, Hawaii, and Australia.

Centratherum punctatum 3

The fragrant leaves inspired the commercial cultivar name ‘Pineapple Sangria’  familiar to some gardeners.  As with many tropical weeds creeping northward in Florida, I’ll bet it likes Global Warming.

Anybody who has looked up a lot of plants over decades knows that every species on earth has a history of medical uses against something.   What’s more interesting is when a species enters modern medical literature with research-based applications against specific ailments.  Even then, however, you have to wonder if our modern plant-drug enthusiasms still often overlie old fashioned wishful thinking.   In 1818 they wishfully favored plants for treating the ailments of the day:  childbirth problems, dropsy, hemorrhoids, respiratory ailments, skin lesions, and wounds.

In 2018  we like plants with emerging potential against cancers, HIV,  inflammation, and malaria.  Modern times!  More specific, more scientific, yet still often across the Grand Canyon from efficacy.  But not always, just as traditional plant uses sometimes worked.*

Centratherum punctatum 5

Lark Daisy has invaded pharmacology.   Almost 60 compounds enhance its fragrant leaf oil.  Its extracts kill the malarial parasite handily, but oh rats, the stronger the detriment to the parasite, the more toxic the drugs are to human cells.  Lark Daisy drugs inhibit reverse transcriptase, the Achilles heel enzyme of the HIV virus.   You guessed it—again, the good antiviral compounds kill people cells.   But look on the bright side, killing human cells selectively has interest against cancer, and our plant inhibits proliferation of certain lab cancer cell cultures, not that that is rare in plant drug screenings.

If you’d like something more unusual and hi-tech, consider this:  how about Lark Daisy chemical derivatives on silver nanoparticles  to suppress inflammation.  Over my head, and an investment opportunity!

For all of these potentialities, of course the hard part is the step from the test tube to safe effective clinical applications.   Don’t hold your breath.


*Yes, I am aware of several examples of traditional plant uses with effective benefits, and I am also aware that a large percentage of pharmaceuticals are rooted in the plant world.  No e-mails on this topic necessary.

Posted by on March 9, 2018 in Lark Daisy, Uncategorized


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Drymary, West Indian Chickweed

Drymaria cordata

(Drymos is Greek for forest.  Cordata means heart-shaped.)

Caryophyllaceae (The Carnation Family)

It was Halpatioke Park near Stuart, Florida, today for John and me.    We could talk about the dazzling Cardinal Airplants, or the gnarly Live Oaks overhanging the river, but nawww, how about a crummy little turf weed that sticks in your cuff?   So much more exciting!

Drymaria Jupiter Golf Club

Drymary sprawling

Drymary is an around-the-world weed.   Native to Florida?   Hard to be sure, some informed observers say yes, others deny.     There are no Florida collections of it before around 1900, but then again,  easy to ignore.    The stems mostly creep forth, loving moisture, happy in sol or sombra.   Sometimes they tower vertically to 8 inches, especially at flowering time.    It must reach up to deposit its seedheads on a passing possum.

Drymaria leaves

I like weeds because we step on them daily, but if we stop,  look,  think, and Google they offer as much good botany as tropical tourism.

People like to eat this weed.  Why!?  Go to Publix and buy tofu jerky instead.   Some folks think plants come in two varieties…edible and inedible.  That’s not very nuanced, sort of like saying boys sort into good boys  and bad boys.     Fact is, most wild plants have chemical defenses against herbivory.   So before you get out the Asian Sesame Dressing,  here is a discouraging word, “The flower, fruit, seed and root have given very weak positive reactions for the presence of haemolytic saponin.”   Does the “very weak” comfort your apprehensions?  Do you feel lucky?

Drymary flower cropped

So then, if you don’t eat it, what’s Drymary good for?  How about smoking it?   The plant has a pleasant fragrance, and yes, it has been smoked.    I might have puffed some except for two things—a trip to the gas station for medical marijuana rolling papers.  And, well, there’s this, “Topical application must be done with caution as prolonged treatment causes burning.”

Drymaria cordata stem hairs

Stem with glandular hairs

So the best enjoyment of Drymary is nonconsumptive.  The stems have a coat of stiff hairs tipped with glistening droplets.  Maybe that is where the fragrance resides.  In any case, why all those sticky hairs?    Probably protection, maybe from ground-dwelling pests, and/or sun-baking.   Obvious possibilities, but there is more.

When your pants cuff  drags through the meadow the seed-heads snap off along with a short stem fragment.    The seed head itself has hairs, and the stem fragment acts like Velcro.    So, maybe then  possession of a protective hairy stem was pressed into service secondarily as a dispersal aid.  This is the one Drymaria species, out of almost 50, spread all around the globe.

Drymary stuck to shirt

My shirt with Velcro-stuck seed heads.

There’s another oddity.  Between the two opposed plate-shaped flat leaves, immediately below their bases, is a set of twisty-pointy Halloween fingers.  (Vocabularious readers may recognize these as stipules.)    We then ask in unison, what do those fingers contribute to the well being of the weed?

Drymaria cordata stipule

Funky fingers immediately below the leaf pairs.  What good are they?

My first idea favored preventing  soil buggies from climbing  to make pests of themselves.  Okay barricades maybe, but I went outside, plopped down on my sixpack abs, got the Velcro heads on my shirt, and saw something more interesting:

drymary drop 1

Little gem on the paired leaves just above the fingers.

The paired leaves collect water on their top surfaces, capturing beautiful glistening drops in the angle where the two leaves meet immediately above the fingers.   Do the fingers have something to do with holding the water a little longer, or influencing its drainage and distribution?   Maybe they help support the drop before it slithers down between the leaf bases, or more likely (and observed), as the drop falls between the bases, it can catch in the fingers.   Could the snag help the plant retain moisture?   I don’t know, but pretty to contemplate, if you like sprawling on the ground with fire ants and curious neighbors.  Your choice.

Drymary water on stipule

Droplet clinging to the fingers, or vice versa.


Posted by on March 2, 2018 in Drymary, Uncategorized


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Leaves With White Veins

Today John and I started a new old project….to update and upgrade the photos in the old Palm Beach State College Guide to South Florida Weeds.

We soon met a Southern Leopard Frog happy to duck amphibian decline.


Portrait today by John Bradford.

The frog’s fancy-pants pattern brought to mind the patterned leaves encountered sporadically in weeds and other plants.  Setting aside variegation caused by mutations and by viruses, what I’m thinking of now are species with white veins.

In houseplants

In orchids

And so forth and what-have-you.  Compare this Milk Thistle to the similar but unrelated Mexican Poppy below:

Why would unrelated plant species do the same odd thing?  Gotta be an adaptive benefit.    The proposed benefit I like, not original with me, is that maybe leaves with white veins are mimicking the streakings and vein discolorations of senescent, nutrient-deficient, or infected leaves.  Such leaves presumably offer poor nutrition to pests and may be unpromising nurseries for buggy eggs.   Go bother a different “healthy” plant!   Of course  this is pure speculation.


Sick leaf.

The most striking local white-veiner is the Mexican Poppy, Argemone mexicana, which is arguably native here.     This prickly beauty has spread itself around the world in agricultural seed, and maybe sometimes as a garden flower or oil-producing and medicinal plant.

Argemone mexicana plants Feb.

Mexican Poppy

The traditional medicinal uses are many, and are the ancient roots of its name, probably from Greek argemos for cataract, as in the eye.  But beware, in India over-exposure to its many toxins has caused plant-induced dropsy (aka heart failure).   The seeds give up oil for lamps and for lubrication.

Argemone mexicana foliage

White veins, as promised.

Being a poppy, does Mexican Poppy have psychotropic effects, as in opium poppies?    Probably,  to a limited and poorly documented point, but to be repetitive and uber-emphatic the yellow sap is dangerously toxic, laden with alkaloids, and AT LEAST damaging to the heart it seems.  So forget it.

For a weed taking over the world, MP sure is fussy about appearances in South Florida.  I can’t recall encountering it in a wild area.   The species likes agriculture.   The bristly capsule drops seeds all over the ground.   They lie dormant then in the seedbank until cows or plows rouse them to sprout, often in unison.  You know, fields of poppies.

Aregemone mexicana Pt Mayaka FEb

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Posted by on February 23, 2018 in Mexican Poppy, Uncategorized


Yellow-Eyed Grass  Has a Mysterious Friend

Xyris ambigua and related species



Today was the perfect day in South Florida, temperature pure paradise, fragrant breeze, puffy white clouds.   Just the kind of day sez John and me for the swamp.  So off we went to the Hungryland Slough with boardwalk in the Corbett Wildlife Management Area just west of North Palm Beach, FL.

It was hopping happening place.   The Tillandsia “airplants” were in their glory.

Tillandsia fasciculata Corbett Feb.

Cardinal-Airplant today

A resident barred owl looked down upon the intruders.


Slightly annoyed barred owl today.

The Pine-Hyacinth (Clematis baldwinii) displayed its Einstein-hair fruits.

Clematis baldwinii fruits

Clematis fruits today

And  yellow-eyed-grasses,  species of Xyris,  rose in varied life-stages in the wet soil.

Xyris ambigua 8

Xyris ambigua by John Bradford.

Spend time around Xyris,  and you may spot something weird:  little white “cigarettes” jutting out perpendicularly, woven basally with fine threads to the plant’s seed-heads.  Very mysterious, off-white, fluted, stiff, and protruding, not to mention the silky web defining that basal attachment.   Inside cowers a little chestnut brown larva.

Xyris ambigua cocoons

Xyris seed head with pupal cases from Coleoophora xyridella.

These are the pupal cases of a moth that existed undiscovered to science until 2005.  (And we think everything has been found.) How did entomologists and botanists overlook these little white cigarettes for hundreds of years?   I suppose because the Xyris moth is extremely similar to a different moth of the same genus that lives exclusively on rushes.  Now there’s an argument for entomologists to learn plants, and for botanists to learn insects!

Here is the 2005 description.  Look at page 10.   CLICK

This is another view of the moth.  FLUTTER HERE

Coleophora xyridella is not rare around our stomping grounds, and I’ll bet other local naturalists won’t have much trouble spotting its cigarettes.  As the moth’s describer J. F. Landry noted, the moth is not well studied.   Among the things not known are its preferences with respect to different Xyris species, if it eats the seeds, or for that matter any other details of the relationship.    For starters, I’d like to know if the moth uses the non-native introduced Xyris jupicai.  Interestingly, that is a South American species, and in 2005 Dr. Landry described also a South American species of Coleophora.  The plot thickens.


Posted by on February 16, 2018 in Uncategorized, Xyris moth


Red Lichen, Christmas Lichen, Christmas Wreath Lichen

Herpothallon rubrocincta (better known as Cryptothecia rubrocincta)

John and I drove to the fringe of the Everglades today, to the huge Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge near Boca Raton, where they are celebrating Everglades Day tomorrow (2/10/18). CLICK

Marshall 1

The theme of the upcoming event is “colors of the Everglades.”  Based on today, the feature color should be red:  as in a vermilion flycatcher showing off its vermilion, Virginia creeper and poison ivy bloody winter leaves,  well named cardinal airplant, northern needleleaf with its red inflorescence,  scarlet young  peppervine, and what seems to be an escaped epiphytic cactus glowing reddish in the cypress swamp.

The selected red item in today’s spotlight is the spectacular lichen sometimes called Christmas (Wreath) Lichen.   It makes me want a Dunkin Donuts strawberry frosted donut.

Red Lichen 2

Red lichen loves wet woods and swamps.  Photo by John Bradford.

Now it could be time for a windy monologue on what lichens are all about.  I don’t feel like doing that;  that is all over the Internet already.  So now suffice it to say that a lichen results from the symbiotic relationship of a fungus (or more than one, as probably in the present case) and an alga (or a blue-green “alga”). CLICK for Wikipedia

Red Lichen 1


Why would a humble lichen be so magnificent?   If a lichen is beautiful in the woods and nobody sees it, is it still lovely?   Botanists agree that the red is probably sunscreen, as is the red in the young growth of many ferns and seedplants, such as that peppervine mentioned above.  The red pigment from the lichen, chiodectonic acid, increases in concentration when the fungus experiences UV exposure.   You might say the lichen gets a sun-tan when exposed, as I might on a tropical vacation.


Peppervine, red when young

This species has a second oddity, shared with other lichens and with mammalian urine sometimes:  calcium oxalate crystals.    You can discuss how and why that happens with your urologist.  But why would a lichen make bladder crystals? It has no kidneys. CLICK to see canine bladderstones.

Calcium oxalate from Cryptothecia - Copy

From a bladder, or from a red lichen? You guess. (From red lichen.)

Nobody really knows  why or how the lichen gets its crystals, given its tree trunk lifestyle, having no roots in the ground.  The calcium apparently arrives in rain,  stemwash, and dust.   Could a lichen living on pixie dust accumulate so much excess calcium it needs to sequester the mineral as hunky crystals?   Possible but seems unlikely.   More fun ideas have been put forward:

With the help of these corrosive crystals, lichens are known to degrade limestone monuments.  It has been suggested that the crystals help lichens on rocks dissolve nutrients from their substrates, or in the case of a lichen on a treetrunk, help the fungus release nutrients from windblown minerals and from particles in stemwash.

A more mundane yet plausible explanation is to shield the delicate algae held below the crystal layer, especially from drying.  This notion has the support of the mutual positions of the crystals and algae.

Red lichens seem to be playground bullies.  I get the impression that they win upon glacial collisions with different species,  little seems to start growing on the red lichen surface,   and research suggests the lichen can suppress Tillandsia airplants.

Trentepohlia from Cryptothecia

Microscope view of the green alga partner,  in center,  liberated from the fungus (seen as fine strands).  A crystal or two photobombed the shot.





Posted by on February 9, 2018 in Christmas Lichen, Uncategorized


Primrose-Leaf Violet

Viola  primulifolia


John and I went today to a favorite site, Kiplinger Natural Area in Stuart, Florida, to see what’s shaking on Groundhog Day.   Shaking were many small, near-the-ground wildflowers, each with a subterranean quirk:


Bluethreads (Burmannia biflora) thrives on symbiotic fungi underground.

Burmannia biflora 4

Bluethreads today in Kiplinger.  Except for seed and fruit, today’s photos by John Bradford.


Innocence (Houstonia procumbens), like a peanut, forms its fruits underground.

Houstonia procumbens 7



Zigzag Bladderwort (Utricularia subulata) eats its prey underground.

Utricularia subulata 9

Utricularia gibba  Bladderwort


But today is about a species spread all over North America, but not seen much around here:   Primrose-Leaf Violet thinks Feb. 2 is springtime, flowering and fruiting in moist nooks and sunny crannies.  There’s little in the world prettier than a violet, and this one is a stunner if you don’t mind tiny,  having bleached-white flowers decorated with purple nectar guides.

Viola primulifolia 4

Viola primulifolia flower2

Actually, not all its flowers are lookers.  Like most violets, today’s  has “cleistogamous” (kleist-OG-ah-mus) flowers, that is, small, hidden, self-fertilizing, and never opening…yet making fruits and seeds.  In other words, a plan B in case the main flowers don’t achieve proper pollination, and a system for cloning the mother plant.

Viola primulifolia cleistogamous

Cleistogamous flower never opens but does make seeds.

Cloning may not sound important, but keep reading:.   Although unproven so far as I can find, many botanists regard the Primrose-Leaf Violet as an historical hybrid between two other species.    If that is correct, at the time of origin the new hybrid may have had a reproductive problem.  With whom does a lonely hybrid exchange pollen?  And worse, hybrid plants often have partial or full sterility.  You know, like a mule.  Cleistogamous flowers remove those problems to let it go forth and multiply immediately.  Then over time fertility conceivably improved.

Viola primulifolia capsule 2

Another violet oddity is ant dispersal.     Having hungry ants haul your seeds back to the pre-fertilized pre-tilled ant hill is handy, unless the ants eat the seeds.     But no worries.  Some violets have toxic seeds, which might protect them from ant bites.  But are the ants thus disincentivized?   No.  The seeds gift the insects with a separate food package called an elaiosome (ee-LIE-oh-some) affixed to the seed, attractive and acceptable to eat.   Some seeds do not germinate until the elaiosome is nipped.

The photo below is a seed from the fruit capsule,  apparently  immature*.   The elaiosome seems to be forming on the left end, although my interpretation is a little speculative.   Ask an ant.

Viola primulafolia seed

Immature (?) seed. I think the elaiosome is on the left.


*Technical note.   Wish I knew why the violets have odd not-fully developed seeds in ripe capsules.  Maybe leftover duds after fully developed seeds dispersed?    Or abortive unpollinated ovules?  Or, maybe the results of some level of hybrid sterility?

Posted by on February 2, 2018 in Primrose-Leaf Violet, Uncategorized

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