Tag Archives: Florida

Willow Warnings and Starbucks Bees

The last-standing Cabbage Palm suffers no angst if you chainsaw the rest of the forest.  Slash Pines take their slashing without complaint.   And a Willow takes no notice of a caterpillar munching its neighbor (or does it?).

There’s a vague yet strong movement in the air these days to attribute plants with some ill-defined intelligence, feelings, or mysterious abilities, depending on whose article you read, and what you read between the lines. Pesky authors often hover around the edges of science, monitor scientific journals, and then “reveal” the more dismaying discoveries out of context in an aura of exaggerated mysticism.  Modern-day wizards.  This sort of exploitation of science has always bugged me, and a new wave is going around.  A book published this year by Michael Marder claims botany to be experiencing a “Copernican Revolution” based on “plant thinking.”   A paradigm shift!  Isn’t it fun and attention-getting to be the priest of a paradigm shift!?

You know it’s hot stuff when the New Yorker magazine (Dec. 23 this week) has an article on “The Intelligent Plant.”   Academics are getting themselves into the news with reports of corn plants communicating via root clicks, and sensitive plants learning to recognize false-alarms.

Even as authors deny it, there’s an anthropomorphic smell to the excited books, articles, and blogs.  The implications of plant sentience are precisely what make it newsworthy and exciting, despite a few “aw shucks, I’m not really saying…” The anthropomorphism is a pity, because anyone who knows anything of the birds and the bees already appreciates the beautiful complexity and fine-tuning wrought by hundreds of millions of years of plant evolution.  Plants have excited observers without paradigm shifts for centuries.

Botany is not experiencing revolution.  I think molecular biology is becoming increasingly sophisticated, revealing at ever-finer resolution marvelous complexity and interconnectedness among “lower life forms.”  Call it the increasing refinement of science, not mystical and magical “intelligence.”

That plants “do things” in response to stimulation is no big news.  Think of flowers closing by night and opening by day, or of a Bladderwort in a Florida marsh “sensing” and slurping a tiny creature into the plant’s underwater suck-trap.  A subtle plant action I’ve always liked in the Bignoniaceae Family is that after pollination the two flaplike stigmas clasp together like hands in prayer, encasing the newly arrived pollen and protecting the stigmatic surfaces.  Eerily animal-like.

“Communication” among plants is big news these days.  But really not so new at all.  It has long been known that a function of aspirin (more precisely salicylic acid) is to act as an airborne “Paul Revere” hormone—“pestilence is coming!”  The chemical alarm signal allows the plant under attack to induce defensive mechanisms (which are complex in their own right) in other blissfully complacent neighbors.  A botanical call to arms.  The growing  list of airborne plant-to-plant warning signals will enrich the plant physiology textbooks.   The scent of newly cut grass is probably loaded with bad news.

Salicylic acid is named for the Willow genus, Salix,  here portrayed in bloom by John.

Salicylic acid is named for the Willow genus, Salix, here portrayed in bloom by John.

Folks who dig “plant intelligence” a little too much tend to see such plant communication as generous and aware.  But signaling is not some sort of conscious plant-generosity, but rather probably a reflection of the well-established evolutionary principle that if you help those related to you genetically you are promoting survival of your own genes.  And if you participate in a collective defensive mechanism, such as buffalo in a circle, that protects you too.  Chemical signaling within living organisms is standard, unthinking, and well known.   Any botany student can rattle off a list of plant hormones.  Chemical signaling from animal-to-animal or insect-to-insect is commonplace.  So finding chemical signaling from plant to plant  is a wonder of nature, yet not really that surprising, and unrelated to “intelligence” by any distorted definition.

Willow fruit opening (JB)

Willow fruit opening (JB)

Speaking of plant communication, you have seen the TV commercial where the tree falling in the forest does make a sound?  “A little help here.”  Funny-right?  Forester Suzanne Simard may not think it’s all so comical.    She studies mycorrhizae, the fungal threads that extend out of roots into the soil, helping the root secure phosphorus and other nutrients.  She sees mycorrhizae not as extensions of individual trees, but as the LinkedIn of the forest tree community.  Dr. Simard sees the fungal symbionts as a shared subterranean network interlinking the trees in an internet of communication and nutrient exchange, even passing nutrients from that tree “falling in the forest” to the younger trees in need of a boost.  A “mother” tree may help sustain its progeny via fungal connections, like a mother human depositing funds in her college student son’s bank account.  There’s probably a good bit “going on down there”  in the fungal-root realm. Sorting it out will be fun for researchers to come.  Hear it straight from the source: CLICK

A remarkable article in the prestigious journal Science this Spring made the news CLICK, echoing into the popular press.  The obvious role of plant-produced drugs is as natural pesticides.  But a non-obvious role for caffeine turned up…to give the pollinating bees a buzz, as one author put it.  In Citrus flowers, caffeine in the nectar helps a bee remember the flower, and thus return for another sip of nectar, or for a cup o’ joe.

Who will discover tobacco plants addicting bird-pollinators to nicotine?

Amyris is a locally native Citrus.  Any caffeine in that sweet nectar? (JB)

Amyris is a locally native Citrus. Any caffeine in that sweet nectar? (JB)


Posted by on December 22, 2013 in Uncategorized


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OMG! There’s Buttonweed Fouling My Beautiful Lawn! (And my beautiful garbage dump)

Virginia Buttonweed

Diodia virginiana


Today John and George visited the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority, a dump with benefits: a network of nature trails and ponds and fun times communing with wetland plants and a sunbathing gator.  CLICK for a cyber-visit to the landfill.

As a fan of this native wetland gem, I am dismayed that the suburban lawn-culture has turned Virginia Buttonweed into a reviled hate-weed.  Is the most interesting thing about a wildflower which carcinogen to spray on it?   Spray HERE to glimpse the horror!.

Or go read the garden blogs—you’d think VBW was the Crack of Lawn Doom.  So then to join the ranks of condescending blog-pundits holding forth on what to do if Buttonweed affliction keeps you awake at night: Enjoy it!  (Then turn down the sprinklers.)

VBW is native across much of the eastern U.S. and extends into South America, its spread conceivably aided by migrating waterfowl.  The plant can repopulate from busted fragments, and Canada Geese reportedly eat it. Perhaps they are travel agents, sharing the beauty from golf course to golf course.  Also, the little barrel-shaped fruits become corky and float away.  Today was a good monsoon day for that.  Did I mention that the species is semi-aquatic, probably adapted to wet disturbed shores where floating matters?

In recent times Virginia Buttonweed has turned into a weedy turf pest in the Southeastern U.S., and far beyond, including Asia.  Why has this cute little puppy become a bad dog?  Well, it’s adapted to intermittently wet disturbed sunny places with impaired drainage.  In other words, stream banks, marshy fields, and suburban lawns on compacted soil soused with automatic sprinklers.

Diodia virginiana yesterday (JB)

Diodia virginiana yesterday (JB)

Among the plant’s odd adaptations are two features sometimes found in other members of the Coffee Family.  First, the tissues contain tiny acid needles probably there to minimize grazing. (Even if the needles do not bother a Goose, they might discourage insects.)  Secondly, around the stem at each node there is a saclike membrane (a specialized stipule).  The membrane is a translucent ziplock bag that holds water around the developing young flowers, around the young fruits, and possibly around tender points of root origin.  The plant can (as I speculate!) collect and retain moisture around its key parts during dry moments in its amphibious life cycle.  No wonder it likes those lawn sprinklers.  CLICK this link to see the membrane in Diodia (teres) as the white cup with fingers on the rim, surrounding the base of the flower.  Having a similar adaptation and even more prevalent in Florida turf is Mexican-Clover (Richardia grandiflora).

This little wildflower is one tough customer.  It can regrow from it own fragments.  The stem sprouts roots where it contacts the ground.  There is a report of deeply buried seeds sprouting, this being perhaps an adaptation to being covered in silt?  And most intriguingly, the species reputedly forms underground flowers, a feat (if accurate) it shares with its fellow-member of the Coffee Family, Innocence (Houstonia procumbens) and with other unrelated local species, such as Blue Maidencane Grass.  In the old sketch below, it looks like the bottom-most fruits might have been in the mud.

Sketch from the Internet.  Selected to show the lowdown flowers (fruits).

Sketch from the Internet. Selected to show the lowdown flowers (fruits).

You may ask yourself, “what has this creepy plant got to do with coffee?”  Glad you asked:  it is fun to find out the family relationships of familiar plants, because then family resemblance shine through.  Look how similar the Virginia Buttonweed blossom is to the Coffee flower.  The Buttonweed fruit even looks like a little coffee bean.

All in the family:  Buttonweed flowers looks similar to related coffee flower.

All in the family: Buttonweed flowers looks similar to related coffee flower.

Coffee flower (from Top Tropicals plant nursery)

Coffee flower (from Top Tropicals plant nursery)


Posted by on November 9, 2013 in Virginia Buttonwood


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DYCs are the Bees Knees

Narrowleaf Sunflower

Helianthus angustifolia


Last Friday John and George trekked the Trail to the River (CLICK), also known as the Halpatioke Nature Trail,  a biodiverse satellite of Savannas State Park, in Port St. Lucie.

One of the many handsome marvels on the way to the river is Partridgeberry (Mitchella  repens), which I’m sorry, I can only regard as a wildflower from childhood Canadian canoe trips, not a South Florida trail flower.   It just doesn’t fit my world view here!

Partridgeberry (Twinflower, by JB)

Partridgeberry (Twinflower, by JB)

Also along the path are several members of a plant clique referred to by botanists as “DYCs.”  DYC stands for, “darned yellow Composites,” and apt term for anyone who has tried to sort out yellow-flowered members of the Aster Family.  Now please remember the “flowers” in the Aster Family are not real flowers, but rather are clusters of hundreds of tiny flowers all massed into one big false blossom.  A Sunflower is a whole lot of flowers.  (Details on this are in our archives CLICK)

Bidens mitis a DYC (JB)

Bidens mitis a DYC (JB)


Balduina angustifolia, another one (JB)

Balduina angustifolia, another one (JB)

The King of the DYCs Friday was Narrow-Leaf Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius),  with the lesser Smallfruit Beggarticks (Bidens mitis) as its loyal vassal.

If everything that could be known about Sunflowers were suddenly revealed it might boggle our brains.  They are a group with a lot goin’ on.  Technically, Sunflowers are the genus Helianthus, of which there exist roughly 50 species, all native to North America including Mexico.  About 18 species grow “wild” in Florida, natively or escaped.  From a taxonomic standpoint, they are messy messy messy, with hybrids, ancient and new cultivars, chromosomal variants,  intermediates,  unclear species borders, and divergent classification interpretations.

Narrowleaf SF (the King of the DYCs, by JB)

Narrowleaf SF (the King of the DYCs, by JB)

The big familiar common sunflower is Helianthus annuus, distributed “naturally” from Mexico to Nunavut.   Ancient peoples no doubt helped its transcontinental spread and diversification.  How many native American plant species have achieved agricultural prominence?  Native American humans used it for almost every use conceivable.  Arguably the most interesting ancient uses were culinary, for “seeds,” ground flour, and oil.   There were probably large-seeded (achenes)  cultivars in pre-settlement “horticulture.”

We like sunflower oil today, but a funny thing happened along the way.  After an early history of cultivation in North America partly for livestock forage and chickenfeed, Sunflowers fell of out of agricultural favor but caught on in Russia as an oil crop.  Oil-bearing strains returned to the U.S. from Russia with love in the 70s, and may help our grandchildren’s energy deficit someday.

Another sunflower with ancient “roots” is the so-called Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) distributed across much of North  America, including some of Florida.  What does it have to do with Jerusalem or artichokes? Its tuber is a food source and a source of combustible alcohols.

Little Beach Sunflower (by JB)

Beach Sunflower (by JB)

A garden favorite in Florida and far beyond is the Beach Sunflower, Helianthus debilis,  easy to grow and as pretty as a day at the beach.   Amazingly, this highly diverse foot-tall species can hybridize with the big common sunflower.  (See what I mean about messy species boundaries?)

But what about our Sunflower along the trail to the river?  Narrowleaf Sunflower (Swamp Sunflower, H. angustifolius) is a wildflower and a garden selection CLICK.   The flower extends northward and westward from Texas to New York from a southeastern limit probably near the trail to the river.

Narrowleaf SF is a chemical factory.  Aster Family members in general produce an array of smelly and bioactive compounds, so any given species can be a chemist’s goldmine.  Narrowleaf Sunflower has attracted recent attention most importantly for cytotoxic (cell-killing) agents with lethal effect against cultured human cancer cells.  CLICK   This general sort of screening and discovery is not rare, but in an already much-cultivated prolific plant it’s even better.  That would be a parallel history to the life-saving Oncovin chemotherapy from the Madagascar Periwinkle.

Even if Narrowleaf Sunflower turns out not to counter cancer, or even if it does, it feeds bees in spades.  UF Entomology Professor Jaret Daniels describes native bees filling the pollination gaps left by non-native honeybees diminishing from Colony Collapse Disorder, and he points out native wildflowers drawing on average 19 times as many bees as non-native blossoms.  Even better, he lists nine super-charged bee-feeding wildflowers.  Five of the nine are DYC’s, including Narrowleaf Sunflower.


Posted by on November 5, 2013 in Sunflower


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Trojan Horse Herbicides

Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) (CLICK for nice Gigapan Red Mangrove by John Bradford added subsequent to posting this blog)

Black Mangrove (Avicennia germinans)

White Mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa)

Toxic “Algae” (Microcystis aeruginosa)

John and George today worked on our tans portaging camera gear around the Kiplinger Natural Area on the St. Lucie River by Stuart.  John seized the day to capture Gigapan photos of the river shore.

Gigapan photos allow viewers to pan around and to zoom in on details.  Try it after CLICKING HERE to cyber-visit the river.

We had Mangroves on our mind, and they did not look healthy.  The shore is lined with a species jumble, including Brazilian Peppers, and many mangroves (especially red mangroves) are dead or visibly unhealthy.    (As pointed out in the commentary below,  the dead trees in the gigapan seem to be entirely or mostly Brazilian Pepper, although in the vicinity there are miserable mangroves too.  The mangroves at this site look decidedly less healthy than those directly on the Intracoastal where I spend a lot of time.  I have re-edited this post post-publication to reflect the fact that most of the dead trees are not mangroves.  The main point is the water contamination, so read on.)

Now you might say, justifiably, that 10 boat-miles upstream from the St. Lucie Inlet might be marginal mangrove habitat to begin with.  (What killed the Brazilian Peppers is interesting too.)  A possible reason mangroves to be so far upstream is increased salinity due to reduced freshwater flow from upstream thanks to some mix of water-control activities, dams and spillways,  diversion, droughty times, and altered land use patterns. (Or maybe not.)  Maybe that pulls the mangrove yo-yo upstream.

Now, if increased salinity crept up the St. Lucie River over some years, or even if it didn’t, the massive summer releases from Lake Okeechobee push the other way.  The lakewater this summer reduced salinity to almost zero even near the Inlet.  The usually brackish lower river was freshwater.

And that would be freshwater overloaded with nutrients, with nutrient-fed “Algae” (mostly Cyanobacteria), toxins from those Cyanobacteria, sediments, and whatever else enters the Lake and the River from agriculture and suburbia.

Yesterday the river water was dark, opaque, stinky, and lifeless.   A boat went by and you could smell its wake splashing on the marly shore where we saw no Fiddler Crabs, despite John photographing their abundance at exactly the same site not long ago in this very blog.  CLICK to see missing crabs.

I wonder if the missing crabs used to benefit the mangroves by churning and  aerating that watery soil?

(Come to think of it, there weren’t even any mosquitoes.)

Most local readers probably know about the Lake Okeechobee flush disaster this summer and other years.     No need to re-beat that dead horse in general terms.  But specifically, what about the dominant riverbank woody vegetation—those red, black, and white mangroves?

Known or suspected causes of mangrove decline, in addition to storms and freezes, include salinity changes,  excess sediments, excess nutrients, and herbicide contamination.  These all arrive in water from Lake O, on top of everyday watershed abuses.

The last culprit in the list is subtle.  Herbicides?  Studies of mangrove dieback in Australia pinpointed herbicide river contamination as a mangrove-killer, especially the herbicide Diuron, which has an extra- special vengeance for the genus Avicennia (Black Mangroves).

Diuron is toxic false-fertilizer.  It kills mangroves, and yep, we have it in local waters.

Diuron is toxic false-fertilizer. It kills mangroves, and yep, we have it in local waters.

So then, what about Diuron in the St. Lucie River?  Yes, in the notes below is a link to a dated but still-relevant USGS study of pesticides in the St. Lucie River.  The top five pesticides detected were all herbicides, including Diuron, as well as our traditional favorite lawn-weedkiller Atrazine and others.  Diuron is a Sneaky Pete herbicide.  Plants take up natural urea (or the ammonia soil microbes degrade it into).  Diuron is a urea mimic, water soluble, a Trojan Horse false-fertilizer similar to urea but with chlorinated timebombs built into the molecule.

The concentrations were “low,” but how low is low enough, especially in light of the gang-attack of several different herbicides, the probability that concentrations are higher in sediments than in the tested water,  that there is more development now than in the 90′s, and especially that those pulses of agricultural/suburban-lawn  contaminated lake water may have higher pesticide loads than “nice” water on a good day.

Can I say that Diuron killed the mangroves?  No.  Can I say that the Lake O water did it?  No.  But there’s something rotten in the State of Denmark.  Salinity volatility, crud,  N and P in gobs,  natural bacterial toxins,  and the fruits of modern chemistry all attacking a trio of mangrove species, each with specialized and delicate physiology with respect to salt, nutrients,  water transport and the soil ecosystem.

Some time ago in this blog we discussed the reproduction of Black Mangroves.  They drop their bare embryos directly from the fruit into the water.  CLICK

Yep, right into the Diuron-laced stinkwater sloshing around their snorkel roots jutting up to sustain life through the toxic sediment mud where the crabs ain’t no more.



USGS report on pesticides in St. Lucie River

Used the same item for both my blogs this week.  Don’t tell anyone.


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Evolutionary Flip-Floppers

Kyllinga odorata (Cyperaceae)

Ludwigia species (Onagraceae)

Today John and George sweated through Halpatioke Park in Stuart, Florida.  With resort-quality lakes deep in the forest, Halpatioke is always a beautiful source of botanical surprises from “northern” species near their southern limit, such as Partrideberry (Mitchella repens) to “tropical” species near their northern border, such as Lax Panicum (Steinchisma laxum).  But what made an impression today were the weird flowers—the ones not playing by the usual rules.

Fragrant Kyllinga, white and fragrant.

Fragrant Kyllinga, white and fragrant. (by JB)

First, in the lawn there was the native Fragrant Kyllinga (Kyllinga odorata).   We all know the vast majority of grasses and sedges to be wind-pollinated, no showy flowers and no floral fragrance.  Florida wildflower enthusiasts know an exception to this to be the species of Rhynchspora called Painted Sedges, with white bracts at the top simulating petals.  (Some may have learned these under the name Dichromena, two-toned.)  We are not talking about those today.

Fragrant Kyllinga is an inconspicuous little sedge, often a turf weed, providing a less familiar case of an insect-pollinated sedge.  In most Kyllingas the flower cluster is green, odorless and typically sedgelike.  But in Fragrant Kyllinga the thimble-shaped flower cluster is nearly white and sweetly fragrant.  Evolution works in weird ways.  Wind-pollinated plants are generally regarded as having abandoned creature-mediated pollination.   Exceptional fragrant or colorful plants in a wind-pollinated family thus seem to have “reinvented” insect pollination.  With petals gone, the white color must be on modified leaves under the flowers in the Painted Sedges and Fragrant Kyllinga.

Ludwigia maritima (JB), a yellow-petal species.

Ludwigia maritima (JB), a yellow-petal species.

Not long after sniffing the Kyllinga  we came upon a lake shore patch of what we took to be Small-Fruited Ludwigia,  Ludwigia microcarpa, another head-scratcher.  Most of us probably tend to think of Ludwigias as having conspicuous yellow blossoms, such as the showy Peruvian Primrose-Willow rising bright yellow from roadside ditches.  Yet a number of Ludwigia species have done away with petals or nearly so. (What look like petalsin hte photos below are sepals.)   Examples of petal-less Ludwigias (by JB) are illustrated below:

ludwigia lanceolata Ludwigia microcarpa Ludwigia suffruticosa JB

These obviously differ dramatically from the yellow-petal Ludwigias. Maintaining any unnecessary structure is a biological liability and waste of energy, sort of like maintaining an unused residential swimming pool, but petals not needed?

Are those petal-less species self-pollinated, or able to make seeds without pollination?   Those abilities are not rare in the plant world, but I doubt that explains the absence of petals.  The flowers without petals have otherwise well-formed open flowers, the sepals have a slightly petal-like appearance, even becoming creamy or tinted rather than the usual sepal-green.   The flower centers can be colorful as well.

Now we go to pure speculation.  Here is a guess.   Maybe the genus has divided its pollination between bees drawn to the big bright petals on some species, and other insect visitors not particularly drawn to big yellow petals.   Losing petals genetically is probably a minor change, basically “instant evolution.”  What’s striking is that the petal-less species are not all most closely related to each other.   Some have species with petals as their closest relatives, implying that that petals were lost more than once as separate events.    There must indeed be something “good” about petal loss.

If I can beg your credibility a little, the petal-free Ludwigia flowers are not terribly different from flowers of roughly similar sizes and colorations encountered in many other plant types in similar marshy or shoreline habitats, for instance,  Swamp Hornpod (Mitreola sessilifolia),  Herb-of-Grace (Bacopa monnieri), Buttonweeds (Diodia species),  Bartonia (Bartonia verna),  Bedstraws (Galium species), Water Pimpernels (Samolus species), and others.

Below are several species not related to Ludwigia.  The petal-less Ludwigias are more similar to these than they are to their yellow-flowers relatives.  They are all roughly in the same size range.

Bartonia verna (JB)

Bartonia verna (JB)

Bedstraw (Galium, by JB)

Bedstraw (Galium, by JB)

Hornpods (by JB)

Hornpods (by JB)

Diodia (by JB)

Diodia (by JB)


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The Disappearing Native Bird

“The Florida Scrub-jay is one of North America’s most endangered birds” – that’s the opening line of the Jay Watch Volunteer Training Manual.  Every year in the middle of June volunteers monitor jay populations at more than 40 conservation sites from northern Volucia County to Palm Beach County in the southeast and Sarasota County in the southwest.  In the year 1992 there were 11,000 individual Jays counted and by 2011 only 6,500 were found.  What is most disturbing is that there was a 26% decline on protected lands.

Greg Brown, Ranger at the Savannas Preserve State Park, calling the Jays.

Greg Brown, Ranger at the Savannas Preserve State Park, calling the Jays.

At a yearly Jay Watch meeting volunteers are taught monitoring procedures and are encouraged to become familiar with particular sites.  Since Scrub-jays are territorial, each monitoring site is visited 3 times over a one month period, at varied times of the morning.  This schedule increases the likelihood that all birds will be counted.  A CD of Jay scolding calls is played in 4 directions at least 3 times in hopes of bringing the Jays close enough to identify individual birds.

Chris  Vandello, Biologist at the Savannas Preserve State Park, identifying the Jays.

Chris Vandello, Biologist at the Savannas Preserve State Park, identifying the Jays.

By July, fledglings will still have their brown heads and previously banded adult birds will have rings of color on their legs.  The different colors allow volunteers to ID specific birds and follow them if they move to other territories.  Many Jays stay in their home territory for several years and help raise the next year’s babies as well as protect the borders from Jays trying to move in.  Unbanded adult birds are also noted and will eventually receive special training to ready them for the bander.

When volunteers play the scolding call, the Jays come quickly, ready to defend the borders from interlopers.  Volunteers document flight directions as well as colored leg bands.  These bands fade or are lost over time and become difficult to read correctly.  Several people working together can help to verify the colors.

Each banded bird carries 2 colored bands on their right leg as well as a uniquely numbered aluminum US Fish and Wildlife band on the left.  A colored band is also placed on the left leg for a total of 4 bands.

Adult Scrub-jay with purple over red and red over silver bands.

Adult Scrub-jay with purple over red and a silver band. One band is missing.

All Scrub-jays do not live in state parks.  There are many hanging on in small scrub areas where development has encroached on their territory.  You can help by:

  • Reporting any Jays found outside of a park. Call the park or preserve closest to you.  It is also helpful to report any bands on their legs.
  • By securing your cats on your own property.  Many fledglings are killed by cats allowed to roam.
  • Educating your friends and family about the plight of Florida’s Disappearing Native Bird.  Maybe, just maybe we can stabilize the numbers that remain.

Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Florida Scrub-Jay, Scrub-jay


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Mushroom Identification 101

While walking through Hawk’s Bluff, which is part of the Savannas State Preserve, I noticed a white mushroom. Normally, I’m looking for plants to photograph or grasses to identify, but the white mushroom set against the pine needles presented a nice photo op.

When I got home and downloaded the picture, I started wondering about the name of the mushroom. Now I knew that mushrooms, like all other flora and fauna would be divided into Families, then Genera, then Species. But since I’ve never really spent any time trying to ID a mushroom, I didn’t even know where to start. I began by searching Google for images of white mushrooms of Florida. After spending some time and not finding a match, I came on a site entitled “WELCOME TO FLORIDA FUNGI”. And what was better, it had a section entitled “Ask Bill!” Bill said, “Send in your photos and I will help you ID them.”

Never one to turn down a offer of free help, I wasted no time in attaching my photo to a email and sending it off, hoping to get some info in a few days. Imagine my surprise when a few hours later I got an email from Bill giving me the Genus of the mushroom. Bill was positive that it was a Leucocoprinus but it had the possibility of being one of a couple of species. As I later learned, Leucocoprinus is a genus of fungi in the family Agaricaceae whose best known member is the yellow pot-plant mushroom (Leucocoprinus birnbaumii). The genus has a widespread distribution and contains about 40 species.

The ID of Leucocoprinus was just fine for a title for my picture and I was happy. But, apparently Bill wasn’t and he sent the picture off to his contacts for their opinion. As Bill forwarded me their comments and opinions, I began to realize that the positive ID of some mushroom species is not something that one learns overnight.

While I think that I’ll stay in my comfort zone of plant and grass ID, it is interesting to learn something about the world of fungi. And it’s also nice to know that there are people like Bill out there that are willing to take the time and lend their expertise to helping someone asking for help. Here is a link to Bill’s site for anyone wanting to know more about the fungi of Florida:

Thanks Bill.

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Posted by on September 29, 2011 in Mushroom


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Devil’s Claw Will Gitcha!

Devil’s Claw

Pisonia aculeata


Here’s a trivia question for flower-buffs: What do Devil’s Claw Vines in the forest, Bougainvilleas at the hotel, Four O’Clocks in the garden,  Blollies on the dunes,  Beach-Peanuts on the sand, and Red Spiderlings in the rough have in common?

You guessed it—they are all members of the Nyctaginaceae family.  And that gem underscores the importance of learning plants by families, not just one at a time.  If you know some of these species, do you see the family resemblance?   The Devils Claw leaves and branching pattern look like Bougainvillea.  A lot of Nyctaginaceae have colorful bright reddish-purplish pigments—Bougainvillea, Four O’Clock,  Beach-Peanut,  Red Spiderling,  even the Blolly fruit.    The colorful “flowers” have no petals.   The colorful parts are bracts, that is, modified leaves associated with the flowers.    There are also sepals, and the fused sepals can make a tube, this often tightly enclosing the one-seeded fruit.

In today’s plant as the sepals enclosing the fruit have odd rows of protruding glands to help the fruit cling to passing animals.  They are are gummy-sticky.

Recurved claws

The name Devil’s Claw  comes from scary back-curved spines.   We know the pain from recent ankle-bleeding experience.    But why have curved spines for self-defense when straight bayonets are more to the point?     Perhaps reverse-curvation helps the vine cling to its host trees.  Hurricane country,  after all.  Under ideal conditions, Devil’s Claw can graduate from its lowly clinging vine status to full-blown treehood.

The plants are either male or female, that is, they are dioecious, and the male and female flowers differ.   The male flowers are bowl-shaped and yellowish;   the females  are narrower,  more constricted, with a comical brushy stigma resembling the tuft on Jeff Dunham’s friend Peanut.  (Huh?  Just Google Image it.)

Male flowers

Devil’s Claw occurs throughout much of the American Tropics, including South Florida, and now extends around most of the warm-climate world,  no doubt due to artificial introductions.  (This post is a collaborative effort by John Bradford and George Rogers on the east shore of Lake Okeechobee.  JB took today’s pictures.)

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Posted by on August 4, 2011 in Devil's Claw


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Santa Maria Feverfew Packs a Punch

Santa Maria Feverfew

Parthenium hysterophorus

Asteraceae or Compositae

Parthenium (Today's photos by JB)

Continuing our exploration of the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee today, John and George wallowed in invasive exotics, eating guavas, tripping over Syngonium vines, and admiring the tallest Johnson Grass we’ve ever seen.  (Billy is in North Carolina.)  Part of the fun was spotting one isolated little Coontie, which is native.  Has it been there a millennium? Did Native Americans bring it?  Did a seed float across Lake Okeechobee in a storm?  Does it date from someone dumping garden refuse?  Why is a Cycad the opening act for a post on Parthenium anyhow?  Well, they are both bioactive and toxic.

Let’s get on-topic.  An intriguing non-native plant loitering around the agricultural field borders is Santa Maria Feverfew (Parthenium hysterophorus), probably native from Mexico to South America.  It is now a worldwide weed, which tends to obscure the precise point of origin.

A clue to the strange brew within, the foliage has a distinctive odor when you crush it, which is a bad idea, as the itchy-scratchy sap can raise a few blisters.  Despite the hazard, it is fun to sniff weedy members of the Composite Family, because they tend to contain sesquiterpenoid lactones.

Huh?  Back up a second here.  Terpenoids (TURP-ah-noids) are usually pleasantly fragrant botanical essences, such as pine, lemon,  citronella,  and menthol.  They are based on 10-carbon “terpene” chains.  Just as a sesquicentennial is  150 years, a sesquiterpenoid (SES-kwa-turp-ah-noid) is a terpenoid-and-a-half, that is 15 carbons, and the term “lactone” (LACK-tone) refers to specific molecular configuration beyond the scope of our little e-chat. All right now,  don’t get hung up on the chemistry—the point here is what the chemicals do.   Sesquiterpenoid lactones tend to have a characteristic bitter or medicinal odor, not necessarily unpleasant, and, although found in multiple plant families, they are the flagship anti-herbivory arsenal of Composites, including Feverfew.  Parthenium contains a medicine cabinet of sesquiterpene lactones as well as other toxins.  The best-known lactone in today’s species is named for it, parthenin.

Pretty little snow white flower heads on Parthenium. It looks better than it smells.

Sesquiterpenoid lactones are a veterinarian’s (and butcher’s) nightmare.  Especially hard on sheep and goats, they’re not so great for cattle and horses either.  The compounds attack vegetarians in varied nasty ways—they are neurotoxic, and able to bind to animal tissues interfering with varied functions, and prone to cause digestive lesions.  They cause “spewing sickness,” where the animal can drown in its own vomit.  These toxins spoil the meat of livestock who eat them.

And here is an odd effect with possible benefits in human medicine: antimicrobial activity.  What would a plant do with antibiotic capability?  Apparently the sesquiterpenoids interfere with the microbe symbionts in the animal rumen, adding even more injury to the error of eating the wrong weed.

The compounds have insecticidal characteristics too, harnessed in some regions where Parthenium helps with flea control.

A fine line separates scary poison and useful medicine.  Species of Parthenium have served historically against diarrhea, bacterial infections, malaria (some partheniums are called “wild quinine”), female troubles, pain, and fevers.   But watch out, Parthenium derivatives reportedly damage human chromosomes.

If you are a plant, who do you want to suppress in addition to hungry grasshoppers and goats?  Answer: competition from other weeds.  One study showed parthenin, mentioned above, to thwart germination, to diminish the chlorophyll content, and to sabotage enzymes in a species of Ageratum.  Maybe it has commercial value as a natural herbicide, but we don’t really want to handle it!

The botanical name is just plain odd.  The name Parthenium is of debatable origins that we’ll ignore.  The weirder part, hysterophorus means womb-bearing.  What was Linnaeus thinking?  Not clear, but the flower heads do look like the ends of the fallopian tubes.

Many members of the Composite Family contain latex.  A related species, Parthenium argentatum, is the source of the rubber substitute guayule.

What a plant: it’ll cure your cooties, mutate your offspring, make the goat barf, give a horse a crummy in his tummy, sour the lamb vindaloo, irritate your skin, and self-weed the garden.  Yet it looks so white-flowery innocent by the side of the canal.  (This post is a team effort by John Bradford and George Rogers.)

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Posted by on July 30, 2011 in Santa Maria Feverfew


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Hog Plum

Hog Plum, Tallowwood
Ximenia americana

How many Florida native species are worldwide?  Few, and Hog-Plum is one, occurring in sandy windblown places, often more or less near the sea, from Florida to Australia.  The fruits float, apparently over long times and over long distances, and birds probably help get them around.  The name “Hog Plum” is confusing because a plant better known under that name is Spondias mombin, which has a similar orange drupe.  In parts of its range Ximenia americana is important in the kitchen and in the pharmacy.  For instance, in Cameroon it is cultivated for raw fruits, for fermented drinks, and for its combustible oil.  The seeds contain cyanide, limiting the culinary value of the oil, which nonetheless seems to have cooking applications, as well as uses in personal grooming.  Reported medicinal uses for products from this thorny shrubby species are numerous, including treatment of scars, worms, leprosy, and sexual problems, hopefully not simultaneously.  Ximenia caffra is a related African species likewise grown for its edible fruits and for the abundant oil in its seeds.

Hogplum fruits

A second oddity of Hog Plum is that, like several other scrub species, it is a partial parasite, ripping off the roots of neighboring plants.  Additional scrubbish species of similar inclinations in our area include Black-Senna (Seymeria pectinata), Love Vine (Cassytha filiformis), and Graytwig (Schoepfia schreberi aka S. chrysophylloides).  Parasitism is an apparent adaptation to life in nutrient-poor sands.

Hogplum flowers in July

The flowers are oddly bearded on the inner surface, probably to exclude unwelcome nectar thieves while allowing “proper” bee pollinators, and/or the hairs may be tactile nectar guides to visiting bees.  Honeybees are reported to be effective pollinators, although some very limited fruit-set occurs even with pollinator exclusion. [This post is a collaborative effort by John Bradford, Billy Cunningham, and George Rogers]


Posted by on July 20, 2011 in Hog Plum


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