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Posts Tagged ‘Dog Fennel’

I had almost given up. I wasn’t worried that spring would never come, but that something had happened to the whippoorwills. Had they forsaken this troubled planet?

They’re not really whippoorwills, and they don’t even make the whip-poor-will sound, but that’s what we call them here in rural Florida. If I told a neighbor I heard a Chuck-wills-widow call last night, I’d get a blank stare that would last into next week. If I say I heard a whippoorwill, I’d have full understanding.

You can’t describe their call as a song. It sounds almost like they’re spitting out, “Chuck! Will’s widow,” or something like that. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak.” You can find a recording here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/id. On summer nights, I can hear several in the woods around me, calling ceaselessly through the night, the same call over and over. Sometimes one comes close to the house, but if I go outside to try to locate it—immediate silence.

Chuck-wills-widow. (Photo courtesy of Dick Daniels)

I’ve never seen one clearly enough to recognize it. They are active mostly at night and are so well camouflaged they blend in with dead leaves and tree bark during the day. Sometimes, driving down the road at night, a bird will suddenly shoot up from the roadway and fly off. That’s a Chuck-wills-widow that has been picking up grit from the road. I suppose they sometimes get hit by cars. I read that their numbers are declining—the usual story— pesticides and loss of habitat. They must be too shy to stick around when their forests are taken over by housing developments. They don’t build nests, but lay eggs on the ground, which puts them at risk despite their camouflage. They’re vulnerable to pesticides because their diet is mostly insects, although they’ve been known to eat small birds and even bats.

I hear them only from March through July. They winter in the Caribbean and Central America, but I don’t know what they do in late summer and fall.

I wasn’t too surprised they were late this spring. We had another weird winter. Winters in Florida are typically weird, but these last two were worse. Not hard winters, but warm for the most part, and late. My dog fennel, loyal predictor of the first frost, has been dead wrong two years in a row. No frost in November, as predicted. Not until after Christmas.

Last spring I still had nearly a full cord of firewood left over. I usually stock up before my firewood man goes away for hunting season, but I didn’t run low until after the first frost. When I called him, he delivered right away and said I was lucky to catch him before he took one last trip to his hunt camp. After the second frost, it appeared my supply would last me again into the next fall.

Our tomato plants

A few weeks before Spring Break, I had the school kids start tomato plants and told them that after the break we should be past the threat of frost and could set the plants out in their gardens. Boy was I wrong! After the children returned to school, we were hit with the coldest spell of the winter. I woke to a half inch of ice in the bird bath.

(I can hear you northerners saying, “Now really, just get over it!” I know. You’re digging out from under three feet of snow. Spend a few winters here and see how soft you get!)

So, we held back on planting our spring gardens. Everyone I talked to said they hadn’t heard a whippoorwill yet, either. The next part of the conversation goes something like, “My mama/granny/grandpa always said we can have frost up ‘til Easter.” This year, Easter comes in the middle of April! Can Spring really be so late? The whippoorwills have never been this late. What’s wrong?

On mild nights, I slept with a window open, hoping to hear one call. If the night was too cool, I’d step out on the porch every few hours to listen. March melted away, but no whippoorwill.

Finally, on March 30th, I heard the call! Far away, faint, and short lived, one called. My world was set right again. I heard the promise of Spring, and it was music to my ears.

 

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Spring caught me by surprise again. It does this every year. Winter in Florida is predictably unpredictable. It can be 80 degrees in the morning and plunge into the 20’s by midnight. Although the blooming of the Dog Fennel last fall predicted frost before Thanksgiving (and Dog Fennel’s predictions are more accurate than the almanac), Jack didn’t show his hoary head until January. Fruit trees that know no better began to bloom and set fruit. Then Winter skated in. Not a hard winter, as winters go, but enough frosts and freezes to nip those sassy buds and precocious peaches. Plants that know better, Yellow Jasmine and Wild Azaleas, knew to wait.

A thousand miles to the north, Punxsutawney Phil, that famous groundhog, predicted an early spring. I had my hopes, but didn’t bank on it. My misgivings were correct. I won’t be surprised if they fire that groundhog and replace him with another who can predict more accurately. But maybe it’s not his fault. Remember, my Dog Fennel was wrong, too.

Fortunately, we didn’t suffer the backlash of winter that hit our northern neighbors. No blizzards, but we did get a little snow, a few flurries that only the more adventurous caught before they melted to nothing. I missed the snowfall because it’s warmer in the woods where I live. If a few flakes drifted as far as the tree canopy, they never hit the ground.

Plants that hadn’t been fooled by our fickle weather stayed huddled in winter dormancy. When I gave my talk on Wild Eating to a neighboring garden club, the only thing I could find to eat was a pine tree. The usual weeds prudently remained in hibernation. At least we were able to enjoy a delicious pine needle tea.

Among leafless gray trunks of the woods and swamps, the Red Maples ignored warm days, cold nights, and the predictions of other species and blazed deep scarlet at their usual time. They’ve lived in Florida long enough not to be influenced by the uncertainties of what we call winter. You see, in Florida, seasons are backwards. Here, maple trees turn colorful in spring, not so much in fall. Soon their little helicopter seeds rained down into yard and flower pot alike and I have little maple trees coming up everywhere.

Then came March. Warm days of sunshine and short sleeved shirts, pollen from oaks and pines coating everything yellow, sending sensitive people to the doctor. I entered my best houseplants in the county fair. When I brought them home afterward, they begged to be left outdoors. They love the heat and humidity of summer. It reminds them of their jungle origins. In summer, they thrive on fresh rainwater and ask for no fertilizer. But they complain about the cool dry air of the winter house and need much coaxing to keep up appearances until fair time. It was the Ides of March. Was winter over? Against my better judgement, I left my tropical babies outside. Guess what—another cold front, nights in the 30’s. I brought the most vulnerable into the house and left the more hardy out. They weren’t happy, but they survived.

When I heard the first Whippoorwill, I knew spring had finally arrived. These aren’t really whippoorwills but that’s what we call them. They are actually Chuck-wills-widow, a cousin of the whippoorwill. Their song is not musical (Marjorie Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak”) but it’s unique and most welcome in March.

I love the light the sun sends in late winter—bright, unencumbered by foliage and haze, intense, almost silvery. It surrounds everything, leaving no shadows. Maybe that’s the cue. Buds began to plump. My Wild Azaleas bloomed, filling the woods with their sweet bouquet.

Then literally overnight, everything burst with color. A few trees tentatively put out green leaves. When no harm came to the early bloomers, other trees followed suit. Wildflowers have began to blossom. Yellow Primrose now decorates the dirt road from evening till noon. Phlox carpets the sunny roadsides and Lyre Leaf sage has turned the shady areas blue.  Before I knew what happened, my sunny yard transformed into a shady forest. Birds of more species than I can describe wake me with their morning songs.

I don’t know why Spring surprises me with its arrival. It happens this way every year. One day the oaks are bare, the next they are attired in spring green. Soon, the green will darken, the shade in my yard deepen, and heat and humidity will come home to stay. My tropical house plants will flourish, as will mosquitoes, and my human neighbors will wilt and hibernate in their air conditioning.

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Like some people, some plants don’t get the respect they deserve. One of these is Dog Fennel. The name suggests an inferior type of fennel, but it’s not at all related to fennel, which is a culinary herb imported from the Mediterranean. Dog Fennel is a native plant that grows mostly in the southeastern United States. You should not eat Dog Fennel because it contains a toxic chemical called pyrrolizidine. This won’t kill you right away but it can cause liver damage, and you don’t want that.

Dogfennel2

The plant I’m talking is Eupatorium capillifolium. The Latin name is important because there are three other plants called dog fennel that also are not related. If you google either name you will find scads of information on how to eradicate this plant. It’s considered a nuisance weed which will overtake pastures, hay fields, and cropland if not kept in check. If you don’t watch out, it will also invade your yard and garden.

However, I let a few plants grow in my yard and along my driveway. I’ve always liked Dog Fennel, in moderation. In spring, feathery green shoots emerge from last years’ roots or seeds. Over the summer they grow into graceful fountains, three or four feet high, or taller. Sometime in October, tiny white blossoms burst out, abuzz with bees, butterflies, and other insects. If you get close enough, you can detect the flowers’ delicate scent. When winter comes, Dog Fennel is reduced to brown skeletons that persist until you, or time, knock them down. I break off any stems that are in my way, but I leave a few to shelter beneficial insects and their larvae during the winter.

There is an old saying that when the Dog Fennel blooms we have six weeks until frost. Over the years I have observed this and found it to be generally true. The past two or three years I’ve recorded the time of blooming on my calendar and found it to be uncannily accurate. In fact, Dog Fennel blooms earlier in open areas than in more sheltered ones and the frost follows accordingly, within a few days of the six weeks’ date.

A few years ago, a dog fennel seed landed inconspicuously on one of the garden beds at the elementary school. That compost-rich soil nurtured it through the summer. By the time school started, it towered over all else in the garden beds. When we weeded the gardens in preparation for fall planting, I left it alone, for a time, because it looked nice and wasn’t in the way, yet. When I tried to pull it out, I found that the root system was as massive as the upper part. The time came to use extreme measures to get this weed out of the garden, but first I wanted to know if it had any redeeming qualities other than those I already mentioned.

Googling and following links, I came across a reference to the Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moth. This colorful insect may look like a wasp but it’s really a moth and doesn’t sting. In fact, it is not known to cause any damage to nature or mankind. The larvae feed on wild hempvine, a plant with heart-shaped leaves and white blossoms.

Be on the lookout for this beauty if you live in Florida, along the Gulf Coast or in coastal Georgia or South Carolina.

Be on the lookout for this beauty if you live in Florida, along the Gulf Coast or in coastal Georgia or South Carolina.

Here’s where things get interesting. Adult butterflies and moths usually feed on nectar. That’s why they are considered pollinators. The adult male of this species feeds on Dog Fennel. He pierces the stems with his proboscis to obtain the toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These chemicals do not poison our moth but make him distasteful to whatever would otherwise eat him. He also stores the chemical in little pouches under his abdomen.

The story gets more interesting. When he finds a lady friend, our gallant moth showers her with these compounds, which in turn protects her from predators. And even better, when she lays her eggs, they will contain these protective chemicals. The Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moth is the only insect known to transfer a chemical defense in this manner.

The caterpillar is quite harmless.

The caterpillar is quite harmless.

So, if the male doesn’t have Dog Fennel to feed on, his mate and their eggs are more susceptible to being eaten. In other words, no Dog Fennel plants mean fewer Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moths. Doesn’t this earn Dog Fennel our respect? It earned mine, and that of the children at the school. With no other Dog Fennel in the vicinity, we decided to leave the plant alone for the time being.

I don’t mean you should let your garden or pasture become overrun with Dog Fennel. A few plants here and there, along the fence or driveway or roadside, should be enough. These are small moths. They don’t eat much. If you find hempvine on your property, let it grow. If you have none, plant some for their babies. Then be on the look out for this pretty moth. And when the Dog Fennel blooms this fall, make a note of the date and wait to see if it predicts the first frost.

This homeowner understands the beauty of Dog Fennel. Unfortunately, this is not my yard.

This homeowner understands the beauty of Dog Fennel. Unfortunately, this is not my yard.

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October begins bright yellow. Helianthus and Goldenrod literally glow on the roadsides and vacant lots. Goldenrod grows along my driveway and on the margins of my garden, but I had been unsuccessful in coaxing wild sunflowers to take root here. Then one gloomy day last fall, as I glanced toward a fallow area of my garden, a splash of sunshine greeted me. A Helianthus had burst into bloom when I wasn’t looking. It reseeded itself and they are back this year, shining in greater numbers.

White is also the color of October. Bidens alba grows in neglected places everywhere, especially in my yard. I keep them for the butterflies, but if I walk too close, the seeds, called Spanish needles, will spring out and cover my clothing. I appreciate these weeds because the butterflies love them. Unless we have a hard freeze, they will bloom all winter, providing nectar when all else is gone. On the roadsides, white banks of Bidens grow a foot high. The air above those little daisy-like flowers teems with butterflies. The county could not have provided a better show if they had planned it.

Every year I look for the date the Dog Fennel starts to bloom. They predict six weeks until the first frost. I have been watching this phenomenon for years and it seems to be pretty accurate. This year, they began to bloom on October 1st. Look for frost in mid November. Did you know these little white fountains have a scent? A very delicate one and you have to get close to detect it, but please, take the time to smell the Dog Fennel.

The colors of October are also purple and blue and pink and red. Earlier this month, I was cheered by the tiny, purple blossoms of Elephant’s Foot winking up at me against their intense green foliage. By now they have gone to seed but the purple spikes of Blazing Star have replaced them in the landscape. In wet areas, alongside ditches, in both sun and shade, Blue Mistflower blooms in dense clouds. Asters and other wildflowers too numerous to list brighten my daily walks along the dirt road. Spotted Horsemint is abundant. This is a wildflower you may overlook as they are not ostentatious, but familiarity breeds appreciation. Most are white, but last year I found purple Horsemint, and they are more numerous this season. I have collected seeds to plant along my driveway. Various colors of Morning Glory climb atop brush or twine across mowed spaces, mostly pink or blue or white. In similar areas, the Scarlet Creeper’s diminutive red blossoms are a pleasant surprise.

Besides collecting seeds, in coming seasons I will happily move some of the volunteers to areas where I want wildflowers to grow. But I must expect an argument out of them. They do not take kindly to domestication.

You cannot ignore the flying flowers. The butterflies are busy drinking their fill against encroaching winter. Yellow sulfurs everywhere dance in pairs high above the ground. Swallowtails of various colors, brown Hairstreaks, skippers, and the orange Gulf Fritillaries and Little Metalmarks delight in the sunshine while the Zebra Longwing enjoys the shade of my woods.

The butterflies are wise to seize the day because the season is fading. November approaches. Many wildflowers have lost their maiden glory and are gone to seed. Here in North Florida, we do not get the flashy fall foliage of the northern states. Some of our trees will turn yellow or red, but not in the profusion seen there. When northern trees have lost their autumn show and become bare and brown, my oak trees will still be green. They will clutch their frostbitten leaves all winter, then discard them in time for new growth and pollen-laden blossoms. I rake my yard more in spring than in fall. But while northern trees still sleep, our maples will announce Spring with their beautiful red florescence.

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