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Posts Tagged ‘Wildflowers’

One day when I was volunteering at the elementary school, the children and I stood around a raised garden bed discussing what grew there and what we were going to do that day. One of my philosophies about weeds is—if they’re not doing any harm, let them be. Some may argue that they take nutrients from the vegetables, but if they’re not trying to take over, I let them live until they must be removed for a valid reason. Besides, they may be of some benefit we have yet to discover.

Ponysfoot grew in that bed. I pointed it out to the kids and said, “It’s not in the way, so let’s leave it for now. It’s probably good for something, I just don’t know what.”

That bugged me. I should know what ponysfoot’s good for, so when I got home I asked my friend Google. Google doesn’t know much, but it knows whom to ask.

If someone is selling something on the internet, that’s the first thing that pops up. There were several ads selling ponysfoot seeds! Why would anyone buy ponysfoot? Because it’s a good groundcover, used for erosion control. Silver Ponysfoot, which grows in the Southwest, is used in landscapes and even hanging baskets. The species that grows in Florida is Dichondra carolinensis, Carolina Ponysfoot.

Ponysfoot (Dichondra carolinensis)

The website “Natives for Your Neighborhood” said that although ponysfoot is a garden weed, as a groundcover it competes with less desirable plants, thus can be beneficial. So I was right to leave it in the garden bed. Among its uses are habitat restoration and as a butterfly plant. (So far I haven’t found any info on its use as a butterfly plant, although it does have flowers.) One site mentioned a Dichondra lawn, which may have been popular at one time because it was easy and inexpensive to maintain.

I was happy to learn that Carolina Ponysfoot is edible, if bitter, and surprised to find that it has medicinal properties. Among other things, it can lower blood pressure. As I ventured down this path of discovery, I learned that other common lawn weeds also have medicinal uses. Dollar weed, Hydrocotyle bonariensis, also called pennywort, is another herb that lower blood pressure. I’ve eaten Dollar Weed Slaw, which is delicious, but try though I might, I can’t get dollar weed to grow in my yard. Long before I discovered the virtues of this plant, my daughter Carrie had a lawn full of it. Unfortunately, although she did nothing to make it go away, it did.

I began to google plants that do grow in my yard. Chickweed (Stellaria media) was used in the past to treat scurvy and is still used for a number of ailments, including weight loss. I’ll have to try that. You can buy it in herbal capsules, but I take advantage of the chickweed growing profusely in my yard and use it in salads, cooked greens, and green smoothies.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

When my daughter Amber lived in Virginia Beach, a neighbor had a lawn overgrown with wild violets (Viola sororia). When she remarked on the pretty flowers, the homeowner said, “Yeah, I’m trying to get rid of them.” Amber was aghast. She knew the blossoms and leaves are edible, but not if they’ve been sprayed with chemicals. Euell Gibbons praised the common blue violet for its high Vitamin C content. With the flu going around, I try to stay healthy, so once my violets started to bloom, I began eating them. My research revealed that violas have been used in Europe for centuries for everything from cough to cancer. Caution: don’t confuse Violas with African violets which are totally unrelated.

Wild Violet (Viola sororia). The leaves are similar to Ponysfoot.

A few years ago, we Master Gardeners were planting a butterfly garden in a local park. One container was full of bluish flowers all abuzz with honeybees. When told we had to clear those out and replace them with the prescribed butterfly plants, I protested, to no avail. I did manage to rescue a few of those wondrous wildflowers, take them home, and replant them. These are Stachys floridana, Florida betony, another weed hated by lawn enthusiasts. Not only edible, I now find that the leaves can be made into a tea to treat colds, headaches, anxiety, and diarrhea.

One of my favorite weeds, Bidens alba, aka Spanish needles, is one of the most cursed because of the seeds that hitchhike on your clothes. Butterfly enthusiasts like Bidens because it’s a great nectar plant. I’ve been eating it for years but never knew it had medicinal properties. It turns out that it’s said to cure just about anything, including MRSA! Other bidens species are also useful, and you can even buy Bidens pilosa tincture.

Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

I can’t leave out Lyre Leaf Sage, Salvia lyrata, which grows all over the eastern US. It gets its name from the leaves that are shaped like a lyre and have a burgundy stripe down the middle. The blue blossoms, when grown en masse, make a lovely show. This is a nectar plant for butterflies and has the same properties as garden sage, just not as strong. One common name, “cancer root,” refers to its use as a folk remedy for cancer. It is certainly edible and makes a good tea for sore throats.

Lyre Leaf Sage (Salvia Lyrata)

Now tell me, does it make any sense to spend money on poisons to kill herbs on your lawn, then spend more money at the drugstore to buy potions prescribed by a doctor, when your yard, if left alone, will grow its own pharmacopoeia?

Always be sure of what you put in your body. Don’t go by common names. There are several different species called chickweed, for instance. Research any plant before you use it. Herbs can have side effects and interact with medications. If you have any doubts about a plant’s identity, ask someone who knows.

 

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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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Morning sunlight slants from the South. On my shady front porch, the thermometer reads 67, but it must be over 70 in the sun because the butterflies are out and about. A large brown moth checks out a Rosemary plant, probably attracted to its scent, but finding no blossoms, it moves on to the Swedish Ivy.

Neither Swedish nor Ivy, these plants have spikes of delicate white flowers that curve into the paths of butterflies. I hang them outdoors in summer where they can drink up tropical weather. Sometimes branches of their fragile foliage break off and root in my yard. Here, nurtured by warm rains, they grow into a lovely ground cover. Soon they will succumb to frost unless I pot them and move them indoors. I can’t keep that many, so I will give some away.

Their flowers must be rich in nectar. A yellow Cloudless Sulphur comes by to visit blossom after blossom. One afternoon while I crocheted on the front porch, a Zebra Longwing kept company with the Swedish Ivy. It would flitter to a blossom for a sip then fly off. A few seconds later, I would see a little shadow out of the corner of my eye, the Zebra Longwing back for another drink.

Most everyone loves these flying flowers. Most everyone. In college I had a zoology professor who maintained that the entire order Lepidoptera was harmful to mankind. No redeeming qualities. We asked, what about butterflies?  Destructive. Of no benefit. What about silk worms? Even them. That was a long time ago, when the understanding of ecology was still in its infancy. My professor focused on the destruction of agricultural crops by the larvae of butterflies and moths. To him, beauty had nothing to do with it.

Black Swallowtail and Gulf Fritillary on Bidens alba.

Black Swallowtail and Gulf Fritillary on Bidens alba.

Times have changed. We now are aware that even “bad” bugs have their place in nature and to annihilate them would upset the delicate balance of the world order. And Lepidoptera are no longer bad bugs. Now they are seen as pollinators. With the decline of the honey bee, other pollinators are becoming more valued, a benefit to agriculture and mankind, despite the destruction caterpillars wreak. Other pollinators, such as native bees, are less conspicuous than butterflies, but a healthy butterfly population indicates an environment friendly to bees. When we plant wildflowers to attract butterflies, we nurture other pollinators as well. I wonder what my old professor thinks about Lepidoptera now.

A few years ago, my late summer bean crop was infested with leaf rollers. Once they are done feasting on the foliage, these little caterpillars roll a leaf around them to pupate. But I didn’t let them. Every day I went through my bean patch with a vengeance and squashed every one I could find. Later, I learned I had been killing baby butterflies! Fortunately, I didn’t wipe them all out. The next year they returned to my bean patch and this time I left them alone. Guess what? My beans produced as well that season as they had the year before when I killed all those “pests”.

In the spring, I grew parsley in a container garden on my kitchen deck. One day when I picked some, I noticed the undersides of the leaves were covered with tiny pearls. I had observed Black Swallowtails lighting on the parsley not long before and knew those must be butterfly eggs. Not wanting to eat baby butterflies, I foraged among the parsley to pick only the leaves with no eggs.

Then I was busy for a time, almost too busy to cook. When next I noticed my parsley plants, the leaves were gone and the container garden was crawling with cute little striped caterpillars. They did not look big enough to pupate but they had eaten all the parsley. Hoping to find something else to feed them, I researched their diet. They eat plants in the parsley and carrot families. Alas, I could find none of those currently growing in my yard. All I could do was let nature take her course and hope the little butterflies would find their way. They must have, as my yard is full of Swallowtails.

A neighbor with a butterfly farm tells this story. She helped a little old lady plant a butterfly garden. All went well until the lady called to complain that “worms” were eating her plants. Those worms turned out to be the larvae of the butterflies she wanted to attract to her garden! My friend tried to explain you can’t have butterflies unless you feed them when they are children. All to no avail. It didn’t sink in. The little old lady just wanted to know how to kill those “worms”.

What can I say? If we want to live, we must let live. In The Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv writes, “Nature is beautiful, but not always pretty.” How true!

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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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