Thursday, November 17, 2005

Wilma's Woe

Hope that all of you are safe and sound after our worst hurricane of the season. The damage Wilma did is unbelievable to some of the native trees that usually withstand hurricane winds, such as our live oaks. It almost looks like someone took a giant hedge trimmer and lopped off all the trees at 25’-30’! Almost everyone lost trees, and the natural areas and parks were hit harder by Wilma than Katrina and Rita combined.

I had been scheduled to speak about the atala to the biologists, botanists and fire crew at Everglades National Park (ENP) on the 17th of October, and to take over 500 atala pupae and larvae to the park as part of our re-introduction program. However, because no one was sure what Hurricane Wilma was going to do, the talk was cancelled, as was the release of the atalas.

Under normal circumstances (post-hurricane) I would have been able to get the insects to their new home within a day or two. Wilma had other plans! With the incredible damage, downed trees and destroyed buildings, as well as the long gas lines, and/or no electric power to run gas pumps, it was impossible to even GET to ENP. So, plans had to be quickly altered as the pupae began emerging.

Unfortunate circumstances were actually good in this case: I couldn’t get to ENP, but because most of the other sites that I have been monitoring in Broward County lost their atala populations, I did have butterflies to re-populate those sites! The butterfly is also resourceful, and will use less-favored nectar sources such as Bidens (Spanish Needle) when it has to do so. Bidens did not get harmed because it is so close to the ground, and is such a widely distributed, prolific and fast-growing flower.

The atalas took advantage of what they had available! Not only were the trees stripped of leaves during the powerful winds of Wilma, most of the small bushes that the butterfly uses as a source of nectar were also completely denuded! Native plants such as the Cordia species were also stripped of leaves and flowers, but were sending up new flowers within two weeks.

In the meantime, the larvae were growing fast and furious and I resorted to collecting coontie leaves from my own stash of plants in order to feed them…several hundred larvae! They ate a lot of plant material, and supplied a lot of fertilizer for the coontie!

They pupated ten days after Wilma, and by then Hillary Cooley from ENP’s fire crew could meet me half way to gather up the pupae and release them in their new home in ENP. She chose the site with the least damage to the nectar sources. And she did this for the butterflies before any of us had electric power back, and the park was still officially closed.

What an adventure this has been! I was still releasing stray atalas three and a half weeks after their initial rescue, which had “snuk” out of the cage when I opened it to remove their siblings for release, and had wandered onto the window sill behind the shades.…but all are safe and in their new homes finally.

Keep an eye out for plant sales from damaged nurseries; most of the plants will recover with a little TLC! All those leaves that look dead and brown will fall off intact branches and new growth will sprout, so don’t be too fast to cut down healthy, but badly-shocked, trees. (We were ALL shocked by this hurricane!) The coontie we rescued months ago is undamaged, but it was just a lucky break that saved them...literally! A broken tree branch jammed against the fence as it also fell and prevented it from smashing the plants.

Think of this as a perfect opportunity to replant your garden with native flowers and trees. You could thank Wilma for clearing out the yard so that you can start over with a clean slate! Plantation Tree Day will be re-scheduled for late January or early February. It’s hosted by Plantation Department of Landscape Architecture and you can go to the site to learn more about safe pruning, plants and Florida’s native trees. Go check it out at

And Broward County NatureScape will be at Water Matters Day on March 11, 2006. Broward County residents can get as many as four trees for their gardens! Take a look at what you can learn at