Sunday, September 30, 2007

Atala the Hun

"Atala the Hun,” a friend once muttered as she perused the damage done to her once lush coontie plants by the atala caterpillar. That is as apropos a statement as I could ever create! The larvae (caterpillars) of any species can decimate a host plant (the larval food) to the nothingness faster than the plant can grow. The scientific term for this is “herbivory”…they are eating the plant.
There are categories of herbivory, too complicated to explore herein; botanists determine the severity of the herbivory by many different criteria, depending on the plant species. For example, the criteria may be determined by how many individual leaves are eaten, or how many fronds of the total are devoured. I use a criteria developed by Vivian Negron-Ortiz, who sampled herbivory in Everglades National Park (ENP), and was adapted by Hillary Cooley from ENP, for my records.
Those of you who have watched your beautiful milkweeds get devoured by Monarch larvae know that the plant is reduced to a bare stem, without flowers or leaves, by the time the larvae are ready to pupate. The same holds true for the atala and its host plant, the coontie. What’s a butterfly gardener to do!?

Here are a few suggestions. For aesthetic reasons, place the larval host plants in the background of your garden, or in another part of the garden, away from the flowering beauty of the nectar plants. Put them around the corner, to the side of the house, behind a fence, or wherever the unsightly remainders will be less visible. Plants such as milkweed can be cut off at a joint, placed in water and re-rooted in a few weeks time. The re-rooted stalks can then be planted for the next generation of nectar and larval food. (Be aware that if a female adult butterfly finds the stalks, she will lay eggs and the resulting brood will eat the rooting stems as quickly as if they were in the ground.)

Clip away the dead, eaten fronds of host plants to encourage new growth. Place a net over the young new growth of badly damaged plants so that the adult female butterflies cannot lay eggs on the new growth. This allows the plants time to recover before caterpillars eat the new sprouts. Plants that never have a chance to grow new leaves can’t photosynthesize to produce new ‘fuel’ for the growth, and will take needed nutrients from the root’s storage. This leaves less energy for the plant to sprout new foliage….the cycle will continue until the stored starches in the root are depleted and the plant will eventually die.

This is the wisdom behind manually removing the leaves of unwanted ‘weeds’, such as dandelion, in a yard. It may take a while longer to eradicate the unwanted ‘weed’, but it is a more environmentally friendly method than the use of herbicides to kill the plant. Besides, true gardeners know that ‘weeds’ are just wildflowers growing in an area where we would rather not have them growing. Everyone should have a wildflower area that is really wild and free!
Learn how to propagate your coontie plants. It’s easier than you may think. Master Gardener friend Art Constantino is presenting a wonderful workshop about propagating coontie from seeds and rootstock for the next Broward County NABA meeting, on October 11, 2007, at 7 PM, at the Broward County Extension IFAS Office (3101 College Avenue, Davie, 954- . Sandy Granson, Horticulture Technician at the IFAS Extension, is also working on a publication to help butterfly gardeners know what to do with their new garden. I will let everyone know when it is ready for us!

The NSU Mesozoic Garden was given another intensive make over this weekend. Dr. Charles Messing , Rosemary Lucas, President of the NSU Nature Club , Gina Shure from NSU Nature Club, and myself installed twenty new coontie plants, pulled “tons” of ‘weeds’ from the garden to allow more room to grow, and trimmed the huge older cycads to allow for more sunlight. Sincere appreciation to Native Plant Society friend Kirk Scott for making the trip to Homestead to purchase the coontie for us, Dr. Joshua Feingold for using his truck to haul the plants to the garden, and Dean Don Rosenblum for helping make this all happen!

We are also having another exotic plant workshop at John Williams Park on December 1, 2007. Everyone who loves the relaxing experience of pulling out non-native invasives is welcome to participate and release some tension! More on the workshops to come.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Corridors and Field trips--September 22, 2007

Great news! Thanks to the butterfly friendly people in Coconut Creek, three more atala corridors have been established. In the meantime, two more atala home sites have been set up in the North Lauderdale area, and I’ll be working on expanding the Davie corridors in the near future. There are many homes in the downtown Fort Lauderdale area, too, which expands the corridor from Riverwalk. How exciting! This perfect cluster of eggs is the next generation of the winged atala jewels.

Our colony at Nova Southeastern University is still hanging in there, although it had a minor crash last week---from over 300 three weeks ago to five adults and a few caterpillars seen today; but, we planted more nectar for them and some palms are still flowering. It is about crash-time for all the colonies, so don't be discouraged if yours is looking thinner these days. An article will be published in the Farquhar Forum, highlighting the new colony, too. I’ll be joining the NSU Nature Club in maintaining our investments, and keeping the coontie plants viable for future generations. Much thanks goes to Dr. Chuck Messing, NSU Marine Biology, and Rosemary Lucas, President of the Nature Club.

Today Master Gardener Art Constantino and I also spent a few hours clearing out more non-native invasives from the Sheridan Oak Forest natural area in John Williams Park, with volunteers from Hollywood Hills High School Key Club. Jessica Cook, number one volunteer, organized the workshop with her cohorts, and we have four more exciting workshops planned in the next five months. Jessica recieved a grant from the Captain Planet Foundation to help supply necessary gardening equipment for new volunteers. Congratulations to her for getting the grant (and for all her hard work)! Shown in the photo: Kaydeen, Sophia, Lisa and Jessica with our Air Potato, Balsam Pear and Rosary Pea seven-bag bounty for the day. Missing from the picture are Michelle 1 and Michelle 2, and Joey, who had to leave a little early.

On my day off last week, I made another trip to Big Cypress with my buddies Lea and Norman. We had such a great day in the swamp! We saw a Red-Shouldered Hawk snag a black racer snake from the grass right before our eyes...that happened too fast to get a photograph. We had a chance to see some rare old photographs from the Al Capone days in Collier County, and a terrific photo of TWO panthers sauntering down a back road that other friends took just weeks ago. It's great to know that the big cats are still roaming through Big Cypress; Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission scientists track the cats every three days (how wonderful!), but seeing these pictures just seemed more real than reading about them. I have seen only one in all my years of swamp walking--a big male way down in in the southern most point of Flamingo. The only picture I have is in my memory because I was too awe-struck to take a picture!

We did get a shot of a yellow rat snake with his dinner, though: a rat. What else would a rat snake like for dinner? And look at this gorgeous spider resting on a lily pad.

And while I am mentioning the
wildlife, friend Pete Corradino took a photo of a Black Bear in Fakahatchee Strand a few weeks ago, too. We'll be doing a butterfly survey in Fakahatchee next month, October 20, 2007, with park ranger Mike Owens and the local NABA clubs. Feel free to join us for this exciting butterfly and wildlife day! It's an early morning, but what better way to start your day? Follow the link to get the details:

Saturday, September 01, 2007

On Colonies and Corridors

One thing we are all learning is how important wildlife corridors are these days. Sam Wright’s study on Key Biscayne (see update post) demonstrated this in real time; our new colony at Nova Southeastern University is yet another example. My friends biologist Ericka and entomologist Thomas recently bought a new home and even before their butterfly garden was planted, atalas showed up from the neighborhood to bask in the shade of their trees. Now that nectar sources are planted, the atalas are happier than ever. Their yard, shady with dappled sunlit areas, virtually swarms with Zebra Longwings, Julias, Swallowtails and skippers of various types. Plant it and they will come!

Martial Scrub Hairstreak uses Bay Cedar, or Buttonwood as a host plant. If you live near a wetland or along the coast, you may be lucky enough to see one! Plant some Bay Cedar to increase your chances. This little tiny guy was captured in Bahia Honda State Park, home of the famous Miami Blue Hairstreak.

We know that each species of butterfly has specific needs: a host plant (for the caterpillars—larvae—to munch down), nectar sources for the adults (some require certain types of flowers) and most adults like to hang out in a shady canopy when not busy making more butterflies or nectaring on scrumptious flower nutrients. A few require very specialized foods (Malachites slurp up the juices from fallen fruits, for example.) See below for help learning those specialized butterfly needs. Once you know your habitat type, you can choose the butterflies you want to visit, plant the required foods and shelter for the adults and caterpillars...Voila! A beautiful sanctuary is created in your backyard for you and wildlife.

Planting a garden is not only helpful to our butterflies, but to all the ‘urban wildlife’ that has been displaced as we change their native environment to one more suited to urbanized human habitation. Birds, mammals such as possums and raccoons, reptiles such as snakes, turtles and lizards, and even fishes benefit from having a place to call home in the midst of the concrete jungle. In the long run, WE are the final beneficiaries to all this wildlife---a healthier ecosystem, a calmer, more aware approach to life and therefore a healthier mental attitude....What can be more relaxing than watching butterflies and birds dance through your back yard after a hard day at work!

Here’s some great resources to get you started!

Broward County NatureScape has a lot of helpful people and advice for getting your yard into shape. Visit the site to learn how!

Florida Native Plant Society is a fountain of information! Visit the site and learn what plants used to flourish in South Florida before the onslaught of development and non-native invasive plants were introduced.

Why plant Native? NPS has these perfect answers:

"Promote Biodiversity. Of course, growing native plants will preserve and promote the species you grow in your yard. But in addition, growing natives contributes to the ecological balance that developed here in Florida over the millennia. Natives perpetuate the relationships between our native plants and the many other organisms that depend upon them for their survival.

Save Time, Money, and Energy. When used intelligently, native plants require less maintenance, are less expensive, and save energy. Did you know that lawnmowers are a significant source of air pollution? They also use up an appreciable amount of fossil fuel.
Conserve Natural Resources. Used properly, native plants require little to no extra water or fertilizer compared to most exotics. Watering non-native plants that aren't adapted to Florida's climate wastes energy as well as water, costs you money, and contributes to the pollution of surface water. Fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used in landscape and lawn maintenance run off into streams and creeks, polluting these water bodies.

No Pesticides Needed. Native plants have been exposed to Florida's pests as long as they have existed in Florida, and continue to display their resistance to insects and disease in our own yards. Forty years ago Rachel Carson pointed out that pesticides are biocides - their toxic effects are not confined to pests, but spill over to cause health problems for wildlife and people. Now, Our Stolen Future reminds us that we have again underestimated the danger of pesticides.

Watchable wildlife. Native plants are the best choice for attracting and nourishing our native wildlife. Native plants provide the food and shelter that our birds and butterflies need. Native plants leaf-out, bloom, and fruit when our native species need them most, and provide the nutrients that our native animals have adapted to through millions of years of co-evolution."

The Association of Florida Native Nurseries allows you to search for plants, where they are sold, and all the contact information you need to find what you are looking for. Some nurseries specialize in the really tough to find Florida native plants. It’s a great site!

Our local Broward County Chapter of Native Plant Society has super field trips, plant identification workshops every month, and very knowledgeable, helpful experts to help you planning your garden.

And finally, get your yard certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. It is not too diffficult a process!

Attend the events at the City of Plantation's Tree Day! Learn about the “Birds and Butterflies in Backyards” from Master Gardener Barbara DeWitt. It will be a rewarding experience for residents in the community.

One of my favorite FREE services is from the great Master Gardeners and staff at Broward County IFAS Extension office. They can tell you what those bugs are, the plants, the soils, everything. Love this place for information!

And of course, our Broward County North American Butterfly Association has everything you need to know about butterflies and plants. We have a great butterfly host plant list complete with pictures put together by member Alex Schore…it’s printable and simple-to-follow! And our monthly meetings are free and open to all. Come and enjoy our next meeting, September 13, 2007, at 7 PM, held at the Broward County Extension office on College Avenue in Davie (see the website listed above for detailed directions!)

If you ever catch yourself saying, "Someone ought to do something..." STOP! and realize that YOU ARE SOMEONE....Do your part, however small your little corner of it may be, for the planet! Rabbi Hillel used to say: "If not YOU, who? If not NOW, when?"

And speaking of native landscapes: Big Cypress was a complete success, with 1,200 friends enjoying the beauty of this magical place. Maybe I'll see you next year?