Monday, February 28, 2011

Florida's Palms

Royal palms (Roystonea regia) at the Four Arts
Center in Palm Beach. Regal!
What would the Florida landscape be without our palm trees? Those gracefully curved trunks and topknots of fronds are mainstays of any tropical setting. While many palms serve as trees in the landscape, they are not true trees, botanically speaking, because they don't have a cambium layer under a coating of bark and cannot develop annual layers of wood like actual trees. Palms are monocots and are more like grasses. A cross-section of a palm shows a curly or random fibrous grain rather than annual rings. This arrangement of woody tissue is usually quite flexible, making palms an excellent choice for wind tolerant landscaping.

A palm cross-section shows that there are no annual
rings and no true wood--just a fibrous mass.

After a palm seed sprouts, the plant goes into the establishment phase for several years when it looks and behaves like a shrubby palmetto. This time is necessary for the development of its growing tip and for the establishment of the tree trunk's diameter prior to its vertical growth. Once its trunk is established, then the palm starts growing vertically. The trunk doesn't increase much in girth thereafter. Almost all of the cabbage palms used for landscape plantings are transplants from the wild, because they take so long to get started.

Palm vs. Palmetto

At the front of this thicket is a young cabbage palm, while the larger
plants are saw palmettos.
The cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), our state tree, is closely related to the blue palmetto (S. minor), but not the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), which belongs to a different genus. The scientific name of the cabbage palm, which includes the term "palmetto," confuses the issue of palm vs. palmetto. Generally, a palmetto is a shrubby plant. The trunk of a mature palmetto isn't usually vertical for more than few feet. The fibrous palmetto trunk grows either underground or it lies on top of the soil while palms eventually develop vertical trunks. While a palm tree will look much like a palmetto while it develops a trunk, you can identify whether it’s a palmetto or a palm by the shape of the fronds.

A cabbage palm frond.

Palm Parts

Palm leaves, known as fronds, grow only from the terminal bud atop the trunk. There is only one terminal bud per trunk, so if the stem of a single stem palm is damaged, the entire plant will be killed. Depending upon the species, as the fronds die they may leave a persistent petiole, or leaf stem, known as a boot. Florida’s state tree, the cabbage palm, often has boots adorning its trunk. They provide habitat for birds and growing perches for ferns or epiphytes such as orchids or bromeliads. In south Florida, boots may also host a strangler fig (Ficus aurea) seedling that might eventually engulf the palm.

Cabbage palm boots

The palm roots are different, too. Palms have hundreds of thin roots originating from the trunk and most palm roots do not expand in girth or branch. A palm won't disturb sidewalks, roads or other hardscape features like a true tree because the roots cannot expand. Usually when palms are transplanted, they will develop all new roots from the trunk. This is why they usually are staked for six months or more when planted. Until new fronds start to grow, a newly planted palm tree will need additional water over and above the general landscape irrigation. After they are established, most palms are quite drought-tolerant.

When you see truckloads of palms, they have proportionally small root balls for the size of the trees and they have most of their fronds trimmed off. This way the roots do not have to support a full complement of fronds while they are trying to grow anew from the trunk. At no other time should a palm be treated in this way: once it’s established in your landscape only have the dead fronds trimmed away—never the green ones.

Because palms and palmettos do not produce wood like true trees, they cannot seal over wounds like true trees and any gouges in the trunk could become entry points for insects, fungi, and even small animals. To keep your palms strong, replace about 18 inches of lawn around the trunks with mulch, but don't pile it against the trunks. This mulched area also makes mowing easier.
Palmetto trunk running along the ground.

Choosing Palms to Plant

Do some research before you purchase palms to ensure that you select those that suit your climate and specific growing conditions in your landscape such as sun exposure, salt spray, and soil moisture. Our native cabbage palm is usually the best choice in northern half of the state, but there are several other palms native to south Florida. Be sure to avoid the queen palm (even though it’s widely available) because it’s not wind tolerant like most other palms and cold snaps will kill back much of its foliage. Queen palms are also invasive in parts of south Florida.

Choose the correct size for your space. While the palms may be tolerant of being close to buildings, make sure you leave adequate space for the tree's growth. You surely don't want to ruin your roof or your palms by planting them so close to your house that the fronds scrape the walls or roof.

Saw palmettos create a tropical feel and a coarse texture
in this florida landscape.
Palms: Tropics in Your Landscape

So plant some palms in your landscape for some coarse texture and to create a tropical feel. Choose species that are native to your region, water them liberally while they become established, trim away only the dead fronds, and you’ll find that palms and palmettos are a wonderful drought-tolerant and wind-resistant addition to your yard. FNPS likes palms and palmettos so much, that a palmetto
frond is our logo.

Ginny Stibolt

Cabbage palm at Heathcote Botanical Gardens in Ft. Pierce.
Notice anything weird??  It has three heads--very rare and
probably caused by an injury long ago.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Disney Wilderness Preserve: A Nature Conservancy Property

 At the edge between the grasslands and an oak/cypress hammock, a
lone longleaf pine rises majestically above the grasses.
Because I'd donated 50% of my book's royalties to the Nature Conservancy of Florida, Erica La Spada, a donor coordinator there, invited my husband and me to a private guided tour of the Disney Wilderness Preserve south of Orlando in Kissimmee. Wow! We were impressed with the size (12,000 acres) and with what the Conservancy has done to restore the property from ranchland back to its original status according to the records from the first Spanish missionaries.

This site began as a mitigation site to offset the land that was used in the making and expansion of Disney World. Disney has provided an endowment that has allowed the Conservancy to do most of the restoration, and some of the wildlife monitoring. While Disney gave the first 8,000 + acres. An additional 3000 acres came from the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority and a few more small parcels from other companies (Universal is actually one of them.) to make up our current 11.866 acres.

To us, this refurbished "Real Florida" is far more interesting than the totally artificial environment in the theme parks. Here's a link to The Nature Conservancy's website for this property.

The Conservancy's buildings are built with many green features such as: geo-thermal cooling as the pipes go into the cool water of the aquifer; solar panels; wide porches to keep the sun out; water collection from the roofs to use for irrigation and flushing toilets; and ceiling fans throughout.

For the general public there are several hiking trails, but we traveled in a hybrid 4-wheel drive truck around to areas not on the regular tour stops. Great fun...

We started our tour at Lake Russell, one of the last undeveloped lakes in Florida. This area is part of the headwaters for The Everglades, which is one of the the reasons the Conservancy was so interested in managing this site.

At the edge of the lake, the bald cypress knees arising from the wet ground and buttressed trunks provide an interesting shoreline. A  stand of bull rushes provides good habitat for fish and crustaceans at the edge of the lake.

Then we went to an area mostly open, but with some shrubby growth. This is where the scrub jays live. There are several groups of jays in the park and Dan, our driver was certain that he could entice some jays out into the open. He made some noises and walked out to a feeding platform and pretended to put some food out. We waited for several minutes and he was about to give up on them when suddenly a group of six jays flitted over to see what we were doing.
This is an extended family. The young jays hang around with their parents for a year
or two before striking out on their own.
Scrub jays, endemic to Florida, are an endangered species. The are threatened primarily because of loss of habitat--wild grassy areas with frequent fires to keep the forests open and grassy. The jays do not adapt to other types of ecosystems. They really need the fire-managed scrub habitat, which is one of the aims of the Conservancy in managing this property - to cater to the scrub jays needs. Here's more information about the jays on Wikipedia and in this interesting Cornell Lab of Ornithology article: Scrubland Survivors.

One of the plants in the scrub jays favorite habitats is the running oak (Quercus pumila) that spreads across the ground as a groundcover. It is the very un-oak-like, green groundcover between the grasses and palmettos in the photo below.

But when you look at it close up, it does look like a very small oak. It produces a lot of small acorns, which the jays favor.

Note also in these photos, that the soil is loose sand. This is another one of the requirements for the jays' habitats so they can bury the acorns and other nuts.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ecotypes: Considerations in Restoration

How important is it to use plants from local sources when working to restore damaged or compromised ecosystems? How is “local” defined? These were two of the questions that were explored in the afternoon session of the Economics and Ecotypes workshop put on by the Association of Florida Native Nurseries (AFNN) in Kissimmee last month.

The University of Florida sent down a fleet of professors from their Consortium for Horticultural Application in Ecosystem Conservation. These passionate folks had some very interesting research to share as the crowd wrestled with both the ethical and the practical problems that restoration can pose. The Consortium works to provide science-based information to meet the needs of the native plant industry called in to supply the plants for restoration work.

Dr. Carrie Reinhardt Adams lead off with an explanation of ecotypes. She noted that  there can be distinct and separate genetic composition within a plant species resulting from adaptation to local environmental conditions. Within each species then, some plants can be better adapted for certain conditions. Individuals are capable of interbreeding with other ecotypes within the species.

Questions arise when plants begin to be moved around by people; although certainly there are valid reasons for doing so. Substitutions of ecotypes can sometimes lead to genetic pollution. One way this type of pollution can happen is by replacement of local genotypes with less fit genotypes, leading to a decrease in genetic diversity.  Lower genetic diversity, which makes plants more susceptible to disease, arises when plant material originates from just a few genotypes. One importance of diversity is that  it provides the mechanism for evolution.

Pickerelweed in bloom
 Pickerelweed, Pontederia cordata is a wetland plant widely distributed up and down  the east coast and many of its  original habitats are now disturbed. It is also widely used in restoration work. The Consortium conducted an experiment using eight different ecotypes of pickerelweed, five from Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, and  and three from Florida. The plants were grown out under exactly the same conditions in a greenhouse. Over the course of plantings that occurred during 13 different times of year, it was found that the southern plants grew in a much more upright form. Northern plants grew in more lateral form, no matter what the season, perhaps in an attempt to avoid freezing. The variation of the plant’s response suggested distinct ecotypes, and illustrated the complications of introducing plants not properly suited for local conditions.

Note corm on grass pink
Philip Kauth noted that identifying ecotypes is important for both conservation and commercial purposes. He chose the orchid for some of his research partly because “it is the polar bear of the plant species.” He told us about experiments he had conducted in growing the orchid Calopogon tuberosus. The Calopogon, commonly called ‘grass pink’ because its leaf looks like grass, is native from Florida to Newfoundland, but its home lands are under duress everywhere. It's an indicator species, meaning its sensitivity to the environment can cause it to act as an early warning signal of changes like the presence of disease, species competition, or differences in climate. It grows in full or partial sunlight and one of its characteristic features is the formation of a corm, a swollen underground stem which stores energy to help it survive winter or drought.

Kauth’s experiment centered around the question “Does growing season matter?” In Michigan, where the orchid is growing in a compressed season, Calopogon puts a lot of its early growth into the corm. In Florida, where the growing season for the orchid is 365 days a year, its corm is very small, more biomass is allocated to the leaf and the shoot.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Florida Forever Day is March 8, 2011

A message from the Florida branch of the Nature Conservancy:

Greetings all,

Please see flyer (above) for Florida Forever Day on March 8, 2011. We need your help getting out the word on this important event. Please circulate this information widely and help us generate a great crowd! This year we will have tabling by more than 20 organizations, guest speakers, a beautiful exhibit of LINC Florida Forever photographs, lunch, and live music! This is the first day of the 2011 legislative session and a great opportunity to make sure Florida Forever is in the spotlight. Please let me know if you need any additional information, and see you on March 8th!


Holly Parker Davenport,
Government Relations Associate
625 North Adams Street
Tallahassee, FL 32301

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Is Your Landscape A Winner?

Native landscape by Shirley Denton
Fantastic! Because you still have time to enter the The Florida Native Plant Society's competition for Landscape Awards this year at the 31st Annual Conference in May. 

You can enter for free if you are a non-profit, school or governmental organization. Homeowners pay $35, and you professionals pay $200 to apply. If you have, or did the design for a home, business or school site landscaped primarily with Florida native plants, you are eligible to apply. There are also categories for transportation, mitigation and restoration projects.

To qualify for application, your landscape needs to have been in place for two years, must be 75% Florida natives, and contain no plants that are listed on the Florida Exotic Pest Council's List of Invasive Plant Species, Category 1 or 2, within the project site. You can check that list at:

A Landscape award winner from 2008
Maybe you have a friend or neighbor who needs to be informed of this opportunity!

Awards will presented on Saturday, May 21st and winners will receive complimentary conference registration for that day. This year’s conference is at the Sheraton Orlando North in Maitland, Florida.

Complete directions and an application can be found in "Awards and Grants" section at and the deadline is March 18, 2011. If you have questions about the application, you can contact Jim Couillard at

The 31st Annual Conference, in Maitland, May 19-22, is going to be spectacular, and now is the time to register! The theme is "Patios, Preserves and Public Spaces: Making Connections."  You will find something to learn about no matter what your level of experience. There will be over 50 speakers, research presentations, field trips and workshops. You can see posts on one of our keynote speakers, and one of the field trips at:

Visit You can also still be a sponsor for this event; call Executive Director, Kariena Veaudry at 321-388-4781.

And let's see YOUR landscape at the conference this year!

sue dingwell

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Australian Pine: One of Florida's Least Wanted

Austrailian Pine fruits
Australian pines seem to be everywhere in the coastal regions in the bottom half of Florida. Their name is deceiving because, while they are native to Australia, they aren't pines or even conifers. They are flowering trees with separate male and female flowers, and what look like needles are really green twiglets with close-set circles of tiny leaves that drop at the first sign of a drought. In the photo to the right, the light-colored lines are where leaves where once attached. Most of the photosynthesis takes place in the twiglets.

There are three species of Australian pine (Casuarina spp) that have been imported into Florida for various purposes. They were widely planted to soak up the "swamps" in Florida, stabilize canals, and hold beaches. Unfortunately for Florida's ecosystems, the "pines" accomplished all this and more--like seeding prolifically, growing five feet or more per year, producing dense shade, and emitting an herbicide that kills most any other plant that has the nerve to grow within their collective drip lines. They have root nodules, like a legume, that fix nitrogen in poor soils for use as their own fertilizer, and they can tolerate saltiness. Between 1993 and 2005 the populations in Florida quadrupled. What a successful plant!

Why is their success so bad for Florida? Because the sterile monoculture they form has replaced the normal ecosystem of plants and animals that used to inhabit beaches and many other areas. Our loggerhead turtles, green sea turtles and American crocodiles have lost nesting sites on sandy beaches above the high tide line where "pines" have colonized. Farther inland the "pines" have displaced marsh rabbits, gopher tortoises, and many bird species that depend upon the native plants that were out-competed.

Australian pines caused significant damage in our recent hurricanes. Fast growth makes their wood brittle and they break under pressure. The shallow root system makes them susceptible to uprooting, too. They are highly flammable. So even if you ignored the environmental problems with this tree, it's not a good addition to a stormwise or firewise landscape.

Australian pines are on the Category I list of the most invasive plants according to the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (; and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection prohibits possession, collection, transportation, cultivation, and importation of these invaders. Even so, several years ago there was a group of Australian pine defenders in Key West. These folks appealed to the local and state governments to prevent removal of these invaders along the beach in Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park. They wrote poems and dramatic essays saying that the "pines" are part of their history and that they love hearing the wind whistle through their needles. I guess they don't remember stepping on those hard, pointy seedpods that are hazardous to bare feet. Their pleas were successful and these invasives are still there today.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Florida Wildflower Garden

Are you planning  native wildflower garden this year? If your garden design is calling for more than a couple of containers or a small patch, then you will love these tips straight from an expert, Jeff Norcini (OecoHort, LLC), a contractor for  the FloridaWildflower Foundation.  

First of all, says Jeff, choose a site that has a good chance of being successful. Your wildflower garden needs to be in a place that:
  • is free from established populations of weeds like nut-sedge and torpedo grass
  • gets plenty of sunlight, at least 6 hours, mid morning to afternoon is best and,
  • is well drained
Jeff Norcini

 Weeds are the number one downfall of wildflower gardens!

So start with an  area that has few to no weeds: advance planning is critical. You can kill your turfgrass by smothering it, and then plant into the decomposing matter. Jeff is very definite about the DO NOT TILL mantra. Tilling just brings more weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate and drive you crazy. Hundreds to thousands of weed seeds per square foot, in case you wanted to know.

If you have bravely decided to go with direct-seeding in your new area, here some tips to help with the germination of the new seedlings, and also with your ability to  recognize them:
  • if you start with nice, friable soil, firm the bed floor by walking on it, or even rolling it
  • avoid bare soil; cover the bed sparsely with very thin layer of pine straw
  • plant a few seeds in an X pattern (so you can monitor germination)
Maplestreet Natives

A reasonable size to start with is an area about six feet by six feet. This will allow you to choose a palette of about three to five plants each of three to five different flowers plus a few bunch grasses. The bunch grasses add a bit of structure to the area and some continuity as the flowers go through their bloom-to-seeds cycle.

 Purpletop Tridens
 Jeff mentioned one bunch grass he is liking that I was not familiar with, and perhaps you aren’t either; it’s called Purpletop tridens, Tridens flavus. He describes this as having a mass of vegetative growth below with the wispy, deep, reddish purple infloresences floating high above it. While this grass does not look like much along roadsides, in the home garden it is quite lovely, and it is ranked as high as muhly grass for ease of growth. Jeff notes that if you are planning to have a meadow-type of planting, with a mixture of flowers, or flowers and grasses, then be prepared for a certain amount of change from year to year. You have to expect them to move around a bit within their spot. That's part of the fun.

If you'd like more information, there is  a detailed planning and planting guide in the 2010 edition of the “The Real Florida Gardener,” produced by the AFNN(Association of Florida Native Nurseries) and available online at

A word about Jeff Norcini
 Jeff starting working with native wildflowers and grasses back in 1996 while a faculty member with the University of Florida/IFAS at the North Florida Research and Education Center.  He is very grateful to Andy Clewell,  Jim Marois, and Gary Henry for their support and encouragement when he  made this major change in his program.  He tells me he thoroughly enjoys promoting the use and production of native wildflowers and grasses.  

We're so glad he loves to help other people with growing their knowledge, too! Thanks, Jeff!

If you're doing some planning/planting this spring, take some photos to share with us here. Send them in to our email at 

Look back to see what Jeff recommended for starting your seeds in "Grow Your Own Wildflowers"

sue dingwell

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Conference Field Trip Preview: Fabulous Florida Forever

The 31st Annual Conference is offering outstanding field trips, as always. We will be highlighting some of them for you on the blog. Put the conference on your calendar today; you will be so glad you did! One trip we will be taking this year is to a place called Florida Forever. Here is what one Florida Native Plant Society spokeswoman, Loret, has to say about it:

 "When I have out of town visitors, I never take them to Disney…as a matter of fact I have never been to the Disney theme parks. I take my guests to the Forever Florida conservation area in my neighborhood that I learned about a few months after I moved to Osceola County in 2006. They have a quaint restaurant and offer an EcoSafari tour of "Real Florida".

My first trip to this wonderful nine-ecosystem playground was with a couple of friends and because we visited on a weekday, we were treated to a coach safari where only the three of us were onboard. The "swamp buggy" offers a unique perspective from 5 feet off the ground and is capable of going through some interesting terrain.

On that trip, Ken, the manager, was willing to stop at a moment’s notice when I called out as I spotted many wildflowers in bloom and sought his guidance in helping to identify them. You see, I live close enough that we share many of the same native plants, and at the time so much of Florida’s native flora was a mystery to the New York me. That trip took place during September, where I was enthralled by the beauty of the Pine Lily (Lilium catesbaei) that was blooming just about everywhere. At a later time when I saw a meeting notice for the local FNPS chapter, I immediately thought about that flower and it piqued my interest since the organization had chosen that name.

On another trip, taken with a man who was as interested in the wildflowers as I was, a different guide, with excellent knowledge in the local plants, pointed out all the various species contained in the various ecosystems. We entered into the boardwalk area…that travels over tannin-laden waters…to enter into a floodplain forest where you can often be greeted by otters. More importantly, you can see airplants and resurrection fern. On that trip the guide introduced me to Walter Taylor’s’ book The Guide to Florida Wildflowers as a great resource to ID wildflowers by color. I was not familiar with Walter’s work or FNPS at that time.

I’ve learned about prescribed burns on the various tours I’ve taken over the past 5 years and each time I visit I learn something new or see something I haven’t seen before. You find out firsthand how invasive pigs can cause havoc with the grounds…there are traps around to keep them in line. You can watch quail race in front of the buggy, hawks landing in the trees or see marsh rabbits along the paths and I’ve encountered white tail deer on just about every one of the dozen or more visits that I’ve been there.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Invasive Species Week is Feb. 26th to Mar. 4th

Florida Invasive Species Partnership:
While there is a national recognition of Invasive Species Awareness Week ( with a conference in Washington, D.C., we here in Florida have have our own action-oriented plans. Some of our efforts have gained national attention like Gainesville's recent air potato round-up in an AOL article, and regional attention with articles like this one in the Dayton New Journal "New coalition Works to Stamp Out Invasive Plants," and this Orlando Sentinel story, "Volunteers Help Pick Up Pesky Air Potatoes at Orlando Park" withe the subtitle: "Central Florida Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area's holds Air Potato Mega Raid at 14 sites."

The Florida Native Plant Society has long been actively fighting invasives, and was in fact, the first non-profit organization to join the Florida Invasive Species Partnership. Here on the FNPS blog, we've posted Removing Invasives in Mandarin: A Team Effort, Mexican Petunia: A Plant Gone RogueAggressive vs. Invasive, Part 1, and An Invasives Debate. Recognition is nice, but mostly we've toiled in the field and in politically-charge environments in relative anonymity. Maybe this awareness week from Feb. 26th to Mar. 4th will bring our problems with invasive plant species and our efforts to reduce their populations into a spotlight.

In Northeast Florida, there are several events: a workshop and several invasive removal projects including 12 sites for air potato round-ups. Here is their page "First Coast Invasive Working Group" on the Florida Invasive Species Partnership. You can get to your local events on the FISP website by clicking on the colored area in the map at the right of the site. If there are no events listed, maybe you could list your local events or get something going, if not in time for the Invasive Awareness Week this year, maybe you'll be ready next time. 

Of course, in order to make progress, we must work at it year round on our own properties and on public lands. We'll continue discussing invasives here and would love to hear your story or cover your local invasives actions.Write to us at

Don't be part of the problem: grow more native plants,
sue dingwell & Ginny Stibolt

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Field Trip to Turtle Mound

Guest blog By Jim McCuen, president of the Lyonia Chapter in West Volusia County.  All the photos are by Gil Miller.

Ilex in fruit
A strong and chilly breeze; sweet, skunk scented stoppers, salty purslanes, unidentifiable blobs of nature-produced flesh as clear as glass; hollies loaded obscenely with brilliantly colored carmine berries, a stirring then a churr in the underbrush from some unseen winged inhabitant of the coastal scrub; a spent flower, its waxy blood red wings topped by a vicious looking blue-black seed pod; gun metal blue and green palmettos, stunted from fire, and pencil shaped mangrove offspring sent on a mission by way of a salty highway of ocean to find a patch of sand, perhaps hundreds of miles from home, never to see its progenitors again. Illuminating everything, our resident walking encyclopedias answered every question with patience and smiles and never made us feel less than. Lyonia is lucky indeed. Recording the trip photographically, our very own artiste provided a memory bank of a Saturday excursion.

Clerodendrum indicum (non-native)

If you missed our field trip to the Cape Canaveral National Seashore, you missed that, and more. Our doughty band of plant and nature lovers met mid-morning and commenced exploring Turtle Mound's strong foot bridges traversing the road side to the water. Once a community of orange groves, the park was home to the artist and environmental activist Doris Leeper. At the summit of one end of the boardwalk, we encountered an ancient couple, small, frail and preoccupied with a conversation on a cell phone.

Beach patrol...
The expanse of dunes framed by the wind-blown surf of the Atlantic Ocean was at once disquieting (for the reason we don't enjoy that view from our kitchen window) and enervating, the bracing wind and salt smell compelling us to explore the beach. Trees and other vegetation tend to have a flattened habit, buffeted as they are by a nearly constant wind. Further down the road, heading south, one enters a coastal hammock suddenly rich with shade and mysterious shadows under the heavy branches of gnarled oaks and dark green understory of shrubs and weeds. Nestled in this unlikely spot was a tangerine tree which provided a sampling of surprising sweetness. Once tasted and approved of by a member of our group, we immediately took advantage of the apricot-colored crescents of fruit, smiling as we sucked the juicy cells dry and sent the seeds flying into the air.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Pokeweed: a bird-friendly native

Purple poke berries feed lots
of birds.
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) has a wide distribution from eastern Canada, down through all of Florida, across the southern states, and up the west coast to Washington State. They favor sandy disturbed soils. Poke weed plants have grown very well atop the drainfield mound on our property. The official descriptions of this plant peg the height as up to 10 feet. I guess "they" didn't consider our long growing season here in Florida or that they might lean on tree branches for support. Pokeweed continues to grow, bloom, and produce its dark purple berries right until the first killing frost when it dies back, but the root survives and sends up new shoots in the spring. Each year the plant gets larger and some of ours have reached more than 20-feet tall when they can lean on something for support. The stems are weak because of the mostly hollow pith and without support, the plant breaks when it gets too heavy with berries.

The poke roots get larger each year even though the top
dies back. They look sorta like giant sweet potatoes, but
the fuchsia sprouts let you know it's a poke root.
I've seen various species of birds eating the berries, and purple deposits polka dot the cement driveway under trees where those birds perch near this plant. It's a desirable weed for your wildlife garden, but the roots had become too large and threatened the integrity of the pipes that are about ten inches deep in the soil. So I removed a bunch from the top of the drainfield, but there are more growing in other wild or semi- wild areas in our yard.

I've done my share of foraging over the years, but I've never been tempted by pokeweed, because you need to catch it early in the season before the poisons build up in the stem when you can cut it off and eat it like asparagus. You also can eat the greens, but you must boil them twice and throw out the first water to get rid of the toxins--this has been called poke sallet, an old English term for cooked greens. I always thought people were saying, "poke salad," but that didn't make any sense because you'd never eat the uncooked greens. The root and the seeds are the most toxic parts of the plant.

Native Americans took full advantage of pokeweed, using the plant medicinally and employing the berries and stems for dye and for painting their horses. Supporters for James Polk, our eleventh president, reportedly wore pokeweed leaves around their necks. The common name is sometimes spelled, "Polk."

So let some of your property go wild and you might grow your very own poke weed forest for the birds.

For more information and photos of pokeweed, see its profile on:

Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants and the USDA website.

Catbriar roots can also get surprisingly large, but they are
whiter and knobbier than the pokeweed roots.

For those who thought that these roots were catbriar (Smilax spp) tubers, here's what those roots look like. >>

The catbriar roots usually have a peppery odor and were the source for root beer and sasparilla. Maybe they still are...

Ginny Stibolt

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What Florida Native is This?

I removed these roots, which were growing atop my septic drainfield.
When we moved into our northern Florida house, we stopped mowing the St. Augustine grass that had been planted on top of the raised septic drainfield. The grass was not doing well in that very sandy, well-drained environment. Since then, it has become a good meadow with various tenacious grasses, rushes, back-eyed susans, beggars' ticks, and these plants.  Once a year we remove the trees that sprout here because they'd ruin the integrity of the drainfield, but who knew that these monstrous roots were beneath this native plant?

Ginny Stibolt