Thursday, August 29, 2013

Royal Ferns Make Regal Garden Plants

By Jeff Nurge of Native Choice Nursery

Royal fern
With the exception of Hawaii, Florida has more native ferns than any other state in the Union. There are approximately 130 species of fern native to Florida, of which only a handful are in widespread cultivation. Thankfully the royal fern, Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis, is one of them.

The royal fern can reach a striking three to four feet high. From his book A Gardener's Guide to Florida Native Plants, author, Rufino Osorio writes, "with age, royal ferns assume a stunning architectural quality. The long, erect fronds are finely divided and this results in a surprisingly delicate effect for so large a plant."

Among the fronds are spore stalks (a.k.a. "fiddleheads") that run from green to a rusty brown, which are set off quite nicely by the evergreen foliage. This perennial fern also forms a trunk-like rhizome as it ages, which gives it a solidly regal appearance in the garden.

Cultural Requirements
Cinnamon fern
The royal fern loves rich moist soil and can be found in its natural areas among the swamps and marches of South Florida. Needless to say, it needs consistent moisture for optimal good health. It will tolerate a couple of hours of full sun but it is best not to exceed that time. Bright light or filtered sun is preferred for the remainder of the day. This clumping fern has a moderate growth rate which keeps it well behaved in a garden setting. Propagation can be achieved by dividing larger plants.

Related Species
Another fern in the royal family that is in cultivation and worth seeking out is the cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea). It has a more wispy appearance, is not usually as large as the royal fern, and the spore stalks resemble sticks of cinnamon!

Osmunder (a.k.a. "Thor")
Fun Facts
(From Floridata)  Royal fern is truly the king of the ferns. It is the largest and most spectacular fern occurring in North America. The genus is named for Osmunder (also known as Thor), the Saxon god of war. 

Like the cinnamon fern, royal fern is listed by The Florida Department of Agriculture as a "Commercially Exploited Species," which means that it cannot be removed from the wild for commercial purposes without a permit. Royal fern is, however, legally available from nurseries specializing in native plants. 

Interested in purchasing one of these beautiful ferns? Use the plant finder feature on either or

Plant images courtesy of Shirley Denton
Edited and posted by Laurie Sheldon

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Weekend at Welaka

by Debra L. Klein, Education Chair

I attended the FNPS Natural History Workshop November 8, 9 and 10, 2002 organized by Maria Minno at Welaka State Forest located in southwestern Putnam County near the St. John’s River. Approximately fifty children and adults of all ages attended. Gourmet food was prepared by Renee, mostly vegetarian and delicious. I arrived Friday afternoon and set up my tent near the stables about three quarters of a mile from the entrance. New camp sites had been installed, including picnic tables, a fire pit, chopped fire wood and a grill. Other participants began to arrive... most chose to stay in the bunk houses. There were many fabulous workshops offered, including topics like wildlife, plants, aquatic invertebrates, fungi hunting, butterflies and herpetology, from which participants selected four to fill their schedules for the weekend. Although I was a novice with no scientific background, most of the participants were scientists, naturalists or teachers. Our common thread was a passion for native environment.

External anatomy of a fungus
After dinner Friday night, Karen Garren gave a presentation on fungi. I learned that some are edible, some are poisonous and some are edible but not palatable, and the general rule of thumb is that for every rule there is an exception, so use caution. Those inclined to sample the wild fare should check for shape, color and gill structure. It is helpful to look at the underground root structure when trying to identify terrestrial fungi (as opposed to on a fallen tree trunk). Karen provided many reference books for previewing.  I also learned that scholars have suggested the hallucinatory behavior and hysterics that lead to the Salem witch trials in the late 1600s were caused by the consumption of a fungus that grows on rye.
Feet - the sixth sense

My first workshop revolved around wildlife. Our leader, Tony Davanzo, said that he had not worn shoes in some eighteen years and had learned to use his feet as another sense. He took all of the workshop participants (myself among them) on a walk to the other side of Highway 308, where we saw and identified several roadside plants, including spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), Spanish needles (Bidens alba), and sandspurs (Cenchrus  tribuloides). We then proceeded into Mud Spring, its entrance strewn in pine needles, where Tony rapidly repeated a swishing sound - a bird call. The birds within earshot, including Carolina wrens, blue jays, cardinals and mockingbirds, were quickly engaged and came chirping and flittering into the nearby tree tops to see what the commotion was about.

C.demersum, photo by Alan Boatman
The pathway to the spring was lined primarily with cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto), live oaks (Quercus virginiana), scrub pines (Pinus clausa), lichen, sphagnum moss, magnolias and Lyonia species. Tony pointed out a sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) that smelled delicious. We learned about three different kinds of bay trees, only one of which is the source of the bay leaf spice. We also sampled spiderwort blossoms and learned that sphagnum moss was used as an antibiotic to treat field wounds during the World War I and World War II. The trail wound around, its elevation gradually dropping, and eventually the ground became boggy. We heard water running and the trail opened to a “Walden” looking pond. Mud Spring is a natural spring that moves 18,000 gallons of water per hour and stays at a consistent temperature of 68-72 degrees. The color of the water is aquamarine and very clear with a slight sulfuric odor. A layer of white sand covers the mud. Minnows and other small fish dart back and forth from the source of the spring. Aquatic plants decorate the edges and coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) is suspended under the surface. Although Tony was a walking encyclopedia of botanical names and uses, I suspected his greater love was with reptilian creatures. Barefooted, he stepped into the wetlands, reached down and pulled out different kinds of frogs for us to see. Only one of their names stuck with me: the Leopard frog. A pygmy rattler drew the attention of the shutterbugs in the group as it warmed itself on the rocks nearby.

Pine snake
The next workshop, lead by biologist George Heinrich, focused on Herpetology (the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles and amphibians). Beginning with a general presentation about herps, he went on to show us a black and yellow striped Salamander whose range is limited to an area just south of Apalachicola. Next he explained turtles and tortoises, and that tortoises are a subspecies of turtles. Then he pulled his very unhappy pine snake out of a pillow case. It hissed in protest while he brought it around for all to see up-close. Indeed, it was a beautiful specimen of muted sand colors. Interestingly enough, the further west one encounters this snake, the darker its coloration will be. George described the negative impacts that both the pet trade and development have had on herps, the latter of which causes habitat fragmentation and limits species’ natural range.

Gopher tortoise entering its burrow
The day grew warmer as we stomped through the pine flatlands to investigate five gopher tortoise burrows that George had pre-selected. He strolled alongside the group and relayed stories of hidden ecosystems in which reptiles live underground and are rarely seen by humans, with tortoises, snakes, moles, mice, rats and salamanders among them. A gopher tortoise burrow can be 40 to 50 feet deep. One of their food sources is the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa). Gopher tortoises begin digging as soon as they hatch. As with any home, a gopher tortoise’s burrow should be approached with respect. The apron of sand surrounding the burrow should not be trampled, and the area just above the entrance should be avoided, as that is where the ground is the thinnest and a human could cause a cave-in. The burrow becomes significantly deeper as it progresses underground.

Rhexia virginica, meadow beauty
The third workshop, lead by Kim Gulledge, covered plant identification. It began in a pine sandhill ecosystem of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and wiregrass (Aristida beyrichiana). Additional plants within this community included laurel oaks (Quercus laurifolia), myrtle oaks (Quercus myrtifolia), yucca, and Smilax species. Where the pine flatwoods were opened by the road, Lyonia and gallberry (Ilex ) were the dominant species. There was also plenty of silky golden aster (Pityopsis graminifolia) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), which was noted as the most common plant on the planet. We moved on from there toward a marshy hammock, where we looked at grasses, sedges, and rushes. Grasses can be identified by their opposite, two-ranked leaves, while sedges have three-ranked leaves with a closed sheath. Rushes, on the other hand, have open, un-fused sheathes. Meadow beauty (Rhexia virginica) was sprinkled throughout the grass.

Giant water bugs are also called "toe biters"
Aquatic invertebrates were the subject of the last workshop of the day. With Marc Minno as our leader, we drove to an ephemeral pond that provided the foreground for the setting sun. The pond had been created by the St. John’s River, whose water percolated through sand dunes into a sink hole. Longleaf (Pinus palustris), slash (Pinus elliottii) and loblolly (Pinus taeda) pines stood tall in the surrounding flatlands.  Natural pockets of oil bubbled to the surface. Equipped with nets and strainers, we captured and learned about aquatic invertebrates. We studied a giant water bug, which looks like a vampire, that stings and stinks. We also collected a damsel fly, spiders, a creature that looked like a praying mantis and back swimmers. Marc showed us water moths which lay their eggs on water lilies and explained that these sorts of ponds contain fresh water sponges.

Dr. Dilcher has spent more than forty
years studying the origin of flowers.
Before dinner Saturday evening, renowned paleobotanist Dr. David Dilcher gave a presentation about the earliest flowering plants and what we have learned from their fossilized records. Dr. Dilcher discovered the oldest fossilized flower in the world. There is a significant overlap between plant records found in the southeast United States and those found in southeastern China. He described various vectors of plant distribution from as far back as 220 million years ago, including animals and air, and the courses they traveled along - through Eurasia, Alaska, and/or the Tethyan seaway when the continents were still somewhat connected.

As we sat around a campfire, folk singer Dale Crider capped the day off a cappella, save for the rattlesnake sound of his Maracas. Under a crisp starry sky, we howled at the moon.

My artistic rendering from the creative workshop
At the creative workshop, held the following morning, we were asked to provide an artistic interpretation of what we felt was a highlight of the weekend. Some worked on it individually, and some made a group effort of the activity. This generated a wide range of delightful responses, from songs and poems to sculptures, paintings, miniature stage sets, and wreaths.

That weekend was but one of the many reasons I decided to join F.N.P.S. over 10 years ago. I thank Maria Minno for her organizational and creative brilliance, and the hard work she put into coordinating such a memorable and special event. I hope that you all enjoyed reading about it and will consider planning or attending a similar workshop in the near future.

Edited and posted by Laurie Sheldon

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Firebush, Hamelia patens

By Peg Lindsay

Something unusual has been happening in our garden this summer. All summer long we’ve had a hummingbird visitor in our garden. The rangemaps for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds show central Florida as the southern limit of its breeding range. So, while our area is within the summer range, most of the birds of this species nest further north and we see them only in migration (spring and fall).

Juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird nectaring on firebush
What brings this little visitor to our garden are the abundance and varieties of nectar-producing Florida-native wildflowers we have added to our landscape. The hummer’s favorites:
   - Lonicera sempervirens, coral honeysuckle (a vine)
   - Salvia coccinea, tropical sage (a self-seeding annual)
   - Hamelia patens, firebush (a shrub)
The first year that we had a hummingbird visitor, I quickly put out the hummingbird feeder. The birdie sipped once and then went back to the firebush, never to return to the feeder. So my husband planted about six more firebush shrubs in our yard. We’ve added them as foundation plantings around our house.

I checked several websites and could not find the origin of the common name “firebush”. It probably either refers to the color of the blooms or to the fact that it regenerates quickly from its rootstock after a fire.

Firebush berries; photo by Shirley Denton
Firebush is one of the most beautiful Florida native shrubs I know. There is wide genetic diversity in this species, with leaves ranging from a yellow-green to deep green, both sparse and dense leaves and flowers. It begins blooming in late spring and continues until the first hard freeze. If winter temps remain mild, it will bloom and retain its foliage year-round. The deep, tubular, yellow-to-orange flowers attract a wide variety of butterflies and bees.

Another bonus are the fruits this shrub produces. I’ve watched Cardinals and Mockingbirds dive into the shrubbery and emerge with a beakful of berries. Wikipedia claims the berries are edible by humans but I haven’t tried them (yet).

Firebush - an outstanding Florida native;
photo by Roger Hammer
According to several internet sources, this shrub grows well in a variety of soils, from acidic to alkaline, sand to limestone to humus. It’s extremely drought-tolerant and will grow in both sun and shade, although in the sun it will bloom profusely.

The only negative property this shrub exhibits is intolerance of freezing temperatures (can you blame it?),
which cause it to die back to its rootstock. I don’t know if covering the shrubs would potentially prevent this loss, as I’ve always allowed our shrubs to freeze back. I prune the dead limbs after the last of the winter cold weather and then marvel at how quickly these lovely natives regain their former splendor.

Interested in adding firebush to your landscape?  Check out for a nursery near you!

Posted and edited by Laurie Sheldon

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Resurrection Fern

Top: Barking Treefrog
Bottom: Green Treefrog
by Peg Lindsay

The rainy season has returned. Maybe our drought is over. In my part of the state, lakes have risen a foot in just two weeks, although they are still well below historic levels. In the evenings following a deluge, I enjoy listening to the exceptionally loud chorus of froggies in the treetops, especially the Barking Treefrog (Hyla gratiosa) and the Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea). Not only are they music to my ears, but my plants like them too - they consume a hearty share of beetles and their kin, which we seem to have an abundance of in Florida.

Dry resurrection fern
Another remarkable phenomenon occurs after a heavy rain. The seemingly dead plant known as resurrection fern, Pleopeltis (formerly Polypodium) polypodioides var. michauxiana, absorbs water, unfurls and turns emerald green. This little epiphyte is typically found growing on either the limbs of our native live oak (Quercus virginiana) or in the “boots” (attached leaf bases) of the native cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto). A few hours of rain and the oak’s huge, fern-covered branches become brilliant green where they once were grey-brown. There are a few several good time-lapse videos of this process (water absorption and unfurling) available on YouTube. When fully hydrated, each frond is about four inches long by two inches wide with multiple leaflets off the center stem. It attaches to the limbs of its host plant with a creeping, slender rhizome, often tucked into the oak's deeply cracked bark.

Hydrated resurrection fern. Photo by Peg Lindsay.
Oddly enough, to follow Florida’s latitude around the globe is to run across dry desert. Florida’s climate might be described as "wet desert" with normal periods of extreme wet and dry conditions. This little fern evolved and adapted to tolerate these extremes. Although it can lose up to 97% of its water and still survive, it typically only loses about 76% during droughts. It has been speculated that these plants could go 100 years without water and still revive after a single soaking. Although it makes other plants its home, it is not parasitic, so it does not feed off of what it lives on. Rather, its nutritional needs are met via rain and dust. Resurrection fern is sometimes sold as a novelty item in gift shops and as a mail-order "miracle plant" on the back covers of comic books and magazines.

You don't need a tree to enjoy this native fern
Those whose living spaces are too small to accommodate cabbage palms and/or live oaks can cultivate resurrection fern on an oak log, where it should be allowed it to dry out and periodically sprayed with water. Ideally, this wonderful  little fern wants to grow on living trees, especially large oaks. If you'd like to give it a home in your landscape, ask a friend who already has it for a starter - several inches of the thin rhizome should do the trick. Squeeze it into the furrowed bark of an oak tree and you're set! Between its lovely green color, fine texture and drought tolerance, I bet it would make a pretty groundcover on oak bark mulch. Anyone care to give it a go?
Edited and posted by Laurie Sheldon