Wednesday, June 23, 2010


It was butterfly day in the garden a couple of days ago.

First, a pair of southern whites (Ascia monuste) obligingly settled in the perfect place for a photo. I don't know what it was they found so attractive, but they didn't want to leave it.

Not long after, a giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) settled -- and stayed for a long time -- on a Murraya, close to where I was working.

If you're not familiar with this butterfly, it's not only the largest of the North American swallowtails, it's the largest butterfly on the continent, with a wingspan that may exceed six inches.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Realizing it was my lucky day for butterflies, I took the camera around the garden. After a fruitless wait for one of the skittish zebra longwings (Heliconius charithonia) to settle on something, a male julia (Dryas iulia -- note it's "i," not "j.") conveniently landed on an elephant ear right in front of me. This one is old (relatively speaking), probably a couple of weeks, indicated by the many missing scales.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Missing the merry month of May, Part II

Click beetles.

Unlike the click beetles of temperate climates, where the larvae -- wire worms -- do so much damage to root crops, these beetles are beneficial. But the best thing is that they're bioluminescent.

Pyrophorus noctilucus is found throughout Central American, the Caribbean, and South Florida, it's northernmost range. It's not a firefly. (Fireflies are now rare in urban South Florida, although you can find plenty in the Everglades.) It prefers places of fairly dense vegetation to light up, although I also find them on the wall under an outside light -- as in my very poor photos.

Click beetles, which get their name from the loud "click" they make as they right themselves from an upside down position, have two neon-green luminous "eyes" on their backs, or, technically, the pronotum. In May, you find them glowing under vegetation. When they fly, though, they expose another glowing spot on the abdomen that glows steadily in flight; unlike their distant firefly cousins, they don't "flash."

Before the hurricanes of 2005 destroyed my hammock, I used to lie out in the evening and watch them glide past; it was such a treat. This past May was horrendously hot and humid, and the skies were filled with too many skeeters to make it any fun.

I found some much better photos on this site.

And if you're looking for an excuse to come here, make it to see these unique beetles in the merry month of May!

Missing the merry month of May, Part I

It's in May that the gardenia bushes burst into bloom and the air smells divine. I'm always amazed by how well these usually chlorotic shrubs do in our limestone soil. Traditionally, to keep them happy, one pours pickle juice and other acidic food waste around the roots. The simplest thing to do, really, is mulch them well.

Still, I keep my gardenias in large pots and water them from the rain barrel to avoid the problem. Even so, I've lost them from other diseases over the years. They tend to be a bit finicky in their needs.

My favorite bloomed throughout the winter, and wasn't even phased by the freeze. Extraordinary!

I also have a trailing gardenia. It's more of a curiosity since it's a very slow grower and the small flowers don't have a particularly strong scent. It's nice in a big ceramic pot and helps disguise the rain barrel.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Gardening and the sunshine vitamin

Following routine blood work, I was surprised to learn from the doc that I had low Vitamin D levels. Apparently, it's so common that these days it's regularly tested for. Nobody knows why this should be so, but the doc said the odds-on favorite is excessive use of sunscreen. (The skin cancer message seems to have been received.) The pharmacist said the same thing when I picked up the D3 prescription.

Well, I'm not buying it. The best source of Vitamin D comes from sun exposure, and nobody, especially in these latitudes where the sun's rays are strongest, should be deficient. And especially if they spend time outside. I only use sunscreen when I plan to be in the garden for any length of time, but I'm not fanatical and I spend a few minutes here and there most days in sunlight. I have (light) tan lines to prove it.

There are all sorts of factors that govern the manufacture of D in the skin, including intensity of the rays and the color of the skin (the darker, the more sun exposure required). Here, for example, is what WebMD says:

Many people living in the Southern United States can get enough vitamin D by getting about 10-15 minutes of sun exposure on their arms and face a few times a week -- as long as they don't use sunscreen, which blocks some of the UV rays necessary to make the vitamin.

That is not difficult to do in South Florida.

So, dear readers, are you Vitamin D deficient? Do you think the sunscreen explanation is credible? Do weigh in.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Growing nasturtiums with the GROW Project, May report

Yet another late report ... Did I ever mention I have ADHD? (I do. Really.)

My Spitfire nasturtiums, an  exclusive from seed suppliers Renee's Garden, began struggling in May. We had record breaking heat, not to mention horrible humidity, and that took a toll on most of the annuals. I'm not sure whether the Spitfires will even make it into July. The GROW project sent them out in March, which is really too late for this climate; ideally, I would have planted in October or November.

The photos illustrate that these sweet little plants are not really thriving.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Royal poincianas

There are so many spectacular flowering trees, but the royal poinciana (Delonix regia) must be at the top for sheer extravaganza.

The first photo is of the tree on the other side of the road. It's not the typical shape, which is umbrella-like. The second photo, taken one block away, is more like it. You can also see two more further down, and in May and June, this is a common sight -- a tunnel of vermilion.

Poincianas (also known as flamboyants or flame trees) are true tropicals and I'm not sure how far north it grows, but probably not above Lake Okeechobee.

The first time I ever saw one I was visiting Guiana with my father. As I stood gobsmacked by the glorious sight, my poor old dad couldn't understand what I was talking about. Turns out that poincianas are all brown if you have red/green color blindness. Sadly, I also have the gene since I passed it on to my son. He can't appreciate them, either.