It’s Cicada-Killer Season: Do Not Be Afraid

Cicada killer wasp

Cicada killer wasp

“Holy smokes! What the heck is THAT???!!” It was early August 2007 and I was moving into my current home in Cocoa. The guys from the moving company had spotted an enormous wasp patrolling around in the front yard and were in fear for their lives. Cicada-killer wasps tend to have that effect on people. They are HUGE—the females can be almost 2 inches long—and they do appear to be aggressively looking for some poor victim to sting. And a wasp that big must have one HECK of sting, right?

Well, basically, no. The poor cicada-killer gets a bad rap. Read on to learn more about this fascinating and misunderstood critter.

The eastern cicada-killer (Sphecius speciosus) can be found throughout much of North America, pretty much everywhere east of the Rockies. Females dig their nesting burrows, which may be up to 4 feet long, into sandy soil during summer. The nest will contain several chambers. The female cicada-killer hunts until she finds a cicada, and then stings it. Her venom paralyzes the cicada, which she carries alive back to the nest (no small feat, since the cicada may be three times her own weight) and puts it into one of the nesting chambers. Then she lays an egg on the cicada and seals up the chamber. When the egg hatches, the cicada-killer larva feeds on the paralyzed cicada. It will overwinter as a pupa and then emerge the following summer to start the cycle over again.

Cicada-killers may look ferocious but they’re actually quite harmless. The males don’t possess a stinger, and the purpose of the female’s stinger is to inject paralyzing venom into cicadas, not to be a weapon of defense. It is said that you pretty much have to actually catch one in your hand and squeeze her in order to get stung. Those who know say the venom is quite weak. I can attest to their non-aggressive nature: in 2012 I counted 22 nests in my front yard. I mowed every week, sometimes inadvertently crushing the entrance holes so that the owner of the nest had to rebuild. I never got stung or even chased by the big wasps.

Male cicada-killers are often seen patrolling around and zooming over to investigate anything that enters their vicinity (including humans). While it may appear that they’re looking for victims to attack, what they’re actually on the lookout for is competition for females. They may buzz up and check out an invader who wanders into their territory, but they won’t attack unless the invader is another male cicada-killer. On the other hand, aerial dogfights between two or more males are common and they sometimes slam into trees, buildings and by-passers as they battle one another.

 

A pair of cicada killers having "a date" on the bumper of my truck.

A pair of cicada killers “having a date” on the bumper of my truck.

While some people get upset at the prospect of their perfect lawns being defaced by little sand hills that result when cicada killers build their nests, the damage tends to be minor and temporary. Once nesting season is over, rain and lawn irrigation will gradually pound the sand back into the ground. Cicadas, on the other hand, actually do inflict damage on desirable landscape trees and shrubs by laying their eggs under soft new bark. According to NC State Extension Service, 100 female cicada-killers can rid the world of about 16,000 cicadas during a typical nesting season. (Humans haven’t found an effective or efficient way to control cicadas, by the way.)

Interestingly, adult cicada-killers don’t actually feed on cicadas, but on flower nectar. I see this as another reason to plant flowering plants! Big and scary as they are, cicada-killers spend most of their lives in the larval stage, underground, munching on still-living cicadas that were provided by their parents. Once they emerge from the pupal stage, they only live 4-6 weeks. Once they have mated and laid the eggs for the next generation, they die.

So if you see one of these huge wasps cruising around, take a few minutes to stop and watch. Locate the female’s nest and wait patiently. You may be rewarded by seeing her return with a cicada, which she’ll drag down the entrance hole, then emerge and return to the hunt a few moments later. It’s fascinating to watch—who needs tv when you can see things like this in your own backyard!

Mama cicada killer emerging from her nest.

Mama cicada killer emerging from her nest.

Featured Nursery Plant: Leavenworth’s Tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii)

This month’s featured nursery plant is Coreopsis leavenworthii, or Leavenworth’s tickseed. There are about three dozen species of Coreopsis occurring throughout North America, 11 of which are native to Florida. Many of these occur in only a few finely-tuned locations within the state. Leavenworth’s tickseed is almost exclusive to Florida (it’s been found in two counties in Alabama but nowhere else outside the state), and grows throughout the peninsula—what better plant to be named our state wildflower.

Coreopsis leavenworthii

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You have probably seen this little yellow “ditch daisy” growing on the side of the road, but it also makes an excellent low-maintenance landscape plant. Leavenworth’s tickseed grows from 18” to 3’ tall and has small, linear leaves. It’s a short-lived perennial that sometimes behaves as an annual. The happy yellow daisies are excellent nectar plants and attract butterflies, honey bees, native bees and other pollinators. Bloom period is primarily spring and summer but in Central and South Florida, it may bloom at any time throughout the year.

Because of its fine texture, Coreopsis makes its best visual statement when used in mass plantings. You can plant a few in an area and encourage them to spread themselves around by allowing the spent seedheads to mature on the plant (it takes about a month after the flower has withered) before harvesting and scattering the seeds. No need for deadheading here!  In fact, efficiently cutting off the spent flowers will prevent new seedlings from being produced. Since the plants are short-lived, you’ll want to encourage new seedlings to colonize bare ground around the parent plants to keep the stand looking vigorous. Larger plants can also be propagated by carefully dividing the clumpy rosette of foliage at the base of the plant.

Leavenworth’s tickseed grows naturally in areas that are on the moist side—alongside ditches and ponds, for instance. While it can handle relatively dry conditions for short periods, it isn’t totally drought tolerant and won’t do well in truly droughty sandy soil. Light requirements are full sun to “high pine shade.” Since it naturally grows in poor soils, fertilizing tickseed is rarely, if ever, necessary. All in all, Leavenworth’s tickseed is a terrific little native, and I’ve got a bunch of them available at my  Cocoa Green Market nursery. Stop in and pick up a few of these and other wonderful Florida native plants!

The Cocoa Green Market is located at 4880 Coconut Avenue, Cocoa, FL 32926.  Summer hours are: Tuesday 2 p.m. – 5 p.m. ,  Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.,  Saturday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

 

Starfish in my garden

My Stapelia gigantea (aka “carrion flower”, but I prefer “starfish flower”)  is blooming again so I thought I’d post a few pix of this very interesting, and maybe a little creepy, plant.

The big, goofy looking buds get as large as baseballs before they open. Once they burst open, they look like big flesh-colored starfish creeping along the ground.

A close-up view of the center of the flower reveals that it’s actually quite hairy. What the photo doesn’t show is that it’s also a bit stinky. Up close the flower smells like rotting meat, which attracts its pollinators, flies.

Why so hairy? The hairs make it difficult for the pollinators to walk uphill once they land, so they’re directed down into the center of the plant, where they’re more likely to actually pollinate it.

 

 

Asclepias physocarpa, part deaux

My Big Balls is making little balls! I’m ashamed to say how long it took to get the plant into the ground, but it’s since bloomed and today I noticed it’s starting to make some balls. The largest is only about an inch in diameter, but there are about 4 of them in the works…so far. Here are some pix. Oh, and yes, the monarch butterflies have discovered the plant too. It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out.

 

Asclepias physocarpa

I have a serious addiction to chlorophyll. Last weekend I participated in Florida Tech’s Botanical Fest, which once again convinced me that my addiction is as real as any chemical dependency because once again I gave in to temptation. It’s always the same. There I sit in the shade of my little tent, talking to potential clients (and in the last year or two, clients who have become friends who drop by to chat and catch up), while people walk past pulling Radio Flyers overflowing with all sorts of botanical wonders or casually dangling beautiful flowery jewels in petite hanging baskets….

Imagine how twitchy I became upon the discovery that right across the sidewalk from my spot was Pinder’s Nursery, which was loaded with colorful perennials, herbs and butterfly plants. It only took me a few seconds to find my poison: Asclepias physocarpa. One of this plant’s common names is “big balls” because, well, the seed pods, which are about the size of tangerines, look like big, lime green…balls. Kind of hard not to notice it. People just walking past would stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk and say, “Ohmygod! Look at THAT!” and drag their companion(s) over to the small stand of these things, where they’d gaze in wonder…and sometimes buy one or two.

So, how could I not buy one? I waited it out as long as I could, telling myself that they would sell out quickly and I’d soon be safe because temptation would have been removed from my reach. Then it occurred to me that they might sell out quickly… and I wouldn’t get one. I think it was about 8:25 a.m. (the fest started at 8:00) when I marched across the sidewalk and handed them a check, selected my plant, and slunk back to my tent with that strange mix of shame and elation that comes with a good fix.

My little plant isn’t much to look at yet, so no pix. It’s in a 1-gallon pot, hasn’t even set up buds, much less produced any seed pods. I have high hopes though. You can be sure that there will be pictures galore once this puppy starts doing something interesting.

The Blues: Jacquemontia pentanthos

Have you ever noticed that often flowers that are described as being “blue” are in fact, purple? This is something that’s always puzzled me. Blue and purple, while being adjacent on the color wheel, and blending seamlessly into one another as you study the spectrum, are two entirely different colors. But there are flowers that are realy and honestly, true blue.

Jacquemontia pentanthos, or skyblue clustervine, is one of my favorites. It’s a native Floridian, indigenous to the extreme southern part of the state, but has adapted well even into Central Florida. In its native habitat it’s actually listed as an endangered species, being found in pinelands and hammocks in Collier, Broward, Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, habitats which are rapidly being encroached upon by human development. Fortunately, it can often be found at native plant nurseries.

It looks much like a miniature morning glory, and is a member of that same family, the Convolvulaceae. Flowers are pure sky blue and are a bit wider across than a nickel. A single vine can produce hundreds of flowers a day and, like morning glories, each lasts for only one day. The flowers are great attractors of pollinators, including  various species of sphinx moths.  Bloom season starts in fall and lasts through winter into spring.

 

This twining vine’s delicate beauty belies its toughness. Once established, it’s adaptable to nearly any soil conditions other than wet feet, and is even quite drought tolerant. It blooms best when it receives at least half a day of sun, but can tolerate relatively shady conditions as well.

Here in Central Florida, a couple of degrees make all the difference when it comes to cold survivability. I have a friend whose plant survived the freezes of January 2010 and 2011 in Rockledge, while my own plant in Cocoa did not. A seedling I inadvertently left outside in my nursery during the light frost of  January 2012 did survive, however. In the wee hours of that frosty night, I awoke with a start, realizing I’d forgotten to take it in out of the cold, but being as how it was the wee hours of a frosty night and I was under a warm comforter and the weight of 4 cats, I was powerless to escape the bed gravity. I resolved to just deal with the blues of losing it in the morning. As you can imagine, I was thrilled to discover it blooming happily away as I peeked out the kitchen window next morning, once I’d finally escaped the bed gravity. If you’re going to have the blues on a frosty morning, that’s the kind to have.

Bad Hort Sunday: Crape Murder

It’s not like I’m the Horticulture Police or anything like that, but sometimes I see bad things that people have done to their landscapes and, well, I just can’t help it: I HAVE to say something about it. Thing is, knocking on someone’s door and informing them that they’ve screwed up when they haven’t asked for your advice is generally not good for business. So, from time to time I’ll post about bad things I see happening to good plants in the hopes that it’ll (a) get it off my chest; and (b) inform my readers of things not to do, and why, just in case they were thinking of possibly doing any of these things.

And with that introduction, let’s get right into it. I got an email from a client today, who had a couple of issues to discuss. He ended the email with the following question: “I see a lot of crape myrtles with severe prune backs around town.  Is that what we are supposed to do with ours now?”

He’s probably sorry he asked, because here’s my response….

Crape myrtles and severe whack jobs:

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This is just wrong.

Among actual horticulturists, this practice is known as “crape murder” and is considered a justifiable reason to inflict bodily harm upon the perpetrators of such crimes. Personally, I think “in kind” punishment is entirely appropriate and I do happen to own some impressive pruning implements. Okay, maybe that’s extreme (I haven’t ever actually gone after anyone with my loppers…yet), but this may be my absolute biggest pet peeve where horticultural practices are concerned. Definitely in my top 5.

This should be illegal.

That said, there is no horticultural justification for hacking the limbs off crape myrtles. Some misguided fools claim that it leads to more, earlier or bigger blooms. Not true. Others claim that whacking them severely after the first round of blooms start to fade will induce them to rebloom. So will clipping off the spent blooms in a reasonable manner, and in doing it properly you get the added bonuses of not destroying the tree’s structural form, and quicker rebloom because the plant doesn’t have to produce much meristematic tissue from scratch. And then there are those who wanted a shrub where they planted a tree and feel they HAVE to prune it back or it’ll outgrow the space. Well, people, that’s why we have dozens of cultivars of crape myrtles, and plant labels that contain the cultivar names and info about ultimate size (at least reputable growers do that), and publications that describe the varieties so you can know what to expect and look for when you’re looking to fit the proper plant into a given space.  (The University of Florida has an excellent pub on crape myrtle varieties for Florida:  http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg266)

...Oh, the pain! The pain!

The proper way to prune a crape myrtle tree is (a) remove (using the usual rules for proper branch removal) branches that are rubbing, crossing, weakly attached or impinging upon walkways or other plants or such as that; and (b) clip off the spent seed heads if they bother you—they’ll fall off on their own eventually and it’s not horticulturally necessary. Early spring before they’ve leafed out is an ideal time to prune crape myrtles because you can see the structure clearly without foliage clouding the view.

 

 

It’s Tabby Time!

If you’re in Central Florida and not living under a rock, you have almost certainly noticed that there are some gorgeous flowering trees bursting into bloom of late. There are redbuds and Chickasaw plums, Walters viburnum and Hong Kong orchid trees, not to mention Texas olive, all showing their best colors. But it’s members of the genus Tabebuia (pronounced “tab-bee-BOO-yah”) that are my favorites this time of year.

 They come in 2 main color varieties: glowing gold and delicate pinks/purples; and there is more than one species in each of these colors, so getting an exact ID can be confusing. And just to make things even more complicated, there are some hybrids floating around out there in the gardening world. The hybrids often show traits of both parents, so you’ll see pink or purple flowers with much more gold in the throat of the trumpet-shaped flowers than is normal, or shades of pink that almost look, well, yellowish, if that’s even possible.

All of the tabbies, as they’re affectionately referred to amongst hardcore horties, that you’ll find in our area are reliably cold hardy throughout Central Florida. In fact, after the hard freezes of 2010 and 2011, we saw some of the best flowering ever from these beauties. Once established, they’re all fairly drought tolerant too. Their worst trait is that they tend to be susceptible to wind damage. Larger trees (4” caliper or more) seem to be fairly tough, but I’ve seen trees with a 2-3” caliper bend, split and break in 20 mph winds, which we get fairly frequently.  For this reason, they do best in a somewhat sheltered location—and be sure to stake young trees well.

Our best local garden centers carry a selection of straight species and hybrids, so your best bet on getting a tree whose flowers float your boat is to go visit them now, while they’re blooming, and pick your favorite. In the meantime, here are some pix of trees in my neighborhood, in case you need some eye candy to whet your appetite.

 

Think like a weed: Spurges and Sandmats

When you spend as much time pulling weeds as I do, your thoughts begin to wander. Before long, you may discover that your mind has melded (or maybe just melted—it does get hot out there) with the very enemy you are laboring to defeat. This can work in your favor…as long as you don’t let it lure you over to the dark side. Well, you know what they say: know your enemy. In other words, learn to think like a weed.

It’s been really dry in Brevard County—over 40 days without a drop in most of it. In some ways this makes pulling weeds easier, especially in really sandy soils. The tiny little root hairs that wend their way between the grains of sand have mostly died, giving the weeds little with which to resist when they are tugged upon. But of course, it’s never that simple. Many of them have developed clever survival strategies that continue to thwart me in the ongoing battles I wage in the gardens of several clients.

“Spurge” is a case in point. The species I was fighting with on Tuesday is officially Chamaesyce hirta or pillpod sandmat. Pretty much everyone I know just calls it spurge, or creeping spurge, or that low-growing, mat-forming spurge. There are over 20 species of Chamaesyce found in Florida and many look and behave similarly. They’re generally collectively known as spurges or sandmats. Some are taller and lankier, others are low creepers, but they seem to all be equally ornery.

Spurge

The "spurge" of my existence

In times of normal moisture, they hold together quite well. The trick to pulling them is to find the center of the plant, grip it just at the soil line, and pull straight out. It’s very satisfying (hey, you find satisfaction where you can when you spend hours on your knees yanking plants out of the ground), as these things can form a mat 18” in diameter. Lots of bang for your buck, or tug. Other species may be taller and not as wide, but the strategy and results are similar: the weed bucket fills up quickly.

But when it’s droughty-dry, it’s a whole nuther story. Find the center, grip at the soil line, pull gently…and the entire above-ground portion of the plant simply comes off in your hand, leaving the roots safely underground. And from that root an entire plant can regenerate. You can almost hear it doing a little planty Arnold imitation from The Terminator: “I’ll be back,” and snickering. You can dig around, find that main root and try to pull it. Sometimes you get most of it, sometimes it just continues to break off in small fragments. Either way, I’ll be back too, to try to yank the little sucker out next time.

Touche’, spurge, very clever survival mechanism you got there.

Winter Nasturtiums

I remember reading many, many years ago that nasturtiums don’t like soil that is too rich. Well, they may like it, but they won’t bloom well. Instead, you’ll get lots of really lush, large leaves–and you gotta admit, those leaves are pretty wonderful–but few or no flowers.

Well, this year, my garden is obviously prime for giving them what they want: lean, pathetic soil and droughty conditions. It’s been ridiculously dry this winter (zero rainfall in January), and I’ve been preoccupied with other stuff that has left most of my garden looking pretty sad. The drought tolerant shrubs are wilted. The stuff that needs a bit of pampering is long dead. Even the weeds are looking pretty anemic in my yard right now. But the nasturtiums are happy.

So, for anyone who needs a happy fix, particularly anyone up in the frozen part of the normal world where it’s winter, here are some photos: