Native Plant Update: Butterflies and Herbs

by Sean Hess (, Broker and Manager for St. Augustine Team Realty ( Join us on Facebook and me on Google+.

Here’s the latest on our Native Plants project:

Butterfly and Herbs from our native plants project. Images by Sean Hess.

Butterfly and Herbs from our native plants project. Images by Sean Hess.

We planted a butterfly mix of Florida wildflowers last fall, and early this spring a bright yellow flower called tickseed (Coreopsis gladiata) bloomed in abundance.

The tickseed has died off somewhat, looking scraggly though it is still blooming, and some blackeyed susans have popped up as well.

Keeping On The Butterfly Theme

My daughter saw the movie Flight of The Butterflies at IMAX this spring (twice), and at school they had a project where they “grew” butterflies from larvae through chrysalis and then released them.

Since we had a backlog of plants to buy for the native plant garden (I buy a plant for every sale I and my partners make), we bought a bunch of butterfly friendly plants.  Although the idea behind the plant garden was planting perrenials that would stay year after year, the butterfly garden was just too good an idea to pass up. And some of the perrenials have turned into annuals anyway…I did nickname my front yard “the Valley of Death” after all.

So we bought Gayfeather Blazingstar (Liatris tennuilfolia), Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), and Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepias currassvica), all native to Florida according to Southern Horticulture and

We also planted something called Copper Canyon Daisy (Tagetes lommonii). There are some Tagetes native to Florida (and this isn’t one of them), but  my three-year old son picked it out, and hey, it’s doing a heckuva lot better than some other things I planted.

Caterpillars Come, Caterpillars Go

A few weeks after I planted things I noticed one of the scarlet milkweeds was looking pretty poorly and its flowers were gone. A day later nearly all the leaves were gone. I figured the Valley was killing it, but then I looked a little closer and discovered three monarch butterfly caterpillars were eating it!

So the next morning the only thing left was a stick, and the hungry caterpillars were busy gnawing on that. I moved them to the plant that had no caterpillars. They were making short work of that plant too, and a fourth caterpillar had joined them.

So I decided the next day I would go get more milkweed plants, one for each caterpillar.

At this point the last milkweed was a stick, with one of the caterpillars chewing away on the top. Another caterpillar was on the porterweed, trying to eat that, and the third was in the grass heading west towards the wildflowers. The last one disappeared.

I went ahead and bought five (much bigger) milkweeds, but I had to be careful…there were caterpillars on half the plants in the nursery (didn’t want to bring home more competition) and a monarch butterfly busy laying eggs on the others. Which was cool to watch.

I could only find one caterpillar when I got back, so I transplanted it to one of the new plants. The next morning he was gone too.

He and the others probably got ate. Monarch butterflies and caterpillars supposedly don’t taste very good, but as a website on the caterpillars noted, “birds and reptiles have to find that out the hard way.”

Hopefully some of those monarch eggs ended up on one of our plants and we will have caterpillars again soon.

Superheated Air, or, Why the Valley of Death is the Valley of Death

I noticed on one of my bicycle rides last week that I was getting way too hot, and not cooling well, for what should have been an easy effort.  I was riding in the afternoon in the full sun, but even in the 90s and 100s I didn’t think an easy effort should have required dumping water over my head.

So I put a thermometer that also measured humidity in the full sun near the Valley of Death, just to see what was going on…and it turns out I should have been dumping lots of water over my head while out riding in the full sun.

In full sun, mid to late afternoon, the reading was 106 degrees F, at 30 percent humidity. Far from being hot and humid Florida, in full sun it was more like the desert. The superheated air was evaporating anything it touched. Which is why the moisture gets sucked out of the plants and dirt so easily in the Valley.

After the sun fell past the trees towards sunset, the reading went to 90 F at 50 percent. In the morning, just past dawn, it was 73 F at 90 percent (the Florida I know and love).

I always thought it was just an issue of sterile soil, but its not, it’s extended exposure to the sun.

What is Thriving In the Valley

Society garlic and gaillardia (Gaillardia puchella, aka “blanket flower”) are bombproof. They survive and thrive.

The fernlike Florida native Coontie is surviving, but doesn’t seem like it has grown much, if at all, since we planted it last year.

The red fountain grass (fountain grass rubrum) is essentially a perrenial that is an annual. It’s shot up a few shoots each year to let us know it’s alive, but otherwise it’s just a hunk of dead brown grass.

The gayfeather blazingstar is failing fast, even though it’s supposed to love direct sunlight and gets plenty of water from me. Part of the wildflower mix we planted last fall includes gayfeather, but it hasn’t sprouted yet.

One of the things I discovered about the wildflower mixes we planted (a beach mix in fall 2011, a butterfly mix in fall 2012) is that all the seeds aren’t for all conditions. Some of the wildflower seeds do well in full sun, some are for wetter areas. So the mixes are designed to grow wherever they are planted, but all flowers may not grow in all areas.

The scarlet milkweed you already know about.

The copper canyon daisy is doing just fine, but it is not a native.

Herbs in the Shadow of the Valley of Death

I love to cook and the recipes I like sometimes call for fresh herbs. So I planted some.

I pulled out some planters, my daughter and I planted different seeds in each one, we watered them, and then covered them with clear plastic (like a greenhouse). Pretty soon we had bunches and bunches of little herbs growing.

We put the planters in the shadows under the overhang of the eaves to keep it from getting the blast of full sunlight, or hard hits from heavy rains.

Now we have fresh basil, Italian parsley, and oregano growing. We also have some lavender and spearmint, just for fun, but not for cooking.

My daughter planted some pepper, cucumber, and radish seeds she got on a field trip to Home Depot, and we transplanted those to a better area in the more plant friendly back yard.

Let us get you planted in a new home so you too can become a Florida “native!” Hire St. Augustine Team Realty! Just email Kate Stevens, Broker Associate, or call (904) 377-2276.


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