Thursday, January 19, 2017

Padded cactus – watch the spines and especially the glochids!

Did you know that we have a native prickly pear cactus?  It is called the Eastern Prickly pear and is found along the East Coast and in parts of the Mid-West.  This low-growing species has attractive yellow flowers and grows in a spreading clump.   Prickly pears or Opuntia such as the Eastern Prickly Pear are classic cactus all native to the New World.  In addition to cultivated ornamental oddities suitable for succulent gardens, some types are even used and grown commercially for food.

All Opuntia are similar in form- generally round to oval, flat to cylindrical connecting pads studded with spines and smaller glochids.  The glochids are particularly irritating tiny spines that can imbed tenaciously to both your cloths and skin.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, some types of Opuntia are spineless or practically so.  Beyond the attractive structural pads which make up the plant, spring flowers in red, yellow, orange or pink are an added welcome feature.  These are in turn followed by attractive edible fruits in shades of red, yellow and orange. These berries are up to three inches long and mature in summer.  They have their own set of tiny irritating glochid spines that must be gingerly prepared.  Peeling the skin off the fruit reveals sweet tart flesh with plenty of seeds.  Special low-spine varieties are grown specifically for the production of nopales and used as vegetable. 

Prick pears do best in sunny sites with well-drained sandy soil.  They are well-adapted to alkaline soils and even tolerate coastal conditions and rock garden habitats.  If they are in a low area where water accumulates after a rain, they will most likely rot out in short order.  While used mostly as a unique specimen, Opuntia may be purposely placed as a protective barrier that no one will want to cross.  Handled carefully with heavy gloves or padded tools made from rolled-up newspaper, these cactus can be moved and planted with relative safety.  Propagation is as easy as simply taking pads removed from the mother plant.  Allow these pieces to dry and callus off at the cut end.  Propagate in moist sand for easy and rapid rooting. 

One of the few pests that your prickly pear may encountered is a certain caterpillar that only feeds on prickly pear cactus.  Appropriately named the Cactoblastus moth, these orange and black spotted caterpillars bore in and hollow out cactus pads.  Secondary rots set in and destroy the pads.  The only control is to remove the infested pads (which may contain numerous caterpillars) and destroy it.  Interestingly enough, this Argentinian moth has been used as a biocontrol in some counties where Opuntia cacti are an invasive pest.

All in all, the Opuntia cactus is an interesting ornamental with edible features.  Carefully handled, specimens can make attractive landscape features.  For more information on all types of cacti suitable for our area, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don't forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times -


Culbert, D. (2006) Prickly Pear for Pain and Pleasure.  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS – Okeechobee County.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The blackberry-lily – a dependable perennial

One flowering perennial plant that does well in our area is the blackberry-lily. We have a planting at our East Port Environmental Campus and it has done excellent!  Often called leopard-lily because of the spotted flowers, the blackberry-lily is really named after the mature inedible fruit that is shaped like a blackberry. A member of the Iris family, the blackberry-lily is a colorful and durable perennial that needs to be planted in more of our local landscapes. If you have never seen a blackberry-lily, the following description will help you appreciate this plant.

Growing at least two feet tall, the leaves of the blackberry-lily are like those of an iris. During our warmer months, the flowers bloom vigorously, lasting only a day or two, but are followed by a constant supply of new blooms. The two-inch flowers are bright orange-yellow in color with reddish spots. A fruit then develops in the form of a three-chambered capsule that opens when ripe to reveal a set of clustered black seeds looking just like a blackberry. This long-lasting seed cluster is often used in dried flower arrangements. While in the northern parts of Florida blackberry-lilies perform as a short-lived perennials, in our area they are evergreen. In the landscape, use blackberry-lilies as a groundcover, along a walkway or in mass planting as a focal accent. In a mass planting, set individual plants about three feet apart for best coverage. While blackberry-lilies like full sun, these perennials have the ability to flower abundantly even in partial shade. One source even indicates that they do best in light to moderate shade in our climate – I would recommend this. In fact, leaf scorch can occur during the summer in full sun, so keep this in mind when picking a planting site. Plant these lilies in a well-drained site with plenty of organic matter. Well-drained soil is a must as crown rots can develop in wet soils. Blackberry-lilies are drought-tolerant once they are established and are considered Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ plants.

Blackberry-lilies can get crowded as they develop into larger clumps and will benefit from division from time to time – every third or fourth year – to encourage top flower production. Seeds can also be germinated to produce more plants. There are other blackberry-lily relatives sometimes available including the dwarf blackberry-lily and candy-lilies. The dwarf blackberry-lily only grows about 12 inches tall and has yellow flowers occasionally spotted with orange. Candy-lilies are hybrids that produce spotted or streaked flowers in many different colors including red, orange, blue, purple, pink and yellow in single and bicolor cultivars. They are much more colorful than the other blackberry-lily relatives and are worth growing. Where can you find these perennials? Check at local garden centers or explore mail-order Internet sources. If you don’t see them locally, ask to see if a garden center will order them. If you like perennials, blackberry-lilies are a good selection!  For more information on all types of perennials suitable for our area, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don't forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times -

Garofalo, J. (2002) Blackberry-lily, A Flowering Perennial for South Florida. Miami-Dade County - the University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Gilman, E.F. (2014) Belamcanda chinensis. UF/IFAS Extension Service.

The Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape Design (2010) the University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The wheel bug is a real bug

One fairly large true bug found throughout Florida (and Charlotte County) is called the wheel bug.  The wheel bug is a true bug (Hemiptera) growing well over one-inch long.  This insect is called a wheel bug because of the stunning crest on the thorax that reminds one of a cogged wheel.  An interesting large insect in its own right, the wheel bug is also know to deliver a bite more painful than a bee sting if handled.  To its favor, the wheel bug is also a superior beneficial insect feeding on many landscape pests.  Have you seen one?

To see an adult wheel bug is to see a strange creature which is dark brown to gray in color with long legs, long antennae and a long, wicked-looking robust curved beak attached to its narrow head sporting beady eyes.  The crest is also very noticeable almost looking like a small chicken comb attached to its back.  The females are larger than the males and lay eggs side-by-side in large clusters above ground level.  The eggs actually look just like tiny brown bottles with while stoppers.  The eggs hatch into miniature versions of the adults (minus the crest) called nymphs.  The nymphs are red and black in color and are voracious feeders of aphids and defoliating caterpillars.  They are also known to be cannibalistic and may feed on each other in a pinch.  Adult females have also been known to eat males after breeding.  Being a member of the stinkbug family, they also have the ability to release a pungent odor if bothered.

It is not likely that you will want to bother this beneficial assassin bug.  As mentioned earlier, the bite inflicted by the stabbing beak injects a toxic salvia that causes a stinging sensation worse than most stinging insects.  The bite may remain numb for several days becoming red and hot to the touch.  The spot may turn white and hard and slough off leaving a small hole.  Complete healing may take up to two weeks.  Seek emergency medical assistance if any allergic  reactions occur. 

The moral of this story is to remember not to handle a wheel bug.  These insects have beneficial qualities as a biological control for some insect  pests, but they do not want you to handle them!   Enjoy them from a safe distance!  For more information on all types of beneficial insects, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don't forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times -

Mead, F. W. (2014) Wheel Bug, Arilus cristatus (Linnaeus) Insecta: Hemiptera: Reduviidae). The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

New year’s gardening resolutions for 2017

We all need to look towards the future for personal improvement and goal setting.  The backyard gardener should be no different and the New Year is a great time to make some resolutions that will benefit any landscape.  Let's look at some tips, techniques and strategies that will make your horticultural experience in Southwest Florida the best in 2017.

Your first resolution should be to water properly. 
Ø  Water your lawn and other plants only when they show signs of stress. 
Ø  Calibrate your sprinkler(s) to apply 1/2 to 3/4 inch of water per application.
Ø  Mow lawns high to encourage a deeper, more drought and pest tolerant root system.  
Ø  Use a drip or micro-spray irrigation system to more efficiently water plant and flower beds.
Secondly, feed your palms correctly.    Nutritional deficiencies not only lead to unthrifty looking plants, but may also to the eventual death of the palm.  All of these nutrients must be provided in proper balance for good growth and healthy plants. A complete palm fertilizer in a slow-release formula is the best maintenance fertilizer to use on a regular basis as per the label instructions.  Broadcast the fertilizer under the canopy and not up against the trunk or in thick bands.  As a general recommendation, we suggest that you get your palm on a granular fertilizer - 8-2-12-4 (or 8-0-12-4) applied in November, February and May as per label directions.  In August, use a 0-0-16-6, again as per label directions.

Next, make sure to prune your palms responsibly.  Palms need to retain all of their good, functional leaves.  These leaves are the "solar panels" of the palm- food making devises needed to keep the plant alive.  Premature removal of good fronds unnecessarily weakens these plants which may predispose them to secondary problems.  What are some acceptable reasons for pruning a palm?  Removing dead fronds makes the palm look better and improves the overall appearance of the landscape.  Dead fronds which are loosely attached to the palm may fall and injure people or damage property.  Removing flower/fruit clusters is also fine.  Over-pruning can be detrimental to a palm, however. "Hurricane cuts", as they are called, stresses the palm to a point where there is an increased chance of disease and insect invasion.    New fronds take time to emerge and green fronds should be protected and preserved. 

Next, resolve to plant the "right plant, in the right place".   Sensible selection of plant materials based on some knowledge of the plant is always best.  For example, a shade-loving plant will not do well in a full-sun site.  A plant that requires a somewhat drier environment may rot in a site regularly watered.  A tree that may grow up to sixty-foot tall and over one-hundred feet wide would not be a good choice planted next to a house.  Get to know your plant materials and analyze your site before you plant.  Let our Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ program (FFL) help you with this!

In 2017, use pesticides properly! Key to the proper use of a pesticide is making sure to READ THE LABEL, THE LABEL IS THE LAW!  The pesticide label is a legal document that must be followed to the letter. The label gives you a wealth of information such as which pests it will control, what hosts it can be applied to, how to mix the chemical, when it should it be applied, how much and how often and how to protect yourself and the environment.  Each label will contain a Signal Word that will call attention to the degree of toxicity of each individual pesticide.  For instance, a Caution label indicates that it is slightly toxic.  A Warning signal word will indicate a pesticide that is moderately toxic.   For a home garden, stick to materials with Caution labels to help minimize safety issues or use suggested non-toxic cultural controls.

The last resolution that I would like you to ponder for 2017 is to get to know your bugs, especially good bugs.  Good bugs can also be called beneficial insects.  Beneficial bugs are all around us and help maintain the balance of nature as it relates to insect pests in and around our landscape.  A lady beetle eating an aphid is an example of this. These insects are generally orange with black spots but may also appear in shades of brown, red or black, with or without spots.  The larvae look like a miniature alligator with a scaly, elongated black and orange body.  Both adults and larvae eat aphids, scale insects, mealybugs, whiteflies, and mites.  Another beneficial insect is known as the lacewing.  In both brown and green forms, this insect produces a larva built for killing and eating aphids.  Large pincher mouthparts grab prey and suck fluids from them.  Let our office help you identify good and bad bugs. 

Are you ready for 2017?  Let the Charlotte County Extension Service help you with all of your horticultural educational needs.  For more information on all types of gardening subjects, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don't forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times -

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The kalanchoe – blazing holiday color

Have you seen the colorful flowering succulents called kalanchoes in garden centers nestled amongst the poinsettias, Christmas cacti, and Norfolk Island pines?  Kalanchoes offer long-lasting florescent flowers which make a great holiday gift plant.  This Holiday gift plant keeps on giving as it can be put in the landscape for re-bloom purposes next season. 

There are many, many types of kalanchoe in cultivation with over one-hundred and twenty-five species available.  The kalanchoe known as Kalanchoe blossfeldiana  is native to Madagascar and was introduced in 1932 by Robert Blossfeld.    Grown for its red, pink, yellow, white and salmon flowers, the species  is named after Mr. Blossfeld, a German hybridizer.   This plant blooms as a result of shorter days at this time of year just like poinsettias.  The small, four-petaled flowers are arranged in clusters that combine to make a stunning flower head.  Indoors as a potted plant, the flowers will last for some time when kept in a bright sunny area.  Do not overwater as root rots can develop.  Allow the soil to dry between waterings and make sure to take off any decorative foil wrap to ensure proper drainage. 

Once the weather has settled sometime in March, your kalanchoe can be planted outside in a full sun to part shade  location.   Gradually adjust the plant to outdoor conditions as it can otherwise sunburn.   Well-drained soil is essential and once established, the kalanchoe can be considered highly drought tolerant and recommended as a Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ plant.  The glossy scalloped leaves will serve as a groundcover of sorts during the summer when there will be few if any flowers.  Kalanchoes will also look good in rock gardens, in raised planters and in stand-alone containers.  Once the day length begins to shorten in October, new flower buds will begin to develop.  Now while Holiday kalanchoes may have had their daylight artificially manipulated to induce flowering, outdoor specimens will adapt to the natural light cycles and most likely begin to bloom in January and then on through spring.  They can be cold sensitive and will most likely require some frost/freeze protection if cold weather settles in. 

While most kalanchoes can grow up to one-foot tall, there are some named dwarf cultivars such as ‘Pumila’ and ‘Tetra Vulcan’.  Otherwise the color selection is based on your taste.  Both single and double-flowering varieties are available in a range of almost florescent colors.  The kalanchoe is just another nice Holiday plant to consider as a gift to others or for yourself!  For more information on all types of plants suitable for gift-giving, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don't forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times -

Gilman, E. F. (2014) Kalanchoe blossfeldiana .  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Trinklein, D. H. (2014) Care of Flowering Potted Plants.  The University of Missouri Extension Service.
Winter, N. ( 2016) Kalanchoe brings top holiday color.  Mississippi State University Extension Service. 
Davenport,  M. (2007)  Kalanchoe.  Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service

The Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape Design (2010)the University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Enjoying your poinsettia after the holidays

What seasonal plant better rings in the Holiday than the cuetlaxochitl!  For that matter, what is a cuetlaxochitl?  Would the name Euphorbia pulcherrima ring a bell?  No?  How about the poinsettia?  This holiday charmer has a rich history that equals its brilliant color.

The name “cuetlaxochitl” is the Aztec word for the poinsettia.  In fact, before the poinsettia became a famous houseplant, the Aztecs used it in their fall celebrations.  As history goes, Joel R. Poinsett, United States Ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant to the United States in 1825.  “The most beautiful Euphorbia” or Eurphorbia pulcherrima, was well on its way to becoming a botanical and economic success story.  By 1836, the plant was known by the name poinsettia in honor of Ambassador Poinsett.

After extensive work and marketing in the plant industry including the famous Paul Ecke Ranch, the poinsettia is now an indispensable part of the Holiday season.  They are actually woody tropical perennials with colorful bracts in shades of red, white, pink, and assorted novelty multicolor types with spots or blotches.  The modified leaves or bracts are the colorful portion of the plant.  The actual flowers are insignificant - small green and yellow structures in the center of the bract cluster.  Selection of an individual plant will of course vary with your particular color desires.  Poinsettias may be multi-stemmed or single-stemmed; some are even trained into a tree-form.  Regardless, make sure that the plant is not broken and check for insects (whiteflies) and diseases before purchasing.  While we may think of the poinsettia as a pot plant, keep in mind that it does make a suitable subject for outdoor culture in our area.  Also, Poinsettias are not poisonous, although some people are mildly allergic to their sap.

After you have enjoyed your poinsettia for the Holiday, harden it off in preparation for planting outdoors by slowly acclimating it to the outside environment.  Select a full-sun planting site that will provide a moist, well-drained soil.  Very important item - locate a spot that is not near artificial light sources such as streetlights or light from windows.  If the dark period required for setting flowers is interrupted, flowers will form late or not at all.   Flower buds are usually set by early October, as the nights become longer.  Feed poinsettias monthly applications of a complete fertilizer starting in March through October.  Water as needed to keep the soil moderately moist.

Pruning will also help develop a bushy, attractive plant.  Prune poinsettias back to about eighteen inches in the early spring.  Pinch new growth when it reaches twelve inches back so that there are four leaves left per stem.  Repeat this process until September 10th and no later.  There must be enough time for this final growth to mature before setting buds.

While poinsettias are very sensitive to cold, if freeze damage occurs, prune out the truly dead portions in March.  The remainder of the plant should recover without a problem.

Don’t be the only one without a poinsettia in your yard in 2017!  Not only can you treasure the blooms at Christmas, but also have a decent tropical shrub that will be ornamentally useful for years to come.  For more information on all types of Holiday plants, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don't forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times -

The History of the Poinsettia (Paul Ecke Ranch), 2016.
Black, R. J., Tjia, B. & Sheehan, T. J. Poinsettias for Florida  Landscapes. University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, IFAS.

Park Brown, S. (2013) Poinsettias at a Glance. University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, IFAS

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Yellow stars twinkle in the backyard garden

Some fruits are either feast or famine and the star fruit is one of those wonders.  This fall, not only was our starfruit at the East Port Environmental Campus Demonstration Garden producing, several Master Gardeners were also bringing in bags of extra fruit to share – nice!  Whether you call it carambola, star fruit or five-finger, the fruit tree known scientifically as Averrhoa carambola is exotic, tasty, and makes a nice ornamental yard tree. Why not try this tree fruit in your own back yard?

First, let me quote word for word from our UF/IFAS publication, "People who have been diagnosed with kidney disease should not eat carambola (star fruit) unless their doctor says it is safe for them to eat. This fruit may contain enough oxalic acid to cause a rapid decline in renal function." Please keep this important warning in mind.   Originally from Southeast Asia, the carambola has been grown in Florida for over one hundred years and is commercially produced in Dade, Lee, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. This fruit is commonly seen in produce departments in most grocery stores and is familiar to almost everyone. The carambola tree is small to medium in size, evergreen to semi-evergreen depending on winter temperatures and may have a single or multiple trunks. The small, but colorful pink to lavender flowers are about three-eighths of an inch long. The flowers are followed by a fleshy waxy berry from two to six-inches long with five lobbed ribs that appear star-shaped when cut in cross-section. It takes about seventy-five days from the time the fruit sets until it is ready to pick. There are also about twelve edible seeds per fruit. Carambolas really appreciate being protected from windy sites. As a matter of fact, wind damaged trees will show browning or distorted leaves, some stem dieback, fruit damage and general stunted growth. Keeping carambola trees pruned to about twelve feet tall will also help increase hurricane resistance. Select a site to plant your carambola that is in full sun, out of the wind and is well drained. If necessary, plant the tree on a mound of soil to raise it up above areas that sometimes flood. Build the mound three to four foot high and four to ten feet wide using native soil. Carambolas are not tolerant of salty conditions and also may show nutrient deficiencies in high pH soils. As the tree matures, it tolerance to cold and freezing will improve. Generally, at temperatures of twenty to twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit, large branches and even mature trees may die. Accordingly, some protection may be necessary during the coldest of our winter weather.

Carambola normally have two major crops per year ready from August through September and from December through February. There will also be scattered smaller crops. A five year old tree can produce up to one hundred pounds per tree. Mature trees can eventually supply you with over two-hundred and fifty pounds a year. It is no wonder why carambola tree owners are always giving fruit away to friends and neighbors! A complete fertilizer suitable for tropical fruits used as per label directions will keep the tree productive and healthy. In addition, foliar applications of micronutrients may be needed to ward off deficiencies. Variety selection is as much an issue of what is available in the local garden centers, and what your personal tastes are. Carambolas are either sweet or tart - some tart varieties will even sweeten up if left on the tree to ripen further. ‘Arkin’ is a cultivar that originated in Florida, has a sweet flavor and is very well suited for backyard production. ‘Lara’ is another variety from Florida that is also sometimes available. ‘Fwang Tung’ is also recommended.   Local box store garden centers and specialty nurseries regularly carry carambola.  Carambola is a great dooryard fruit tree that is easy to grow and produces an abundance of tasty fruit.  Perhaps give one as a gift to someone this Holiday Season! For more information on all types of fruit to grow in our area, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don't forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times -   

Resource: Crane, J. H. (2013) Carambola Growing in the Florida Home Landscape. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.