Florida’s Fall Colors

CREW Flint Pen Strand

by Nan Mattingly & Dick Brewer

If you miss the change of seasons in Florida, don’t despair. You’ll find some brilliant red foliage here in November and December, red leaves that will remind you of New England in fall. Not in the New England kind of abundance, but in flashes of red amidst our lush green forests and wetlands. Look for these plants or trees and their crimson leaves in fall:

photo of poison ivy

Poison ivy: as long as you don’t touch it and expose yourself to its poisonous sap, poison ivy is very attractive when its leaves turn red in autumn. A reliable identification is important, so be aware that poison ivy can take the form of a low-growing plant, a shrub or a climbing vine. Its most distinct characteristic is its green foliage – clusters of three leaves alternating on the stem. Those leaves may be smooth or serrated around the edges, and occasionally you’ll see a leaf that resembles a mitten. In fall poison ivy produces white berries that provide food for birds, deer, raccoons, bears and other wildlife at a time of year when food becomes scarce. Poison ivy is found along many CREW trails, but just remember: leaves of three, let it be. 

photo of red maple

Red maple: red maple trees are found all over the U.S. and Canada. In Florida we have our own showy variety of red maple, the Florida Flame, whose leaves turn a brilliant red in fall and then drop after just a few weeks. This variety has adapted to our environment and prefers to live in wet areas. The first part of the boardwalk at Bird Rookery Swamp is lined with red maples. Note that our red maples are not as tall as those found elsewhere in the U.S., rarely exceeding forty feet in height and showing a slim profile. When the bare trees begin to leaf out again in January or February, the new leaves are tinged with red.

photo of Virginia creeper

Virginia creeper: sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, both plants have red leaves in fall, woody stems and compound leaves, and they can both be aggressive climbers. You can distinguish Virginia creeper by noting that its leaf clusters contain five, not three, leaves. A Virginia creeper vine can grow to 60 feet or longer. Birds, squirrels and deer eat its blue-black berries in fall, and native Americans in Florida used the red leaves to make a pink dye. Some people are sensitive to its sap but the resulting rash is not usually as irritating as that caused by poison ivy. Think twice before you plant it in your yard; it tends to take over and it clings tenaciously to walls, fences, trees, etc., with strong adhesive disks on its tendrils.

photo of winged sumac

Winged sumac: winged sumac is another plant that provides us with flashes of brilliant red in the fall in Florida. A shrub or tree that grows up to fifteen feet tall, winged sumac is not poisonous even though it resembles poison sumac. It’s the larval host and an important nectar source for the red-banded hairstreak butterfly.

photo of a red-banded hairstreak butterfly

You may think that we have only two seasons in southwest Florida – hot and hotter, or dry and wet. But if you get out on the CREW trails in October, November and December, you’ll spot some gorgeous fall foliage that may remind you of the turning leaves found elsewhere. If you’re really lucky, you may enjoy some cool weather, too.    

Pollinators and their Favorite Plants

By Nan Mattingly

Clouded skipper

In Florida, 80 per cent of our food crops depend on pollination by insects, birds and bats to produce seeds and fruits as well as to promote the growth of plants and trees. In natural settings, pollinators are essential to produce the superstars of our forests and wetlands – our many eye-catching wildflowers.

Over thousands of years, plants have cleverly evolved to attract pollinators, developing bigger, showier, more colorful flowers to reel them in. The flower-to-flower visits of pollinators became the most efficient way to spread pollen, which results in seeds or fruits that enable plants and trees to reproduce. 

In Florida, wildflower plants have adapted their size, shape and color to attract certain pollinators – and for that reason we have many unique wildflowers that depend on particular pollinators. Some plants have “generalist” flowers to attract any and all pollinators – opting for survival at all costs.    

In the forests of the CREW Project, you can observe significant pollinator/plant relationships. To help you get started, we’ve provided some examples of common wildflowers and pollinators that are often associated with them. 

Milkweed and monarchs

The magnificent monarch relies on native Florida milkweed as it goes through its annual migratory cycle. Milkweed provides returning monarchs with essential early-spring host resources and abundant, high-quality nectar. But not all milkweed is healthy for pollinators. Most of us are familiar with the showy tropical milkweed which has become a popular landscape plant. Because this version of Florida milkweed (there are 21) has adapted to our suburban settings, it remains green longer than other varieties, encouraging the monarch to linger here and breed too late in the season. It also exposes monarchs to colder temperatures and to the pesticides on lawn plants. At CREW you’ll find more congenial varieties of milkweed for the monarch to deposit its eggs and sip the nectar of the plant. Look for swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed, or aquatic milkweed.

Hairy indigo and the ceraunus blue butterfly

Hairy indigo was introduced in Florida as a ground cover to protect against soil erosion in citrus orchards. As with so many plants brought to Florida for a specific purpose, it has escaped its boundaries and is now seen in natural habitats, where it is a favorite of the delicate ceraunus blue butterfly. Hairy indigo is a low-growing plant with hairy stems and leaves, and in summer it produces a profusion of pink or red spikes of flowers.

Saw palmetto and the great purple hairstreak butterfly

Saw palmetto is a low-growing, winding plant that looks somewhat like a sabal palm lying on its side. In the spring it produces long stalks of yellow-white, fragrant flowers. You can see plenty of saw palmetto at CREW, especially at the two trail systems on Corkscrew Road- CREW Cypress Dome and Marsh Trails. The great purple hairstreak has a few other favorites for collecting nectar, including Bidens alba (also known as Spanish needle), another common sight at CREW. Despite its name, the great purple hairstreak butterfly isn’t really purple; it’s outer wings are brown with a touch of purple, and its underside is an iridescent blue. This butterfly may have multiple sources of nectar but it has only one place to deposit its larvae: on the parasitic oak mistletoe plant.

Pipevine plant and the pipevine swallowtail butterfly

This is another pollinator/plant relationship in which the plant is the larval host for the butterfly as well as its favorite source of nectar. It’s a little unusual because the plant itself is toxic to most butterflies and caterpillars, but the pipevine swallowtail is immune. In fact, that toxicity protects the caterpillars – predators recognize the toxic poison and look for food elsewhere. Pipevine is a climbing woody vine with pipe-shaped burgundy or purple flowers that bloom in May and June.         

Coontie plant and the atala butterfly

The only plant on which the atala will deposit its eggs is the coontie plant, another toxic plant. Atala larvae eat the coontie plant and render the butterfly toxic. The flamboyant red abdomen of the atala is a warning to predators that this butterfly is poisonous. The atala had almost disappeared from Florida until recent conservation efforts restored it to some habitats with abundant coontie plants.

Turkey tangle fogfruit and the white peacock butterfly

You’re almost certain to see a white peacock butterfly on CREW lands. It prefers to eat the leaves and the nectar of turkey tangle fogfruit (try saying that quickly!) but it takes advantage of just about any wildflower offering nectar. The white peacock flies low to the ground so it’s easy to spot.     

The next time you check the pollen count, don’t get mad because pollen stirs up your allergies and makes you cough or sneeze. Be grateful for pollen – it is essential to the successful creation of seeds and fruits that propagate the many wildflowers and plants of CREW.

Wildfile Q& A: What do butterflies and other insects do when it rains, and where do they go?

Ruddy Daggerwing butterfly resting under a leaf

Q: What do butterflies and other insects do when it rains, and where do they go?

Ruddy Daggerwing butterfly resting under a leaf
Ruddy Daggerwing butterfly resting under a leaf by Dick Brewer

Where insects go when it rains depends on how much rain falls and on the species of insect.
If the rain is light enough, many insects stay out and are unaffected.
If the rain is moderate, most insects adapt and seek shelter. Butterflies and many other insects find spots under flowers, leaves, branches, or other vegetation, cling to the spot, and use it like an umbrella. If they are small enough, they may take shelter in a bark crevice.

If the rain is heavy, insects that are more accustomed to dry land will cling to whatever shelter they can find. The heavier the rain, the more substantial shelter they seek so they are not knocked into the water. Even if they are dislodged, it is uncommon for insects to
drown because of heavy rain. Most are just displaced and then find themselves in new surroundings.

Small burrowing insects such as ants find air pockets in underground burrows, even during flooding and flowing water. They require very little oxygen and can survive for weeks using air pockets that are always available even in densely flooded areas.
Insects that frequent water more often, like water beetles and mosquitoes, can negotiate rising, flooding and flowing water with more ease and they simply go with the flow.
                                     -Dick Brewer

Butterfly – Dragonfly Resources

Daggerwing by GELThe following are resources related to butterflies and dragonflies that were mentioned during or suggested by participants or the leader of the Dancing Colors and Tigers of the Sky Strolling Science Seminar held on March 8, 2013 at Bird Rookery Swamp. Enjoy.

If you have other to add, please do so in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

Books/Field Guides:

Butterflies Through Binoculars by J. Glassberg

Dragonflies Through Binoculars by S. Dunkle

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by D. Paulson

Scholarly papers:

Sexual Selection and the Evolution of Butterfly Mating Behavior by R. Rutowski

Odonata Listservs:

“CalOdes Sightings CalOdes” <CalOdes@yahoogroups.com>

“TexOdes Odes” <TexOdes@yahoogroups.com>

“Southeast Odonata” <se-odonata@yahoogroups.com>

“dragonfly listserve” <SoWestOdes@yahoogroups.com>

“great lakes odes” <gl_odonata@yahoogroups.com>

“NE Odonata” <neodes@yahoogroups.com>

“Odonata-l” <odonata-l@listhost.ups.edu>


Return to Strolling Science Seminar page here.

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