Saturday, March 23, 2013

Rain Day

I was all set to go on an Alachua Audubon Society sponsored wildflower tour this morning, led by Dr. Dana Griffin, who taught "Local Flora" at the University of Florida for years. I went on his tour last year and it was great. But just as we were meeting and getting ready to start, it began to rain and thunder. Very quickly, my desire to get out and learn more local wildflowers gave way to not wanting to be cold and wet or hit by lightning, so I went home, very disappointed. I'm sure if any brave souls persevered, they learned and saw all sorts of marvelous things, because not long after I got home, the rain let up. Figures. It's hard to make the right call sometimes. The forecast was for rain most of the day, so it was a crap shoot. Oh well. But then my husband and I went on a walk with our dogs, and I noticed that there were a bunch of pretty flowers blooming along the creek near my house, so I decided to take a self-guided walk. I was a good guide. I showed myself lots of new spring blooms, frogs and birds. I tried to focus on the native wildflowers, and ignored the exotics, although it was a little hard. The gaudy pink Oxalis blooms were kind of distracting and the Common Vetch tricked me into taking a photo, but I didn't get hung up. Even though the Duckpond Neighborhood Association and the City beautifully landscaped the creek with appropriate native plants, it is still plagued with invasive exotics that are channeled down the waterway. But still, it is a lovely little creek. I visit it often, especially when I'm looking for tadpoles. Sometimes I've seen River Otters and Raccoons there. Today, I saw mostly squirrels and birds, including the elusive flock of Cedar Waxwings that seem to appear whenever I  can't photograph them. How do they know? It was too cloudy and rainy for butterflies, but it was perfect for snails.
Garden Snail
The flowers that caught my eye in the first place, while I was walking the dogs, were the Oakleaf Fleabane (Erigeron quercifolius). They were blooming all along the creek in such pretty clusters.
Oakleaf Fleabane
I saw a few bright yellow False Dandelions (Pyrrohappis carolinianus). I can always recognize these flowers from the color. They're a particularly bright shade of yellow, not the golden of true Dandelions. A Dandelion gets its name, not because they look like "dandy lions", but from the French, "dent de lion", or "lion's tooth", after the serrated petals that look like teeth. I learned this little fact on last year's tour.
False Dandelion
There were clusters of the most common spring flowers blooming at this time of year: Lyre Leaf Sage (Salvia lyriata) and Toadflax (Linaria canadensis) and Blue Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium) and Betony (Stachys floridana) in the grass and mixed in among the greenery on the banks. The Betony is especially glorious right now, so pretty and pink.
Lyre Leaf Sage

Lyre Leaf Sage Bed


Blue Eyed Grass Patch

Florida Betony (See the Spider in the background?)
At this time of year, no landscape is without Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) or Beggar's Tick (Bidens alba). In sunnier weather, there would be bees and probably butterflies nectaring on both, but not today.
Wet Spiderwort

Beggar's Tick
The tiny white flower clusters and interesting seeds of Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum) help me recognize this plant. Sometimes called "Poor Man's Pepper", Pepperweed tastes spicy and hot. It is in the same family as watercress. It is also a host plant for Checkered White, Great Southern White and Cabbage White butterflies, so it's a good one to keep around.
There were hundreds of tiny and lovely wild Geraniums (Geranium carolinianum) peeking out of their foliage, but you have to look carefully to see them. The flowers are very small.
Wild Geranium
A few tufts of Watercress (Nasturtium officianale) were growing along the banks of the creek, and a clusters of Walter's Viburnum (Viburnum obovatum) flowers were opening on the bushes.

Walter's Viburnum
The Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) and Green Arrow Arum (Peltandra virginica) were just starting to bloom again after winter. There were just a few plants today, but soon there will be purple and green all along the banks.
Pickerel Weed

Green Arrow Arum
So the day was not lost. I enjoyed my tour. But it's a lot more work guiding myself. I have to look up and identify everything I see. I'll look forward to following and learning from an expert next time.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

I Love You to Death

River Trip in Desolation Canyon, Utah
I really like being in wild places. There's nothing like the smell of fresh mountain air, or the silence of the desert or the wet green of the jungle. It's thrilling to step into the new and unknown, where the plants and animals in their natural habitat are the rule and people and all our stuff are the exception. It changes your life when you look out over the red rock formations in Southern Utah, the glaciers of Patagonia, or the spring fed rivers of North Florida. I'm not alone in wanting to get closer to nature. Ecotourism is increasingly popular and now one can easily visit places only dreamed about by past generations. And herein lies the ongoing dilemma. On the one hand, interest in nature supports the creation and sustenance of preserves and parks. When people want to see penguins or elephants or hike a mountain trail, they will pay for the privilege. Visitors pay admission fees which in turn pay for the operation of the parks. Governments support popular parks and preserves. Tourists pour money into the communities that surround parks and preserves in the form of dining, lodging and transportation. Nature lovers buy camping equipment and expensive cameras and binoculars. All these purchases direct money into the connected communities and industries. Ecotourism is arguably good for local economies and gives communities more reason to protect the land, plants and animals. But on the other hand, as the tourist destination thrives, the stress on the protected area increases too. Visitors require basic services such as bathrooms and water. If the site is popular enough, entrepreneurs will rise to the occasion and build hotels, restaurants and gift shops, which encourages even more visitors. Soon there are lines to see the geysers and people crowded around every wild animal for photo ops. The hotel employees and tour guides also need services, such as grocery stores and gas stations. More people and more money lead to more garbage and pollution. As the towns and cities grow, natural areas give way to roads and houses and waste treatment plants. Even if we avoid the tourist towns and stay in remote areas, our mere presence changes the once pristine habitat. We may be careful packing out all that we brought in, but we crush plants and insects as we walk, accidentally (or not) leave trash, and introduce foreign organisms on our clothing and gear. We have an impact.

Cryptobiotic Soil in Desolation Canyon. 
This week I read an alarming article about the declining numbers of Monarch Butterflies in this year's migration from Mexico. The article, by a zoologist here at the University of Florida, talks about several possible causes for the decreased numbers, all of which are related to humans, and a general failure of stewardship. Climate change, pesticide use and loss of habitat are disturbing, but did not surprise me. But what was upsetting was reading that we have disrupted the ecosystem to the point that merely visiting the colonies of butterflies was causing them to die. Logging has gone unchecked in the area, leading to erosion, and the huge numbers of butterfly loving hikers now raise dust clouds when they walk on the dirt paths to the trees where the monarchs winter. The dust clogs the butterfly spiracles (breathing holes), causing them to suffocate. Numbers of visitors are supposed to be limited to protect the monarchs, but demand to see them is trumping the concern for the resource. We are loving them to death. It really should not be surprising.  As we insert ourselves into previously remote places, we are bound to see changes.

This got me thinking about whether or not we can simultaneously sustain wild and natural areas, and at the same time, bring large numbers of visitors to see them. At what point would it be better to visit a zoo or botanic garden, rather than go to the source?  Can we control the flow and impact of people in natural areas by issuing very limited numbers of permits? And would it be best to fence off some vast areas where people can't go at all, so that we don't just foul up everything?  But if we control the numbers of visitors, or don't visit at all, what happens to the lives of the people who have come to depend on the new eco-economy? And who should we limit? I don't want to lose my chance to see the wonders of the world and I'm sure no one else does, either. And is limiting access fair? What about people who are not able bodied? Shouldn't they have access, too? I thought about this a lot as we traveled around Patagonia this fall. I saw the impact on the environment in the form of trash, tour buses full of people and all the connected hotel, food and sewage services, and city growth encroaching into neighboring forests. But without the tourists, would growth have occurred anyway, but without any thought of protecting the penguins or glaciers?  

I know there are parks and eco-lodges that do a really good job of preserving the natural areas that the visitors come to see. But I think that we can't fool ourselves into thinking that it is harmless for us to be there, just because we are being careful. We have an impact. The trick is in keeping that impact small. I still want to see the world, and I feel conflicted about how to do it. I really don't have the answers. 
Bear and Cub, Desolation Canyon, Utah

Friday, March 8, 2013


Spring weather is really moving into gear now and I was just outside doing a little weeding in our front yard. Actually, there are very few plants that come up in the yard that I pull because I consider them to be pesky weeds. I yank out anything invasive and exotic, like Oxalis (pretty flowers, but spreads like crazy by obnoxious little corms), Ardesia (spreads by pretty berries) and Camphor tree sprouts. I also pull up Bidens (read my blog post to understand why) and Sedge Grass. But mostly what I do is try to contain the exuberance of the native plants that self-seed, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, by doing some creative thinning.

Bumper Crop of Betony
One native plant that is going gangbusters this year is Stachys floridana, otherwise known as Florida Betony or Rattlesnake Weed. When we first moved to Florida and I set out to tame our new yard, I found a huge patch of Betony. It was growing in a patch of ornamental grass and ivy, so I figured it should be pulled out. And when I pulled, I learned why they call it "Rattlesnake Weed". When you pull up a handful of the green stems and leaves, you also get a tangle of white roots, festooned with tubers that resemble a snake's rattle. I wasn't sure what to think of them when I first saw them and was frankly a little creeped out. But later I learned a secret. You can eat them! The tubers are sweet and starchy, with a texture somewhat like a radish and a flavor like jicama. They're delightful!

Betony Roots Tubers and Roots
Stachys floridana is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). It has a square stem and hairy, heart shaped opposite leaves with scalloped edges. It flowers in the spring, with dainty pink blossoms in the shape characteristic of the mint and sage family. It was once thought to be a Florida endemic, which means it only occurs in Florida, but has since been found outside of the state. In fact, betony is classified as an invasive exotic in N. Georgia and and is on a watch list for North Carolina and Tennessee. Just another example of what bad things happen when a perfectly good plant is transported outside of its ecosystem.  There are no natural pests or diseases to keep it in check, and soon it takes over and outcompetes native species. In Florida, where it is native, Stachys is still considered a landscape and lawn weed in many places and people spend a lot of money and time trying to get rid of it. I guess that people don't like the way it looks. I feel happy that we have the type of yard and live in the type of neighborhood that it is ok to just let the Betony grow, because I think it's rather pretty and interesting.

Stachys floridana in bloom
So now, while I still thin the Betony when we get too much, I always leave some so I can see the pretty flowers. And I munch as I go. If we're lucky, I can gather enough to toss into a salad.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Life-long Learning

When I was a kid I missed the message that science could be fun. Somehow I came to believe that science was only for nerdy brainiacs, but not for the rest of us. I thought that scientists were born smarter than everyone else. (Meanwhile, I collected butterflies, loved wildflowers and being outside, and had a great time at the Natural History Museum. Those things were fun and I never associated them with science.) My uneasiness with science was reinforced in middle school where I earned my first "C" in a class taught by a grim woman, known for being tough. I remember studying blood types and being unable to poke my own finger with a razor blade. She grabbed my finger, jabbed it hard and sent me away. In high school, our biology class was taught by the football coaches. The class focused on memorizing long lists of terms for multiple choice quizzes and tests and dissecting fetal pigs, frogs, earthworms and grasshoppers. I don't remember anything that I learned from either teacher, except that I hated science. After those two experiences, I spent most of my time in school avoiding anything that looked like a science class and tried instead to fill requirements with the classes that sounded like something that I, as a "non brainiac" could handle. In college, I was able to get by with science classes that were more historical or philosophical than "scientific". I majored in English. I'm glad I did, because I love to read and write, and I love the language. I can still recite the first 18 lines of the Canterbury Tales from memory! But it never felt like the perfect fit.

Along the way, I met and married my husband, who is a really smart and creative person, but is very far from being a "nerdy brainiac". He was not a scientist when we met, but after the first few years we were married, he went back to college and developed an interest in chemistry. He went on to get a Ph.D and is now a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I realized from observing him over the years that 1) science is really interesting and cool, and 2) that you don't have to be a brainiac to do it, but you do have to work hard to learn it well, and 3) that I wish I'd figured this out before, because I should have studied entomology or wildlife ecology.

I observe and photograph flowers and butterflies in our Butterfly Garden
Of course, it's not too late. I could go back to college in my 50's, and I may still consider it.  But meanwhile, I've discovered numerous other ways to study. First, there is Informal Education. The Cooperative Extension offers a Master Gardener program that I got involved with when we first moved to Florida. Later, I learned about the Master Naturalist program and have completed the three main courses for that. I attend nature walks, lectures and workshops whenever I can and get my education outside of the formal class setting. As I've learned more, I've gotten the confidence and mastery to able to share my knowledge with others. I volunteer with several organizations where I get to be a naturalist interpreter or teach lessons about nature. I also take photographs of what I see and this has turned into a passion. I spend many hours searching out the perfect photo of a migrating bird, special butterfly or unusual native plant, and follow that up by researching what I've seen. I love just going out and taking the photos, but I've also been able to share my work with parks, nature organizations, friends and family. Some of my photos are even in a nature viewing app! I have a couple of children's books in progress, using my photos and knowledge of local flora and fauna and I hope some day to be able to share them with local organizations.
Insect Trap in our yard--part of the Wildlife Survey
Then, there is Citizen Science! Over the years, I have gotten involved in numerous projects where I can make observations and report my findings to help scientists with their research. I've observed birds, flowers and butterflies. I've offered our yard to scientists studying Zebra Long-wing Butterfly clustering behavior, Mockingbird Nests, and currently, a 3-year Survey of Wildlife in yards with Native Plants. Research dollars are very tight these days and scientists need help from the Citizen Scientists to get out in the field and observe and collect. (Basically, they need people to do the fun stuff while they have to spend their time writing grants and papers!) Next on my list: Native Bee Nest Habitat Project!

Bee Housing (Some of the apartments are already rented!)
What I'm getting at here is that it's not too late to follow your heart and do what you love. If you missed the first chance, follow the next. There are many paths to happiness and fulfillment. You just need to find yours. Or if you can't find a path, make a new one.

Here are some links to Citizen Science and Self Directed Study:

Project Feeder Watch

Mapping the Brain at

NPR Story about Creating your own education path