Florida’s Surprising Spring Plants – Cathy Dunn

Florida's Surprising Spring Plants

April 8, 2021
By Cathy Dunn - Garden Club of Cape Coral (Special to The BreezeCape Coral Breeze

Click Here for full article in the Cape Coral Breeze

As a new Florida gardener, I was excited to think that I had landed in a spot where everything bloomed year-round. It was quite a surprise to learn that there are many plants that are dormant or drop their leaves and appear to die during the cool winter season. I actually discovered this quite by accident!

During my first summer here, I couldn’t resist purchasing a curcuma plant that was lush and flowering beautifully. As the summer progressed, it began to look a little less wonderful, so I did some research and decided I had placed it in a pot in too much sun on my lanai. So off to the shaded bed it went, protected by a palm tree’s shadow. But this didn’t appear to be a solution – the plant looked more pathetic with each passing day.

Being a total garden perfectionist, I finally lopped off the few remaining pitiful leaves and dutifully planted another specimen in its place to avoid a hole in my garden.

The following spring, I was shocked to find tightly furled leaves emerging around the bromeliad I had planted in what I thought was an open spot – it was the curcuma re-emerging! The bromeliad was quickly dispatched to another location and the curcuma was beautiful all summer, and in the fall, I happily cut it back knowing that it would emerge again in the spring.

I have several other plants that follow this pattern: a button ginger that is just now poking a few spikes up through the ground, a curcuma variety commonly known as “Siam Tulip,” and a fabulous Black Flamingo (Chrysothemis Pulchella), which is featured in the Edison Ford Gardens. These plants are so striking that I can endure an empty space for a few months while anticipating beautiful new growth each spring.

You have no doubt noticed plants and deciduous trees that go dormant and lose their leaves during the winter months. Plants such as caladium, canna, eucomis (pineapple lilies), goldenrod, plumeria and some varieties of ginger will die back in the cooler months, and emerge again when the temperatures warm, usually in early April. Deciduous shrubs and trees such as spirea, crape myrtle, beautyberry, sweetgum and red maples will lose most of their leaves, and burst back in March and April.

Many of our most beautiful flowering trees begin blooming in early winter, then lose their leaves and put on a final show of spectacular blossoms when all the leaves have fallen. The Hong Kong Orchid (Bauhinia), Trumpet Tree (Tabebuia), Silk Cotton Tree (Kapok), Golden Rain (Cassia), Jacaranda and Royal Poinciana are among our most exotic trees that drop their leaves, but the reward of long lived tropical blooms is well worth the brief leafless period.

Since we don’t often experience the dramatic temperature changes between seasons that we were familiar with in more northern climates, you might wonder what triggers dormancy in Florida plants. Most of our plants respond to the changing length of daylight hours, or the photoperiod, rather than a drastic change in temperatures. As the days shorten in November and December, plants respond by changing color or dropping leaves; even turfgrass growth slows in response to shorter days. Many of our landscape plants slow their growth in response to the shorter daylight hours as well; “annual” flowering plants in my mixed containers will shed many of their leaves and reduce blooming but are now filling out again in response to the longer days.

Bulbs are among the most familiar dormant plants that emerge in spring. Florida’s climate is well suited for a variety of tropical and subtropical bulbs, including Agapanthus, Amaryllis, Crinum Lilies, Crocosmia and Hurricane, Rain and Spider Lilies. Unlike bulbs such as daffodils and tulips that are planted in northern climates for spring blooms, these bulbs do not need to be pre-chilled. Bulbs can be divided or planted in fall, and you can also give bulbs a head start by planting them in pots in early spring and transplanting them to your garden beds after blooming.

The University of Florida has excellent detailed information on growing bulbs in Florida: https://ufdc.ufl.edu/R00002886/ 00001 and https://gardeningsolutions.ifas. ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/bulbs-for-florida.html

Gardening in Southwest Florida is a fascinating hobby that offers surprises and new discoveries for even seasoned gardeners! Our abundant sunshine and warmth provide a wonderful tonic for the soul, and the best news is that these ideal growing conditions are not limited to spring and summer as in northern areas. We are fortunate to have a wide variety of plants that ensure that something is always blooming in our landscape, and an excellent resource in the University of Florida to guide us as we explore the wonders of our subtropical climate!

Cathy Dunn is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer and Garden Club of Cape Coral member.

Magical monarchs — Cathy Dunn

Magical monarchs

Jan 14, 2021
By Cathy Dunn - Garden Club of Cape Coral (Special to The BreezeCape Coral Breeze
Click Here for full article in the Cape Coral Breeze
The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is perhaps the most widely recognized butterfly in the world. Many people are familiar with the migration of West Coast monarchs to California and East Coast monarchs to Mexico; monarchs are the only butterfly species in the world that undertakes such a long-distance round-trip migration. Most people, however, are not aware that Florida has a monarch population that does not migrate. Attracted by our warm climate and continuously available host plants, monarchs that usually migrated from Canada and the northeast settled in South Florida and decided to stay. This Florida population now stays in the state year-round and continuously breeds; scientists speculate that the warm climate stimulates their reproductive behavior, which then disrupts their hormonal balance and results in the loss of their ability to migrate north.

Monarch larvae feed almost exclusively on milkweed plants, and the butterfly’s range depends on the availability of host plants for larvae and nectar plants for adults. Florida has about 20 milkweed species; all are native except the tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. The tropical milkweed has attractive red and yellow blooms, and is the variety most readily available in garden centers; however it poses some problems for butterflies, and native varieties are recommended. I have both native and tropical milkweed species in my gardens and I have noted that the monarchs have a distinct preference for the tropical variety! In addition to the milkweed host plant, nectar plants to sustain the adult monarchs are a must for the butterfly garden; native nectar plants include mist flower, cat’s tongue, goldenrod, Spanish needles and liars. A full list of milkweed and nectar plants can be found on the UF/IFAS Extension web site. Click here: Milkweed and Nectar Plants

Monarchs weigh less than one gram, with adults averaging about half a gram. Typically, monarchs live between 2 and 6 weeks; the butterflies that undertake the long migration to California or Mexico do not become sexually mature because of the cooler temperatures, which also conserves their energy. When spring arrives, the monarchs become mature and reproduce, beginning the first new generation that will migrate north. As these monarchs make their way north, their offspring continue the journey and will reproduce over the summer; the monarchs that travel south in the fall have never been south before! Monarchs can lay over 1,000 eggs in their lifetime, but most probably average 400-500 eggs. The progression from egg to adult takes about one month. Eggs are laid on the milkweed plant; each individual egg is about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Once the eggs hatch, the familiar black, white and yellow striped monarch larva (caterpillar) emerges to feed on milkweed and grow very rapidly – in fact they grow so fast that they shed their skin five times before they pupate! The larvae then transform into pupa, also known as a chrysalis.

Newly formed chrysalis

The chrysalis is a jade color with gold markings, suspended from the underside of leaves by a silk button that the larva spins. The larva forms its body into a J-shape and the skin splits and falls away; underneath the old skin is the jade green chrysalis. Monarchs remain in the chrysalis for 8-12 days, and just prior to emergence, the chrysalis becomes clear. The front of the chrysalis splits open and the butterfly emerges with folded wings. The monarch must pump up its wings using fluid stored in its abdomen; once the wings are extended the monarch is ready to fly.

Transparent monarch chrysalis

One of my favorite diversions during this pandemic has been to observe the monarchs in my gardens. Since I have an abundance of nectar plants and milkweed, my butterfly garden is full of activity, and I delight in watching the progression of these beautiful creatures. I usually visit the garden several times a day to monitor the larva population and their progress; one day I counted 19 larva of various sizes feasting on milkweed. Over the past few months I’ve eagerly watched chrysalis development, and recently witnessed a monarch emerge from the chrysalis.

Establishing a butterfly garden is one of the easiest ways I can recommend for you to enjoy nature in your own backyard!

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

CATHY DUNN A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant.

Cathy Dunn is a Florida Master Gardener and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.

Gardening success with succulents — Cathy Dunn

Gardening success with succulents

Mar 18, 2021
CATHY DUNN - Garden Club of Cape Coral (Special to The BreezeCape Coral Breeze
Click Here for full article in the Cape Coral Breeze
Succulents are a varied and unique group of low-maintenance plants that are fun and easy to grow in Southwest Florida’s abundant heat and sunshine. With more than 60 plant families containing thousands of hybrid cultivars, succulents offer a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors to add diversity and interest to your gardens.Succulents are characterized by their fleshy stems and leaves that are designed to store water, and are often found in harsh or dry climates. Since our climate is characterized by humidity and a rainy summer season, succulents are ideally suited for containers with a coarse sandy potting medium and controlled irrigation. But you can also locate succulents in well-drained areas of your landscape since they are well-adapted to the harsh conditions associated with brick, concrete and asphalt in urban settings.

Most people think of familiar plants such as sedum or “hen and chicks” when they hear the word succulents, but you might be surprised to discover that there are Florida native succulents such as native yuccas that can be found in coastal dunes or other sandy areas with little available water. In fact, all cacti are succulents, and this includes many of the widely known succulent families such as agave, yucca and aloe. Other succulent families include varieties such as the Desert Rose, Sanseviera (snake plants), Kalanchoes and Euphorbia such as Crown of Thorns and Pencil Plants.

The versatility of the many forms of succulents is matched by the creative ways you can incorporate these plants in your gardens. Container gardens are an extremely popular way to grow and display succulents; you will often see containers already planted with a mixture of various succulents for sale in garden centers. Since succulents require full sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day), they are well suited for beds near sidewalks, roads and driveways or south-facing walls. Succulents can also be tucked into chicken wire in a frame and used as a wall hanging or inserted among rocks and borders since they need little soil and thrive in sandy conditions.

I enjoy adding succulents to my mixed pots on the lanai since they require little maintenance and don’t shed leaves or flowers that land in the pool; most will develop trailing habits and they add a unique dimension and texture. Most succulents also produce flowers which can be quite unique and colorful.

PHOTO PROVIDED Succulents add interest and texture to mixed pots, and many succulents will even adopt a trailing habit.

Now that you are hopefully interested in adding succulents to your gardening repertoire, what else do you need to know to ensure success? First, you need to use a well-draining potting mix (not potting soil); you can add inorganic materials such as perlite, sand or vermiculite to ensure good drainage. If you use a container, start with a shallow pot with good drainage holes. Once your succulents are planted you only need to water when the soil is almost completely dry. Propagation is simple; leaf succulents such as hens and chicks and aloes self-propagate by producing offshoots or “pups.” Succulents also grow well from cuttings or division of clustering species; cuttings or divisions should be allowed to sit for several days to form a callous on the cut end before planting.

More information on succulent varieties, their maintenance and planting instructions, as well as specific plant lists can be found on the UF/IFAS website:

Agave Cacti Succulents

Once you discover the variety of shapes and colors available in the succulent families, I am sure that you will be inspired to add these beautiful plants to your landscape or as a unique and stylish green accent in your home. You will be rewarded with beautiful and interesting plants that require minimal maintenance – a true gardener’s dream!

Cathy Dunn is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer and Garden Club of Cape Coral member.