As November comes to an end so too does the Atlantic Hurricane season and Floridians heave a sigh of collective relief. On Thanksgiving I'm sure most of us gave thanks to have survived a brutal hurricane season (although in some parts of the state people are still displaced). The forecast came out for next year this week and they are predicting fewer hurricanes than normal in 2005 so let's hope they're right and that the victims of 2004's storms are able to get their lives back to normal soon.
Despite all of the rain that we received courtesy of the summer's hurricanes, the front Baldcypress Pond was totally dry at the start of the month - well not totally dry because it was still moist and gooey on the bottom but it didn't have any standing water. The pond is actually a sinkhole that is seasonally flooded and inhabited by large water-loving trees like red maple (Acer rubrum), baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) and yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) with shrubbier plants like buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) around the margins. It's handy when the water is low at this time of year because it makes it easy to rake up great quantities of the leaves, pine and cypress needles that lay in a smooth thick layer on the bottom. By Thanksgiving though, we had a couple of storms and the pond partially refilled before I could get to the nice thick mulch out in the center.
Early in the month I was raking up my mulch bonanza when a shadow passed over and I thought "eagle!" But to my disappointment it was just a big stupid turkey buzzard that landed at the top of a tall baldcypress. I wondered what he was up to because I didn't smell anything dead - sure, the pond had dried up but the local herons and other seafood lovers had come and eaten everything up weeks ago. I looked again and there were then at least a dozen buzzards now roosting in the tree - it looked bizarre so I raced into the house for my camera. Unfortunately I returned just as the last one was flying off in a torrent of buzzard squawks.
As I stood there wheezing trying to catch my breath I got a whiff of rotting flesh - so that's what the buzzards came to picnic on! Then I realized why they had flown away - the dead meat was actually what I call "dead meat fungus" but whose real name is Clathrus columnatus. Because of its rank odor, it's commonly called the columned stinkhorn or deadman's fingers. This member of the mushroom clan produces a malodorous stench that attracts flies as part of a strategy to disperse their spores.
I noticed these unusual organisms when I first moved to Florida. They always appeared during the winter months when the weather was cool and damp. I knew that they weren't actually alien spawn from outer space in need of a human host but it was difficult to not be suspicious of them and their motives.
Remember last December when I mulched that large area of The Hill with the shredded remains of the Lightning Oak? Ever since the weather cooled those beds have become a resort for columned stinkhorns and other members of Basidiomycetes the class of higher fungi that includes mushrooms, rusts, smuts and puffballs in addition to my stinkhorns.
Now decades later after I first encountered them, I'm not nearly as repulsed by deadman's fingers as at first although I still breath through my mouth when I'm near them because their funk makes me gag. Even though (or perhaps because) they leave me on the edge of upchucking, I became sufficiently intrigued to learn something about them. They are closely related to mushrooms and similarly begin life as a spore. The spore germinates on the ground and grows to form the white egg stage. This golf ball-sized papery sphere is odorless but when it ripens an orange spongy structure bursts forth and secretes a smelly slime that contains the stinkhorns spores. Stinkhorns are usually crawling with tiny flies that feed upon the delicious (to them) slime. After a few of days the structure collapses into a gooey mass, dries and eventually disappears. But the stinkhorn lives on as the the flies poop the ingested spores far and wide and the future of another generation of stinkhorn is assured.
I learned more about them too like that the stinkhorn's egg stage is said to be edible although I can't think of why anyone would want to. I did observe that several egg stage stinkhorns went missing from my mulch leaving distinctive spherical cavities where they had once been. It seems that at least one of the local creatures here has a liking for them. It could be the deer who are wont to eat anything but more likely it's armadillo.
As if discovering a playground of malodorous fungus on The Hill wasn't cool enough, I came across two other related species. While the deadman's fingers (Clathrus columnatus) is offensively scented, the giant stinkhorns of the genus Phallus are also visually offensive by virtue of their weinieform shape.
Both species are fast growers and both rudely shaped although the one is more anatomically correct than the other. Sometimes it seems that nature has a only few dozen basic designs but a great sense of humor and imagination as to where and how to deploy those designs. I was going to write some immature smart-alecky comments about these species but I best leave that as an exercise for the reader.
Fewer squirrels is a good thing and more birds is a better thing - and in November did we have birds! Throughout the month huge flocks of robins visited and held a huge loud and rowdy party. They love dining on the dogwood tree (Cornus florida) fruits which really infuriates the local mockingbird who feels he "owns" The Hill area. He squawks and chases and bites them but of course it's futile and the robins seem to have fun sneaking in from all directions, one after another to swipe berries from his trees.
Over the Thanksgiving holidays, for the first time in years, I enjoyed three whole days (in a row!) working out in the yard. It was great getting away from the computer for some fresh air and a lot of exercise raking pine needles. I used an old bed sheet to lug great piles of them up to The Hill where I arranged them in luxuriously thick layers. But I didn't finish mulching all of the area up there because it is just too big. So instead of completely mulching each bed before moving on to the next I "load balance" my attention among all of the beds so that most are "half mulched". Incompletely mulched beds make me so anxious and irritable that I'm motivated to exert more effort than otherwise in order to complete the job, bed by bed, as rapidly as possible. So essentially I trick my neurotic self to mulch more than otherwise.
I also treated each of the little palm seedlings that I planted out last month to thick collars of mulch to make them cozy for the winter. I fluff up the needles around the plants to keep them snug and to camouflage them from marauding herbivores. I think this strategy is actually working as the baby palms are bigger, greener and less chewed on lately.
November brought us lots of bright sunny afternoons that I like to spend on my favorite gardening activity which is cutting and slicing perfectly healthy plant tissue in order to gradually force them into unnatural and ridiculous shapes. When skilled people do this it's called topiary, but it's probably closer to plant abuse when I do it. However it's such a massive and wonderful waste of time that my brain goes into alpha state and thinks it's relaxing. It's fun too. Over the past five years I've hacked up over a dozen specimens of which none have died!
There's almost a dozen yaupons here that I've hacked into cones, rockets, pyramids and something that looks like a giant female breast with inappropriate protrusions that I don't know what to call so I might just remove the inappropriate protrusions. My favorite victim plant is a spiral yaupon back by the Catfish Pond that I call the Screw Holly. Encouraged by the success of the Screw Holly (it didn't die) I began working two Pfitzer junipers into spirals too - as you can see in the picture there's now a Screw Juniper here too.
If the junipers survive another year that will confirm that I've achieved a level of expertise and I will dare to try a spiral cut on my precious Florida yew (Taxus floridana). I'll go easy at first and slowly shape it and if successful, a year from now I'll be bragging about my new Screw Yew and be busy planning to do the Screw Yew II.
Just after Halloween we had our first real cold snap of the season here in Florida's Big Bend. It was Saturday morning and I found myself up on The Hill in long sleeves and garden gloves, shears laying within reach and I had just chugged a whole pot of French Roast. I was dressed for it, equipped for it and energized for it - it was time to trim the monster pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana).
The pampas grass had been pummeled by last summer's storms. The towering 12 ft flower plumes were broken and bent and the grassy clumps were shaggy and tangled. It also appeared that deer or some other large animal had created a storm shelter between two of the clumps during Hurricane Ivan (the one that sent us evacuating to Georgia).
It was the perfect time to dive in and begin trimming them down. The sharp-edged leaves are very long and lash out in all directions easily slicing human flesh (but apparently not deer flesh) into painful gashes that often become infected. Safely outfitted in protective clothing, I attacked the first clump and before lunchtime had both of them buzz cut into neat mounds and the sharp grass blades stacked in the compost pile and ready for a layer of Great Dane poop on top to accelerate decomposition.
The following weekend I trimmed down yet another clump and now I'm psyching myself up to begin the back breaking job of digging two of them up to make room for a deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) that almost died but has recovered (it's the one I wrote about in my very first Journal back in 2001). I've wanted to do a new walkway and now that the sharp pampas grass no longer threatens, I went to work on it. Now I'm committed to removing the clumps so I made a deal with myself that if I dig up those two clumps on New Year's Day then I do not have to make any additional resolutions.
With the pampas grass semi-under control, at least for the time being, I attacked the grape vines, brambles and oak seedlings that cluttered the area making more room for the good stuff I already have growing there. Now that I had access to an 8 ft high Pragense viburnum (Viburnum x pragense) it received a good trimming and was freed from the tangle of bramble and briar that was choking it. I surgically removed a beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) bush that was embedded in its root crown and dug out two other nearby beautyberries that for years blocked the right of way of my new path. After its grooming the Pragense viburnum now matches its companion and the pair stand sentinel at the path's entrance providing a dramatically exciting entry to the compost pile area and dog kennels!
There were two close calls but we made it through November without a killing frost. One night temperatures dropped into the upper thirties and some of the more tropical plants now look a bit peaked while others even dropped all their leaves. Almost everything else though is looking great due to the generous rainfall we had at the end of the month. It appears that many of the temperate plants responded to the cool moist weather by displaying the prettiest autumn foliage colors that we've had in many years. The bright chameleon colors looked even more spectacular against the brilliant blue skies that we enjoyed all month - so I took a lot of pictures...
Despite the chill, many of the tropical plants on The Hill continue to bloom. The (Brugmansia suaveolens ) had a nice flush of flowers and the blue glorybower (Clerodendrum ugandense) is blooming more now than ever - one even developed a fruit, a small black berry. Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus needs a pruning but is still blooming and the scrambling sky flower (Thunbergia battiscombei) greened up from the late month rains and is now loaded with pretty purple flowers. At the end of November the cassava (Manihot esculenta) began sending out its weird little flowers that are coming about six weeks later than last year - I think because the hurricanes blew them around pretty good.
Up on The Hill the orange cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus) are finally calling it quits after an outstanding six month flower display that was courtesy of at least two generations of this annual. Even as this current generation shrivels, the area around them is carpeted with seedlings so it appears there will be a good crop of orange cosmos next year too.
In another area on The Hill there's a new generation of Texas scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) blooming but they're not scarlet, they're white. Nearby plants are coral-pink which indicates that pollen from the patch of scarlet Texas scarlet sage that's out back somehow traveled to the front where it pollinated the white flowers which produced some intermediately colored pink flowered plants among the offspring - Mendallian genetics in action! How did the red pollen get to the white flowers? Probably on the beaks of hummingbirds and butterflies, the plant's primary pollinators.
Since the first frost has yet to strike the tender jasmine vines are still going strong and are loaded with fragrant flowers including Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac), downy jasmine (J. multiflorum) and angelwing jasmine (J. nitidum). The fragrant woody plants that I mentioned last month will continue into the new year. These are the tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans), strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) and they're each doing their part for making winter smell better around here.
I keep intending to go down to the garden center and pick up a few cell packs of pansy (Viola x Wittrockiana), snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) and petunia (Petunia x hybrida) which are all fun to grow here in Zone 8 and don't suffer too badly if there's a frost (which I hope we don't have). Maybe in next month's Journal I'll write about all of the cool winter annuals that I planted.
That's it for November, it's time for me to get back to work programming Floridata 2.0 which I hope to finish in this lifetime. In November Floridata signed a contract with a new partner that will provide new opportunities for us to bring more and better plant information and resources to the Web.
Please visit Floridata often during the holidays just to relax and hang out because it's never too early to plan next season's garden projects! I hope that you'll do some of your holiday shopping at our Marketplace stores because your business supports our efforts (and please tell your friends about us).
We wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah and a safe and joyous holiday season. Peace on earth and be good and grow!