The Long and Short of Milkweed

When conjuring up thoughts of milkweed, what most of us visualize is the Mexican Milkweed, Asclepius curassavica, the small, red-orange flowered plant that plays a critical role in the life cycle of the Monarch Butterfly. But worldwide there are hundreds of species of milkweed, so-named because of their white sap. They all belong to the Apocynaceae, the dogbane family. Richard Lyons’ Nursery grows two species favored for their ease of cultivation in southern Florida. The difference between the two is remarkable.

The taller and less well-known of the duo is Calotropis gigantea, the Giant Milkweed. It may well be the largest of the many milkweed species. It is native to a large area ranging from Africa into southern and eastern Asia. The Giant Milkweed grows to a height of 10-15 ft. in its native habitats, but tops out at around 5 ft. in southern Florida. It may be cut back hard without dying. It has a distinctive gray stem, and its sizable oval leaves are gray-green and fuzzy, with white venation. The flowers of Calotropis gigantea are attractive and crown-shaped; they color up in shades of lavender, but may also be white.

 The Giant Milkweed should be grown in full sun to light shade. This very salt-tolerant species does not have a high water requirement and should be planted in well-drained soil.

 For those readers familiar with Mutt and Jeff, the Mexican Milkweed, Asclepius curassavica, is perfectly suited for the role of Jeff in this botanical pairing. In contrast to the Giant Milkweed, it has a slim profile and matures to about 3 ft. The differences also extend to its leaves, which are narrow and pointed at the tip. The red-orange inflorescence of A. curassavica is another distinction from its larger relative. This species is not particular about soil or moisture, so long as good drainage is provided.

 Both of these milkweed species are said to have medicinal properties, but, of course, latex saps can also be irritating. For nature lovers, the most significant similarity of the Mexican and Giant Milkweeds is their importance as food sources for Monarch (and other) butterfly larvae.

 These species are available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 1- and 3-gal. containers.

 

 

Florida Citrus Continues Its Slide

As Richard Lyons’ Nursery has noted several times over the past few years, the citrus industry in the State of Florida has been taking a significant tumble. First came citrus canker, followed by citrus greening disease and several hurricanes and tropical storms. Most recently, far-reaching Hurricane Irma unleashed severe damage throughout the citrus-growing region of the state.

Unfortunately, the latest projections for Florida’s orange crop revised the yield downward. The production for the 2017-18 season is now estimated at 45 million 90-lb. boxes, a one million-box drop from the January projection. That means that the harvest will come in 34.5% lower than last year’s. Florida’s orange yield has not been so small since the second World War. The grapefruit crop is faring somewhat better. For the third straight month, the projected yield has remained static at 4.65 million boxes. Still, that figure represents a drop of almost 40% from last season.

The damage wrought by Hurricane Irma is staggering, estimated by the state’s agriculture department at nearly $761 million! The federal budget legislation just passed provides for $2.3 billion in aid to Florida’s agriculture industry. While that is certainly welcome news, the fact remains that there is still no remedy for citrus greening. Until affordable preventive treatments are developed, Richard Lyons’ Nursery will not offer citrus for sale, and will continue to advise consumers not to buy citrus trees for their home gardens.

Versatile Brosimum alicastrum Overcomes an Identity Crisis

Over thousands of years, Brosimum alicastrum has attracted common names as easily as sugar water attracts hummingbirds. In Mexico alone, it is said to have more than 68 names in various local languages. Among the more common monikers are Maya nut, ramón, ojoche, ojite, ujuxte and masico/masica. Breadnut is yet another name for this species, but that term is also used to describe Artocarpus camansi, an Asian tree in the same family.

The wealth of names is a tribute to the value of the Maya nut across its large native range and beyond; people simply ignore what isn’t useful to them. B. alicastrum is native from central Mexico south into parts of Central and South America and east into the Caribbean. Over that range, annual average rainfall runs from 24 in. to nearly 80 in. That means that the Maya nut is capable of handling both dry and wet conditions. Its drought tolerance cannot be overstated. During the lengthy dry season in the Yucatán, when much of the vegetation turns a crisp yellow, B. alicastrum remains green, and its leaves and thinner stems become an invaluable source of forage for livestock.

The Maya nut is not only economically significant, but it also is a very stately ornamental tree. It has fairly narrow, leathery, dark green leaves, and a rounded crown. The species grows well in limestone soils, so it is at home in southern Florida. However, the lack of deep soil here works as a governor on the ultimate height of the tree. While it matures to over 100 ft. in native areas, it is more likely to top out around 40 ft. in our region. As B. alicastrum ages, it develops an attractive buttressed base. It is known for its strong root system, a boon in hurricane-prone places.

The fruit of the ramón is also fairly ornamental. When ripe, its skin turns orange. Ripening to between a half inch and one inch in diameter, the fruit has a smell and taste reminiscent of citrus. Underneath the thin fruit is a large seed which adds to the versatility of the plant. The nuts can be eaten raw, roasted or boiled. When boiled and then ground into powder, they give rise to a tasty coffee. There is some disagreement over whether the Maya nut was a major food source for the ancient Mayans, but what is certain is that the seeds have food value for modern consumers. They are also said to possess qualities beneficial to human health. They are high in antioxidants and are a source of fiber, protein, potassium, iron, folic acid, calcium, zinc and B vitamins.

Because of the ramón’s great drought tolerance, homeowners can plant it in the driest reaches of their property. Once established, the tree does not need supplemental irrigation. B. alicastrum is available – under any name you may wish to use – at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 1-gal. containers.

So You Want to Grow Cacao?

Cacao, a New World native, is one of the more alluring trees on the planet. Not only is it the source of something really delicious to eat, but it is also ornamental, producing colorful podlike fruits directly on the trunk and older branches of the tree. Folks in southern Florida have long admired cacao from afar, but its cold sensitivity has been a barrier to growing it locally.

But our climate has changed sufficiently since the infamous Christmas freeze of 1989 that cacao can be cultivated in southern Florida, provided that a few extra steps are taken. Much of the remainder of this article is drawn from observations and recommendations found in Making Cacao Growing a Piece of Cake, by Noris Ledesma, Curator of Tropical Fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and in Cocoa (Chocolate Bean) Growing in the Florida Home Landscape, by Jonathan Crane, Carlos Balerdi, and Gene Joyner of the University of Florida IFAS Extension system.

Theobroma cacao grows best in a moist, still environment. Consequently, in southern Florida it is important to select a partially-shaded planting site that is also protected from wind. Given the poor quality of our native soils, it is best to excavate a large hole and fill it with a mix of peat moss and sand. While this technique goes against the general recommendation not to amend a planting hole, it is an exception that is essential to achieving success with cacao. It not only lowers soil pH, but creates excellent drainage. Enough moisture should be provided year-round to prevent roots from drying out.

A cacao tree takes approximately four years to start bearing fruit. When a flower is produced, a pod will take 5-7 months to develop fully. Pods ripen to a wide range of colors and patterns, including stripes. Because some young cacao plants do not self-pollinate, a single tree may produce few or no pods, though they will still develop into ornamentally attractive specimens. To enhance pollination and pod production, it is best to plant more than one tree.

Dr. Ledesma recommends a couple of methods for providing cold protection. One is to cover young trees entirely with a blanket or large cardboard box. The other is to water the soil around the tree thoroughly during the day on which a cold weather event begins, because moist soil more successfully absorbs solar radiation than dry soil; the stored heat will be released during the night. But even with conscientious protection by owners, the combination of cold temperatures, low humidity and high winds during the winter will lead to the browning of leaf margins, so that should not discourage growers.

Cacao can become a 25-30 ft. tree at maturity, but if you wish to keep it short, prune it at the end of summer. Dr. Joyner et al. recommend that growers should let young plants reach 1-2 ft. before considering pruning. If no branching has occurred by that time, they should prune away the top to encourage branching. Later pruning should be done with the goal of limiting the tree to just three or four main branches.

Theobroma cacao is available from Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 3-gal. and 7-gal.  containers.

Some Ideas on Gardening in Southern Florida

The winter issue of the Miami-Dade Extension Connection, a newsletter published by the county’s extension office (IFAS), contains an informative article titled “Easy Ways to Grow Vegetables.” Since mid-winter is a great time to cultivate a home vegetable garden, Richard Lyons’ Nursery would like to direct your attention to setting up the garden for maximum satisfaction. It’s essential to understand that the ‘easy’ part of the process really refers to the relatively carefree approach a grower can take with many vegetable species after preparing the planting site. But getting the planting space ready for the season requires some exertion.

For growers with limited room in which to do their gardening, the most important advice offered in the IFAS article is not to plant and cultivate vegetables in rows, because that method “wastes space and provides more opportunities for weeds.” The article mentions square foot gardening (SFG) and the French intensive method (FIM) as alternatives to row planting. They are not identical, but what they have in common is that they conserve space and can increase the crop yield. In square foot gardening, a technique that’s been around since the early 1980s, the plot is divided into squares, either literally 12 in. by 12 in., or somewhat smaller or larger. Each square can be used for a different vegetable species, and, depending on mature size, a given square will contain one or more plants. The method has been refined in the last 12 years. Now the recommendation is to plant on raised beds that substitute a blend of compost, peat moss and vermiculite for topsoil, an approach that short-circuits the time-consuming need to improve the soil.

The much older French intensive method of gardening involves improving the soil itself instead of overlaying it with a blended potting medium, and accordingly is more labor-intensive and time consuming. The process requires double-digging: Ideally, the topsoil is augmented with manure or other nutrient source, then dug out to create a trench 12 in. deep. The excavated topsoil is kept nearby for later use. The trench is then turned 12 in. deeper by shovel or fork. The gardener repeats the process adjacent to the first trench. The topsoil/nutrient mix excavated from the second trench is used to fill the first. The final trench is filled by the topsoil conserved from the first trench. Because the topsoil and the underlying soil have been broken up in the digging process, the trenched planting beds will tend to be higher than the surrounding untreated ground. The double-digging can be repeated from time to time over a period of years, so that the soil being farmed is slowly improved.

But the French intensive method, in its strictest definition, is hard to implement in southern Florida. In those parts of the region underlain by limestone, it is daunting, if not impossible, for a home gardener to hand-excavate a trench 24 in. deep. And where the soil is sandy instead of rocky, the sparse natural organic matter exposed by digging can quickly dissipate from heat and wind action.

Accordingly, what the IFAS article recommends most closely matches square foot gardening. It calls for creating a raised bed on a site that receives at least seven hours of full sun daily and then installing a compost-potting soil blend. The topsoil is not used in the composition of the bed and thus doesn’t need to go through the lengthy improvement regime. The raised-bed technique enhances drainage, and the proximity of the plants to one another tends to discourage the growth of weeds.

After the labor of creating the planting site is completed, home gardening can be fairly uncomplicated. IFAS describes the following dozen crops as easy to grow: Beans (bush or pole), broccoli, carrots, collards, kale, leaf lettuce, onions (green), peppers (sweet or hot), spinach, sweet potato/boniato, and tomatoes. Richard Lyons’ Nursery would like to supplement that list with the following recommendations: Beets, cabbage, celery, eggplant, herbs (oregano, parsley, thyme), kohlrabi, leeks, peas, radishes (including Daikon), Swiss chard, and tomatillos.

For more information on this and related topics, open the following link: http://miami-dade.ifas.ufl.edu/lawn_and_garden/home_gardening.shtml

Good gardening!