August 27, 2019

Bananaquits in our Gardens

Image by Matt Magillivray
Recently, a pair of modestly colored, unusual birds have moved into the entrance area at Pinecrest Gardens. Occasionally found in South Florida, they most likely have flown here from the Bahamas. They are quite noticeable, actively flitting from shrub to signpost to roofline to trees. Their frequent singing is loud and pleasant; we hope that they stay and perhaps nest here.                                                         

The Bananquit, Coereba flaveola, is a small bird of the New World tropics. The species belongs to the large avian group known as perching birds, a taxonomic order that includes many of the best known and liked songbirds, including their close relatives, the Tanagers. Bananaquits are small and mostly grey, with white or bright yellow breasts and white-striped heads. They are inhabit a wide geographical range that includes much of the South American tropics and subtropics east of the Andes Mountains, parts of Central America and Mexico, and Caribbean and Antillean islands. They live in diverse habitats, including open forests and scrub, and also live and nest in gardens in urban areas.
Bananaquits consume some insects. Mostly, they use their slender, down-curved bills to pierce flowers for their nectar and eat sweet fruit, their primary foods. Although it is a poor food source, people often use granulated sugar or syrup to attract them to bird feeders. They are bold creatures that seem comfortable around human noise and activity.

Like so many other organisms, there are unanswered mysteries about the birds. One question concerns their distribution: why are Bananaquits only found in some places, but not others, e.g. Cuba, that would seem to have suitable habitat? How often do they occur in Florida? What accounts for the great variability in the physical appearance of different populations? Off the Venezuelan coast and on some other islands, for example, the birds are nearly entirely black. It seems that what biologists classified as a single species might actually be several different birds!
To hear a Bananaquit singing, open this YouTube video:

August 22, 2019

Olive Trees in South Florida! Hold On, You’re Getting Excited for the Wrong Reason


Talk of olive trees in South Florida and people tend to think of the Black Olive, Terminalia buceras, a tree in the family Combretaceae, the White Mangrove family. Naturally found in the Caribbean, Central America, and Northern South America, there is some public confusion over its identity as the cultivated edible olive species. It ain’t. It’s doubtlessly called Black Olive due to the similiarity in the appearance and staining properties of the ripe fruit.

To see a real olive tree, visit Pinecrest Gardens, where a 125 year old specimen has been planted in one of the dry garden areas. With its silvery leaves and thick, gnarled trunk, it looks just like the individuals that one might encounter on a Greek island, the Andalusian countryside, or a Lebanese mountain.
Olive at Pinecrest Gardens
The Common Olive, or just plain Olive, Olea europaea var. europaea, is a tree that originated in the Mediterranean Basin region. It’s one of many members of the family Oleaceae, the Olive family, but the only species that is widely grown for its fruit. The Olive is an ancient cultivated crop that was domesticated from the wild Oleaster, Olea europaea var. sylvestris, about 6000 years ago; the earliest evidence of olive use is 19,000 years ago from an archeological site in Northern Israel. To be edible, olive fruit must be fermented (pickled) by allowing the natural bacterial community found on their skins to grow, or by processing them with lye.
Old Olives near Chalkio, Greece
Olives are mostly grown for oil production. Established groves having productive trees are often hundreds of years old. The species also has fine, durable wood that is rot-resistant and excellent for carving.
Olives develop heavily gnarled trunks 
Olives were brought to the New World by the Spanish. In Florida, olives were planted at St. Augustine and New Smyrna Beach. Currently, the University of Florida is encouraging commercial planting in the central and northern parts of the state, where cooler winters make fruiting possible. Olives do best in Mediterranean-type climates, where Winters are mild and moist and Summers are long, hot, and dry. They are an adaptable species but require full sun, perfect drainage, and no irrigation once established.   

August 15, 2019

Ah, the Romance, the Exoticism, the Colonialism, the Breadfruit!

Image by Ryderfoot
Breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis, is a strictly tropical-growing tree in the same family that includes figs, mulberries, and Jackfruit, the Moraceae. It’s a fairly large, big-leaved tree that bears a starchy edible fruit. Originating in New Guinea and the Philippines, its wild ancestor was spread throughout the Pacific during the times of the great Austronesian and Polynesian ocean voyages, starting 3000 years ago. Breadnut, Artocarpus camansi, is still cultivated, especially in New Guinea for its edible seeds. The domesticated breadfruit is mostly seedless. The unripe fruit is eaten after being boiled, baked, roasted, or fried. It tastes somewhat like potato or bread. It's quite popular across Polynesia and many countries around the world where it is cultivated.  
Breadfruit is also an example of botanical imperialism, as depicted in Mutiny on the Bounty. Young plants were transported by the British to the New World, providing an easily grown, calorie rich food for slaves working on the island colonies.
Image by Pxleyes
Breadfruit is quite adaptable in cultivation, but prefers rich, well drained soils in areas with high rainfall. It’s strictly tropical in its temperature requirements and won’t tolerate any but the mildest of cool weather. In some places it has escaped to the wild and has become a bit of an invasive pest.

Image by NTBG

Breadfruit is a very attractive landscaping tree. Its large, deeply incised leaves make a decidedly tropical statement. In the past, Breadfruit was nearly impossible to cultivate long-term in South Florida except in the most protected of locations. With increasing temperatures and mild winters, chances have greatly improved for success in warm locations near the coast.