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Outdoor Learning: Valentines in Nature

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image Dutchman's pipe.

The red maple is dressed with red bowties, setting the bee world abuzz with pollinating. If that isn’t love, then what is?

By DIANE STRAUSER ALVAREZ, Master Naturalist and Camp Bayou Supporter

What a pleasure we have in Florida to see such bright colors in winter! My three azalea bushes are blooming candy pink, cherry pink and white, making the most beautiful natural Valentine. In my butterfly garden, there are red berries on the wild coffee, carmine blooms on the tropical sage, vermillion and egg-yolk yellow of the milkweed, lilac pink and primrose colors on the verbena and vermillion and peach of the wild poinsietta. The red maple is dressed with red bowties, setting the bee world abuzz with pollinating. If that isn’t love, then what is? Those native bees help to bring agricultural food to our tables, and they are in trouble because of overuse of pesticides and herbicides. It’s best to allow an area for the wild flowers and weeds to grow somewhere, perhaps along a fencerow or in a back yard. I’ve seen 10 to 20 chipping sparrows eating seed heads from weeds in my side yard. I have friends with bee hives that produce what they call wildflower honey. Oh, what sweet stuff for your honey!

For some romance in the plant world, I just transplanted the queen of the Florida native passion vines, called Maypop, which I hope will grow passionately and bloom sometime in late spring. Another vine in my yard is the Dutchman’s Pipe, a non-native pipevine that has large heart-shaped leaves and a huge flower.

Looking around for other Valentine specials, I find the tiny white flower commonly called Innocence and ten or so red and pink bunches of Florida Tassel Flower, which is commonly called Cupid’s Shaving Brush (Asteraceae Emilia fosbergii). Cupid’s arrows are flying through the sky and trees with resulting mating calls and songs of the birds. Cardinal pairs are seen foraging together in leaf litter, singing their high-pitched “pew, pew, pew” on the high wires, and following each other from tree to birdbath for a splash or two. I’m convinced the Carolina wren is the most beautiful singer. Their plump little bodies and eye-striped heads bounce while singing “tea-kettle, tea-kettle” in tandem from different sides of the yard. I read that only the males sing, so my version of love songs are instead singing duels to mark territory and to court the females. May the best man win his lady love!

Mating red-bellied woodpeckers are pounding out a nest cavity in a Laurel oak. One year I was able to watch both parents feeding their noisy little ones. Right now I’m also interrupted by the drumming of a pileated woodpecker, and upon investigating, I find a pair in the live oak, which  is fully leafed, while laurel oaks are leafless, making it easier to watch the red-bellied woodpeckers, even though the pileated is as big as a rooster! So nature dances to some percussion along with melodious song. With all the sweet sounds and colors, the only thing missing for this Valentine’s Day is the chocolate!

What are you seeing in your yard? Let me know at beautyberry@tampabay.rr.com.

This column is sponsored by Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center located in Ruskin at 4140 24th Street SE, 3 miles south of S.R. 674 off exit 240 W. on I-75. Email: campbayou@gmail.com or call (813) 641-8545 for more information.

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