Some Fabulous Flowers of Late Fall in SW Florida

December 9, 2017

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

Although you do not generally think about late fall as a time for beautiful flowers, there are indeed some very interesting native and exotic flowers in bloom that are attractive to butterflies and other insects.

On the beach you typically expect to see the striking pink/purple morning glories that are called railroad vines. But on the upper edge of the beach and dune complex at Stump Pass you will also find the native bay bean with a similarly colored but very differently shaped flower. This is a wide spread but little noticed plant that is reputed to be attractive to those who like to smoke plants for their psychoactive effects ( ). However the green seeds are reported to contain various toxins including an amino acid that substitutes for arginine and disrupts protein synthesis. It is probably mainly pollinated by large bees and has extra-floral nectaries that produce sweet fluids that reward insects such as ants, which may then protect the plant from herbivores.

A very different native plant is this swamp lily, which was found along the edge of the Myakka River and has a striking white flower against the dark hues of the swamp. Whenever one sees a white flower, the initial reaction is that it may be a night-pollinated plant, most likely by moths in our area. This swamp lily seems to be specially designed to attract a night-flying hawk moth with a very long tongue which hovers like a hummingbird. Look carefully at the very long corolla tube under the base of the flower petals, and the extended stamens and style which will brush up against the hovering moth as it approaches the flower.

A common type of flower designed to attract a wide variety of potential pollinators is in the huge aster family; one example still blooming in December is this exotic Mexican sunflower planted in our yard. Many different types of bees and butterflies are attracted to this composite flower with numerous small disc flowers in the center. There is a convenient “landing pad” on the flat flower and the distance to the nectar is short. In this case there is a bright green sweat or a mason bee on the flowers. This generalist approach to pollination, in contrast to the specialist hawk moth pollinator of swamp lily, is quite distinct. Each strategy has advantages and disadvantages.

So when you are enjoying flowers simply for their beauty, think a bit more deeply about the huge variety of colors and shapes and how this influences the types of insects attracted, and which ones can actually pollinate the plant.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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