Pitchers in the Pines

by Lilly Anderson-Messec

I saw a peacock in the pines. What had begun as an exasperating morning shifted at the sight of this exquisite bird and the remainder of the day unfurled into one of the most magical experiences that would alter the course of my life.

It began several years ago with some friends sharing their excitement of having found a secret spot off Highway 65 that was filled with carnivorous pitcher plants and dwarf cypress trees. I was already a native plant lover and always up for an adventure, so I jotted down their directions and recruited my friend, Bonnie, to join me for a Sunday trip to find this spot. This was before I had a smart phone and I hadn’t done much exploring of areas outside of Tallahassee, so of course I took circuitous route that had us driving all morning. Our confidence was waning when we finally found the small dirt road.

As we drove in, were greeted by a male peacock-in the middle of the Apalachicola National Forest. I was speechless, peacocks do not live here and I have never seen one before or since. I was compelled to hop out of the car and approach the bird as he fanned his feathers in an epic display. It was completely surreal and set the tone for the remainder of the day. We watched aghast, as he disappeared into the trees and continued on our way down the road. The area had been recently burned and we immediately spotted thickets of bright, chartreuse pitchers rising up on the edges of the blackened forest where it met the dwarf cypress swamp. I had never seen such a sight. The lemon-lime pitchers rose up to my waist and had a bright scarlet blush just below their hoods. Having only read about these plants in books or seen a few sorry plants in pots, I was unprepared for how magnificent they are in their natural setting.

Many of us are unaware that we are nestled in one of the richest areas of biodiversity in North America. Our Panhandle is a truly unique place with a multitude of diverse ecosystems that are home to many species of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. The Panhandle is, in fact, a hotspot for carnivorous plants and home to the most number of species and the largest population of total plants in North America.

We have more species of Sarracenia, also known as pitcher plants, than anywhere else in the world. There are so many that, as I quickly learned, you do not have to know a secret spot or even look that hard for them. They line the roadsides of Highway 65 near Sumatra and are easy to spot once you know what they look like.

My friend Eleanor Dietrich has been working with the Florida Wildflower Foundation and Department of Transportation to regulate the roadside mowing schedule so we can enjoy these beauties. I regularly spend my Sundays driving down to Sumatra with friends or alone to see them at their different stages of growth. Their stunning, pendulous blooms appear first in early spring followed by the pitchers, which are their leaves, in summer and more in fall. There are several species, and even color variations within species that are extraordinary.

That entire afternoon had an otherworldly feel to it, an experience that has blossomed into an adoration for the Apalachicola National Forest and the plants that inhabit its wet prairies and pine flatwoods. I especially fell in love with the many species of carnivorous plants including pitcher plants, butterworts, sundews and venus fly-traps. They are easy to find and experiencing them in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience, which I wholeheartedly recommend.


One of the simple pleasures in life is seeing bluebirds on my weekly walks along the Leon County Miccosukee Greenway. Sometimes four or five of these brilliantly colored birds can be seen lined up on a fence. Other times, I watch prospective parents flying in and out of nest boxes or I observe a bluebird perched on a limb of a large tree, swoop down to gobble up a grasshopper from the grasses below.

Many Tallahasseeans have never seen a bluebird, yet there are healthy populations even within the city. Bluebirds inhabit meadows and fields, open pinewoods and parkland, cemeteries and golf courses. They seem happy in neighborhoods with tall trees, open lawns with shrubby borders. I see them regularly while walking in the Betton Hills neighborhood and they sometimes nest in our front yard.

Bluebird parents at their nest box. Photo by Glenda Simmons.

Bluebird parents at their nest box. Photo by Glenda Simmons.

If you live in or near this type of habitat you can provide lodging for bluebirds by setting out nest boxes with a one and one half inch diameter hole on a post or pole. Nest boxes should have doors so they can be cleaned and monitored. A predator guard should be installed on the pole below the nest box. These are commercially available or can be fashioned from 6 inch diameter stovepipe or PVC pipe. This will prevent raccoons and rat snakes from raiding the nest.

Though bluebirds are primarily insect eaters, they also eat berries especially in winter. Plant or encourage existing hollies, wild cherry, crabapple, red mulberry, blueberry, dogwood, elderberry, hackberry, pokeweed, black gum and native viburnums.

At Birdsong Nature Center in southern Georgia, I enjoy watching bluebirds in winter feasting on mistletoe berries high in the pecan trees. The trees sit on the edge of the “House Pasture” that is burned annually and is teaming with life – broomsedge grass, wildflowers, lots of insects and, of course, bluebirds. Native plants are of utmost importance for supplying proper habitat and food for insects that bluebirds eat. Bluebirds primarily feed in open, grassy areas.

For those of you on larger acreage, try converting part of your lawn to meadow by mowing just a couple of times each year. This will encourage native grasses, wildflowers and, yes, weeds, thereby creating a more natural environment that will support abundant insect life leading to more bluebirds.

Like other birds, bluebirds enjoy a shallow bird bath or pool. The brilliant blue and red of the male bluebird and the subtle blue/gray of the female is intensified when they are splashing about in the water, especially on a sunny day.

If you want to entice bluebirds to a feeder for up-close viewing or for photography, you can set out mealworms in a small dish or feeder. Mealworms are actually beetle larvae that you can raise yourself or purchase. They are very nutritious and bluebirds gather them to feed their young; however, bluebirds are most capable of finding their own insects especially in good habitat.

To learn more about bluebirds, you are invited to join the Florida Bluebird Society for its regional meeting to be held on Saturday, February 6th at the Leon County Eastside Branch Library (1583 Pedrick Rd.). My husband Jody Walthall and I will present the program, “How to Change Your Landscaping to Benefit Birds, Bees, Butterflies and other Wildlife.” We will include a segment on managing for bluebirds and other cavity nesting birds. Participants may visit the home of Glenda Simmons after the program to see the changes she has made over the years for the benefit of bluebirds and other wildlife. The Meet & Greet begins at 10:30am with the program starting at 11am. For more information, go to

Favorite Hummingbird Plants

Ruby-throated hummingbird sipping nectar from dwarf firebush flower. Photo by Glenda Simmons.

Ruby-throated hummingbird sipping nectar from dwarf firebush flower. Photo by Glenda Simmons.

Late summer is the peak of hummingbird activity in north Florida. Young birds of the year are off the nest and on their own. Adults and youngsters from as far north as Canada are streaming through on their southerly migration.

 Many of us see a hummingbird in our yard daily and we think of it as “our” resident friend. This is probably far from fact. Fred Dietrich, Tallahassee resident and licensed bird bander for the Hummingbird Study Group, decided to study hummingbirds in his yard during the summer of 2010. He banded 72 hummingbirds through September 25. Only two of these were recaptures. This means he had a different hummingbird every two or three days!

By the end of June the southward migration of mature males is already in full swing. Mature females and young of the season may stay into the fall or are passing through north Florida from farther north as late as mid October.

Feeders are an easy way to attract hummingbirds, but plants add interest and beauty to your yard. Of the many hummingbird plants to choose from, I have four favorites. They vary in size and sunlight requirements. Two are Florida natives.

Firebush becomes a large shrub each year, up to six feet in height and width. A south Florida native, it is covered with slender, inch long orange flowers June through October. Plant firebush in sun to light-shade and give it room to grow. Butterflies, particularly zebra longwings, also use these flowers.

Pentas is much smaller at around three feet tall by two feet wide. Colors range from white to several shades of pink to red. It blooms June until frost. Pentas, though a perennial in south Florida, does not always survive our colder winters. Protect the roots with an extra six inches of pine straw or leaf mulch over winter. Pentas likes lots of sun, but will still bloom in considerable shade. It is a favorite of butterflies as well.

For shady locations, two terrific perennials are Indian pink and cardinal guard. Indian pink is a north Florida native wildflower and grows to just two feet tall by two feet wide. It blooms every April and May with erect, red trumpets topped by a bright yellow star – a lovely addition to a woodland garden.

The other shade perennial is cardinal guard, sometimes called firespike. It has beautiful lush foliage and reaches four to six feet tall with an overall vertical form. It blooms in late summer to fall, the prime time for migrating hummingbirds. The tips of the multitude of stems sport bright red “salvia like” flower spikes. I like to plant cardinal guard near a window to watch the hummingbird activity up close.

All four of these plants die back to the ground after the first frost. At that time, you may prune off the dead stalks and compost them. An insulating layer of pine straw or leaves keeps the roots a little warmer for the pentas and firebush. Be sure to pull back the mulch in early spring so sunlight can warm the soil.

These four are my favorites but certainly aren’t your only choices for hummingbirds. Perennial blue salvias, several of the Cupheas, porterweed, the old standby shrimp plant and many others will attract hungry hummingbirds. Give your migrating hummers a dependable stopover feeding station by planting some of these beautiful plants.