Photo essay: ‘It might as well be spring’

Colors and animal activities help differentiate Florida seasons

Back to the past: I am seated at the piano alongside my mother, who is playing the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit song from the 1945 movie “State Fair.” Intoxicated by the music, I hop off the bench and twirl about the living room. Back to the future: Moments like this reverberate down through the years, popping up to delight me all over again. 

As the days grow shorter, the pine lily leads the way into fall. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

For those of us who are from up north — and that means most of us — fall in Florida is a reprise. It is bursting forth when nature up in Michigan or Massachusetts is in retreat.

While leaves flutter off the trees, bringing the growing season to an end up there, the bright red pine lily in our woods is giving us the go ahead.

Fields of goldenrod make us feel like dancing (not sneezing — ragweed brings that on). Bright purple blazing star arches over trails through the pinewoods. Florida paintbrush looks us in the eye as if to say, “This is MY time of year!” A spider orchid crops up along a roadside. No crocuses, no roses but an explosion of growth that rivals spring.

We are giddy with the incongruity of it all.

Fields of gold shine at Oscar Scherer State Park in Osprey. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Robins chirping in the yard add to the confusion. Snowbirds like some of us, they offer songs that evoke summers in northern gardens.

Eagles are back from the north. They court in early fall and, by December, are incubating the next generation. Herons, egrets and other wading birds start nesting, too. They time the arrival of young with low water, when it is easier to catch fish to feed their young.

It is all in the timing — and we hope that red tide does not mess up things too much.

Gray squirrels — everyone’s favorite — nest in fall, sometimes producing bumper “crops,” which, along with rabbits, will help feed some of the larger predators like bobcats, who are sorely pressed to find food. Natural places are disappearing, so the bobcats sometimes resort to raids on garbage cans in our communities.

Black-eyed Susans team up with bushy bluestem grasses. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Food is on our minds, too. I grew up with Jersey tomatoes, corn and cantaloupes in summer. Down here, as northerners put their vegetable patches to bed, Floridians are planting tomatoes, plus squash, peppers, beans and greens. In late November, the spinach will be in. Oranges are ready for the picking starting in November.

Sometimes I think I am down a rabbit hole!

Yes, there are differences between spring and fall. The colors vary. I picture spring as blues (dayflowers, mistflower, blue-eyed grass carpeting roadways), light pinks (sabatia, thistle), and pale purples (thistle and pennyroyal). The fall palette is more robust: reds (the pine lily, rouge plants), purples (blazing star, Florida paintbrush), and yellows (goldentops, black-eyed Susans).

Florida paintbrush, which blooms in fall, help feeds butterflies, which over-winter here. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

And the players differ. With cold weather still months in the future, inaptly named frostweed springs up in parks and along roadsides. October flower takes over Florida prairies. If you have not seen these two species at Polk County preserves, they are worth the trip.

Here at home, climbing aster blankets shrubs along the Myakka River (Sleeping Turtles Preserve on Border Road in Venice is a good place to see it). In November, its nectar will give a boost to the butterflies that overwinter here.

Further down Border Road, T. Mabry Carlton Preserve is burgeoning with swamp sunflowers lapping up sheet flow, which has inundated the park all summer long.

Members of the Florida Native Plant Society bird and botanize at Archbold Research Station in Lake Placid. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Willows are still dancing in windstorms, but they are a little tired after two long seasons of heat! Cypress trees lose their needles in late fall, but green prevails in the woods because pines and oaks shed over a longer period, barely noticeable to the untutored eye.

Shrubs are in their berry stage. Bright purple beautyberry will feed the birds through winter. Marlberry with white berries, hollies with red, get us in the mood for the holidays.

Not to forget the grasses! In fall, lopsided Indian grass and bushy bluestems come into their own, after months of being in the background. Visit state parks — Oscar Scherer State Park and Myakka River State Park in our area — to see them in all their glory. Shocking pink muhly grass and love grass are showstoppers.

October flower takes over Crooked Lake Prairie Preserve in Polk County. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Some of these plants may do well in your yard. Forget double digging, fertilizer, pesticides and in-ground irrigation! Plant them in our sandy soil and water them for a few short weeks. Through drought and deluge, they will usually do fine on their own. It is what they are used to!

Check out the Florida Native Plant Society ( and the Florida Association of Native Nurseries ( to get ideas on what to try out and where to find native plants. Both websites offer lots of “how-to’s” for the novice — and the experienced gardener.

The zebra longwing, our state butterfly, rests on frostweed at T. Mabry Carlton Reserve in Venice. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Spring and fall in Florida — the feeling is the same. In fall, we see a great burst of growth to see us out of the year and into the next — when the real thing starts arriving.

Yellow tops on Sanibel Island attract pollinators. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
Beautyberry, a shrub for all seasons, flowers in springtime and berries in fall, feeding birds through the winter. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
Blazing star is a sure sign of fall. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
The eagles are back. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
Magic happens often! Stop to take a look! Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri