Florida Fiddlewood (Citharexylum spinosum) is a common fast growing large shrub to middle-sized tree in Central and South Florida that can grow to be 25 feet tall. On the ELC campus it can be found naturalized on the dike at the south end of the property and closer to the uplands around the Welcome Center where its extraordinarily perfumed flowers don’t just attract people in the summer but also the Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala; see photo), and a plethora of other insects like bees, lovebugs, wasps, and moths.
In the landscape, Florida Fiddlewood makes an excellent little specimen tree but is often avoided due to its relationship with the native fiddlewood leafroller moth (Epicorsia oedipodalis), which is why the author can’t recommend it in a privacy hedge. While the showy yellow moth itself usually stays unnoticed by people (being, like most moths, nocturnal), its larvae can partially skeletonize the young and immature plant, as it is its primary host (seagrape is its secondary host). The first sign of the larvae’s presence is often large conspicuous cigar-shaped structures made out of the leaves (hence the name leafroller moth) that the larvae create for shelter. Similar structures are created by other species of moths as well, e.g. by the coffee leafroller moth that uses wild coffee (Psychotria spp.) as its host.
While such severe, but merely superficial, insect damage can sometimes be a nuisance, the responsible and knowledgeable gardener doesn’t react with the use of pesticides to control this natural insect-plant relationship. Since the moth’s breeding season occurs in the spring, the larvae are an excellent protein source for the chicks of many species of birds that breed at the same time, especially mockingbirds. Other animals that prey on the larvae are wasps (see photo of a four-toothed mason wasp that caught a larvae) and presumably assassin bugs that occur in noticeable large numbers on fiddlewood in spring and summer.
Beauty certainly lies in the eyes of the beholder, but with some interest and proper understanding of the ecosystem, even insect damage can be an aesthetic feature on an ornamental plant. Florida Fiddlewood is now available in the ELC nursery!
If you are interested in learning more about Florida, come with us on a guided kayak excursion in the backwaters of the Indian River Lagoon or become a member of the ELC and join our members-only guided field trips through conservation areas in Indian River and Brevard counties. Call 772-589-5050.