Keys Homes
Sunday, September 23, 2012
Flirtatious and small in size, fantails populate the roadsides


The Key West Garden Club

Glabrous and flirtatious fringed fantails populate the roadside, flinging themselves shamelessly like a lover's blanket in the Keys. These brightly colored, quarter-inch posies lay prostrate as they flaunt their availability to any passerby.

Sida ciliaris is in a species of 200 plants that infamously once were called "a bunch of bloody non-descript weeds."

Although she is small, she makes up for her size with her tenacity and persistence. She pops up in dry, disturbed areas all over the Keys and Lower Florida as if to say, "Here I am again! Aren't I cute! Don't I make a nice addition to your grass."

This enthusiastic low-lying groundcover adds little spots of yellow beauty in the turf. The plant sows seeds that spread freely and easily. Fantails like full sun and well-drained, nutrition-poor soil. They can take high salt winds without the leaves turning brown, and they are perfect for a xeriscaped landscape.

The quarter-inch Sida jump-up blooms year round. The five petals on the yellow blooms have an orange center in the lower Keys. Plants in other tropical locations exhibit varied floral colors including pink, coral, apricot, light orange, orange, dull red and a rare greenish color with maroon centers. The flowers have no fragrance.

Its alternate, half-inch leaves are glabrous above, but fuzzy underneath. The evergreen, dark green leaf is toothed from the middle of the leaf to its tip. The stalks have thick hair like unshaven legs. It is herbaceous, that means it does not get a woody trunk. It will die in a frost.

Ciliaris means fringed with hairs on the margin, like an eyelash. This little native groundcover flirts audaciously with the grass, flickering its eyelashes in a dance to attract. And attract it does -- bees, wasps and butterflies, especially skippers and hairstreaks whose caterpillar offspring feed on the leaves. The nectar attracts cloudless sulphurs.

The fantail was originally named Nymphaea alba by Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.E.), who thought it was a water lily.

Although he was interested in its pharmaceutical uses, like other botanists of his era, he did not get the nomenclature correct. Linnaeus re-named Sida cilaris to conform to his new understanding of taxonomy.

The fantail invaded Hawaii at some point in the last few thousand years, where the island of Oahu made the invader its official flower calling it ilima. Hawaiians took the tiny flowers and cultured them for use as royal leis. Thousands of blooms were strung together to look like the yellow-feathered leis worn only by royal ali'i. As song describes it, "Beloved is O'ahu with the ilima lei, like the ÅèÅè birds its golden plumage." The leis are worn on the head or neck.

In folk medicine, it was used for children as a mild laxative with the dose depending on the age of the child. The mother chewed it before giving it to the child. The sap was mixed with seawater for an enema. It was mixed with other plants to be used for womb troubles. The flowers are edible as a garnish. These plants were also put on hot stones when cooking food to protect the food from burning.

Too much water or shade can cause fanpetals to get diseases such as ants, scale, aphids, mealy bugs, red spider mites and slugs. Black sooty molds also like the weakened plant. Extra rainwater will produce lush foliage, but no blooms.

Look for the tiny fanpetal wildflowers to provide a bit of flirtatious pleasure as the flash their eyelashes among the other less perky weeds.

• • •

The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to work on the historical fort, pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.

Key West Garden Club Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist at the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her book "Plants of Paradise" can be found on This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. Visit

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