Sunshine Plants for the Sunshine State
Guest Article for the Tallahassee Democrat
August 21, 2015, Release for Tallahassee Democrat
By Michael Barach
Firebush. Photo by Michael Barach
The chickens are laying hardboiled eggs. The cows are giving evaporated milk. Old Doc, who was such a good dog, is upstairs shaving himself with my best razor. I’m saying it’s hot out there people! For North Florida transplants like myself, whose cooling strategy is to make exclamations, summer in the panhandle can seem downright unbearable. Luckily for me and other Florida gardeners, several Florida native plants are particularly well adapted to heat and able to withstand drought. Incorporating these “sunshine plants” into your garden is a great way to keep your yard thriving and a little bit cooler all summer long.
Heat-tolerant plants are those that have developed special ways to battle “drought stress,” which is the technical term given when plants lose more water than they’re able to absorb. Wilting is likely an early sign of drought stress. Florida’s typically sandy soils and high temperatures combine so that many of its plants may experience drought stress after a few days without water. Plants that have adapted clever ways to retain water, such as large root systems for absorbing rainfall quickly, or thick, waxy-coated leaves for reducing evaporation, are better able to survive dry spells. Notice the waxy coating on vincas’ leaves. Vincas aren’t Florida natives, but they can be a colorful and reliable staple for hot weather flowerbeds.
Below is a short list of five Florida native plants that perform well, even in the dog days of summer. Do your worst, North Florida:
Yucca –Yucca filamentosa is a very tough plant that will grow well in full sun. Plant yucca in well-drained soil and combine it with evergreen shrubs and flowering perennials such as fleabane and beach sunflower. There are many species and cultivars of yucca on the market, so there are a lot of choices for the landscape.
Sunshine mimosa – Mimosa strigillosa, commonly called “powderpuff” for the shape of its showy flowers, is a thorn-less, mat-forming, perennial groundcover, usually growing 3 to 4 inches tall. The leaflets are remarkably sensitive to touch, folding up within one or two seconds after being disturbed, hence it’s other nickname: “sensitive plant”. Sunshine Mimosa is a larval food source for the little sulphur butterfly.
Beach sunflower – Helianthus debilis is a spreading perennial that has attractive, small, sunflower-like flower heads, which are borne throughout the year. Its leaves are dark green, irregularly lobed and toothed, and roughly pubescent. Beach sunflower thrives in full sun and in well-drained soil.
Common Sage – Salvia officinalis is a small evergreen subshrub with woody stems, grayish leaves, and blue to purplish flowers. A member of the mint family, it has sweet smelling leaves, which can be put to use in the kitchen.
Firebush – Hamelia patens is a charming Florida native that will delight everyone with beautiful orange-red flowers throughout most of the year. The slender flowers are tubular, and the plant can reach 8 to 12 feet tall without support. A one-foot tall specimen that is planted in the spring can be expected to reach 5 feet or more by the following winter. Although tolerant of shade, flowering is much reduced.
Michael Barach is volunteering as a Master Gardener in training with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Service. You may also email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov with any gardening questions you may have.