August 23, 2013
Photo by Taylor Vandiver
By David MacManus
Our local landscapes are often much like “plant zoos” planted with many exotic ornamentals such as crape myrtles, evergreen azaleas, camellias and sago palms from the Orient; agapanthus and pentas from Africa; pindo palms, feijoa and caladiums from South America and silver dollar eucalyptus and bottlebrush from Australia. Fortunately many gardeners are now focusing on utilizing many of our sterling native plants because they too offer attributes such as color, fragrance, attractive foliage and shade. Another added benefit of native plants is that they offer fruit, nectar and pollen for native insects, birds and mammals.
However, there is some confusion on just exactly what is a “native plant”. In the Apalachicola National Forest I found a small colony of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)- I saw them before growing wild in the Southern Appalachians, and I incorrectly assumed that they are native to our area. I later learned that although they are native to North America were introduced into Florida and escaped from plantings to become naturalized.
The Florida Native Plant Society offers us this definition of a “Florida native plant”-“a species occurring within the state boundaries prior to European contact, according to the best available scientific and historical documentation. Florida native plants include those species understood as indigenous, occurring in natural associations in habitats that existed prior to significant human impacts and alterations of the landscape.”
However, not all Florida native plants grow in every region of the state. To have a truly “natural landscape” plantings should be of indigenous plants that grow together in nature in the same ecosystem. Most gardeners do not limit their selection of plants so strictly and utilize plants that are indigenous to other areas of the state. There are special cultivated varieties of various native plants such as Dwarf Yaupon Holly and compact varieties of Walter’s Viburnum that you would not find in the wild but make excellent choices for landscaping due to their compact size and foliage density.
Not all plants of the same species are truly native. One example is firebush (Hamelia patens). One variety of it is native to south Florida and the other variety is not. The native firebush (Hamelia patens var. patens) has broadly lanceolate leaves, are in whorls of 3-4 (typically 3) and are often tinged with red, especially when grown in full sun. The leaves and young stems are covered with appressed (flattened) hairs. Narrow, tubular, orange-red flowers are in terminal and axillary clusters, each flower ranging from 1/2-1″ long and about 1/8″ wide. The flowers can be yellowish when in bud, turning orange after opening, and then orange-red once they are pollinated – but the dominant color on open flowers is typically red, or orange-red. But there is a non-native variety (Hamelia patens var.glabra) that is widely available. As the name glabra implies, the leaves are glabrous (without hairs) and are whorled in groups of 3-4 (typically 4). The flowers of this variety are mostly yellow with a reddish orange base, often with thin red lines along the outside of the floral tube.
There is also some confusion whether some plants are truly native to Florida or not. One example is St.Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum). There are very old records of it being found on our state’s beaches. Some botanists believe that it is from Africa as its closest relatives are found there. Other botanists believe that it originates from the American tropics but due to its distribution at tropical seaports world-wide others believe that it’s exact origin may never be known. The University of South Florida’s Institute for Systematic Botany accepts St. Augustine grass as a Florida native-so sometimes what is native or not depends on which “expert” is cited. A very good reference to check the nativity of Florida plants can be found online: The Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants http://florida.plantatlas.usf.edu/ .
David MacManus is the Assistant Director of Grounds & Landscape Operations at FSU and a member of the Leon County/UF IFAS Extension Urban Forestry/Horticulture Advisory Committee. For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov