Five Tough Underused Native Groundcovers
October 18, 2013
By David MacManus
Turfgrass lawns require frequent mowing and often need supplemental irrigation, periodic fertilizing and pest control. To reduce the amount of lawn area and the subsequent maintenance that comes with turfgrasses there are a number of good options. Groundcovers can be planted as well as shrubbery beds, annual and perennial beds and portions of the landscape can be simply mulched without any plant material. Popular groundcover turf substitutes include Asiatic jasmine, liriope and various dwarf junipers- all are proven performers yet are exotic plants. Homeowners and commercial landscapers are now utilizing more native plant materials which are adapted to Florida’s soil types and climates, provide food and shelter for butterflies, birds and other wildlife and often help conserve water by requiring less irrigation once established. Sadly a number of potentially good native groundcovers are hard to locate in nurseries but once found make worthy additions to our landscapes. Today we will focus on five tough underused native groundcover plants deserve consideration.
The gopher apple (Licania michauxii) is a low growing spreading native shrub with stiff evergreen leaves, clusters of small yellow flowers in the spring and inch long fruit that is off white when ripe. The fruit is edible and tastes rather bland with a hint of bubble gum flavor. Rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, deer and the threatened gopher tortoise, enjoy the fruit. A planting of gopher apple resembles a mass of live oak seedlings- each plant is usually under a foot high and sends up runners that sprout up a number of feet from the parent plant. Gopher apple makes a good heat and drought tolerant groundcover for sandy soils when planted in full sun or partial shade.
The sunshine mimosa or powderpuff (Mimosa strigillosa) is a perennial low-growing groundcover that has bright green fern-like foliage that closes upon touching and attractive flowers that resemble pink powder puffs are borne from spring through fall. The sunshine mimosa thrives in both moist, sunny areas and rather dry sandy area as is very drought tolerant! Although it looks rather delicate, it is actually very tough and will tolerate some light foot traffic. It spreads rather rapidly and will require periodic edging in some locations. It will go dormant during the winter in our area. Fortunately, this very desirable native groundcover is being offered by more nurseries and can be obtained locally. The sunshine mimosa attracts butterflies and serves as a host plant for butterfly larvae.
The partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is a ground hugging perennial with very small dark evergreen leaves, small white flowers that are borne in pairs, and bright red berries that are edible but flavorless. Partridgeberry grows well in shade and tolerates a wide variety of soil types both moist and dry. Partridgeberry can make an attractive very low green carpet in sites too shady for turfgrass.
Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) is an attractive very low growing semi-evergreen perennial with several unusual common names. For some reason it is sometimes called turkey tangle fogfruit, how it earned the name “frogfruit” is a mystery as is “fogfruit”! It was once placed in the genus Lippia and perhaps that would make a better name for this tough groundcover. It can be collected on the side of the road and in some lawns as sadly few nurseries carry it. Frogfruit will tolerate light foot traffic. Frogfruit has attractive small flowers that are borne in match-head like clusters. Frogfruit is a good nectar plant for butterflies. It performs best in moist soils but will tolerate drought rather well.
The coontie (Zamia pumila) is a small plant that resembles a palm and is useful in creating a tropical feel in a landscape. It is a cycad-an ancient group of gymnosperms and is a cousin of the sago palm. The coontie has very attractive dark green, shiny leaves. It is dioecious, having male and female plants that bear cones. The roots of this plant were used by the Seminole Indians as a source of dietary starch after careful preparation. The coontie is very drought tolerant in spite of its tropical appearance. It survives most winters here. When it does get the occasional cold injury, it recovers rapidly. The atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala) thought to be extinct until recently, is dependent on this plant for its survival.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org