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Tropical Perennials Can Help Florida Gardens Survive Summer

Cindy Spence

Rick Schoellhorn (850) 983-2632

GAINESVILLE—Petunias are pooped and roses are ragged, geraniums are goners and daffodils are dead. The dog days of summer are here, and flowers everywhere are wilting and withering in the Florida heat.

Everywhere, that is, except in Rick Schoellhorn’s garden.

Schoellhorn, a University of Florida horticulturist, is growing tropical perennials in an experimental garden at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ West Florida Research and Education Center in Milton.

“This is the dead season for the standard fare,” Schoellhorn said. “So I’m trying to take these little-known tropical perennials and show growers how to produce them very easily.”

Schoellhorn’s perennials are tropical flowering plants with two advantages over traditional summer annuals. First, they are able to handle the heat and humidity of Florida summers during the time when other plants have already faded, providing constant color in the garden. And second, they will come back year after year, offering a wider range of color and form than the standard summer plants.

“One thing that is very frustrating for gardeners in the South is that you have to plant almost four crops of annuals a year to keep your garden in color,” Schoellhorn said. “So the idea of something that’s perennial that comes back year after year saves that repetitive planting.

“Most summer flowers only tolerate the heat,” Schoellhorn said. “Tropical perennials enjoy it.”

George Griffith of Hatchett Creek Farms in Gainesville is the major producer of tropical perennial starter plants for Florida and says he welcomes Schoellhorn’s research.

“There really is an explosion of interest in this type of plant,” Griffith said. “These plants can fill a niche in the gardening calendar. In May, bedding plants look great. Come August, they’ve melted in the heat and look terrible, but gardeners still want color.”

The tropical perennials include yellow shrimp plants, Persian shield, Brazilian plume, angelonia, pentas, Philippine violet, blue ginger, caricature plant, butterfly ginger, and nonflowering coleus.

These plants offer flower and foliage color throughout the dog days of summer and into the fall. In fact, many will bloom until the first frost.

Schoellhorn said the tropical perennials are not intended to replace annuals but to complement them. In almost any landscape design, annuals still would be needed for color. But, he said, gardeners would be able to use the annuals in a more concentrated fashion and use the tropical perennials as a background.

In West Florida, where Schoellhorn is based, the tropical perennials also could be an economic boost. Farmers who can’t use some of their land for agronomic crops will find they can use it for crops of flowers — with some know-how.

Schoellhorn’s research is focused on developing “recipes” for growing the tropical perennials so that growers and nurseries will take to them and sell them for the mass market.

“One of the hardest things about introducing a new crop, although it may be wonderful, is if no one knows how to grow it, no one will grow it,” Schoellhorn said.

“Most commercial growers are interested in cookbook plants, where they can follow a recipe and produce plants in large numbers. What I’m trying to do is take these fringe plants and turn them into cookbook plants by establishing a recipe growers can follow so they can go right into production.”

Among the elements Schoellhorn is investigating are rooting the plants, growing them, their light requirements, their insect problems and their nutrient needs. He wants to resolve all these issues before growers have to worry about them.

And although Schoellhorn’s research is new, many of the plants are not. In fact, they might look a lot like indoor plants you remember from grandmother’s house.

“Some of these plants have been around for 40 years or more, and many were popular alternative houseplants in the 1950s,” Schoellhorn said. “For example, my grandmother grew heliotrope and love lies bleeding. Many of these plants were marketed — mistakenly — as indoor plants. The zebra plant was beautiful to look at, but the average consumer took it home and watched it drop all its leaves.

“So what I’m trying to do is reorganize how we perceive these plants and quit trying to grow them indoors, where conditions work against them, and use them out in the garden where they can really exhibit their spectacular colors.”

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