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UF project hopes to ‘certify’ appropriate plants as wildlife-friendly

Increasingly, consumers want plants that support wildlife, such as pollinators. That’s why UF/IFAS researchers are combining hard and social sciences to ensure you get the “certifiably” wildlife-friendly plants you seek.

That’s right: Six researchers across multiple academic disciplines at the University of Florida are working collaboratively to develop a certification program for wildlife-friendly plants.

Right now, the process might go like this: A customer wants to buy a tropical milkweed for monarchs. He or she might go to a big-box store that sells plants that may have been treated with systemic insecticides.

Those chemicals contain prolonged residual toxicity to monarch larvae. Thus, the customer might buy a wildlife-attracting plant that actually harms wildlife, said Jaret Daniels, a UF/IFAS professor of entomology and principal investigator for the project.

“We want to change this with a certification program that enables consumers to buy with confidence,” Daniels said. “Similarly, some plants might be marketed as pollinator attractors, but we want to put some hard data behind this to evaluate which plants are most attractive. In essence, we want to cut through all this confusion to label them as UF-certified — therefore enabling consumers to readily identify wildlife-safe and wildlife-friendly plants that have thoroughly been evaluated.”

“Ideally, we want to ensure growers have appropriate and effective alternatives for pest control — options that are not harmful for pollinators and other wildlife,” said Daniels, who’s also curator for lepidoptera at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF.

Plants marketed as wildlife-friendly currently do not have to meet standards for how growers control pests during production and whether potentially detrimental chemicals persist on plants after they have been purchased. If the UF project works, growers and buyers will know the plants are safe.

“We envision a UF plant label akin to ‘Proven Winner,'” Daniels said. “Right now, there is no such program, and there’s a lot of misleading information out there.”

On the social science side of the project, Laura Warner, a UF/IFAS associate professor of agricultural education and communication, wants to identify the human dimensions and market characteristics that can lead to greater acceptance and demand for these plants.

“This multidisciplinary approach is ideal because it takes into consideration the ecological need for an improved product and the sociological needs of the people who will grow the plants,” Warner said.

Warner already has begun surveying growers and consumers.

In Fall 2020, her team conducted interviews to better understand what producers would consider before choosing to grow and sell new types of plants. Warner also wants to discover potential challenges that would need to be addressed for them to make these changes.

This year, UF/IFAS researchers started a consumer survey to explore the characteristics and challenges most important to Florida residents as they purchase and care for wildlife-friendly plants. The survey covers topics such as how consumers like to learn about plants and what information they liked to see on plant labels, Warner said.

“The information from that survey will help guide future marketing and educational efforts that are clear, concise and delivered in the formats most useful to Floridians,” she said.

Later this summer, UF/IFAS researchers will send out a second survey to identify the characteristics and barriers that will be central to promoting wildlife-friendly plants to growers.

“The information collected will guide education and marketing efforts for nurseries and garden centers, and it will help us identify opportunities for growers to directly provide education and promote wildlife-friendly plants to their customers,” Warner said.

The UF-funded project comes from a Research Opportunity Seed Fund grant. For more information about the project, contact Daniels at jcdnls@ufl.edu or Warner at lsanagorski@ufl.edu.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.

ifas.ufl.edu  @UF_IFAS