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Fetterbush in bloom, at South Venice Lemon Bay Preserve in February. [CREDIT: Susan Hutson]

Master Gardener Volunteers on… fetterbush and other native plants

By Susan Hutson
Master Gardener Volunteer Program team member

Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ principles help us achieve beautiful, health lawns and landscapes that help to protect our natural resources rather than drain or otherwise damage them. And prominent among those nine Florida-Friendly principles is the idea of “right plant, right place.” That is, add plants in areas where they likely will thrive naturally.

Using native plants goes a long way in that regard. And, in part through these blog posts, we’ll help you identify native plants that you might enjoy using. Today, we focus on fetterbush.

Fetterbush
Common names fetterbush, fetterbush lyonia, shining fetterbush, shiny lyonia
Scientific/Latin name Lyonia lucida
Taxonomic family Ericaceae (heath family)
Status Florida native

DESCRIPTION

Fetterbush in bloom, at South Venice Lemon Bay Preserve in February. [CREDIT: Susan Hutson]

Fetterbush in bloom, at South Venice Lemon Bay Preserve in February. [CREDIT: Susan Hutson]

Fetterbush is a long-lived, evergreen, Florida-native shrub that typically grows 3-5 feet tall and 2-4 feet wide, though I have observed fetterbush in the South Venice Lemon Bay Preserve as tall as 8 feet. Its multi-branched density tends to restrict or “fetter” human or animal movement; thus, the name.

Honey-scented, unbranched and elongated inflorescences (flower clusters) bunch as 10-15 quarter-inch to half-inch long, white, shell-pink, or deep-pink bell-shaped flowers that brighten late-winter to early-spring gardens. New growth follows flowering. Smooth coppery-color leaves emerge, and then change to a leathery, shiny dark-green, about 1-3 inches long. The leaf is simple, elliptic to oval, and alternately arranged. Fruits are one-third of an inch and brown as they mature in summer.

Fetterbush favors partial shade to full shade exposure, but tolerates full sun if sufficiently watered. When planting, soils should be well-drained and acidic to slightly acidic. It succeeds best in Hardiness Zones 7A-10B. Reproduction is through suckering, and plants may be propagated from root cuttings, root division, and seeds. The growth rate is slow to medium, and the water-use requirement is medium.

Its natural occurrence is widespread in lower scrub edges, scrubby flatwoods, xeric hammocks, moist pine flatwoods, and forested wetlands. Although the plant is adapted to briefly flooded habitat and well-drained habitat, well-drained soil is preferred to saturated soil. Fetterbush is used effectively in naturalized landscapes, in mixed-shrub borders, or in rain gardens. If planted in the right place, no maintenance is recommended; however, fetterbush may be trimmed. No serious insect or disease issues have been noted, but shrubs can develop leaf spot if stressed.

WILDLIFE BENEFITS

Fetterbush with an echo moth caterpillar, in April. [CREDIT: Susan Hutson]

Fetterbush with an echo moth caterpillar, in April. [CREDIT: Susan Hutson]

Many butterflies, such as the pipevine swallowtail, black swallowtail, giant swallowtail, clouded sulphur, cloudless sulphur, little yellow, gulf fritillary, monarch, and queen winter in the Sarasota area. The fetterbush’s late-winter and early-spring blooms augment nectar supplies during this time for them, as well as for native bees and other insects. Birds and other wildlife feed on the bush’s summer fruits.

COMPANION FLORIDA NATIVE PLANTINGS

Companion plantings create aesthetically pleasing naturalized landscapes. Add native plants with contrasting or complimentary texture, color, and shapes, such as cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), sweetspire “Henry’s garnet” (Itea virginica), or saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) alongside the dense, shiny, dark-green fetterbush foliage. Mix in taller trees and shrubs, such as the loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus) or sweetbells (Leucothoe racemosa) and smaller perennials such as Stokes’ aster (Stokesia laevis) to mimic native habitat layering and to create open sun and cooling, shady spaces.

Year-round seasonal colors from blooms and from new growth extend a garden’s visual richness. Year-round fruit and seed production provide a consistent food supply for wildlife. Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) blooms from June through September, seeds late summer, and serves as a butterfly larval plant. Inkberry (Ilex glabra) blooms May through June, with persistent fruit from September through May. Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) blooms in the summer and also attracts hummingbirds. Fruit and seeds from these plants nourish many birds and mammals into the fall and winter, when fetterbush steps up and again blooms.

The above-mentioned companion plants favor acidic to slightly acidic soils, and are suitable to Sarasota County Hardiness Zones 9B-10A. These native plants are generally available from native plant nurseries. See the Resources section (below) to for a short list of companion, native-plant options.

Resources
About the Author
Susan Hutson is a UF/IFAS Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Sarasota County, a graduating member of the Class of 2020. She moved to Venice two years ago from Memphis. In her former life, she was a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Service. Her interest in native plants was sparked by her time spent outdoors birding, hiking, biking, and canoeing, and the strong native-plant interest shown by her fellow Sarasota County MGVs pleases her.

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