What Is That Lawn Ornament?! Frogfruit? Florida lawn of the future?

Blog Series Headline photo

A handful of the “lawn ornaments” that will be featured in this blog series. Top row (left to right): sunshine powderpuff, perennial peanut, frogfruit, and daisy fleabane. Bottom row (left to right): manyflower pennywort, bay lobelia, Florida snow, and blue-eyed grass.

Welcome to our Lawn Ornament blog series, where we explore the plethora of micro-plants that can help create a biodiverse, predominantly green, yet also delightfully colorful lawn that requires much less maintenance than a traditional grass lawn.

Many homeowners find it difficult and costly to maintain a “traditional” lawn, one largely dominated by a single grass cultivar. Embracing a biodiverse landscape can ease the frustration and save money, with the added bonus of providing ecological benefits. This “Lawn Ornament” series will provide a road map to that goal. Along the way, we’ll showcase volunteer “weeds” and commercially available ground covers that can improve upon the biodiversity of our lawns. We will also offer you tips and techniques to adopt and embrace this biodiverse approach. Breaking free from tradition, we can transform yards and neighborhoods to vibrant, beautiful mixed-mowable ecosystems.

Make sure to check out the Starter Guide: Embracing Lawn Ornaments: A Starter Guide


What Is That Lawn Ornament?! Frogfruit? Florida turf of the future?

Map of worldwide Frogfruit distribution. Diagram courtesy of the Kew Gardens Plant Atlas.
Map of worldwide Frogfruit distribution. Diagram courtesy of the Kew Gardens Plant Atlas.

One humble low-growing plant is quietly making its case as a potential groundcover of the future in the Sunshine State – Frogfruit, scientifically known as Phyla nodiflora. Native to the pantropics and subtropics, with a range encompassing USDA zones 6 and above, this versatile plant is a botanical chameleon, adapting to various environments with ease. Native to every continent except Antarctica, Frogfruit boasts a plethora of ecotypes, each exhibiting distinct foliage and growth habits tailored to its local surroundings. Locally I have seen it growing in salty conditions even next to Red Mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) all the way to the arid embrace of our inland, upland scrublands, but it thrives best in freshwater wetlands and mowed lawns.

Currently Wild, Future Refinement?

As we seek alternatives to traditional monoculture turfgrass lawns, Frogfruit is emerging as a promising candidate. The art of plant breeding, arguably one of humanity’s greatest skills, is now being harnessed to transform this native gem into a viable turfgrass alternative or companion. Much like how wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) was cultivated into diverse vegetables like brussel sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi, Frogfruit is undergoing a similar transformation. This has already happened in Japan, where innovative cultivars with dense, low-growing habits and striking flower variations have been developed for temperate climates. It is a turf replacement of choice in water starved California.

Map of Florida showing where various ecotypes were collected from.
Map of Florida showing where various ecotypes were collected from, pictured next to University of Florida test plots showing the diverse traits exhibited. Photos courtesy of Professor Kevin Kenworthy.

Frogfruit is now actively undergoing plant breeding at the University of Florida, Professor Kevin Kenworthy and Master’s Student Shea Hogan are meticulously selecting and crossbreeding genetic samples collected from around the state and beyond to enhance desirable traits such as compact growth habit, persistence, resilience, and winter color retention. The result? A potential lawn ornament that could rival traditional turfgrass in popularity while providing diverse sustainability and ecological benefits. Want to learn more about this breeding project? Check out the Frogfruit Research Update from the University of Florida Center for Land Use Efficiency (CLUE).

Another study that recently concluded was a collaboration between The Villages Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and the University of Florida. In the study, researchers tested different herbicide applications on Frogfruit to kill unwanted traditional turf grasses like Zoysia, Bahiagrass, Bermudagrass, and St. Augustine. How unimaginable would this study have been a few decades ago? I think it is a testament to how Florida-Friendly Landscaping and the native plant movement have caught on and are transforming landscapes for the better. Even if I personally pine for a mixed-mowable future where we leave the idea of monoculture behind, this research is interesting. How the tables have turned!

Ecological Impact

A cutting of Frogfruit placed in a water feature in our new Shade Garden Demonstration area has cascaded down in recent weeks.
A single unrooted cutting of Frogfruit placed in a water feature has cascaded down in recent weeks. Talk about easy propagation!

So why should Frogfruit be your new favorite plant? Beyond its aesthetic appeal, low growing habit, and landscape resilience, Frogfruit offers a myriad of ecological benefits. It serves as a host plant to three native butterfly species in Florida – the White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae), Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia), and Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon) Butterflies – Frogfruit truly transforms your lawn into a haven for these pollinators. Its year-round blooms also provide a bountiful nectar source for additional butterflies and bees, promoting biodiversity and ecological benefits that spread beyond your backyard. As a resilient and adaptable native groundcover, Frogfruit requires minimal maintenance and is well-adapted to Florida’s climate, making it a practical and environmentally conscious choice for landscaping. In my high and dry lawn that is never irrigated, Frogfruit is the dominant groundcover naturally!

Easy Install

Eager to incorporate Frogfruit into your lawn but can’t wait for the future cultivars from UF? Fear not! Even the uncultivated version of Frogfruit can make for a splendid groundcover option. Propagated easily from cuttings placed in wet potting soil or water, Frogfruit spreads rapidly, filling in bare patches with lush greenery. Whether you opt for the wild variety or patiently await the cultivated ornamentals, planting Frogfruit is a simple yet impactful way to support native bees and butterflies while beautifying your outdoor space.

In a world where sustainability is paramount, Frogfruit is an intriguing new groundover. Providing ecological benefits while still being an ideal soft recreational surface. Frogfruit is also a great example of how embracing native flora like Frogfruit in our landscaping–could be the answer to the sustainability and ecological harmony we need to preserve our Earth.


Resources

Declaration of Generative AI and AI-assisted technologies in the writing process
During the preparation of this work, the author used ChatGPT to help build the blog post. After using this tool/service, the author reviewed and edited the content, and takes full responsibility for the content of the publication.
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Forest Hecker, Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Community Educator for Sarasota County's UF/IFAS Extension and Sustainability Department.
Posted: May 16, 2024


Category: Florida-Friendly Landscaping, Home Landscapes, Lawn, UF/IFAS Extension, UF/IFAS Research
Tags: FFL, Florida-Friendly Landscaping, Horticulture, Landscape, Landscaping, Lawn, Pgm_HortRes


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