Native Flowers Overlooked for Cultivated Blooms

Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director

The pastel palette of Spring is here at last. The warm air is abuzz with hummingbirds and bees discovering their new favorite flowers to visit. Some of the most attractive plants are the precursor to the popular ornamental variety grown commercially for homes and businesses. Though their blooms may be modest with their delicate coloration, these original natives are a beauty to behold.

Residents of Wakulla County can easily see this in two native plants which bloom in the spring. Azaleas and geraniums were both wild and made random appearances, but are now the province of retail establishments.

Azaleas are member of the Rhododendron genus which includes flowering shrubs of the same name that grow in more northern latitudes. Their popularity as flowering perennials has led to the development of more than 10,000 cultivars worldwide which please almost every taste for a profuse and showy burst of color.

These plants are native to southwest Europe, Asia, and North America. They are believed to date back 70 million years and have an ancestor in common with blueberries and pieris. Many of the azaleas which grace the yards and gardens in Wakulla County are traced back to east Asian stock. These cultivars had been grown for centuries and reached Europe in the 17th Century.
When they arrived in America there were 26 different native azaleas already growing here. At least four of these grow naturally in Florida and can be presently seen in natural, as well as, managed landscapes.

Like the long cultivated Asian varieties, the azaleas native to Florida prefer acidic soils and filtered light.  The can be found in forested areas and near streams or rivers. Much like the azalea, geraniums have been cultivated for centuries. While the details are lost to history, the plant was cultivated in Europe for its attractive blooms possibly as early as the 16th Century having originated in southern Africa.

While not in the same genus as the long cultivated ornamental geranium, the native plant (Geranium carolinianum) is in the same plant family. Although not producing as many or as large blooms as its ornamental cousin, the native plant is striking in its own right, the minute pinkish to purple blooms appear on the end of this herbs stems.

The plant is highly adaptable and will grow in a variety of environments. This early spring bloomer can tolerate some shade, but prefers full sun. Once established, it will rapidly colonize an area and pushing out competitors to the point of becoming a pest. The mass appearance adds a stark color contrast to the landscape, with its green background and flecks of pink to purple blooms.

Both the wild azaleas and the native geraniums add an enduring continuity to the ever-changing landscape on contemporary Wakulla County.

For more information on Azaleas, see the EDIS publication, Azaleas at a Glance.

To learn more about flowering native plants in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco.

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