Damn right, they’re better than imports- These might just be the lyrics to a new black eyed bees song, but the message they send is true. Planting members of your native plant community will ensure many visitors to your garden- Not just butterflies! Planting native will bring a myriad of garden visitors, from those seeking a few drops of nectar, to those looking to get pollen drunk and fall asleep in a flower, and even some with sinister intent- wasps, ladybugs, and mantids looking to kill.
Planting in harmony with the native ecology encourages your garden to become a part of that ecology. Your yard will quite literally become abuzz with activity when planted and maintained correctly. Planting native ensures that local wildlife get the most use out of their visit to your habitation. From earthworms, to bees, to birds, having access to flowering, fruiting, or plants which provide nesting material or food for butterfly larva, native plants in the landscape perform a role other than to just be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Rather than only being a sterile piece of living art, your home’s exterior trappings could include a sanctuary for beneficial wildlife, a source of food for you and your visitors, an integral part of the local biosphere.
Not to mention, but this is Florida, baby- there is a plant to fill every niche, from dainty ground covers to towering trees, truly something for everyone. We will cover in this article a smidgen of the flora available to the home gardener, for this state is home to thousands of species, in either native or Florida friendly, meaning that while the plant may not be from here, we include them for having merits such as being non invasive, or being food for wildlife. Whether you go full native, or just add a few specimens, odds are you will see an increase in beneficial creatures stopping by your garden.
Started from the bottom, now we here! Still, at ground level, or close to it. These low lying plants never exceed more than around three feet, by definition. Most spread by rhizomes, similar to the way grasses do, spreading out to form carpets of vegetation. Grasses are obviously ground covers, then, but that’s not the sort we mean here, not to mention we feel like grass lawns are obsolete- see why here: https://sandysprouts.com/2019/11/13/the-wars-we-wage-on-nature/ . No, the ground covers we are referring to are like flower bushes, scaled down for the smaller creatures to enjoy.
Blue Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) is a good descriptive name for this low growing perennial. It looks like patches of grass, but in the spring it is covered in small, blue flowers with yellow centers. It is in the iris family, and can be divided like them every couple of years to prevent overcrowding or fill in new spots with the pups.
Frog fruit (Phyla nodiflora) can be found on nearly every roadside in central Florida. Just look down and you will see the “fruits” held aloft on little, wand-like stems, each having tiny blooms. You will likely notice also, a proliferation of pollinators visiting these petite plants. Small in stature, but high on the list for drawing in useful insects, this tough cookie can take foot traffic, mowing, poor soils, lack of irrigation, and more all with stride. Grow between pavers for easy to maintain turf.
Perennial Peanut (Arachis glabrata) is not naturally from here, but South America, but is a very well behaved introduction. Many agencies tasked with maintaining the roadsides and right-of-ways have adopted it, as it needs little in the way of irrigation, and stays short. The foliage is bright green and in the spring and summer perennial peanut sends up happy little yellow flowers. An added bonus: this plant is a legume, and as such fixes nitrogen in the soil, thus improving it to feed other plants growing nearby!
Peperomia (Peperomia obtusifolia) is s good ground cover for shady areas. It’s interesting foliage has earned it the nickname “baby rubber plant” Found wild in the southern counties of the state, it is hardy up to 9b. Found naturally in boggy, tree-canopied areas, it is a great fit for a problem area you may have fitting those very conditions.
Some other great choices would be sweet potatoes, which come in purple or bright green varieties, mondo grass, sunshine mimosa, blue daze (Evolvulus glomeratus), and beach creeper (Enordea littoralis
Forbalicious? Definitely a made up word- but forbs isn’t. Forbs are what little flower bushes are officially called. They come in annual, biennial, and perennial varieties, like what you see them labeled as in garden centers. These types of plants developed long ago, during the time when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and spread to every corner of the globe, Florida being no exception. We have native flower plants here in every color and blooming season.
Annuals: Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) is a favorite here, as evidenced by the background image, a tenacious blanketflower bursting through a crack in the concrete. They are tough, but for a time, beautiful red and yellow flowers giving way to brown seed heads, then dying, in one season.
Blackeyed susan (Rudbeckia spp.) is sure to bring delight, and pollinators, with its happy black and yellow color scheme. These tender perennials are treated as annuals because most times they lose vigor after going to seed, so frequent deadheading can prolong their life.
Spanish needles (Bidens alba, Bidens bipinnata) are little daisy-like flowers, the alba in white, bipinnata in yellow, which soon turn into forked seed heads that stick to clothes and animals. Most consider this plant to be a weed but it is one of the most sought after nectar plants in the state and it’s edible to boot!
Tropical milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) are a must have for monarch lovers, as this is an ideal larval host plant. Good news: monarchs will come. Bad news: their hungry babies will devour the plants. Well worth the trade.
Other great annuals include phlox, in many colors, sunflowers, in every size, edible nasturtiums, and pest repelling marigolds go great in flower beds or herb gardens.
Perennials: Blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora) Blanket flower again? Yes, but this one lives from year to year. What could be better than that?
Aster (Aster spp.) includes over 2500 plants, but Florida has some wonderful native varieties in lots of colors for loads of different light conditions.
Blazing star (Liatris spicata) sends up tall, purple flower spikes which are irresistible to butterflies, even through the hottest of our summer days. After flowering, leave them to mature to harvest hundreds of seeds to propagate next spring.
Florida paintbrush (Carphephorus corymbosus) is known for pinkish purple flowers resembling a paintbrush. Does well in sandy soils, and is drought tolerant. Woodland pollinator magnet.
Salvias (Salvia spp.) are a group of plants including edible sage. Flower colors run the gamut in this family, from brilliant red (salvia coccinea) to black and blue (salvia guaranitica). Salvias are shunned by most pest insects but lure in butterflies and hummingbirds.
Blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) is another blue flowered plant, one which-as the name implies- grows like a weed. It has an irregular growth pattern of wavy, sprawling stems which look great in an informal setting. Another great pollinator pleaser.
There are far too many great natives in this category for one post, but some other great perennial forbs we like are cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), Lovely purple verbenas (Glandularia tampensis), wild petunias, blue mistflowers, dune sunflower, spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata) and our state flower, coreopsis.
Tasty tasty herbs, that is. They’re herbalicious. So delicious. Florida’s long growing season means that many herbs, vegetables, and medicinal plants can be grown practically year round. Some herbs do better here than others. Our punishing summer heat, along with muggy, intolerable humidity, limits the options somewhat, but if varieties are chosen that are natives or survive conditions similar to our own, they will be a lot happier, less stressed, and as a direct consequence less prone to falling victims of disease.
Some great herbs for Florida :
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is a member of the mint family happy in zones 4-9. It is prized, by bees and gardeners alike, for its edible, lavender flowers. The leaves are made into herbal tea, the blossoms used in salads. Bees love these summer blooms.
Aloe (Aloe vera) is a great medicinal plant that does well between zones 8-11. Aloe vera juice is a hydrating beverage made from the mucilaginous insides of the leaves, which is the same part used externally, for burns and sunburn. It can be planted in a sunny location and left alone without much need for extra watering. Too much water is actually bad for these succulents, causing root rot.
Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) can be grown easily by placing cuttings into dirt. Too much sun can be a problem, a location with afternoon shading is best for this mint cousin. Use as you would mexican oregano, but reduce the amount used, as a little of this herb goes a long way.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) need not be confined to the herb garden, for it can grow into a lovely shrub, which when bushed against, impart an aromatic, piney odor. Plant near a walkway to enjoy the scent year round. Many dishes benefit from the addition of this evergreen herb, as well.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) has both culinary uses and is a well known mosquito repellent. Also known as citronella grass, planted near entryways or by decks or patios this plant is an attractive way to keep the pesky bloodsuckers away. Found in many Asian dishes, lemongrass is a great way to add some international flair to your own cooking, so save some space for this great grass.
Most culinary herbs can be grown in containers, or outdoors, year round. Basil and fennel will attract pollinators while chasing away bad bugs. Most sages do good in the sunshine state, try new flavors, like pineapple sage. Mexican tarragon is a good substitute for the french version, which wilts in our heat. Bananas are also herbs, believe it or not, and round out your edible collection with other tropicals like pineapple, sugar cane, edible ginger, and turmeric (Curcuma longa), all of which can be started from grocery store bought roots or stem cuttings.
Shrubs, flower bushes, hedges, whatever you might call them are the backdrop of most every garden. Their size often brings fragrant flowers up closer to us to enjoy, they can be utilized to provide some privacy, and certain species will be like wildlife beacons, drawing in pollinators from all around when they put on their floral displays. Florida also has something for every color, and season, even pretty red holly berries for winter.
October rose (Hibiscus radiatus) pictured above, will get between eight to twelve feet tall, depending on where it’s placed. It is among the cannabis-leaved varieties of hibiscus, the flowers appearing deep red beginning in the fall. Can be grown from cuttings.
Firebush (Hamelia patens) is a popular plant with pollinators and those who plant it. Easy to grow, not fussy, it is finding great success when used in commercial landscaping applications, like along highways or in parking lot islands. Might even draw in some hummingbirds, if you’re lucky.
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitorea) is a great foundation shrub. It is evergreen, carefree, and one can even make a tea from the leaves which has more caffeine than either coffee or green tea. Natives used the “black drink” in purification ceremonies involving vomiting, which led to the latin nomenclature vomitorea. The red berries are a great winter food for birds, when not much else is available.
Bahama cassia (Senna mexicana var. chapmanii) is a great addition to the landscape, and will draw in butterflies of the phoebis genus, which are more commonly known as sulfurs, as these are among the host plants for their young. Yellow fall flowers provide added interest.
Coontie ferns (zamia integrifolia) is Florida’s only native cycad, a plant family older than dinosaurs, with familiar species being sago and cardboard palms. Overharvesting for “arrowroot” flour, beginning in the second world war, combined with habitat destruction brought wild populations to the brink of extinction, along with alata butterflies, who depend on the plant for breeding. Efforts to plant them in commercial and institutional landscapes are helping the struggling butterfly species.
Volumes could be dedicated to what to plant in your own Florida yard, but some other recommendations are cranberry hibiscus, blueberries, elderberries, blackberries, native lantana, butterfly bush, marlberry, wax myrtle, thryallis, and golden dewdrop. All of these species attract butterflies, bees, and birds, and most of these have human uses, from fruit to candle making.
Many vines love our warm, lush climate. Many invasive species are vines, however, and some just overgrow the space they are given to roam in. Be sure to consider the mature size of the plant before placing where it will later be a problem. But when placed properly, and pruned correctly, vines will reward their growers with vigorous growth and lovely flowers.
Passion flowers (Passiflora spp.) are the most prolific of Florida’s vines, having several varieties, in purple, white, and even red, though the red is toxic to many caterpillars. The complex flowers reminded Spanish explorers of the passion of Christ, hence the name. There is even a type called corkystem (Passiflora suberosa)which has diminutive, green flowers, whose presence would scarcely be noticed, were it not the proliferation of pollinators betraying their locations, hidden behind lance shaped leaves.
Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is one of our state’s most impressive vines, with tubular reddish orange flowers that flash like neon signs for pollinating insects and hummingbirds. It can grow quite large, and needs an appropriate trellis or pergola. Can be propagated by woody cuttings or seeds harvested from the red, ripe fruits.
Cross vine (Bignonia capreolata) can also grow quite large, as it claws it’s way up trees or buildings. Giving this vine a home will reward you with masses of orange-red flowers in the spring. This vine covering a pergola in front of an entry would provide quite a dramatic effect. Or train along a fence for pollinator friendly privacy.
Other great vines are morning glory (Ipomea spp.), Mexican flame vine (Pseudogynoxys chenopodioides), cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis), Dutchmen’s pipevine (Aristolochia serpentaria), jessamine and jaquemontia.
Bushes may serve as a good backdrop for the seasonal flower displays in your garden, but trees play important roles, too- whether they have beautiful flowers, sweet fruit, or provide shade from the scorching sun. Trees provide shelter for nesting birds, raw materials for nests, and food for foraging creatures. Florida has no shortage of trees that will fit the bill for any need, tall, wide, short, squat, blooming, fruit, nut, even those used as spices and medicine.
Most fruiting and flowering trees are not native, but beneficial to native wildlife anyhow. Trumpet trees (Tabebuia spp.) flush with pink or yellow each spring, before filling in with leaves are a common sight, as are Hong Kong orchid trees (Bauhinia spp.). These trees help fix nitrogen in the soil, which is good for their neighbors. Royal Poincianas (Delonix regis) and jacaranda are very similar, the former having brilliant red blooms, the latter a light purple.
Papayas, mangoes, citrus, and Barbados cherry are some examples of introduced fruit trees that do well here, perhaps even playing the starring or supporting roles in a subtropical fruit guild, but we have native fruits too, such a cocoplum, chickasaw plum, pawpaws, and American persimmons. Oaks, pecans, and hickories provide mast for both humans and animals alike.
As you can see there are plants in every category that are either native or non invasive, which will fill the niches of any plant you might miss from up north, or fill a role like the ones in the magazine shoots. Planting native or non invasive plants are a great way to bolster the local wildlife, and ensure your garden is in harmony with it’s surroundings.
You will find you need less water, plant food, and have to intervene less in pest problems when planting natives, so you get to spend more time enjoying your outdoor paradise, and less time and money maintaining it. Many are easy to propagate as well, meaning once you’ve bought the first plants, you can get more economically by division and seeds.
And where will you get the first ones? From friends, neighbors, a plant swap, ideally, but to find a nursery selling them near you just check https://www.afnn.org/ . That’s the Florida Association of Native Nurseries’ website, an invaluable resource for anyone who cares about the flora and fauna that have existed long before we arrived, and with our help, will be here as long as us.
Rehabilitating your yard from a box store bought, builder installed bushes with no wildlife benefits to one which helps diversity thrive, requires a little education, and some perspiration on your part. But with some help from Sandy Sprouts and a small army of hardworking, under appreciated creatures, your yard can become an oasis of life.