Native Plants: Finding the ‘Real’ Florida in Your Yard

Rouge plant, true to its name, was used by indigenous Floridians to pigment their skin. Image by Jen Tyson

When you picture your favorite Florida landscapes, what plants do you see? Redolent plumerias? Bold, heart-shaped elephant ears? The traffic-cone orange plumes of bird of paradise or graceful fronds of coconut palms? These iconic flora have all found their way into Florida’s greenscapes. And, despite the fact that they come from across the world – hailing from Central America and the Caribbean, Asia, South Africa, and Oceania, respectively – they have come, over time, to evoke that special Florida feeling: verdant, tropical, and wild. In a word, paradise.

More Than Beauty

Yet for all their appeal, lush tropical plantings can bring more than just beauty to the landscape. They can also bring problems. For instance, one species of elephant ear, Colocasia esculenta or wild taro, has been classified by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) as invasive. This “aggressive weed,” whose starchy tuber once attracted attention as a potential substitute for potatoes, can crowd out other waterline species that Florida animals depend on. It can break loose to form large floating islands that block navigation and raise risk for flooding. The romantic coconut palm is on the same watch list due to its sneaky (or, depending on your perspective, quite adaptive) habit of dropping nuts into canals, where they can float away and establish themselves elsewhere.  

Then there’s the question of pollinators. Jen Tyson, education coordinator at St. Pete’s Sunken Gardens, explains that many of Florida’s native pollinators (which includes a whopping 300 species of bees) struggle when exotic plants replace their favored species for nectaring and hosting caterpillars, or when those native plant species are removed to make way for development. Consider the Atala butterfly (otherwise known as the coontie hairstreak): this shimmering blue and black-winged marvel nests in native coontie palm plants in south Florida. But when coontie was over-harvested for its starchy root at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Atalas disappeared; in fact, it was considered extinct from 1937 until 1959. Not until coontie came back into fashion as a landscaping plant did these mysterious butterflies reemerge – and even now, they remain imperiled. This same problem is playing out throughout Florida as insects fine-tuned by evolution for a particular plant community face loss of habitat, landscapes transformed. 

The Atala butterfly was once considered extinct, but its numbers are still threatened. Photo via the National Parks Service.

Another important factor in the question of what plants should be growing where is, of course, climate – a baseline which is shifting. This past November, the USDA reissued its famous Plant Hardiness Zone Map, the multicolored diagram on the back of seed packets that charts out the averages of the lowest annual winter temperatures in a given location (across a 30-year interval). It’s a gardeners’ standby for judging which plants are likely to thrive where. The newest edition shows a change for much of Pinellas County from Zone 10A to Zone 10B, representing a 5-degree Fahrenheit rise in annual low temperatures. 

At Sunken Gardens, Tyson sees this warming playing out in real time. Plants that might have thrived five years ago don’t grow as well, and others are blooming earlier than usual. This can create a different challenge for pollinators. For instance, the southeastern blueberry bee, a Florida native, nests in the ground and emerges in February – just in time for blueberries to blossom. But this long-established symbiotic dance falls apart when the seasonal plant progression shifts. 

Privet senna with a cloudless sulpher catepillar. Photo courtesy of the Florida Wildflower Foundation

“We may be able to adapt to these changes,” explains Tyson, “but the pollinators we depend on may not be able to.”

Planting Hope

Invasive species, warming climate, struggling pollinators. These are, in part, the legacy of those visions of tropical beauty that Florida gardeners have brought to their landscapes over the last century. Sunken Gardens, opened by George and Eula Turner in 1936 and famous for its collection of exotic plants and birds, is a great example of this conundrum. Tyson reflects: “The Turners planted lots of natives, trees especially. They understood the value of native plants, but they also created what people wanted to see in Florida.”

Yet that same power to transform landscapes may also hold the key to helping repair Florida’s damaged ecosystems, which is why the Gardens are now adding additional natives. For instance, the median along 4th Street was recently replanted with beach sunflower and muhly grass. As Horticultural Foreman Sean Farrell points out, these two Florida natives require less water and fertilizer than many more conventional border plant choices. They also showcase the unique beauty of Florida natives: beach sunflower’s cheery, sun-worshiping blooms are a favorite of many pollinator species, while muhly grass’s feathery top blazes a dramatic pink when the plant flowers in the fall. 

The Gardens also boasts a dedicated pollinator garden where you can see many Florida native plants doing their thing: privet senna with its buttery yellow blossoms, tea bush with lush swags of delicate purple flowers, and swamp-dwelling mist flower with its clouds of violet blooms – just to name a few. While they may lack the big colors and bold shapes of favorite tropicals, Florida natives bring a different kind of beauty to the landscape, harboring new winged visitors and reflecting the progression of the seasons. “When you start incorporating native plants into your landscape,” reflects Tyson, “you start to see the real Florida. You embrace what’s really unique about our state.”

The twinberry, or Simpson’s stopper, was used as a medicinal plant by indiginous Floridians. Photo courtesy of the Florida Wildflower Foundation.

Getting to know native plants can even teach you something about longstanding cultures of Tampa Bay. Tyson points out several trees and plants used by indigenous peoples for a variety of purposes: rouge plant for decorating your skin, beautyberry for mosquito repellent, and Simpson’s stopper for digestive troubles. Nature’s medicine cabinet!

Consider the Live Oak 

With so many benefits to growing native plants, you may be wondering how to get started. Tyson says think in terms of pollinator pathways: not just large plots dedicated to natives but an assembly of pocket plantings, container gardens, and median strips that together provide a pesticide-free corridor of nutrition and habitat. These “in between” spaces are vital for helping pollinators navigate between traditional strongholds such as parks and less developed lands, Tyson explains. Especially as it becomes clearer that existing greenspaces aren’t enough to sustain them. 

Our dry winters can be a good time to plan or start seeds indoors, while our wet summers help larger plants get established. Combining plants with a decorative element (like stones or a pathway) can offset natives that go dormant during the winter. Most importantly, says Tyson, get to know your local Facebook groups and native plant societies, which can be a wealth of information as you are learning your way around new plants. And be sure to patronize native plant nurseries rather than big box stores to help you make sure you’re getting the proper varieties; many common Florida plants, such as lantana and porterweed, have non-native cousins that can become invasive. 

Live oaks are a keystone species, providing a habitat for myriad species, as well as plentiful shade in the Old Northeast. Photo by Jon Kile.

Lastly, we might consider another iconic Florida species and one that is plentiful among the shaded sidewalks of the Old Northeast: the live oak. While the casual observer might appreciate its graceful, spreading limbs and evocative Spanish moss, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. As a keystone species, oaks play host to multiple types of caterpillars and to the birds who eat those caterpillars. Their value goes far beyond their unique appearance. It’s the beauty of an integrated, interconnected ecosystem – right in your own backyard.

Find more resources on native plants here, here and here.