Return of the Native Plants

Environmentally friendly landscaping uses indigenous plants to achieve natural beauty while protecting local ecosystems

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The passionflower is a perennial vine bearing elaborate purple or lavender blooms that attract Gulf fritillary butterflies
The passionflower is a perennial vine bearing elaborate purple or lavender blooms that attract Gulf fritillary butterflies.

Pink grass and silver palms. Passionflowers, gumbo limbo trees, resurrection ferns, and night-scented orchids. Do these plants sound exotic? They do indeed; and yet they are also native to our area. In the lush subtropical environment of Florida, native species are flamboyant and fascinating. Since their cultivation also has environmental benefits, they are attracting increasing attention from gardeners, homeowners, and landscape architects.

Consider the following question: What is the most widespread weed in your yard? Landscape designer Krista MacLeod of Rock City Gardens in Sebastian recalls that one of her favorite college professors offered an intriguing answer to this question: “The most widespread weed in your yard is grass.” 

Dune sunflowers attract pollinators such as this monarch. Photo by Marc Spiess
Dune sunflowers attract pollinators such as this monarch. Photo by Marc Spiess

That perspective is expanded upon by Lisa Chapin, a landscape architect who was involved in a Warwick, New York project that won four Green Globes—the highest level of certification by the Green Building Initiative, a prestigious international organization that recognizes excellence in environmentally sustainable design. Chapin notes that in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, estates would have areas of close-cropped green grass; however, the only reason the grass was close-cropped was that flocks of sheep and goats were grazing there. 

Eventually, she explains, “people wanted that look, but they didn’t want the animals.” Thus, an industry developed to reproduce it through artificial and invasive means such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides as well as gasoline-driven lawn mowers. In contrast, Chapin says, “Native plants, when used properly, are much more resistant to insects and diseases,” making chemical usage superfluous, and they do not require the regular use of lawn mowers. 

The edge of Spiess's demonstration garden shows how sunshine mimosa thrives without irrigation. Photo by Kelly Rogers
The edge of Spiess’s demonstration garden shows how sunshine mimosa thrives without irrigation. Photo by Kelly Rogers

As MacLeod puts it, such environmentally friendly landscaping involves “working with nature instead of spraying everything.” And in the Vero Beach area, pesticides and fertilizers that are sprayed onto lawns can run off into the Indian River Lagoon and thus constitute a major peril to marine life and to the health of the entire ecosystem. 

The replacement of lawns with native plants is therefore increasingly desirable. But does it sound daunting? MacLeod admits, “Getting rid of all your grass at once is drastic and difficult. I recommend taking it one step at a time.” How so? As an experienced landscape designer, she has a practical strategy to offer. Homeowners can begin with a native plant bed. By removing an area of grass and replacing it with native plants, they will be giving themselves a manageable starting point. “Learn to maintain that area; then, let it grow or add more beds.” Over time, an entire lawn can be gradually replaced with plantings of native species.

The feathery foliage and show-stopping flowers of the dwarf poinciana make it a popular ornamental shrub. Photo by Bob Joy
The feathery foliage and show-stopping flowers of the dwarf poinciana make it a popular ornamental shrub. Photo by Bob Joy

Robin Pelensky, landscape architect with Surlaterre Landscape Architecture in Vero Beach, has a similar approach. For homeowners reluctant to make a change, she shows them colorful pictures of native plants and describes their relatively low maintenance requirements. For many people, that’s enough to get them interested. For people who remain hesitant, she’ll say, “Let’s do the back 10 feet.”  

But how do you replace something as seemingly basic as grass? One method is simply to use native grasses, which can thrive naturally without the kinds of fertilizers required for the familiar lawn grasses. Moreover, the change will often add interest and color. Muhly grass is a native ground cover plant that has unexpected and soothing hues of pink and lavender. Fakahatchee grass, another native species, has tiny flowers that can be yellow, white, or ochre in color. Various species of native ferns can also be used for ground cover.

Dyreby's backyard drops from 9 feet above sea level to 2, creating the opportunity to grow plants that thrive with more moisture. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Dyreby’s backyard drops from 9 feet above sea level to 2, creating the opportunity to grow plants that thrive with more moisture. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Another ground cover option is the coontie plant, which serves as the host plant for the atala butterfly—a beautiful creature with iridescent blue spots on its velvety black wings. In the past, the coontie plant was nearly wiped out because it was being used extensively during the First World War to produce flour for military rations; without its host plant, the atala butterfly was endangered and, for a time, even thought to be extinct. 

Thankfully, the declaration was premature, and the widespread restoration of the coontie plant in the Florida environment has helped restore the atala population. The story is a fine example of the value of native plants. In fact, MacLeod notes that when people tell her they “don’t like bugs,” she will ask them how they feel about butterflies. After all, butterflies are insects, and as such they can be harmed by pesticides and helped by native plants.

A mangrove skipper is attracted to the nectar of a Jamaica caper in Dyreby’s yard. Photo by Kelly Rogers
A mangrove skipper is attracted to the nectar of a Jamaica caper in Dyreby’s yard. Photo by Kelly Rogers

MacLeod also offers the practical tip that when selecting plants, homeowners need not always be literal about the term “native” in order to have environmentally friendly landscaping. “Caribbean plants are often Florida friendly,” she explains, “and many are wonderful for pollinators, so as long as they’re not causing harm, and as long as they’re not considered invasive, they’re fine too.” 

The orange geiger tree is a plant that can thrive in both Florida and the Caribbean; although the cooler winter temperatures in our area are a risk, the tree provides an intriguing example of how gardeners can learn to trust nature. The tree is the host plant for the geiger tortoise beetle, an iridescent green insect that eats so many leaves, it can seem to be attacking the tree. However, MacLeod says, “The beetles are actually pruning the tree; it comes back more beautiful than before.” Thus, instead of using an insecticide, a gardener can let nature take its course, knowing that the tree will rejuvenate with its torch-like blossoms more flamboyantly alive than ever.

Blanket flower is perfect for Florida landscapes, due not only to its beauty but also to its hardiness in the face of heat, sand, and salt. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Blanket flower is perfect for Florida landscapes, due not only to its beauty but also to its hardiness in the face of heat, sand, and salt. Photo by Kelly Rogers

In cultivating native plants, especially trees, patience is important. MacLeod reassures gardeners, “Native trees may not seem to do much at first, but they’re developing their root systems. Be patient. 

“Planting for immediate gratification is expensive and not best for natives, which usually like to go in more gradually.” In the long run, that process makes for healthier and more extensive root systems—and stronger trees. Live oak, gumbo limbo, pigeon plum, and red mulberry are good choices for native or Florida-friendly trees. In the category of palms, among the trees MacLeod recommends are sabal palm, thatch palm, silver palm, and buccaneer palm—the last being aptly named for the Treasure Coast. 

Lignum vitae or “tree of life,” so named due to its use in traditional Caribbean medicine, is well suited to seaside landscapes because it is tolerant of wind, salt, and both wet and dry soil.
Lignum vitae or “tree of life,” so named due
to its use in traditional Caribbean medicine, is well suited to seaside landscapes because it is tolerant of wind, salt, and both wet and dry soil.

The Pelican Island Audubon Society has a program offering free saplings of live oaks, bald cypresses, and other native trees. PIAS President Richard Baker hopes that in years to come, these saplings will enhance the habitat of area birds and provide valuable nesting sites. “It all works together,” he says of native plants and the bird population. For more information on the program, visit pelicanislandaudubon.org. 

Looking for flowers? Sweet bay magnolia, marlberry, and lignum vitae (known as the tree of life for its historical usage in medicine) are good choices, along with vines such as coral honeysuckle and passionflower, both of which are attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies. 

Coral honeysuckle is a vine that serves as a an attractive adornment to trellises, fences, and other such structures. The flowers last for months, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies.
Coral honeysuckle is a vine that serves as a an attractive adornment to trellises, fences, and other such structures. The flowers last for months, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies.

For hedges, options include cocoplum, sea lavender, and saw palmetto. Selecting multiple species provides insurance against pests and weather changes, because you are less likely to lose everything at once. The principle of biodiversity is practical as well as environmentally friendly.

The natural world is full of variety, and the cultivation of native plants can help foster it. Lisa Chapin notes philosophically, “A natural landscape is changing all the time. From year to year, it’s always morphing. That kind of natural cycle can be beautiful. Take a walk in the woods, even unkempt woods, and you discover all sorts of things.” Landscaping with native plants is a way to return to that indigenous beauty. “It goes back to a natural balance.”

The fragrant flowers of the Simpson’s stopper attract bees, butterflies, and birds. This relative of the eucalyptus tree is a hardy and versatile plant that is resistant to pests and diseases. Photo by Kelly Rogers
The fragrant flowers of the Simpson’s stopper attract bees, butterflies, and birds. This relative of the eucalyptus tree is a hardy and versatile plant that is resistant to pests and diseases. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Try This at Home

It’s landscaping day in Marc Spiess’s Sebastian neighborhood, where his home stands out among a sea of lawns. He has to speak over the noise of the loud mowers rum- bling past his home. His yard doesn’t need mowing. He has removed nearly every plant that isn’t functional in order to support insects and wildlife to mitigate the effects of development. The 140 plant species in his gardens are not just Florida natives; many of them are indigenous to Indian River and Brevard counties.

In the scrub habitat demonstration garden in the front yard, plants are grouped in their natural communities. Coast- al hammock plantings along the south side of the house, teeming with bees and butterflies, offer shade that reduces his air-conditioning needs. In the backyard, a mature oak is home to six species of air plants.

Spiess, who works as a naturalist at the Environmental Learning Center, and his family have done all the work themselves, including growing 60 to 70 percent of the plants in their backyard. He recommends being thoughtful before you begin, getting advice, and making a list of possible plants. “Start small,” he says, “do it in sections, and think big!”

Sea lavender, seen here at the Dyreby residence, is popular in seaside landscaping, as it is highly salt tolerant. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Sea lavender, seen here at the Dyreby residence, is popular in seaside landscaping, as it is highly salt tolerant. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Garden Variety

Three or four years ago, the roughly 4,800 square feet of Jim and Katy Dyreby’s backyard in Indian Trails was all sod. Today, it’s home to butterflies, bees, rabbits, and 158 different native and Florida-friendly plants. Landscape architect Robin Pelensky worked with Dyreby to design the space. “You have to be willing to experiment,” Dyreby says.

Four zones comprise the yard: sunny dry, sunny wet, shady dry, and shady wet. Dyreby keeps an eye on his plants to see how they are doing, moving them among zones as needed. He tracks each plant on a detailed spreadsheet that indicates whether the plant is a Florida native (nearly all are) and includes the plant’s common name, botanical name, and status, along with a yes/no column headed “Rabbits Like?” The entry for the painted leaf or Euphorbia cyathophora, for example, stands out for the double “Y” in the rabbits column and a status note that reads “Rabbits ate!” The Jamaican caper, Quadrella jamaicensis, on the other hand, is “flowering, happy,” with nary a rabbit in sight.

Dyreby, who retired from his career as an orthopedic surgeon after 35 years to become a farmer—he and his wife own the Dyreby Family Organic Farm in Wisconsin—spends about two hours a day in his garden, “wandering around, watching butterflies, and visualizing how the various plants will fill the available spaces as they mature….” Actual maintenance of the space takes much less time. Katy quips, “Jim used to make rounds on his patients; now he makes rounds on his plants.”

Native to South America, the jacaranda is well adapted for our climate and grows to a height of 25 to 40 feet. This one adds color to a Grand Harbor golf course. Photo by Bob Joy
Native to South America, the jacaranda is well adapted for our climate and grows to a height of 25 to 40 feet. This one adds color to a Grand Harbor golf course. Photo by Bob Joy

Resources

The University of Florida offers extensive information about the choices available in native plants, as well as how to care for them, at here and a guide designed specifically for the Treasure Coast here.

The Florida Native Plant Society is devoted to the preservation, conservation, and restoration of Florida’s native plants and offers a wealth of information. You can find them at fnps.org. You can connect with other native-plant enthusiasts at the local Eugenia chapter by visiting ircnativeplants.org for more information.

Did you know? The Florida-friendly landscaping statute protects homeowners’ rights to install native landscaping. It states, “A deed restriction or covenant may not prohibit or be enforced so as to prohibit any property owner from implementing Florida-friendly landscaping on his or her land….”

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