October is National Native Plant Month. To celebrate, we asked Dr. Patti Anderson, a botanist here at DPI, to write a guest blog sharing some of her favorite plants. Be sure to read through the end of her blog, where Patti shares a special treat!
Native plant month should be big news in Florida because the state is now known to have 3,299 native plant species, according to the Institute for Systematic Botany at the University of South Florida (on the web at http://florida.plantatlas.usf.edu/ ). That is a lot of plants to celebrate in one month!
Asking me to share stories of native plants with special meaning is almost like asking parents to name their favorite child, but I have thousands to choose from. Given an impossible task, I will just dive right in with a few very special plants. Luckily, we will have another native plant month next year, but then again, some folks might want to make every month native plant month. Until that time, here are a few, mostly random, stories for native plant month.
- Aesculus pavia, the red buckeye, has a most beautiful bounty of flowers in spring, just in time for our ruby-throated hummingbird visitors. What could be better than a native tree with an inflorescence of blazing red, tubular flowers? I would say, a hillside covered with red buckeyes in full bloom — an amazing sight, even more so for being unexpected. I encountered this spring display while exploring one of our natural treasures: a state park. This is a reminder for you to take a walk on the wild side to discover native plants.
- Cordia sebestena, Geiger tree, is found only in South Florida, but anyone who likes birds is likely to have seen one in the bird portraits of John James Audubon. In fact, he suggested the common names of this small tree to honor John Geiger, a resident of Key West who gave Audubon a welcome home away from home in Florida. The painting “White-crowned Pigeon on Geiger Tree” is featured at the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens in Key West, formerly the home of Mr. Geiger. The tree’s most striking features are its bright orange, tubular flowers and its sandpapery rough leaves.
- Crataegus aestivalis, mayhaw, is a favorite, not because of the charming white flowers or interesting shapes of the gnarled trunks, but for the tart, flavorful fruit my mother and I collected (always taking care to avoid the vicious spines). She was a wonderful cook and worked magic with wild collected fruits, from huckleberry cobblers to my favorite, mayhaw jelly. The taste varies from indescribable to unimaginable, as long as you cook the fruit, strain it to separate the juice from the too tart peel and seeds, then add plenty of sugar. Some have suggested the taste is somewhere between apples and plums. If jelly is not part of your diet, encountering this lovely, small tree along a stream in the early spring is sweet enough.
My cousin’s mayhaw jelly recipe, posted at Crosby Arboretum in Picayune, MS.
- Helianthus debilis, dune sunflower, is one of our many natives in the plant family Asteraceae. In fact, there are so many, about 330 in round numbers, almost anyone could find a favorite among them. The dune sunflower is special to my eyes because it is a wonderful beach plant that reseeds readily and adds a long season of bright color to both coastal and inland landscapes. The Latin name debilis means “weak” and refers to the sprawling stems of this plant. However there is nothing weak about any other character of this plant, it is a tough and hardy plant. It tolerates somewhat salty conditions, drought and direct sun. Of course, if you like plants that stay in the lines, the dune sunflower might be a bit too expansive for your yard.
- Rhododendron canescens, wild azalea, is a native shrub from Texas to Pennsylvania. Its flowers are fragrant, almost intoxicatingly so. Once I had the good fortune, rounding a bend on a trail, to see an entire grove of these native flowers in full bloom. In the partly sunny under story of a bottom land hardwood forest several hummingbirds seemed to have found the grove well before me and with so many nectar-filled flowers, their usual territoriality gave way to communal feasting. If you cannot get out to the woods in early spring to enjoy the sight and smell of these beauties, you might think of planting one at home, but be sure it is near a path you take often, so you do not miss the glorious spring fragrance the flowers produce.
- Roystonea regia, Florida royal palm, might be my favorite native palm, although it is certainly hard to choose only one. Palms are among the most iconic symbols of Florida as a holiday paradise, whether the palm is our state tree, Sabal palmetto, or the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, found along our southern beaches. The royal palm is special to me as a memory of my first visit to Thomas Edison’s winter home in Fort Myers. I was eager to see the landscaping around the estate, but was bowled over on the approach by the stately palms with enormous fronds swaying in a gentle sea breeze with beautiful blue Florida sky as a background. I did indeed feel royal with such a welcome. This palm is endangered in the wild, but our nursery industry is very successful in propagating these palms for cultivation. Try one in your landscape, if you live in a frost-free area.
- Sarracenia minor, hooded pitcherplant, is one of Florida’s native carnivores — a carnivorous plant, that is. I have heard many people recount memories of a childhood experience with a Venus flytrap that led to a lifelong fascination with the idea that plants can eat bugs. Of course, some of us became aware of carnivorous plants by seeing The Little Shop of Horrors and might have less appreciation for this aspect of plant behavior. This species is widespread across the northern two-thirds of the state, but habitat loss and over collecting have led to its listing as a threatened species by the state of Florida. Still, there are enough of these plants that it is still possible to encounter them in natural areas like flatwood forests and bogs or ditches by unmowed roadways. The hooded pitcherplant has a charming flower with yellow petals, but the flesh-eating apparatus is the tubular petiole (stalk) of the leaf. The leaf blade is a small, flat, hood over the liquid-filled petiole where tiny insects fall to meet their doom.
- Wisteria frutescens, American wisteria, is a delight for the eyes and the nose. This elegant vine is native to most of the eastern United States, including north and north central Florida, as far south as USDA Zone 9. Be careful not to confuse this bluish-purple flowering native with the invasive Wisteria sinensis seen growing rampantly along roadways and in natural areas. Florida’s native species flowers later in spring, has shorter flower clusters and smaller leaves than the exotic species. Plant breeders have developed a white flowered form of this vine, and we can easily imagine a fence or trellis dripping with fragrant flowers of either color.
Although I could go on and on about the beauty and interesting characteristics of Florida native plants, perhaps for the moment, eight is enough.