Native plants are wildlife magnets
Did you enjoy a bracing cup of coffee this morning? And a glass of orange juice? If so, you should send kind thoughts to the bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and all the other pollinators that keep the food chain going. Still better, start catering to them in your own garden. It isn’t difficult, and you’ll be rewarded with lovely blooms, less maintenance, fascinating wildlife and the knowledge that you’re helping preserve the natural world.
One of the easiest ways to grow an eco-friendly garden is by choosing native plants and shunning “exotics,” imported plants that are harmful to ecosystems.
“I think of native flowering plants as gas stations for bees,” says Elizabeth Georges of Native Nurseries in Tallahassee. “And I think of native trees as bird feeders. We need homeowners to understand that they can actually turn their yards into wildlife habitats.”
Evan H. Anderson, of DeFuniak Springs, agrees. Florida State University’s horticulture extension agent for Walton County said it’s not as if “going native” limits your gardening choices.
“There’s a ton of great plants out there that serve all sorts of functions in the landscape,” he said. “One great resource is the Florida State Native Plant Society, which has a fantastic website with a plant finder that lists native plants that do well in your specific locale. For small trees, some of my favorites are sand, live oak, fringe tree and redbud. For shrubs and hedges, wax myrtle, beautyberry and yaupon holly. For vines, maypop (also called passion flower) and American wisteria. For groundcovers, powderpuff or sunshine mimosa, coontie palm or any native fern. For palms, I have to stick with the sabal palm, our state tree. For smaller perennials, gaillardia, milkweed, black-eyed Susan or blue-eyed grass.”
The top natives
Georges recommends that homeowners start their earth-conscious garden with keystone species, natives that have a disproportionately large effect on other species, including insects. “Without keystone plants, the local food web may fall apart,” Georges said.
Keystone wildflowers include native perennial sunflowers, goldenrods and asters. Shrubs to plant include native viburnum, elderberry, holly, Virginia sweetspire and blueberry. Oaks are the No. 1 tree species in terms of biodiversity, supporting up to 557 butterfly and moth types.
Excellent natives that aren’t keystone species are Indian pink, a shade plant that butterflies love, and ox-eye sunflowers that bloom from March through November. Butterflies and bees love those.
Native plants also adapt well to the weather extremes typical of Northern Florida, so it makes sense to grow them instead of exotic plants from foreign soils and climates.
“It’s much easier to grow plants that naturally prefer your site conditions instead of trying to change the soil structure or keep an unhappy plant alive,” Georges said.
How to Get Started
Buying plants can run into real money, so it’s a good idea to educate yourself before going shopping.
You might attend the Walton County Extension Service’s classes, which include a master gardener volunteer lecture series that covers many different topics. There are also tours of the county’s demonstration gardens, an eye-opening way to get up close and personal with native plants.
Best of all, Anderson’s office will consult with anyone who has questions, providing resources and advice on what to plant and how.
And do heed Anderson’s advice about what not to plant.
“Queen palms, avocado trees and other tropical plants can’t handle the cold Panhandle winters,” he said. “Instead go with cold-hardy sabal palms or even the non-native but Florida-friendly pindo palm. Among fruit trees, sand pears, figs, blueberries, satsumas, kumquats and persimmons do well here.”