It Matters What You Plant 

by S. P. Turnipseed

People love birds and butterflies!  Look at the photos submitted and published in The Daily Sun section, “Moments of Zen”.  Florida Friendly Landscaping principle #5 is “Attract Wildlife”.  Every homeowner can make a meaningful difference to supporting local wildlife, because each landscape choice has an environmental impact.  The selection of plants matters, even in small yards, especially when those plants are replicated in surrounding landscapes. 

One of the best examples is found in South Florida, where the rare Atala Hairstreak butterfly can be found.  The caterpillar of this butterfly uses the Coontie plant (Zamia pumila) as its host.  During WII I, wild Coontie was extensively harvested for starch production from the stem or caudax.  So much of the wild stock of Coontie was removed that the butterfly population plummeted and was almost extirpated from Florida. Caution: Please note that processing is required to remove the toxin cycasin before consumption of Coontie.

Later the horticultural industry found that this plant makes an exceptional landscape plant.  It is evergreen, can be planted in full sun or part shade, is drought tolerant, only grows to 3 to 4 feet and looks tropical.  The regional population of the Coontie plant rebounded due to its extensive planting in residential yards and commercial landscapes.  Although still a species of special concern, the butterfly population also made a comeback.

Plants selected for landscapes should do more than look good, grow well, and do not harm.  Many of the colorful ornamental plants commonly used in residential landscapes have little value to wildlife.  Why?  Sterile cultivars do not produce fruit or seeds for birds.  Some of the plants are bred for large showy flowers.  The process produces anthers, which are converted into petals providing little or no pollen.  In some cases the flowers have a greatly reduced supply of nectar, and many times the flower petals are so dense the pollinating insects cannot reach any nectar that might be present.   

Pollinators have specialized parts that allow access to specific flower shapes.   Exotics may not have a flower shape needed by local insects.  Because of unfamiliar chemistry, the leaves of many exotic ornamental plants are simply not palatable to native insects.   Another wildlife consideration is that host plants are required for butterfly larvae.  You will not have butterflies if there are only nectar plants.  Few exotics will substitute for a native host.

Experience the difference yourself.  Any afternoon stop at one of the beautiful beds of annuals in our common areas.  Look for any butterflies or bees.  Now go find some native wildflowers in bloom (hopefully in your yard).  Wow, what an amazing difference!  

Non native common areas

What should you do?  

  1. Minimize turfgrass area and replace with landscape beds
  2. Use trees and plants that are native to the region, be sure to select natives that are not cultivars themselves.  Ask for those native plants that came from regional stock adapted to our local climate. 
  3. As much as possible, use natives for color, and then only accent small highly visible areas with exotic ornamentals or cultivars.  
  4. Plant a diversity of native plants that bloom and fruit at different times of the year.

Florida Native Plants

Following are only a few examples of excellent native plants proven to do well in a Central Florida landscape:

Shrubs:  Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), Simpons Stopper (Myrcianthes frangrans), Florida Privet (Forestiera segregate).

Flowering perennials: Beach Sunflower (Helianthus debilis), Calamint (Calamintha georgianum), Scorpion Tail (Heliotropium angiospermum)

Flowering annuals:  Coreopsis leavenworthii, Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella), Salvia coccinia, Beebalm (Monarda punctate)

Vines:  Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), Corkystem Passion Vine (Passiflora suberosa)

Groundcovers:  Frog fruit (Phyla nodiflora), Sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa)

Be sure to put each plant species where it will receive the amount of light and moisture it needs. Good references for this information on these and other native plants is:  www.fnps.org/plants  

Finally, consider using natives because of their rarity in residential landscapes.  If you want something unique, it is worth your time and effort to seek out a native plant nursery.  http://www.plantrealflorida.org/professionals/


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