Beautiful Native Plants

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Monday, February 15, 2016

Getting Started with Native Plants in Florida

People who’ve decided to add more native plants to their landscape often have a difficult time getting started.  Local nurseries and home improvement stores usually don’t offer native plants and even if they have some, they are not well marked and the staff may not be helpful when it comes to recommending native plants.

Let's get started

Here in Florida, we have many resources with reliable information about native plants and we have resources where you can purchase native plants and native plant seed.

Lizard’s tail (Saururus cernus)
If you see my photo of the beautiful lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus) and you like its heart-shaped leaves and cute off-white flowers, what do you do next?

Distribution map for lizard's tail.

Where Does It Grow?

First you need to know if it will grow in your part of the state. Florida spans seven planting zones, so just because it’s native to the state, it doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate for the whole state. Look it up in the Atlas of Florida Plants: where you’ll see that it is indeed a Florida native and that its range spans the whole state, but probably not The Keys in USDA planting zone 11.

Gil Nelson’s Florida’s
Best Native Landscape Plants

Best Conditions for Planting

Now you need to know the ideal conditions for this plant.  There are a number of online and print resources where you might cobble together information scattered here and there, but I have found Gil Nelson’s book “Florida’s Best Native Landscape Plants: 200 Readily Available Species for Homeowners and Professionals” to be one of the most useful.

For Lizard’s tail, Gil tells us:
“Culture: Soil: Rich, mildly to very acidic, saturated soils of wetland edges.
Exposure: Part shade to shade.
Water: Prefers saturated, freshwater conditions, including standing water to about 6 inches deep.  Must be kept moist.
Hardiness: Zones 4 to 10
Lifespan: Perennial.”

He goes on with its best features: “Colony-forming habit. Showy, curving racemes of tiny white flowers. Shade tolerance.” Then he lists a dozen companion plants and its one disadvantage: “Can be aggressive in desirable habitats.”

You might have noticed the water in the upper right of my photo, but now you know much more about where to plant it and what to plant with it.  If you have a wet, shady area, this is a great plant, but if your landscape is dry and sunny this is not the plant for you.  Also, we know why it doesn’t occur in The Keys—it needs acidic soil not the alkaline limestone found there and it’s also not listed for zone 11.

Where to Buy Your Plants?

While you might be lucky enough to find it for sale at a local nursery, especially one specializing in wetland plants, or find neighbor with a bunch growing on her property who will share some, usually it will be difficult to locate lizard’s tails for sale.

A good place to start is The Florida Association of Native Nurseries.  Their website provides a “Find a specific plant” tool on their homepage. The other option is to find a member nursery near you who could order it for you. Developing a relationship with your local native plant nursery is invaluable as you work to increase the natives on your property.

The Florida Wildflowers Growers Cooperative is an organization that sells native wildflower seeds by the packet or in bulk. The seeds are grown from Florida stock, which is important for the best success in our Florida landscapes. There is also other information on growing wildflowers from seed on their website:

Other important native plant organizations in Florida for information, activities, and the plants themselves are:
The Florida Native Plant Society (FNPS) 
The FNPS mission of promoting native plants in and for Florida is carried out in several ways.  Both the FNPS website and its blog provide a wealth of information on native plants and related environmental issues. Here's a post on how to develop a list of natives for your county. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the FNPS bloggers.)

The FNPS Facebook page has more than 20,000 fans and provides a more interactive medium.

FNPS, composed of more than 30 regional chapters and a statewide governing board, provides activities across the state.  Each chapter holds monthly meetings with expert speakers and often where regional native plants are offered for sale or raffle, runs local (and not so local) field trips, and participates in various outreach events such as garden fests or native plant sales.  The annual conference gathers all the chapters together and provides field trips, keynote speakers, and a large native plant sale. For details on the next conference go to the conference webpage.

Florida Native Wildflower Foundation

The mission of this organization is to make sure more native wildflowers are planted in Florida.  They provide grants for further research on growing natives, and to schools or communities to purchase seeds and supplies.  The foundation works with wildflower growers to help them market their seeds and plants.  Their website also provides lots of good information and you can sign up for their newsletter. The foundation is funded by the Florida Wildflower license plates, members, and sponsors.

Adding native plants to your landscape is an important step toward more sustainable, ecosystem gardening. More on Florida and its native plants to come.

Posted by Ginny Stibolt (Updated in 2021)