Beautiful Native Plants

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Plan ahead!

Plants don’t a have a choice–they
must do the best they can where they are.

Sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t leave enough growing space for her trees and shrubs. Once the plants start growing out in the wild they have to do the best they can with the space they have.
The trio of trees in this top photo, a cherry (Prunus serotina) and two longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) have a problem. The cherry’s major surface roots have a stranglehold around both of the pines and eventually the pines will become weakened at their bases as they try to expand and the cherry tree’s roots expand as well. Right now the cherry tree trunk is about a foot in diameter, but it and the pines will continue to grow. The pines will become a hazard in this suburban yard and are likely to blow over in a tropical storm. It’s possible that all three of them will come down together during a wind event. (Update: several years later, the cherry died.)

A magnolia planted itself too close to a sprinkler head.

Native volunteers in the landscape

It’s best to take care of moving plants that volunteer in the wrong spaces before they get too large.  Here a southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) planted itself too close to the sprinkler head. There are oaks in there as well.  The oaks are plentiful in my yard and I’ll just pull them out, but the magnolias are worth saving because of their beauty and evergreen habit.

I have root pruned this baby so that it will generate new roots closer to its trunk and will have a better chance of surviving the transplant.  I’ll move it this winter.  Winter is our dry season, so I won’t do this unless I know that we won’t be traveling for a month or two so that I can tend to its irrigation.

One place I will not plant a magnolia is in the middle of the lawn.  These trees lose their big leathery leaves all year long and it’s just too much work to pick up after them. When we first moved into this house, transplanting the two magnolias from the middle of the front lawn was one of our first landscaping projects.  See my article: “My magnificent but messy magnolias.” After nine years, they are still doing well in their new locations, but if I had to do it over again, I would have removed the lawn and planted native azaleas, blueberries and other native shrubs and groundcovers around them.  Wouldn’t that have been pretty? And with other plants around the magnolias, I would not have had to worry about the constant magnolia leaf drop.

Human-designed landscapes

A road planting project in Orange Park, FL: Crepe myrtles in the median strip and
longleaf pines under the power lines.

When we design landscapes, we should be smart enough so that our woody plants have enough room to grow and are placed so that they won’t need much corrective pruning to fit into the landscape, but guess what?  We are not that smart.

Here are a couple of examples and in both cases, the people doing the planting should have known better:

In Orange Park, a town in Clay County in northeast Florida, a road-widening project was finished off with sound barrier walls on either side and then with plantings of mostly native trees.  But someone didn’t think about the future and like so many projects, it was planted so that it looks good today.

While there are the non-native, over-planted crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) in the median strip, the other trees are natives–the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and the ‘East Palatka’ holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘East Palatka’). The hollies are probably a good choice because they only grow to 30 or 40 feet tall and have a compact conical shape with a spread of only 10 to 15 feet. This holly is a natural  hybrid between I. cassine x I. opaca–it was discovered in 1927 growing near East Palatka, FL. In Putnam County, which is one county south of Clay County.

Longleaf pines in a row.

The pines are another matter. They will grow to 60 or 80 feet and their crowns can spread to 30 to 40 feet. They’ve planted them about 6 or 7 feet apart and on one side of the street, they are planted close to an array of power lines. What were they thinking?

They could have planted a few longleaf pines on the side of the street without the power lines and planted some groups of easy-to-care-for native shrubs combined with smaller trees on the other side.  Greater diversity would have made this strip of roadside a better habitat. I would add these shrubs: beautyberry (Callicarpa americana),  firebush (Hamelia patens), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), and  winged sumac (Rhus copallinum).  All of these shrubs are readily available and grow well in a wide variety of habitats.

A longleaf pine with half a crown
 because it’s too close to the power lines.

What bothers me most about these blunders is that when they outgrow their spaces and need constant trimming, people will say that natives just don’t work in urban areas.

When the truth is that someone just needed to have enough vision to PLAN AHEAD!

As an example of what will happen with these trees, I took a photo of a longleaf pine in my neighborhood that has only half of its crown, because the power company comes around every couple of years to trim it back.

Know what you are planting

Back in the fall of 2005, Jack Scheper of, a plant encyclopedia, gave me a pot of blue-stemmed palmettos (Sabal minor). There were 3 little plants in the pot and he said that they like more moisture than the more common saw palmettos (Serenoa repens).

Armed with that piece of information, I planted two of them near the pond out front and one 5 feet away from a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) growing in a damp area that holds water after heavy rains.

In December 2010, just after I gave the blue-stemmed palmetto a topdressing of compost.

Here’s how the palmetto looked five years after its planting.  At this point, I was still not certain that it would survive, it had grown so slowly.

I made two mistakes in this planting:
1) I did not know that the blue-stemmed palmetto’s leaves would be almost twice as large as the saw palmetto’s and I was not prepared for how large it would get.
2) I should have noticed that the sweetbay magnolias were sending up a lot of suckers and should have guessed that they would continue to build a nice thicket.

This is the present state of the blue palmetto and the sweetbay magnolias. Too crowded!

This could be a story about how well the compost topdressing works for encouraging plants, even natives, but it’s also the story of how I failed to PLAN AHEAD!

So what would you do? 

Should I move the palmetto farther away from the magnolias and take a chance that it might not survive the transplant at this stage of its life or should I trim the suckers and the low branches away from the palmetto knowing that the trimming job would become an ongoing chore into the future?
Hopefully, I’ve learned enough about Florida’s flora so I can avoid bad planning in the future. What about you?  Have you learned from your own failure to plan ahead?

Update: After I posted this originally in 2014, most commenters thought I should leave the palmetto in place and continue cutting back the suckers, which is what I have done. The palmetto has continued to grow and I've come to appreciate this thicket as many birds have used it for shelter.

© Ginny Stibolt