Learning About Natives

Blanketflowers attract pollinators to your yard.
By Peg Lindsay, secretary FNPS

I moved to Florida about 10 years ago, from the state of Delaware.  The summer climate there is much the same as in Florida – hot and humid.  So I expected that the familiar garden plants I knew and loved would grow just as well here in Florida.  I went through several bottles of anti-fungal chemicals before I decided that, although I could coax those zinnias to bloom, gardening with chemicals was not for me, nor good for the environment.  Florida was lush and green before these chemicals could be commercially produced.  In fact, the name La Florida, given to this land by Ponce de Leon in 1513, refers to the amazing abundance and diversity of the wild flowering plants he observed here.  With the encouragement of my friends, I decided to try some Florida wildflowers in my garden.

The first native wildflower I added to my garden was Indian Blanketflower, Gaillardia pulchella.  This has a beautiful, red-orange-yellow daisy-like flower, blooms all summer and is tolerant of a wide variety of sunny growing conditions.  I found it at my favorite big box store in the garden section.  It thrived in my garden.

Dune sunflowers are drought tolerant.
My next wildflower selection was a groundcover: Dune Sunflower, Helianthus debilis.  As its name implies, this plant’s origins are on the eastern coastal sand dunes.  It thrives in hot, dry, sandy and sunny habitats.  It has a golden yellow, daisy-like flower with a brown center.  It blooms all summer and through the winter, if the weather stays fairly mild.  This one also thrived in my garden with its stunningly beautiful flowers.

I noticed that butterflies were now coming to my garden with the addition of a few native wildflowers.  I attended lectures and workshops and picked up handouts with lists of plants to put into my garden to attract more butterflies.  The speakers all said that I should include plants for the butterfly larvae – caterpillars – if I really wanted to attract the butterflies.  So my next two choices were for the caterpillars.  I added the non-native Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and a native/non-native hybrid Passionvine, Passiflora incarnata hybrid.  The milkweed was for the Monarchs, the Passionvine for both Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing butterfly caterpillars.  The Milkweed is still in my garden but the hybrid Passionvine was very invasive and I had a difficult time eradicating it from my lawn and garden.  I now have the strictly native passionvine in my garden.

Passionflowers are wonderfully complex.
Every time I shopped at the big box stores, I combed through their selection of native plants for something new to add to my garden.  I brought home a Gaura, which pot insert said “Florida Native.”  I proudly showed my new plant to one of my gardening friends.  She said it probably was a Gaura species but it wasn’t the native one.  That lovely little plant lasted a few years until our first big winter freeze.  I now have the native Guara angustifolia in my garden.  It’s a tall, spindly, non-descript thing with tiny pink flowers at the top which are frequented by the bees and butterflies.

So you see the evolution of my gardening preferences.  Our wildflower garden is in the back yard of our Highland Lakes home.  We have sandy soil, and half of the yard is sunny all day, half gets shade for part of the day.  My wildflower choices are now restricted to plants that originated in Florida scrub or sandhill habitats, because I’ve learned through trial-and-error what grows best for me.  I gather information about any plant before I add it to my garden.  I no longer plant for showy masses of color, although some of my garden wildflowers are truly spectacular.  My plant selections are now based on the plant’s ability to support (feed) insects and birds and survive in xeric (dry) conditions.  There is a succession of blooms all year long plus the myriad species of native bees, birds and butterflies which visit.  I am enthralled every time I wander through my garden by the number and variety of buzzy insect pollinators which visit.

A wildflower garden is not for everyone.  Like the choice of hairstyles, some prefer the traditional and more formal look.  Me - I love the dancing butterflies.

One dune sunflower plant covers a six foot triangle garden around a mailbox.
Photos by Ginny Stibolt.


A wonderful essay about adjusting beliefs and landscapes to Florida friendly and butterfly friendly practices by planting more native plants. Thanks Peg for sharing.
Char said…
I am a NY transplant trying to figure out Florida gardening and my own "style." Your garden is stunning. I am still getting used to snakes and other critters - so I try to discourage them - but I would love a butterfly garden. Your article was really informative and well written. I am part of a group on FB called Northeast Florida Garden Enthusiasts - and someone shared your great article and blog. I am so glad they did!!! Thanks - will be looking for natives!! I particularly like the daisy like groundcover.

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