Short Plants in Sun: Natives for Urban Gardens

Submitted by Richard Brownscombe

Reprinted with permission from the April newsletter of the Broward County Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society 

Plants under a foot high are very useful in the urban garden. You can avoid mulch if there are enough small plants to outcompete the weeds. Short native species may be the most interesting in a landscape because they are underutilized and seldom seen. All of the species below prefer full sun and are native to Broward County. Let's jump right into looking at a few species for drier soils and then a few more for average-moisture soils.

Sun/Drier Soils

We have identified four species for places in your landscape of Sun and Drier Soils. Sun means at least 6 hours including the hot midday sun. All drought-tolerant plants need water, but have evolved ways to retain it or roots to reach for it. Generally, well-drained sandy soils are suitable for these scrub species. Give them deep watering until the roots take hold. Wilting leaves or more subtle signs may help you see when they need water.

Coastalplain golden aster, photo by Shirley Denton
Coastalplain golden aster
Chrysopsis scabrella

The tallest of these short species is Coastalplain golden aster, Chrysopsis scabrella, at 12 to 18", but it may fall over. If so, go with this behavior and establish a mat of several plants. They begin growth as rosettes of wooly leaves and in the fall send up spikes with showy crowns of yellow flowers. Craig Huegel, author and one of Florida's most experienced native landscapers, says that they are easy to grow. Since they don't bloom year-round you may want to establish them with other scrub natives that also like open sand in full sun. This species is occasionally available from native nurseries. You may need
to hunt for it or request it.

Hairy dawn flower, photo by Shirley Denton
Hairy dawn flower, Stylisma villosa

Hairy dawn flower, Stylisma villosa, is a creeping wildflower of the morning-glory family just 3-6" above the sand with white blooms from spring to fall. This species is grown by enthusiasts, meaning you will have to ask among nurseries and members to find it. Think of yourselves as pioneers of urban native landscaping. We are the ones who will discover and demonstrate a few valued species for each light and moisture zone in the landscape. So far, there aren't enough of us developing innovative native landscaping to support these additional species in the commercial trade.

Walter's ground cherry, photo by Shirley Denton
Walter's ground cherry, Physalis walteri

A third recommendation for scrub-like locations is Walter's ground cherry, Physalis walteri. It is relatively easy to grow and available at many native nurseries. Usually under one foot tall with gray-green fuzzy leaves, this plant produces pale yellow bell-like flowers and a cherry-like fruit in a husk. It is edible when ripe yellow and pleasantly so, but more like a tomatillo than a cherry. In our experience, it sometimes disappears and then reappears (too little water, perhaps), but over time develops a nice patch.

Whitemouth dayflower, photo by D Bollenbach

Whitemouth dayflower, Commelina erecta

Last, you might try Whitemouth dayflower, Commelina erecta, which has bright blue flowers. Although the flower shrivels away in the afternoon, it blooms almost every day throughout the year to provide scattered "spots" of blue. It sprawls in a pleasant way among other small plants in sun. My own experience is that it prefers a moist soil, although I see it in dry scrub places in the wild. You might see if you can establish it on a drier site. Don't confuse it with Common dayflower, Commelina diffusa var. diffuse. Whitemouth dayflower has the white lower petal (mouth) and two big blue Mickey Mouse ears, making the bloom larger and more attractive than the ubiquitous non-native. You can find this wildflower at some native nurseries. Other members will share it, as it easily roots along the stem.

Sun/Average Soils

Below are a few of our favorites that prefer Sun with Average Moisture Soils. There are about three dozen such, and perhaps a dozen of them are available at native nurseries. Check the Broward Landscape List on our Broward Chapter home page to see all the other short species for the Sun – Average Soil zone.

Beach morning-glory, photo by Shirley Denton
Beach morning-glory, Ipomoea imperati

We like Beach morning-glory, Ipomoea imperati, for being tough, having attractive shiny green foliage, and for its big, bright-white morning-glory flowers. It blooms spring to fall. Ours is roadside in gravel and occasionally flattened by tires, yet it survives. With kinder treatment, the dense ground cover should crowd out weeds. It may remind you of Railroad vine, except these vines are 5 feet, not 50 feet, and the foliage is denser and darker. Sadly, it is not common in native nurseries, although it is grown in the trade. Request it, buy it, and tell your friends if you like it.

Low rattlebox, photo by Shirley Denton
Low rattlebox, Crotalaria pumila

Another short-in-the-sun favorite is Low rattlebox, Crotalaria pumila. We have seen it in beautiful large yellow patches about 6" high and 20 feet broad in the scrub preserves of Broward. With part sun it survives and blooms, but it is not dense and not at its best in shade. It blooms throughout the year with the potential to grow a thick showy patch. The blue-green leaves may provide a bit of color contrast. It is easy to grow and occasionally available in native nurseries. It grows from seed, but no one we know has collected it from local cultivated plants. Don't confuse this species with about ten other Crotalaria, both native and non-native and many much larger.

Pink purslane, Portulaca pilosa

Pink purslane, photo by John Bradford
This next one will take patience because it is so diminutive, Pink purslane or Kiss-me-quick,
Portulaca pilosa. It is a native purslane with a bright pink, but tiny blossom. Because it is common in dry, sandy unkempt lawns, people who have noticed it may think of it as a weed. At first I had trouble transplanting it to a rock garden in full sun, but discovered it can be done if you take care to bring all the roots with it and quickly water it. A few more deep waterings may be enough to establish it. Later, it seems to thrive on a bit of neglect. The narrow succulent leaves become dull and a bit shriveled when too dry, but recover quickly with water.

You may need a magnifier to see this and you will certainly need to be on your knees. If you ever wanted a miniature garden, this is your plant. It apparently spreads by seed. I asked my neighbor if she would mind my taking a few from her sandy front yard where the riding mower tears them up. She was happy to give me her "weed" and polite enough not to laugh. We don't know if nurseries sell it. Look in your yard. You may just need to stop treating it like a weed. Try to establish a patch big enough for people to notice in a place of prominence. People wild about succulents will like this wild succulent.

So, there you go, short plants in sun in yellow, blue, pink, and white. So few people have tried innovative landscapes with these species that we could find no good landscape photographs. Because they are small, we need them en masse to make a show in the urban landscape. Try your hand at growing them, take photos, and share plants with our local nurseries. One day these short plants in sun, used artfully here and there, might be a landscape more beautiful than lawn.


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