Native Trees and Plants You Will See Nearly Everywhere in Florida

by Bob Silverman

You don’t have to travel far to see one of the hundreds of native flowers that make Florida stand out. They’re nature’s roadside attractions, and many can make for colorful additions to your yard.

Consider these natural wonders:

  • Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana- this shrub dazzles with its clumps of purple fruit that will draw birds to your yard.
  • Black-eyed Susans, Rudbeckia spp.- with a brown center surrounded by petals of yellow, golden, orange, or red petals, is perfect for attracting butterflies to your garden.
  • Firebush, Hamelia patens var. patens - with its bright red flowers, can serve as a beacon for hummingbirds, butterflies, and songbirds (which like to feed on its berries).
  • Tickseed, Coreopsis spp. - our state wildflower, sometimes called Coreopsis, comes in 12 species native to Florida. You’ll find all of them in the northern part of the state, but South Florida is limited to Leavenworth’s tickseed, Coreopsis leavenworthii1.

  • There are many benefits to introducing native plants to your gardens and outdoor spaces. Plant them in suitable conditions, and native plants thrive with little to no human intervention and are resistant to pests. Not sure what type of natives to introduce to your landscape? Start by keeping your eyes open: Note the plants that you see growing naturally along highways, in parks, and less developed areas of your part of the Sunshine State. While some are invasive, many are natives. Photograph the ones you like, and then consult a good online native plant directory, native plant book, knowledgeable FNPS member, iNaturalist, or an online plant identification group2. Let’s take a closer look at some of the native trees and plants you will see everywhere in Florida.

    Tree Talk

    Florida’s native trees and plants are perfectly suited to the state's tropical and subtropical climate, weather patterns, and wildlife. The Sabal palm (Sabal palmetto) is one such plant. This Florida native, also known as the cabbage palm, is drought-tolerant and sturdy enough to weather some of the strongest hurricane winds. It can grow in forests, swamps, marshlands, and prairies, so you’ll find these trees in most Florida ecosystems. No surprise, it’s Florida’s state tree. In summer months, the cabbage palm produces a large panicle of small white blossoms. The central core — the "heart" of the tree — is edible and is considered a local delicacy. Keep in mind, the process of removing the heart from the tree will kill it.

    Shady Spaces

    You may see more than a few White Fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus) decorating patios or balcony spaces north of Orlando, where their natural range begins. The fringe tree’s streamer-shaped flowers bloom in the spring. While cabbage palms can survive heavy winds, the fringe tree should be placed in a space that shelters it from harsh weather. You’ll often see them in swamp borders and moist, wooded areas, surrounded by other trees. 

    For a splash of color to complement the white blooms of the fringe tree, there’s the Florida Anise (Illicium floridanum). The Florida anise shrub bursts with scarlet blooms and its squat shape makes it perfect for planting around borders.It grows wild in the Northwest Florida Panhandle and along the coastal plains. This evergreen is a great addition to landscapes since it’s pest and disease-resistant.

    Bright Blooms

    Want to attract pollinators to your garden? Plant Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). A type of milkweed, Butterflyweed boasts bright orange blooms and is drought-tolerant. It's one of about 20 native Florida milkweeds. This flower grows wild in the sandhills, flatwoods, and roadsides, and you’ll often see it surrounded by monarch butterflies since the milkweed is their host plant. It’s also a favorite of hummingbirds and bees, benefiting other native plants in the landscape. 

    It’s tough to pass a Florida fence without spotting Yellow Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens). The yellow jessamine thrives when allowed to climb and is drought-tolerant. The bright yellow flowers bloom in winter months. A word of warning if you have pets: This flower is poisonous.

    Non-Native Nuisances 

    Three native plants you won’t see much of in Florida are our native Lantanas, also known as Shrub Verbenas: Lantana involucrata, Lantana canescens, and Lantana depressa. That’s because their homes along the South Florida coasts are being threatened by the invasive Common Lantana, Lantana camara. It’s easy to confuse them, but Lantana camara comes from the West Indies. The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council lists it as a Category I invasive species because of the ecological damage it causes. Introduced to Florida in the early 1800s, spreads quickly and crowds out the native plants, including citrus groves. Like about half the 29 types of lantana, Lantana camara is toxic to people and livestock if ingested and causes blisters. Its toxic nature makes it unbearable for ranchers, whose pasture land is choked with the harmful plant.

    Go Native 

    While growing in their native environment, many Florida plants and trees are drought-resistant, so they practically take care of themselves. They help fight erosion, resist disease and pests, but they can’t resist an invasion from water-guzzling foreign species. Planting natives in your landscape nurtures a healthy ecosystem and makes your life easier. Avoid bringing in any exotic species, so we’ll continue to see more native trees and plants everywhere in Florida.

    References: East Multnomah SWCD. 2020-07-23. What's so great about native plants?

    Bob Silverman is a freelance writer living on Florida’s Gold Coast.  He is one of LawnStarter's longest-serving writing experts and for good reason! He enjoys sand volleyball, hiking, reading, and cruising the beach towns in his restored 1966 Ford Mustang convertible. More of Bob’s work can be found here.

    1. Our other native Florida Tickseeds are: Baker's Tickseed (C. bakeri), Florida Tickseed (C. floridana), Coastalplain Tickseed (C. gladiata), Largeflower Tickseed (C. grandiflora), Fringeleaf Tickseed (C. integrifolia), Lanceleaf Tickseed (C. lanceolata), Texas Tickseed (C. linifolia), Greater Tickseed (C. major), Georgia Tickseed (C. nudata), Star Tickseed (C. pubescens), and Tall Tickseed (C. tripteris).
    2. There are several excellent and fast native and general plant ID groups on Facebook: Plant Identification and Discussion, Plant Identification, Florida Native Gardening, and Native Plants of Florida. If you're a Facebook user and an FNPS member, you're welcome to join our Members-Only group, where we also provide identifications.


    Anonymous said…
    Corrections -

    1. The natural range of the Florida fringe tree goes substantially further south than Orlando -- it occurs along the Little Manatee River south of Tampa, and it has been vouchered in Sarasota County

    2. Gaillardia may or may not be native. No one is sure. From the Florida Atlas "In the USA, Gaillardia pulchella is found predominantly from Lousiana west to Arizona and Kansas south to Texas. It is widely cultivated in Florida. Given its scattered distribution in the eastern USA and its propensity for disturbed sites, it may be only sparingly native to a few areas in Florida or could be an early introduction to Florida. Turner and Whalen (1975) noted the species was cultivated early on soon after its discovery."

    3. Lantana camara is a major pest. It is not limited to the West Indies -- it is generally considered to also be native to Central and South America. No mention was made that Lantana depressa may have inbred so much with L. camara that its genetics have been tainted to the extent that is is nearly gone.

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