Monday, July 22, 2013

Five Natives You Don't See Everyday, But Should

Several native Florida plants have become so commonplace that you can now find them at Big Box stores. Coontie, dune sunflower, blanketflower and muhly grass are among these "cross-over" plants that have made the leap from relative obscurity to mainstream popularity. They are the horticultural equivalents of the low-budget Indie film that wins an Oscar.

I have these plants and love them. They are the trailblazers, hopefully to be followed soon by many more representatives of "real Florida."

But I also like to be different. Part of the fun of gardening is discovering new plants, and sharing them with others. Here are five lesser-known Florida natives that have performed well in my Tampa yard, and that I'd personally like to see more widely used:

  • Tampa Vervain (Glandularia tampenis)

A beautiful little groundcover that can be used along borders and pathways, in front of larger plants, or as an alternative to turfgrass. It produces lovely clusters of pink blooms that attract bees and butterflies, and sails through West Central Florida winters without a care. Tampa vervain is endangered in the wild, but is legally cultivated and sold by native plant nurseries.  I have a low border of these along an edged landscape bed, where they spill out along a shell walkway. It's gratifying to know I am helping to sustain this imperiled wildflower in my own urban garden.

  • Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Who doesn't love blue in their garden? This plant, with leaves resembling a salvia, produces clusters of dainty, sky blue or violet blossoms on stalks up to 3 feet high. Mistflower is a prolific reseeder: Once planted, you'll have it year after year (fair warning: it spreads!). Bees and small butterflies like skippers are fond of this wildflower in my yard. It grows in moist soils in the wild, but has flourished in my water-thrifty butterfly garden. Perfect as a border plant or tall groundcover. Dies back in winter, but never fear: It reappears, in increasing numbers, each Spring.

  • Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia lanciniata)

This is my first year with this hefty perennial wildflower, and I'm smitten! Unlike the purple coneflower (echinacea), this is actually a black-eyed susan with green, not black "eyes." Although native only to North Florida, it has been quite happy in my Zone 9 garden. Like mistflower, it prefers moist soils but is doing just fine in my yard on summer rainfall alone. I purchased two of these plants in April and they are robust and gorgeous now, with constant blooms of bright yellow flowers rising up from the intricate, deep green foliage. I only have two of these beauties, but plan to add more because they should be stunning when planted in mass. They can be 4 feet wide and just as high, so give them some room to grow.

  •  Ocala (Yellow) Anise (Illicium parviflorum)

Ocala, or "star anise" flower bud  
Everytime I walk past my "hedge" of Ocala anise and brush up against the leaves, I am reminded of why I love this shrub. True to its name, it smells just like anise! It doesn't have showy flowers (indeed its yellow flowers are positively puny) but, oh that fragrance! Crush the leaves and inhale, and I  bet you fall in love too. Ocala anise gets extra credit for being a serious water miser, pest-resistant, and not at all fussy about haircuts. And, it grows in good soil or poor, sun and shade. All in all, a plant that is simply screaming "Abuse and Neglect: Bring It On!" Left unchecked, it will be a large shrub of 10-12 feet, or even a small tree. I prune mine to about 6 feet to provide a nice privacy hedge.
My Ocala anise hedge

  • Marlberry (Ardisia escallonioides)

Another newcomer in my yard, planted a little over a year ago. Now about 5 feet tall, it should reach 10-15 feet high at maturity and can be kept lower with pruning. A terrific little understory tree for shade. Marlberry has lustrous,
dark green leaves, and lovely little white flower clusters in the spring, followed by berries that ripen to a rich purple hue. Marlberry is a wildlife-attracting powerhouse, offering nectar for butterflies and bees, berries for birds and small mammals, and hiding places to provide cover. Add bonus points for wind resistance and drought tolerance.
What's not to love?


Have I tempted you? To find native plant nurseries that sell these plants, go to At this website, you also can plug in your zip code or county to find more native plants that grow in your area.

These are some of my favorite "Not Your Everyday Natives." What are yours?