Every region of the world is blessed with its own native plants that have effortlessly adapted to the local growing conditions. Long before mankind began developing the land, native plants were flourishing amidst fields, deep in the forests and along the riverbanks. Here in the tropics, the trend to “go native” is growing as more people realize all of the beauty and benefits of Florida native plants.
When I first moved to Florida, I was ecstatic over the abundance and diversity of tropical plants with their enticing beauty. I attended garden shows where I had good, educational chats with vendors about these tropical beauties, and invariably, brought some home to my jungle garden. Then I discovered a website called Top Tropicals and I was hooked. Every month I would explore and research amongst hundreds of plants and add a few more to my collection. By the time I sold my beach house with the jungle garden and greenhouse, I had close to fifty tropical plants that moved with me to the new farm.
The non-native tropical plants require work. Most of them need amendments to the sandy soil in order to thrive, as well as a regular fertilization schedule. I kept all the tropicals in a temporary greenhouse while I built beds for their new home. At the same time, I was completing my Permaculture Design Certificate wherein the goal of permaculture is to create an easy, sustainable system that can bring the most abundance with the least effort. While my affinity for exotic tropicals was not in sync with some permaculture principles, I was, and remain, bewitched by tropical beauty.
I discovered Florida native plants at the local farmer’s market where a young couple had them for sale. I was intrigued, though they did not take my breath away. I began to research and received an amazing education. Not only did mature native plants display enormous natural beauty, but many were a nectar source for very specific, and even endangered, butterflies. Some of these butterfly species include Atala, Zebulon Skipper, Giant Skipper, Little Sulphur and Buckeye. Further, many natives produce lovely flowers that attract the bees and berries as a food source for birds, and even people. But what finally sold me on the native plants was their love for the sandy soil and their lack of fertilization needs.
One might think that all tropical plants love the same soil, but Florida sandy soil is different from the soil in other tropical regions. Thus, the non-native tropical plants require soil amending to suit their native soils and growing needs, while their fertilization requirements create an environmental concern. One must ask where all the fertilizer run-off is going, especially if these are chemical, not organic, fertilizers? Florida has many shallow aquifers with a large canal system that drains into the inland waterways and eventually, into the ocean. All the chemical fertilizers being used for agriculture purposes and to sustain all the numerous tropical gardens are finding their way into all the water sources, even drinking water. Many believe that the Red Tide, which is a toxic overgrowth of algae, is caused primarily by agriculture and manufacturing. I concur this is a contributing factor, but large resorts, city planners, builders and home owners need to take some responsibility. Many of the tropical plants, trees and gardens need fertilization, and at best, it needs to be organic to help prevent chemical run-off. Even better, tropical gardens can be replaced with Florida native plants to reduce fertilization all together.
My new Florida native plant garden.
I took the leap last month, gutted all the front tropical beds and had native plants installed. The young couple from the farmer’s market did the job, it is beautiful, natural and smells divine with pine needle mulch. One has to be patient when planting natives as their growth is slower, but I am certain it will be worth the wait. I await Coontie, Firebush, Twin Flower, Indigoberry, Butterfly Sage, Gray Teabush, Sunshine Mimosa and more to expand, bringing the bees, birds and butterflies with them. I am relieved that all I need to do is water to help them along, and content in doing a small part to keep our waterways and water sources cleaner. I now see many more spaces on my land where native plants will be invited. I did not, however, toss all the tropical plants from the front beds. I was not ready to let go of my coral hibiscus, the colorful croton and the bird of paradise. I built them an amended bed by the front gate and transplanted them there, for now. My passion for exotic tropicals will now be resolved with a future Lath shade house where I can grow them to my heart’s content. It is my farm that will display the natural beauty and permaculture benefits of Florida native plants, of which I am now a true advocate. I am excited to watch them grow, and my binoculars are nearby as I await all the beautiful butterflies to arrive.