Coontie plants don’t ask for a lot. They don’t need much light or much water. They’ll grow in different soils. Cold snaps? They’ll survive them. They also have uses; in fact, they were Fort Lauderdale’s first crop. When white settlers first turned up on the banks of the New River, they discovered what the Tequesta Indians had known for centuries: that in a place where wheat won’t grow, correctly processed coontie can be used as flour. (Note to alternative flour fans: incorrectly processed coontie can kill you.)
Coontie grows in Richard Brownscombe’s backyard. Around it grows a catalog of all the plants Florida gives us. Man-in-the-ground sits near a resurrection fern. Towards the back fence, a large rouge plant’s a popular hangout for local animals. “I see this bush dancing,” Brownscombe says, “because birds are in it.” He looks at a patch of basketgrass – a plant derided as a weed in many quarters – and nods approvingly. “It can be aggressive,” he says. “But if you want a ground cover, you want an aggressive plant.” The tropical sage blooms in winter, a fact that sounds like a Jimmy Buffet lyric but isn’t.
Around the corner and through a gate in the front yard grows cinnamon fern, which gets bright, and leather fern, which gets huge. More tropical sage has spread out and made itself at home. “I planted one or two, and it did this by itself,” Brownscombe says.
He knows he’s in the minority on some of the plants he appreciates, explaining that one vine is “that Virginia creeper that everyone hates.” Others barely announce themselves at all. He pulls back leaves of other plants to reveal a toothed spleenwort, a tiny fern that doesn’t quite live up to its muscularly carnivorous name. “It’s a tiny little thing,” Brownscombe says, “but I know it’s there.”
He walks around the yard, pointing out others – the sky blue clustervine, the sun bonnet, witchgrass, so much coontie. He points to a small, yellow wildflower and says that it’s rattlebox, and he had to listen to it. When he first planted it, it looked like it wasn’t going to take there.
“I gave up on this plant years ago, but it told me ‘No, I’m happy here,’” he says. “I had my idea, but nature had another one. So now I’m listening.”
Brownscombe is president of the Broward chapter of the Florida Native Plants Society. When the West Coast native, who came to Fort Lauderdale by way of Oregon and San Francisco, stands in his yard, about the only non-native in it is him.
His home sits just around the corner from Stranahan High School in Riverside Park, just blocks away from some of Fort Lauderdale’s first homes, places where these plants would have been all that existed around homesteads and farming plots. In the intervening years, however, perceptions changed. Most of the houses near Brownscombe’s have what people think of when you say “yard” – grass that needs watering and probably pesticide, interspersed with trees and bushes that are sometimes native to Florida, sometimes not.
Now though, that may be changing. Books have been written about planting and maintaining native gardens, while nurseries carry more Florida natives and label them as such. The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Studies named native plants its number one horticultural trend for 2020, just in front of plants that attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators.
“I think there is a greater general understanding of the environment and native plants and ecosystems than there was when I was in high school 40 years ago,” says George Gann, whose titles include president and chair of the board of the Institute for Regional Conservation. He’d know; in addition to spending his entire professional life in the field, as a boy in the 1970s he worked in his parents’ nursery. Back then, he says, “you couldn’t go out and buy a gumbo limbo. You couldn’t buy a cocoplum.
“There’s a suite of species that are now available; that has changed.”
Naturalist, botanist and author Roger Hammer has seen a similar change.
“The whole native plant movement didn’t really start until, I would say, the 1970s,” Hammer says. “The first time I heard of a native plant nursery, I thought, ‘Who’s going to buy that? Who’s going to buy a gumbo limbo in a pot?’”
Hammer understands why people in Florida wanted exotics and often still do. Big flowering beauties like the Hawaiian sunset (despite the name, native to tropical Africa) tend to be from somewhere else.
“There aren’t too many native plants in South Florida that have big, showy flowers,” Hammer says. “South Florida’s unique in that a lot of our native plants came here from the Caribbean or the Bahamas or in some cases, Mexico.”
Our natives, Hammer explains, tended to arrive via three means – hurricane wind dispersal, seashore plants with driftseed or the most common, plants with small, fleshy fruits that migratory birds eat and then deposit elsewhere when nature calls. Those methods of native plant acquisition aren’t the best for getting plants with big, glamorous flowers. But if you want lots of nature in your yard, Florida natives can help.
“The majority of our flora got here by birds,” Hammer says. “So it stands to reason that if you want to attract birds, plant things that birds brought here to begin with.”
The Art of Attraction
Like any good outlaw, phyla nodiflora has many aliases. Some call it frogfruit, which is itself a bastardization of another one of its names, fogfruit, or, if you’re being formal, turkey tangle fogfruit. It’s called capeweed, matchhead and, perhaps most sinisterly, creeping Charlie. And whatever they call it, for decades Floridians have wanted phyla nodifloria dead. Its crime: growing on the ground where grass is supposed to grow.
“That’s probably the plant that caused them to create Weed n’ Feed,” Hammer says.
But somewhere along the way, phyla nodiflora went legit. Some people still pull it up or spray it with poison to keep it away from their grass, but others plant it instead of grass.
“There are now some nurseries that specialize in native plants that are planting creeping Charlie in flats,” Hammer says. “Once it’s covered the flat, you can lift it up; the whole thing will pop up like it’s a piece of sod. You can buy as many of these flats as you want and lay it down like sod. Talk about a complete turnaround. That is a remarkable success story.”
Like phyla nodiflora, Roger Hammer’s a native who can often be found in Florida’s wilder places. A self-described “old hippie” who worked for more than three decades as a naturalist for the Miami-Dade Parks Department, he’s now “retired,” if you can call all the book-writing, public speaking and getting out into nature “retirement.” His next book, on paddling in Everglades and Biscayne national parks, comes out this spring. He remains on the board of the Tropical Audubon Society, and he serves as a “survivalist instructor” for the Discovery Channel program Naked & Afraid.
He’s also a longtime advocate for native plants, a subject he gets into in books such as Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies in Tropical Florida: A Companion for Gardeners.
Natives tend to attract butterflies, but the Venn diagram for gardening with natives and gardening for butterflies overlaps in other ways as well. In both, it’s important to think of a yard not as a series of unconnected living things that need water and tending to, but as one whole organism. An organism that needs to change and, sometimes, get eaten.
“The thing about butterfly gardening is that when people are gardening for butterflies, they picture in their mind the flying stage,” Hammer says.
He’s given talks to garden clubs before where people get concerned when the subject turns to larval host plants, which is really the critical stage for a successful butterfly garden. Well yes, they want butterflies, but they don’t want anything eating their gardens. Which is, shall we say, not really the way a butterfly garden works.
“The key,” Hammer says, “is to create a habitat. An open lawn with some butterfly-attracting plants with some red mulch isn’t going to do a whole lot.”
That’s a philosophy that extends to all of native gardening. It’s important to stop looking at a yard as a series of unconnected plants and coverings that can be changed or replaced without thought to anything else around them.
Even among plants and trees that look almost exactly alike, the difference between a native and a non-native can be staggering. Institute for Regional Conservation entomologist Sandy Koi mentions a research paper she recently read comparing caterpillar numbers.
“It was humongous, the number of caterpillars on these native trees,” she says. “These are what the birds are feeding their offspring. On the non-native trees, some of those trees had no caterpillars. They’re like fake greenery; you might as well put plastic plants in your yard.”
Beyond the micro effects of what happens in one yard when natives go in, there’s also the macro effect of what happens when more people start to do it. Connectivity is a big concept in urban conservation. A big park here or a few native yards dotted around are great, but a critical mass of natives creates an unbroken pathway that allows all sorts of plants and animals to thrive.
“The issue of connectivity and pollenators both are really big right now,” Gann says. “Especially in light of climate change, connectivity is going to be even more important. We need plants and animals to be able to move around in relation to changes in the climate.
“Broward is one of the most fragmented (eco)systems in Florida,” Gann says. “Given that fragmentation, the role of people’s gardens becomes so important.”
And if those connections aren’t made?
“No matter what we do, the science of fragmentation is really simple,” Gann says. “Once the land is fragmented, you will continue to lose species over a long period of time.”
One Man’s Weed
Bidens alba blooms all year. Its flower is small and white, unusual for a genus that normally produces yellow flowers. Its barbed seeds stick to fur and clothing, helping to spread it and helping to give it its common name, Spanish needles. Juice from its broken stem helps stop bleeding. Butterflies are drawn to it. A native to Florida, it requires no watering. You don’t have to tend to it; you don’t really have to think about it in any way. And for this, a bidens alba will give you a flower every single day of the year.
So here it is, a plant with an all-year flowering season, first aid value, no maintenance requirement and an attraction for butterflies. And how does bidens alba get thanked? By being called a weed.
“If you want to find wild butterflies, go find the biggest patch of Spanish needle you can find,” Hammer says. “That’s definitely a weed that’s worth tolerating in your yard. There’s always some of that flowering in our yard; it flowers every day of the year for decades.”
But, OK, real talk? Even Hammer admits it can look a bit ratty at times. He mows his back when it starts looking a bit too much like, well, a weed.
Sometimes in official quarters, the subject of plants such as bidens alba – or frogfruit, or Virginia creeper, or even the concept of a native yard in general – becomes even more fraught. Organizations such as the Florida Native Plant Society get used to helping members fight battles against municipalities and homeowners associations whose rules equate native yards with neglected yards. The statewide FNPS website even offers a natives-friendly model ordinance, all ready to go in case somebody wants to propose it at a city commission or homeowners association meeting.
The statewide Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program, run through the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Studies, recognizes Florida-Friendly Landscaping. Homeowners who qualify get a sign for their yard stating that they are Florida-friendly – and explaining to neighbors that yes, this is how the yard’s supposed to look. The Florida Wildlife Federation has a similar program, and offers a similar sign.
Florida native yards might not look like traditional turf yards, but watch who you call them “unkempt” around. The notion that native equals ugly or unruly is something that Raymond Jungles has spent a career fighting. The Miami-based landscape architect is sought after around South Florida and beyond; he specializes in private homes, luxury condominiums and hotels. In one Jungles project, Sunny Isles luxury condominium Jade Signature, the absolute cheapest units go for around $600,000, most units are $2m and up and the penthouse was recently on the market for $29.5m. On the Jade Signature website (motto: “Living evolved”), Jungles is called “Miami’s undisputed master of landscape design.”
Jungles uses plants that require little maintenance in areas such as fertilizing, pruning and other “things that are in my opinion a waste of human energy.”
But don’t equate that with letting nature take over and walking away.
“That doesn’t mean it has to look like no one cares,” he says. “My clients want to have an organization and a beautiful landscape. I’m a designer but I’m really a lover of nature, and that impacts everything we do. It all boils down to people’s philosophy of life and nature, really.”
Jungles pays close attention to the specifics of every piece of land he works on. Working with natives isn’t like taking sod and slapping it down anywhere. The soil, sun or other details of a property might be entirely different from that of another property less than a mile away.
“It’s called ‘design with nature,’” he says. “Plants find the right situation over time, whether it’s bright sun, shade, sandy soils, rocky soils, salt winds, lack of rain – all those things impact what evolves on a site.”
Not everybody can put together an outdoor space like an internationally recognized landscape architect. But tools exist for giving any amateur gardener help in knowing what exactly is best for their space. The Institute for Regional Conservation has developed a website and app, Native to Your Neighborhood, that tells people what natives are best to plant almost right down to your street.
“The idea of that system is that we have come up with lists for the counties, lists for the zip codes and lists for the habitats within the zip codes,” Gann says. “It increases the probability that people will plant things that are going to do well.”
But if all this sounds intimidating – planting something in the wrong zip code? – the people who advocate for native plants mostly want people to know that they should just try.
“We shouldn’t hassle people too much,” says Richard Brownscombe, the Florida Native Plant Society Broward chapter president. He says he made all sorts of planting mistakes when he first moved to Fort Lauderdale. “Coming from California, what did I know?
“If they’re planting native plants, we should applaud them. We won’t have any converts if we’re purists.”
Others agree. Koi sees milkweed, often the first thing people plant when they want butterflies in their garden, as not the most interesting thing you can plant, but also as a gateway to more. “It would be unusual for people to stop there,” she says. “Once people learn about that and they start learning about the relationship between butterflies and native plants … what started out as a milkweed plant does escalate into a native garden.
“I think that’s a learning process. If you learn about things, then you start looking at the interconnection. We’ve moved away from that (with) this mechanized world we live in but when we look at it, minds get blown.”
Gann believes it’s important to get across the point that everything matters. Everything helps. “We need multiple entry points for people,” Gann says. “If a person only feels comfortable ripping out an ixora hedge and putting in a native hedge, we might say ‘OK, but can you put in a mixed native hedge? Can we make it three things instead of one thing?’”
Gann would rather see many people adding a bit of native landscaping than a smaller number of people go fully native. It comes back to that idea of connectivity. A 100-percent native yard in a sea of non-natives doesn’t really do much. But a neighborhood where everybody’s committed to planting a few natives – now you’re getting somewhere.
“We have to reach as many people as possible because if you think about this issue of connectivity – if 1 percent of the landscape is in hyper-diverse, interesting gardens or we can have 20 percent of the landscape with that diversity, what yields more? It’s going to be the 20 percent with 20 percent instead of the 1 percent with 90 percent.
“There’s a danger of people diminishing these small efforts,” he says. “Oh, you just planted a cocoplum; I’ve got an entire habitat. That’s got to stop. The key – and this is important – the key is, does it result in net ecological gain? Each action that somebody takes – does it have a positive benefit?”
Getting Started with Natives
Richard Brownscombe, president of the Broward chapter of the Florida Native Plants Society, suggests a few favorites for people thinking of planting natives.
For average soil moisture in sunny locations:
Jamaica caper tree
A 10-foot shrub with handsome dark green leaves and beautiful starburst flowers that open white and fade to pink. Provides food and cover for wildlife and nectar for the Florida White butterfly, Appias drusilla.
A clumping three-foot grass with red-pink plumes peaking in fall. Backlit by sun, it’s breathtaking.
An enthusiastic twining vine capable of covering a fence or arbor with thick foliage and blue flowers. Provides food for birds and nectar for shinx moths.
For average soil moisture in shade:
Bahama Wild Coffee
At three-four feet, a short shrub that requires no pruning and produces a red drupe enjoyed by birds and wildlife.
Large dark succulent leaves and one-foot high groundcover thrives in shade under trees in the leaf-litter where moisture is retained.
Shade or sun:
Initially, plant abundantly at the base of shrubs where it can climb and among groundcover and in flower beds to provide food (leaves) for feeding caterpillars of Fritillary, Julia, and Zebra Longwing butterflies. Although itself not a showy plant, it will reseed and keep a yard in beautiful butterflies year-round.
No South Florida postcard is complete without at least one palm tree. They’re a quintessential part of the region’s natural look. However palm trees grow all over the world, and many that have become popular in South Florida are native to places as far flung as southern Africa and Australia. (One that’s popular in South Florida, the traveler’s palm, is neither native nor a palm tree; the Madagascar native is actually a member of the Strelitziaceae family of flowering plants, similar to a bird of paradise.) If you want to keep your palm trees native, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s floridayards.org has some suggestions.
Also called: Saw Cabbage Palm
Mature height: 15 to 30 ft
Mature spread: 10 to 15 ft
Floridayards says: “yellow/white flowers in spring; no pest problems; forms a dense clump with many stems, needs space; without regular fertilization, older leaves lose green color; susceptible to manganese deficiency”
Also called: Sargent’s Palm
Mature height: 10 to 40 ft
Mature spread: 10 to 20 ft
Floridayards says: “yellow flowers in summer; produces grape-sized red fruit; endangered in Florida; grows naturally in sandy or limestone soils where little rain falls”
Florida Thatch Palm
Mature height: 15 to 25 ft
Mature spread: 6 to 10 ft
Floridayards says: “white flowers in summer; low maintenance palm for many landscapes due to small size; high wind resistance”
Also called: Sabal Palm, Cabbage Palmetto
Mature height: 25 to 60 ft
Mature spread: 10 to 15 ft
Floridayards says: “FL’s state tree; adapted to most landscapes; white flowers (in) summer; watch for giant palm weevil/scale/ganoderma butt rot; high wind resistance; older palms transplant easily; fruit imp. to wildlife”
Mature height: 8 ft
Mature spread: 5 to 10 ft
Floridayards says: “red flowers in summer; mammals and large birds eat yellowish fruits”