Green Gardening: Enjoy the bounties of nature that native plants bring
I was delighted the other day to pass a bright sign outside a garden along the ocean proclaiming, “Native Plants bring Life to this Landscape.” The sign was outlined with pictures of cardinals, butterflies, coral honeysuckle, dune sunflower, gaillardia, and other native flowers, with the logo FANN, the Florida Association of Native Nurseries at the bottom. Peeking over the gate, I saw a mass of colorful natives thriving happily along the dunes. People are paying attention.
The New York City Parks Department recently jumped on the native plant bandwagon, urging the public to plant natives to help sharply declining bird and pollinator populations, which they acknowledge are “in dire need of more natural space.” The Parks Department’s Pollinator Place Program supports birds, bugs and bees year-round by planting native gardens in city parks. Similar native gardens are springing up across the country, as people become more aware of the urgency to save our existing species, which happen to include us.
We have the all-native Pan’s Garden at The Preservation Foundation, and Lake Drive Park at the town’s new marina hosts an enormous number of native species. The town and The Preservation Foundation are now collaborating on the exciting 18-acre Phipps Ocean Park, a visionary oasis of native plants stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Intracoastal Waterway. Designed by renowned architect Raymond Jungles, the park will include trails through coastal hammocks of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers, educational outdoor classrooms and beautiful vistas overlooking restored dunes and mangrove islands.
These parks play a vital role in reconnecting us with nature but we shouldn’t have to go to a park to hear birds and see butterflies. This should be a part of our everyday lives.
The tropical jungle that was once Florida has been almost entirely replaced with exotic species. Many of these are beautiful and do indeed add to the allure that is Palm Beach, but we need more native plants in the mix to establish balanced ecosystems that support essential polllinators and the birds and wildlife that depend on them.
Diversity of plant material is also crucial; monocultures created by using too much of a single species invite disease and pests. This is underscored by the overuse of Ficus benjamina hedges, which cannot survive without toxic pesticides that poison our air and pollute our water and soil. Native plants have evolved with their insect pollinators in adapting to our specific growing conditions, so they require no chemicals. Once established, native plants will literally bring life to your landscape, providing sustainable habitat for butterflies, bees and other pollinators, songbirds, hummingbirds and interesting wildlife.
There is nothing more joyful than a real, living garden, full of color, fragrance, and activity. This is a far cry from the sterile landscapes to which we have grown accustomed in Palm Beach: lifeless, chemically treated lawns surrounded by sterile, manicured ficus hedges accented with spikes of podocarpus or globes of schefflera trinette provide no environmental sustenance.
A common complaint about natives is that they are too unkempt or not formal enough, but this is not the case if they are planted correctly. Sun-loving plants won’t thrive in the shade, and shade-loving plants wilt and yellow in full sun. It’s just a matter of learning what to plant in your specific location.
It’s also important to take size into consideration: Don’t plant a shrub that will grow to 10 feet in front of a window if you want to see out. And understand the natural growing characteristics of plants: tall slender myrsine fits nicely into a shady corner while open spreading fetterbush needs more space, but makes a great hedge or accent plant.
If you want a manicured look, plenty of natives are fine with pruning, including cocoa plum, buttonwood, Simpson's stopper and red cedar. Give plants room to grow; planted too closely, they will not thrive or reach their full potential.
And it wouldn’t hurt us to modify our conception of the perfect garden to include more naturalistic plantings. It’s fun to experiment with new species to add variety to your landscape; the more diversity you incorporate, the more birds you will attract.
Natives to try in your landscape
Here are some interesting, beautiful natives that will add grace, distinction and sustainability to your gardens.
Blacktorch, Erithralis fruticosa, is a beautiful accent shrub with glossy evergreen foliage and small star-shaped white flowers followed by striking clusters of shiny black berries. This does well in sun or shade and grows to 6 feet.
Snowberry, Chiococca alba, has drooping clusters of fragrant white bell- shaped flowers followed by lovely bright white berries that glisten against the glossy green foliage. This grows to 8 feet in sun or part shade.
Fetterbush, Lyonia lucida, is a sprawling evergreen shrub growing 3-5 feet, thriving in moist soils in filtered shade. Fragrant white to deep pink flowers appear in spring attracting numerous butterflies, and the fruit is loved by mockingbirds. The evergreen leaves are coppery when young.
Golden creeper, Ernodea littoralis, is a fabulous low-growing, sprawling shrub perfect as a ground cover or in a planter where its arching stems will cascade gracefully over the sides. In coastal areas it forms a spreading mat controlling sand erosion, and the small whitish-pink flowers bloom all year. Heat- and drought-tolerant, it thrives in full sun. This is a threatened species, so you will be doing yourself and the environment a big favor by planting it.
Pearlberry, Vallesia antillana, is another undemanding shrub with beautiful elliptical foliage setting off delicate clusters of milky star-shaped flowers and white, translucent pearl-like berries. This makes a lovely specimen or dense screen in sun or part shade.
White indigoberry, Randia aculeata, is a tough, slow growing evergreen shrub that's perfect for difficult sites with no irrigation. The fragrant white flowers appear year-round, and the white berries enclose an indigo blue pulp. Reaching 10 feet, this can be pruned to a smaller size. It is the larval host for the tantalus sphinx moth and provides nectar for numerous butterflies.
Finally, native plumbago, Plumbago scandens, provides delicate white star-shaped flowers year-round in sun or shade. Growing 3-4 feet, the arching stems intermingle with adjacent plants, making them appear to be blooming as well. The crushed foliage is used medicinally in the Caribbean.
Planting just a few natives will add interest and variety to your gardens, and you will love the butterflies and birds that seek out the nectar and habitat provided by their fruit and foliage. Every one of the plants I’ve mentioned can be seen at Pan’s Garden, and I have them in my garden as well, so I can vouch for their beauty and performance.
There are hundreds of natives from which to choose: experiment with different colors, textures, sizes and shapes. And let the plants’ natural characteristics dictate where they will be best suited in your landscape. Then sit back and enjoy nature’s pageant of birds and butterflies.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: Kim Frisbie: Native plants to try for a natural habitat in your own yard