A guide to South Florida’s native and invasive plants

A guide to South Florida’s native and invasive plants

Now that temperatures are dipping ever so slightly, gardeners are getting ready to get their hands dirty for a new season of freshly planted fall foliage.

If you’re new to South Florida or new to gardening, here’s a tip: Make sure to choose native plants that grow harmoniously with fellow shrubs, trees and flowers — and steer clear of invasive plants, which have been artificially introduced into our landscape and are the enemy of native plants.

Gardening experts advise avoiding these intruders because they harm local ecosystems and displace indigenous vegetation. There are more than 1,400 invasive species in Florida that are wreaking havoc in our forests, waterways and backyards.

Here’s a guide on how to go native this fall and enjoy the rewards you’ll receive as wildlife and fabulous colors work their natural Florida-friendly magic before your eyes in the coming months.

Here’s some foliage NOT to plant, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

Snake plants: These popular houseplants, also known as mother-in-law’s tongue, become a menace when they’re outdoors. Originally from Africa, they send out underground shoots that crowd out native plants. They are considered one of the worst destroyers of South Florida’s natural ecosystems.

The Mexican petunia is an invasive species not recommended for South Florida gardens.

Mexican petunias: They’re tempting to plant because of their bright blue-purple flowers. But UF/IFAS places the Mexican petunia in the “highly invasive” category, which “means it can escape from home gardens and spread into natural areas where it crowds out native species.”

Oyster plants: These low-growing succulents with green and purple, often striped, leaves and small white flowers create dense ground covers that prevent native plants from growing.

Carrotwood trees: Natives of Australia, these trees have 4- to 8-inch-long green leaves and clusters of green and yellow flowers that bloom in the winter with fruit capsules that ripen in the spring. Birds disperse their seeds, and they can grow from small plants into large shade trees. The carrotwood is categorized not only as invasive but it’s been on the “Florida Noxious Weed List” since 1999.

If you have any of these or hundreds of other non-native species in your yard, UF/IFAS recommends that you remove them. For a directory, visit plants.ifas.ufl.edu/plant-directory.

Pilar Londono Cortes in the backyard of her Coral Springs home on Nov. 14. She won the 2022 Broward County NatureScape Emerald Award, which recognizes Florida-friendly landscapes.

Pilar Londono Cortes, a Master Gardener from Coral Springs who won the 2022 Broward County NatureScape Emerald Award, maintains more than 80 native species in her yard and uses rain barrels for watering instead of a sprinkler system. She recommends these native plants and trees for your garden.

Live oaks: These stately trees can grow to 60 feet, so leave lots of room in a well-drained area that gets full sun. They attract wildlife as well as help protect your home from hurricanes and enhance your property values.

A Jamaica caper bush grows in the backyard of Pilar Londono Cortes’s Coral Springs home.

Jamaica capers: Drought-resistant and tolerant of cold temperatures, this elegant native evergreen bush has showy pink and white flowers and will attract bees and mockingbirds. Jamaica capers serve as a good hedge around the house and host larvae for the Florida white butterfly.

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Tropical sage: Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds love these bright red wildflowers. They like full sun and well-drained soil, but they don’t tolerate salt well. They grow about 2 feet high and 2 feet wide.

Muhly grass is hardy and loves full sun.

Muhly grass: These purple-pink fluffy grasses put on a spectacular show each fall and need little maintenance. They love full sun and tolerate many different types of soils.

Sunshine mimosas: This ground-cover plant has a fabulous pink powderpuff-like flower. It loves to spread and can replace your grass. It works well on embankments where soil erosion is a problem.

Tropical sage attracts birds and butterflies.
  • Make sure the plants you’re buying will fit well in the garden space you’ve selected and will get the right amount of sun and water.
  • Check for watering restrictions in your neighborhood and make sure your garden abides by the rules.
  • Learn to use mulch and recycle yard waste.
  • Use minimal amounts of pesticides and don’t overtreat.
  • If you’re hiring a landscaper, make sure the company is licensed, insured and familiar with Florida-friendly plants.
Prickly pear cactus is in the front yard of Pilar Londono-Cortes’ Coral Springs home. Londono-Cortes won the 2022 Broward County NatureScape Emerald Award, which recognizes Florida-friendly landscapes.

Londono Cortes recommends locally owned nurseries as the best places to buy Florida-friendly plants. For help in selection, contact a Master Gardener through the Florida Cooperative Extension Service, administered by UF and Florida A&M University. The gardeners offer their advice for free in return for their training.

In Broward County, go to sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/broward. In Palm Beach County, check out discover.pbcgov.org/coextension/Pages/default.aspx.

The Florida Native Plant Society is also a good source of information, as are local garden clubs, which have volunteers thrilled to share their expertise. The clubs often host plant sales to encourage Florida-friendly gardening.

Here are two upcoming plant sales to get you started on your native plant adventure.

  • The Equality Garden Club is hosting a Tropical Plant Fair this weekend at Richardson Historic Park, 1937 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Two-day admission is $5. Visit equalitygardenclub.com/tropicalplantfair2022.
  • Or check out the Orchid & Plant Festival at Sawgrass Nature Center & Wildlife Hospital, 3000 Sportsplex Drive, Coral Springs. The festival will be from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 3 and 4. Cost is $6 in advance, $8 at the gate and free for children younger than 5. Visit sawgrassnaturecenter.org/orchid-plant-festival.