Monday, February 24, 2014

Don't Plant These at Home!

In my last post I identified some of the common weeds and plants that I keep my eye on come spring each year. But I didn't mention the vast array of invasive exotic species that I also watch for. I try very hard to keep them out of our yard, but it takes constant vigilance. Because they are so successful and are without natural pests, they pop up all the time. Unchecked, they can quickly take hold in any landscape. National Invasive Species Awareness Week began yesterday, and in the spirit of environmental education, I dug out an article I wrote for our neighborhood newsletter last summer. The seasons may have changed, but the issues remain the same.

This July is shaping up to be one of the wettest on record, and we can all see the results of abundant rain in our green and lush yards. What a relief it is to have plenty of water after all these years! I know the plants in our yard are enjoying the rain, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. The drought we’ve had for the past few years has not been much of a problem for us because we have a Florida Friendly Yard. This means that we are using landscape plants that are mostly native to North Central Florida, and that don’t require a lot of water or fertilizer, and provide habitat for animals. I’d like to take this chance to speak up in favor of using native plants in your landscape.
Florida Friendly Yard
Unlike the generic landscape plants usually found at gardening centers, native plants are adapted to local water, nutrient and temperature requirements. Native plants don’t need extra watering after they are established. They don’t need to be protected in cold weather. And they don’t need extra fertilizing. In addition, native plants are important sources of food for native animals and insects that have evolved along with the plants. Imagine a yard that not only accents your house with beautiful flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs, but also provides habitat for native butterflies, bees, mammals and birds and helps the environment. You can see why I’m sold on native plant gardening.
Great Habitat for Butterflies, Bees and other Wildlife
Of course, there are many gorgeous plants that are not native, and being able to grow them is one of the fun advantages to gardening in Florida. It’s perfectly fine to grow non-native plants in your yard. Azaleas, Camellias and Japanese Magnolias are some good examples of great, non-native plants. I’m also very fond of Red Pentas, Gingers and African Irises in a butterfly garden. The trick is to choose plants that are good players within the local environment, and to put the right plant in the right place! Plants that need a lot of water should be planted around a wet area. If your yard is dry, wetland plants may not be right for you. Many parts of Gainesville have sandy, dry soil. Use drought tolerant plants in those kinds of yards. And pay close attention to sun and shade requirements. As water becomes a bigger issue in Florida, it is important to use garden plants that can survive and thrive in our climate. Irrigation doesn’t make much sense because it’s so wasteful. Water quality is also important for our future, so we must be careful how we use fertilizers so that they do not get into the waterways and pollute our streams, lakes and springs. Here in the Duckpond Neighborhood, for example, the water from the Sweetwater branch eventually drains into Paynes Prairie. We all want to protect the natural environment of the Prairie.
Elephant Ear (Xanthosoma sagittifolium) is an invasive exotic plant that thrives in our Semi-Tropical climate, as you can see from this photo of the Sweetwater Branch Creek in Downtown Gainesville. Follow this creek downstream into Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and you will find canals clogged with Elephant Ear.
Another point to consider with non-native plants is if they are Invasive Exotic species. Exotic plants are just plants that are not native to your particular region. Invasive Exotic plants are the non-native ones that do so well in any particular climate that they outcompete the native species, to the detriment of the local ecosystems. They have no local natural pests or diseases that control them and they crowd out the native plants. Then the animals that depend on those native plants lose important food and shelter resources. Well known examples of Invasive Exotic species are Kudzu, Melaleuca (mainly in South Florida), Water Hyacinth and Air Potatoes.
Air Potato Vines (Diascoria bulbifera). These vines spread by little bulbuls (the "potatoes"). There are no native pests to control this plant, although an Asian insect, the Air Potato Leaf Beetle has been released in Florida as a control with some success. 
Invasive Exotic plants can be very attractive, which is one reason that they are brought to Florida in the first place. But just like the Burmese Python, these species in the wrong place can cause real harm to the environment. Environmental agencies are doing their best to eradicate harmful invasive exotic species, but it is a huge problem and they need help from citizens like you.

Peruvian Water Primrose (Ludwigia peruviana). Pretty, yes. But wrong plant, wrong place. They are now established in streams and creeks all over Florida.

Chinese Tallow Tree Leaves (Triadica sebifera). Also known as "Popcorn Trees", the abundant fluffy seeds from this tree help them spread through the stream systems where they end up in areas such as Paynes Prairie. They grow and crowd out native species. They were planted originally as ornamentals because of the pretty leaves and seeds but are now banned for purchase in Florida nurseries because they are considered to be noxious weeds.
So take a look around your yard and see if you have Invasive Exotic plants that should be removed. You can see examples all around our neighborhood and along the ditches of the Sweetwater Branch, crowding out the beautiful native plantings. Elephant Ear, Air Potato and Mexican Petunia nearly cover the banks in some places. By fall, trees and bushes will be enveloped in the invasive Air Potato vines and covered with the hanging “potatoes”. Colorful Lantana and Coral Ardesia may seem pretty in your home landscape, but they’re insidious. You might think it is ok to grow these plants in your own yard and keep them under control. But here’s the problem--just a tiny piece of Mexican Petunia will grow a whole new plant, and the berries from Lantana and Ardesia are carried off and deposited by birds and squirrels. Plant fragments, seeds and berries wash down into the storm drains where they gather in the ditches (like the one just below the Thelma Bolton Center), just a heavy rain away from being washed down to the Prairie. These plants are spreading along Florida’s waterways and through the woods like wildfire.
Mexican Petunia (Ruellia simplex). You can find these all through the Loblolly Woods.

Coral Ardesia (Ardesia crenata)

Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica). The pretty red berries on Nandina and Coral Ardesia are irresistible to birds and wildlife which helps them spread through natural areas. Both plants are classified as Category 1 invasive exotic plants because of their harmful environmental effects. Plant native berries such as Yaupon Holly or Simpson's Stopper instead.


Consider planting a Florida Friendly landscape in your yard. You’ll appreciate the diversity of wildlife and you’ll be doing your part to help protect our environment. One great source for Florida native plants is the Native Plant Sale at Morningside Nature Center that takes place in the Fall and Spring each year. Many knowledgeable vendors and experts will help you pick the right plants for your yard. So Happy Summer and Happy Gardening!

You can get more information at these web sites:

Florida Friendly Landscapes:

Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants:

Florida Exotic Pest Council:

Florida Native Plant Society:

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