Title: Native Florida Wildflowers
Gardening is a perfect hobby for the Florida lifestyle. A great outdoor activity, it teaches patience, nurturing and care. But many flowers not native to Florida require more than just a little TLC. Because of concerns over water conservation, as well as the over-use of pesticides and fertilizers, homeowners are taking a look at an attractive alternative -- native Florida wildflowers.
Woven throughout Florida’s abundant natural areas are over 2,800 types of native plants and wildflowers. Each spring they bloom forth to create a stunning mosaic of brilliant color. It was this "feast of flowers" that greeted Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513; and having arrived during Pascua Florida, a Spanish term for the Easter season, Ponce de Leon named this newly discovered land "La Florida" – Florida.
Today, many Floridians are rediscovering native Florida wildflowers. Through gardens and low-input landscapes, gardeners are helping the native plants reach their full potential; here they tend to be fuller and flower earlier than the same species in the wild. And wildflower gardens take on a new look each year. Because of variations in the weather and the inherent nature of individual species, the colors, textures, and shapes of the plants change from season to season.
But these gardens do more than just showcase the beauty of the flowers. “Cutting gardens,” for instance, provide a free source of flowers for use in arrangements. Aromatic flowers can be used to create “fragrance gardens.” For homeowners with small plots of land, mini-meadows provide an excellent way to add long-term color to your property, while reducing mowing to once or twice a year. And homeowners aren’t the only ones who benefit from native wildflower gardens.
Jeff Norcini: Another type of garden that could be planted is a butterfly garden. When you plant a butterfly garden, you want to put in nectar plants where butterflies can come in and get the nectar or larval plants. Now, the importance of a larval plant is it brings in the females, who lay their eggs on these larval plants and then provides a source of food for the butterfly caterpillars. And the female butterflies attract the male butterflies. So you have a nice diversity of butterflies when you have both nectar plants and larval plants.
Before planting a garden, you should plan the garden. Be sure to consider the form, size, color, flowering season, and aggressiveness of the flowers to be planted; be sure to allow room for plants that spread runners. When selecting a site, consider the plants’ moisture needs and light requirements; what is the soil type? Is it wet or dry? Is it in full sun or partial shade? There is a wide selection of native Florida wildflowers available for whatever type of garden you choose to grow.
Another critical element when planning your wildflower garden is timing.
Terry Zinn: Almost all wildflowers in Florida tend to germinate in the fall to early winter. For many of the people in the state who have come from other states, spring was the time you planted. Florida, because of its southern exposure and its southern climate, has a very different system, and so most of the plants you would want to plant, even spring, summer, and late fall flowers, you would want to plant in the fall to early winter.
Florida has basically three planting zones. For gardeners in the Panhandle and extreme northern Florida the best time to seed is from very late August to mid-October before the dry weather sets in. It is possible to plant in November or December, but any cold, wet weather could cause the seeds to remain dormant. Moving south, the planting dates can get a bit later-- from late September to November in Gainesville, and October until December in Orlando. South of Orlando there’s a window of late October to January.
A month before seeding, prepare the plot by using a nonselective herbicide – or a non-chemical alternative -- to kill the existing turf. Then, a day or so before seeding, scalp the turf, taking care not to till the area.
Terry Zinn: In Florida, you don’t want to till the soil. The reason we don’t want to do that is because there are a lot of weed seeds sitting there in that ground ready to go as soon as you give them an opportunity. And by cutting the grass down, raking the dead material out, you don’t turn that soil over and cause those weed seeds to germinate.
Once the clippings have been removed, the ground is prepared. Broadcast the wildflower seed over the area. If you are going to seed by hand, dilute the seed with slightly moistened vermiculite or sand for best results. Then rake or drag the area to get seed-to-soil contact; be careful to plant only as deep as the seed is thick. If you have any questions, contact your local County Extension Agent or a local native-plant nursery.
If seeds are sown in early fall, then Mother Nature should provide enough water for germination and early growth. If the weather is dry, you’ll need to water most days over a two-week period to stimulate germination, watering about one-quarter inch each time. After that, wildflower seedlings only need to be watered if they are wilting.
Native Florida wildflowers are adapted to the state’s nutrient-poor soils and do not need to be fertilized during the first year. In the second year and beyond, a small amount of fertilizer will stimulate flowering and seed production; but fertilizer will also stimulate the growth of unwanted plants and weeds.
Weeds should not be a major problem unless the area was tilled first. One way to distinguish wildflower sprouts from young weeds is to plant some of the seed mix in a specific spot in a recognizable pattern. This will help identify which plants can stay and which need to be weeded out. As with any garden you will need to weed every once in a while; but think of weeding as an opportunity to view your wildflowers up close, find an unusual plant, or see the pollinators that have been attracted to your garden. If grass comes back, grass herbicides can be used as a spot follow-up, but only after the seedlings are well established.
Once they bloom, native Florida wildflowers reward the gardener with spectacular color and fragrance, but one of their greatest benefits won’t be realized until the next growing season. Florida wildflowers have the ability to reseed for the following year. Under natural conditions, after the wildflowers have bloomed, the seeds will ripen and be dispersed by wind and animals. Seeds that germinate in the fall and early winter will grow very slowly until the spring, when the plants will blossom and begin the process again. Once the wildflowers are past their bloom, you may be inclined to cut them back right away, but the key is to be patient. Wildflower seeds need to mature. Wait a month or so before cutting back your wildflowers. By giving seeds time to ripen and be dispersed naturally, you will eliminate the need to reseed for the next season.
While a number of states produce and sell native and nonnative wildflower seeds for gardners in the southeast, these seeds may not necessarily grow well in Florida. Many species of native and nonnative wildflowers grown from out-of-state seed stock find it difficult to tolerate Florida’s heat, humidity, and diseases. While they will bloom, these wildflowers probably will not reseed very well, making annual replanting a costly necessity. The best option for wildflower seeds is native Florida wildflowers produced from Florida seed stock. Such seeds often referred to as Florida ecotype seeds.
Jeff Norcini: When purchasing native wildflower seed, you want to purchase seed that’s adapted to our climate, the Florida ecotype seed, or using plants that were derived from here, in Florida, from natural populations, because these plants are adapted to our conditions, our climate, our pests, our diseases. So they’ve been pre-selected to perform well under our conditions.
Florida native ecotype seeds originate from naturally occurring wildflower colonies in Florida. Through centuries of natural selection, these colonies thrive in Florida’s climate. Wildflowers from Florida native ecotype seeds not only live and bloom longer; they have a longer period of seed production.
Currently many state and local governments are taking advantage of native Florida wildflowers’ ability to reseed. Through roadside and turnpike beautification projects, government agencies have reduced the need for mowing -- thus cutting labor and fuel costs.
Chris Grossenbacher: We've been planting wildflowers along our right-of-ways for many years now, and since we've started using native Florida seed, we've had a significant increase in the successfulness in our program. It helps reduce our maintenance costs in that we have to mow less times during the year, it also reduces the amount of fertilizer and herbicides we apply to our right-of-ways; and it's less stress on our water supply because we don't have to water the wildflowers, they’re adjusted to our native environment.
Funding for planting native wildflowers on rights-of-way, parks and elsewhere in communities, come from the sale of the Florida Wildflower Foundation’s license plate. Revenue from license plate sales also helps fund education and research projects.
The idea of using wildflowers as ornamental plants is not new. In the late 1960s, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson began a beautification project in Washington, D.C., that included the planting of millions of flowers throughout the nation’s capital. Her efforts inspired similar programs throughout the country. Landscape architects, in communities like Harmony, Florida, are incorporating wildflowers in their designs to reduce water usage by the city and its residents. And by planting wildflowers in rights-of-way and along power lines, utilities and outdoor sign companies are also cutting back on property maintenance costs and reducing mowing cycles.
To ensure there is a ready supply of seeds, Florida now has its own native wildflower seed industry. The Wildflower Seed and Plant Growers Association has Florida-grown, Florida-native ecotype wildflower seed for any type of garden you’d like to grow. While growing Florida wildflowers is a great way to preserve and protect Florida’s native wildlife, you’ll find that you’re creating more than just a carefree garden … you’re creating peace of mind.
Terry Zinn: There’s a certain aesthetic that comes from having wildflowers. For me, its color, texture, you’re bringing in butterflies and birds. It’s refuge for small wildlife. And I think, also, it just has an overall calming effect on the person who does it. Gardening, having your hands in the soil, at times, can be a very peaceful effect.