The air hangs still in Florida’s late summer heat, but that’s not deterring the bright orange Gulf fritillary and the pair of zebra longwings eagerly skimming the tops of plants, seeking nectar from the colorful array of native milkweed, blanket flower and sage at Twigs and Leaves nursery.
Michael Manlowe steps into the sun and points to the delicate butterflies flitting about that seem to be a permanent fixture in his native plant nursery in downtown St. Pete. He’s on a mission to convert local gardens to native plants and create sustainable environments.
“Florida’s totally different than other places,” Manlowe explains. “And we’re not tropical here in St. Pete, so all these exotics people often plant require more water, more care, more time and more money.”
Manlowe explains that the “Florida Friendly” label means plants may grow well here, but they don’t necessarily offer the benefits of true natives for wildlife and the environment.
Florida has long been known for its unique ecosystems. When botanist William Bartram first explored the peninsula in the 1770s, he was delighted with its native foliage, Florida’s little flowering weeds, palmettos and other “lowly” plants that get little respect today. But modern landscapers tend to install non-natives, often brightly-colored exotics with showy flowers. That’s for Hawaii, say native plant experts. It ain’t Florida.
“Most landscapes around Florida homes are too unnatural,” said Jan Allyn, past president of the Pinellas Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. “We don’t interact with our yards; we just plant a bunch of showy blooms around the foundations for decoration, like furniture.”
Allyn, a native herself, and other native plant enthusiasts have abandoned fancy tropicals in favor of more heat-tolerant Florida natives that require less water, fewer nutrients – which is better for Florida’s water quality – and are beneficial for many local critters.
“Adding natives is much more fun,” said Allyn, “and natives create more biodiversity so you’ll have life in your yard.”
Manlowe, who majored in environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and worked with marine scientists investigating coastal oil spills, has studied ecosystems and the importance of knowing where you live to create a sustainable landscape. The butterfly garden at USF St. Pete is his work, as is the water garden near the new campus parking lot by the Tavern.
“You have to really know your space,” he says. “And you have to know the light, and the types of trees, so you put the right plant in the right space for a sustainable yard that’s low maintenance and also beneficial to wildlife.”
Florida is a “fly-by” state, where migratory birds spend some time in our gardens on their long journeys south during the cold winter months. Natives are in sync with nature, producing fruits and berries just in time to feed our feathered tourists. Some avian favorites are beauty berry and yaupon holly.
“There’s a $16-biillion plant industry in Florida, growing plants from all over the world, but they require petroleum-based fertilizers, water and lots of care,” he said, “while natives are adapted to Florida’s climate and will thrive in local heat and humidity.”
If native plants are so beneficial, and grow so well in our central Florida climate, why don’t more people landscape with them?
It may be down to an image problem, says Manlowe.
“Natives often have names like snake weed, or scorpion weed,” he said, “but many are beautiful, like the silver saw palmetto that can be a lovely feature in the right place.”
Natives for Your Garden
Planting natives attracts butterflies and birds who call Florida home – even if they are just visiting. To attract butterflies, you want larval plants for the caterpillar stage, and nectar plants for adults. Each butterfly prefers a certain plant. The showy swallowtail butterfly likes native magnolias and sweet bay, while Florida’s state butterfly, the zebra longwing, and the bright orange Gulf fritillary (often mistaken for monarchs) are drawn to native passion flower vines. (The red-flowered variety is toxic to their caterpillars, so stick to the purple.) That legendary traveler, the monarch, dotes on native Florida milkweed for its babies, which devour the plant – but not to worry, they do come back. For birds, beauty berry, elderberry and other native berries will bring robins and others traveling south for the winter.
To learn more about native plants suited to our area, visit the Pinellas Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society.