When we go through dry periods in North Florida some residents become interested in drought-tolerant plants to include in their landscapes. The need for irrigation can be reduced when drought-tolerant plants are used. But don’t overuse these plants. Remember we have periods of rainy weather, too.
Gulf Muhly Grass in Flower. Photo credit: Larry Williams
Some drought-tolerant plants have poor tolerance to the other extreme – too much water. There are a few plants that can tolerate both extremes but they are the exception. Avoid using drought-tolerant plants on naturally wet or poorly drained sites. But if you have the typical deep sandy well drained soil Florida is famous for, you’d do well to include some drought-tolerant plants on your site.
Drought-tolerant plants are especially well suited for areas that receive little to no irrigation.
Some plants are genetically better able to withstand drought. They have a built-in tolerance of drought. Many of our Florida native plants are designed to grow in our poor water holding sandy soils. Many of the plants native to arid areas of the world possess high drought-tolerance. These plants have characteristics that allow them to better survive dry weather. These features include thicker or waxier leaves, large surface root areas or deep roots and the ability to drop leaves in drought and regain them when moisture is adequate.
Beautyberry with fruit. Photo credit: Larry Williams
It’s important to realize that these plants must first establish a root system before they can cope with severe dry weather. Plan to irrigate during dry periods for the first season to allow them to become established.
Some outstanding trees to consider include crape myrtle, redbud, Chinese pistache, cedar (Cedrus species), hawthorn (Crataegus species), American holly, yaupon holly, Southern red cedar (Juniperus species), Live oak, Sand live oak, winged elm, pond cypress and bald cypress. Some people are surprised to learn that pond cypress and bald cypress have high drought-tolerance because these trees are associated with swamps, many times growing in standing water. But once established on a dry site, they exhibit very good drought-tolerance.
Some outstanding shrubs with drought-tolerance include glossy abelia, dwarf yaupon holly, Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis species), beauty berry (Callicarpa americana), pineapple guava, junipers, oleander, spiraea, blueberry or sparkleberry (Vaccinium species), viburnum, Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) and coontie (Zamia pumila).
Pineapple guava in bloom. Photo credit: Larry Williams
Some outstanding drought-tolerant groundcovers to consider include beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis), daylily, juniper, lantana, liriope, rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides), Asiatic jasmine and society garlic. Many of the ornamental grasses such as Gulf muhly are good choices as well.
For more ideas on developing a Florida-friendly, water wise landscape, contact the UF/IFAS Extension Office in your County or visit the below website. https://ffl.ifas.ufl.edu/index.html
In times like these, it seems that our own perceived “problems” pale in comparison to the “big picture.” In my day-to-day work, I have the opportunity to help people solve problems with their landscapes, lawns and gardens. I enjoy the problem solving part of my job as an extension agent.
Winter annual weeds in lawn in early spring. Photo credit: Larry Williams
You’d be surprised how upset some people can be about a few weeds, a dying petunia or a tomato with a crack in it. They’ll let small things like this upset their entire world. It’s as if they think we live in a perfect world when it comes to expectations for the plants in their own landscape.
It has become apparent to me that too many people spend too much time letting too many small things bother them too much.
When my twin sister, Linda, and I were growing up in a small town in middle Georgia, an elderly couple (Mr. and Mrs. Hunt) would crack pecans and give the shelled halves to us to eat. They’d hand the shelled pecans to us over the fence that separated our yards. At five or six years old this was a treat for my sister and me.
I remember their landscape. I remember Mrs. Hunt sweeping their dirt driveway lined with coconut sized rocks. She used handmade brooms. I remember their pink flowering dogwoods in spring. I remember their old-fashioned yellow and orange daylilies during summer. I remember the fascination of seeing red spider lilies seemingly come from nowhere in the fall underneath deciduous trees as they displayed their autumn colors. I remember Mrs. Hunt letting me smell a flower from a sweetshrub plant, which reminded me of sweet apples. The deep red blooms and dark green leaves of this shrub complemented the white wooden wall on the east side of their home.
Mulberry tree with fruit. Photo credit: Larry Williams
I remember climbing a large mulberry tree in their backyard and picking and eating the berries. I remember watching Mr. Hunt prune grapevines growing on an overhead trellis. I remember learning about the history of a ginkgo tree planted just outside a chicken pin in their side yard. I remember watching hummingbirds flying in and out of the reddish orange funnel-shaped blooms of a large trumpet vine growing on an old metal frame of a water tank.
I don’t remember the weeds, even though I know there must have been weeds in the Hunt’s landscape. I know there was the occasional pecan that didn’t fill out or that was worm infested. And I’m sure an occasional plant had to be replaced. But these are not the things that made lasting impressions for me.
The big picture is not the weeds, the dying petunia plant or the pecan with a worm in it. Sure you will have weeds in your yard and certain plants that don’t survive. Just don’t let these things become the source of worry. In my opinion, a landscape should be a source of pleasure, a place to learn and a place to pass along lasting memories. Besides, with all the things there are to worry about in this world (as recent days have revealed), why let your own backyard be one of them?
Article by Dr. Gary Knox, Professor of Environmental Horticulture at the UF/IFAS NFREC Quincy
Rhizomatous begonias are a large group of Begonia species, hybrids and selections characterized by large, sometimes-colorful leaves arising from thick rhizomes that grow along the soil surface. White or pink flower clusters that appear in late winter and spring are an extra bonus with these plants. Some types can be used in north Florida as herbaceous perennials that add bold leaf texture and color as well as flowers to shady gardens.
Begonia mass planting
Common rhizomatous begonias such as Begonia nelumbiifolia, ‘Erythrophylla’ (“Beefsteak”), and ‘Ricinifolia’ have long been grown outdoors in south and central Florida gardens as herbaceous perennials. North of these areas, rhizomatous begonias were considered cold sensitive and thus used strictly as pot-grown plants grown indoors or protected over winter. Nonetheless, north Florida trials testing the performance of outdoor, in-ground plantings started in Tallahassee and Gainesville as long ago as the late 1980s and early 1990s. With the proven success of some rhizomatous begonias in north Florida, interest in these plants increased rapidly in the early 2000s. Since then, savvy north Florida gardeners have been delighted by the possibility of using rhizomatous begonias as interesting herbaceous perennials for the shade garden. While temperatures below freezing can damage or kill leaves, these plants will usually produce new leaves from the rhizomes once warmer temperatures return in spring.
Plant Description Under North Florida Conditions
Leaves of rhizomatous begonias are this plant’s most distinctive feature and are why this group is so appealing to gardeners. Leaves often are large, from a few inches wide to almost 3 ft. in diameter (as reported for the cultivar ‘Freddie’ under the right conditions). Leaf shape may be rounded, star-shaped or irregularly edged, and leaf colors include burgundy, red, bronze, chartreuse, silver, and various shades of green including one so dark as to be almost black. Many types have leaves displaying patterns of one or more colors and some have silver or red markings. Undersides of leaves are often burgundy-colored, and leaf stems (petioles) also may exhibit colors other than or in addition to green. Leaves may be smooth, textured, or fuzzy-appearing due to large numbers of sometimes conspicuous hairs. Some types have leaves with an interesting three-dimensional spiral located on top of the leaf where the leaf blade attaches to the stem.
Begonia ‘Big Mac’ foliage
Rhizomatous begonia rhizomes are thickened, fleshy stems 1 to 2 in. or more in diameter that grow, branch and spread horizontally at or just below the soil surface, often in the mulch or leaf duff. Adventitious roots develop along the rhizome, and dormant buds embedded in the horizontal stem can be stimulated to grow new leaves after damage, stress or when divided. With age, as rhizomes grow outward, the oldest part of the rhizome will stop producing leaves and eventually die.
The rhizomes contain water and food reserves that allow this type of begonia to survive environmental stresses like drought as well as leaf loss or damage from cold temperatures. Shoots and roots can grow from the rhizome even if leaves and roots are killed or damaged.
Flowers occur in late winter to spring, depending on the species, cultivar and weather, and are quite showy on some selections. Flowers typically are white to various shades of pink and occur in a cluster (technically called a cyme) held above the foliage, in some cases dramatically high above the foliage. Individual flowers may range in size from 3/8-inch to over 2 inches at their widest point and a flower cluster may contain a few to over 120 individual flowers, depending on selection and growing conditions. A mature rhizomatous begonia may have an extended period of flowering, providing weeks of color. This long floral display results from large numbers of flowers developing sequentially on an individual flower cluster such that new flowers are still forming long after the first flowers have opened. Furthermore, multiple flower clusters appear over an extended time period. Flowers occasionally are pollinated and form winged seed capsules, though seed production and viability are variable. After flowering, the leaves remain a point of interest in the garden due to their size, lush appearance, interesting shapes and colorful patterns.
Cultural Requirements, Use and Maintenance
Rhizomatous begonias grow best in light shade or indirect light but can tolerate morning sun. Plants thrive in rich, organic, well-drained soil that is moist but not wet. A layer of organic mulch or leaf litter often is enough to provide basic conditions for growth in most soils if they are well-drained. Accordingly, organic mulches or leaf litter should be applied regularly around plants. Fertilizer stimulates growth but decomposing organic mulches can provide adequate nutrients, except perhaps with poor or sandy soils.
Newly planted begonias should be watered regularly. After establishment, most rhizomatous begonias benefit from regular watering but only require irrigation during periods of drought or extended dry weather.
An individual plant makes an attractive specimen plant in a container or in the garden. With time, a rhizomatous begonia can spread and, in the garden, develop into a patch. Alternatively, planting large numbers of the same rhizomatous begonia can create a very dramatic garden border, mass planting, or groundcover, especially in spring when all plants are flowering. To achieve this effect more rapidly and with smaller numbers of plants, tips of rhizomes can be pruned to stimulate rhizome branching and result in a denser plant or patch. Rhizome tip pruning should be done after plants finish flowering. Plants can be divided and moved easily since only the rhizome is needed to establish a new plant, but this should occur after flowering and early in the growing season so plants have long enough to establish before cold weather.
For aesthetic purposes, dead or damaged leaves may be removed as needed but especially after frosts and hard freezes. Similarly, leaves that overwinter often become “ratty” in appearance with time and may be removed without affecting plant growth.
Rhizomatous begonias have few pests or other problems. Mealy bugs can occasionally infest plants. As with other large-leaved plants, wind or physical contact can tear and damage leaves. In north Florida, winter frosts and freezes can damage and disfigure leaves or kill leaves entirely, causing them to lose structural integrity and collapse, appearing mushy. Foliage may be protected during cold weather by frost cloth, sheets or other typical cold protection strategies, though heavy coverings could themselves damage leaves.
Rhizomes themselves usually survive cold weather because they are insulated from low temperatures by being half-buried in the ground and/or being covered by mulch. Adding mulch regularly to rhizomatous begonia plants will provide increased freeze-protection. Also, their typical planting location under tree canopies protects plants from a radiation freeze. Soil drainage is a more important factor for rhizomes since wet soil conditions could lead to rot, particularly in winter.
Common Types and their Descriptions Under North Florida Conditions
With hundreds of species and thousands of cultivars and hybrids, rhizomatous begonias can be overwhelming. Many rhizomatous begonias look alike and even experts have difficulty distinguishing species and cultivars. Many grown in north Florida have their origins in Mexico, Central and South America, though the Begonia Family is huge and species are found nearly world-wide.
Technically rhizomatous begonias include Rex begonias, a group derived from Asian native, Begonia rex, and known for their especially colorful leaves. However, most Rex begonias do not grow well in Florida’s heat, high rainfall and high humidity, and so these begonias are excluded here.
Begonias listed below represent types that have proven resilient and usually cold hardy in north Florida USDA Cold Hardiness Zone 8b.
Begonia heracleifolia: The species boasts star-shaped leaves up to 6 in. across on stiff, hairy, thick leaf stems (petioles) up to 5 in. long. Each of the pointed leaf lobes is edged in dark green and has a chartreuse stripe along the central midrib, adding contrast. Spectacular sprays of pale pink flowers appear in late winter in clusters measuring 3 ½ in. by 4 ½ in. on 6-in. flower stalks (pedicels). Each cluster contains about 30 or more flowers, each about 1 in. across. As the season goes on, foliage gets showier and showier. It often dies down after winter freezes but re-emerges in late spring.
- nelumbiifolia: This cold hardy begonia is known for its exceptionally large, water lotus-shaped leaves, creating a stunning specimen. Individual leaves can grow as large as 18 in. by 14 in. on leaf stems as long as 36 in. but 12 in. by 9 in. leaves are more typical. As temperatures warm, new developing foliage continues to get bigger, growing into very large leaves by fall. There also is a form in which the medium green leaves have red veining. White flowers are displayed above the foliage in mid to late spring in airy clusters measuring 7 ½ in. to more than 12 in. across on stems up to 48 in. tall. Clusters may contain as many as an astounding 120 flowers, each about ¾ in. across at its widest point.
2. popenoei: Huge rounded leaves with red veins and undersides make this a specimen plant which can grow to 3 ½ ft. tall and wide. Hardy with protection, it throws up tall stalks with clusters of white flowers in late winter.
“Beefsteak”: This catch-all name refers to the original beefsteak begonia, ‘Erythrophylla’, as well as many derivatives that look similar. Beefsteak begonias characteristically have rounded leaves with a glossy green to bronze top surface and reddish undersides. Leaves range in size from 4 to 7 in. in diameter, and flower clusters are on stems up to 18 in. tall. ‘Erythrophylla’ was developed in 1847 and is considered a tough, vigorous plant, hence the common name, “beefsteak”. Given the long history and vigor, ‘Erythrophylla’ and derivative beefsteak begonias have long been shared as pass-along plants, world-wide as potted plants and later as an in-ground Florida garden plant. One type has ruddy, evergreen leaves and long-lasting, bold pink flower clusters. The scalloped 4-in leaves are on short 5 ½ in. reddish leaf stems but are most notable for remaining undamaged by temperatures down to the mid 20s °F, long after all other begonias’ leaves have turned to mush. Mid spring finds this plant topped by numerous clusters of dark pink flowers, with the display lasting 6 weeks or more. Individual clusters are about 8 in. by 5 in. on flower stems about 12 in. tall. Each cluster contains about 20 flowers each about ¾ in. wide at its widest point.
Begonia ‘Big Mac’ in flower
‘Big Mac’: This is a large, vigorous plant with enormous star-shaped leaves having reddish undertones and red leaf stems. The plant grows about 3 ft. tall and 2 ft. wide. Individual leaves may grow up to 18 in. wide on 16-in. leaf stems but typical leaves on younger plants are 10 in. to 12 in. wide. Individual white flowers are an amazing 2 in. wide at their widest point in clusters measuring 7 in. by 12 in. and containing about 75 flowers. Cold winters will knock it to the ground, but this begonia re-emerges again in late spring. This plant was hybridized in 1982 by Paul P. Lowe in Lake Park, Florida.
‘Joe Hayden’: This begonia features dramatic, dark, lobed leaves with burgundy undersides. Leaves are up to 8 in. long supported by leaf stems up to 9 in. long. In spring, the plant is topped by light pink flowers held high above the foliage. Each cluster measures about 5 in. by 7 in. on flower stems up to 26 in. tall. Each cluster contains more than 100 individual flowers, each about ¾ in. across at its widest point. This selection was hybridized in California in 1953 by Rudolf Ziesenhenne, but many similar selections have been made and are often confused with ‘Joe Hayden’.
Begonia ‘Joe Hayden’
Many other cultivars are common, but other cold hardy types suitable for north Florida include ‘Caribbean King’, ‘Caribbean Queen’, ‘Washington State’ and the catch-all ‘Ricinifolia’ types (with large, castor bean-shaped leaves). New breeding by scientists and enthusiasts promises to deliver many more types of rhizomatous begonias with increased foliage cold hardiness and an expanded range of foliage types and colors. A major Texas nursery introduced a series of rhizomatous begonia hybrids marketed as Crown Jewel Begonia™. The series currently features five patent-pending cultivars that are promoted as landscape plants for Zone 8. Additional breeding work is ongoing in north Florida.
Availability and Propagation
Rhizomatous begonias are available from Internet/mail order nurseries, some American Begonia Society members, other gardening groups, and plant societies. The introduction of trademarked rhizomatous begonias like Crown Jewel Begonia™ show promise for wider availability of rhizomatous begonias from nurseries.
Rhizomatous begonias are easily propagated by division, separation of rhizomes, or by rhizome pieces. When planting, place the rhizome or pieces (as small as 2 in. long) horizontally and half buried in a new in-ground location or in a container with potting soil. As with other begonia species, leaves may be used for propagation, though this method usually takes longer to achieve a size suitable for planting in the garden. Plants can be grown from seeds but production time is similarly long.
American Begonia Society. (2020) https://www.begonias.org/index.htm. Accessed 15 April 2020.
Ginori, Julian, Heqiang Huo, and Caroline R. Warwick. (2020) A Beginner’s Guide to Begonias: Classification and Diversity, ENH1317. Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Extension. January 2020. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep581.
Lowe, Paul. (1991) Growing Rhizomatous Begonias in the Ground in Southern Florida. Begonian 58:89. May/June 1991. https://www.begonias.org/Articles/Vol58/GrowingRhizomatousBegoniasFlorida.htm.
Schoellhorn, R. (2020) Personal communication, Alachua, FL.
Sharp, Peter G. (2011) Down to Earth – with begonias. 111 pp. http://ibegonias.filemakerstudio.com.au/PeterSharp/DownToEarthWithBegonias.pdf.
The International Database of the BEGONIACEAE. (2020) http://ibegonias.filemakerstudio.com.au/index.php?-link=Home. Accessed 16 April 2020.
UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions. (2019) Begonias. http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/begonias.html.
Watkins, Sue. (2020) Personal communication, Tallahassee, FL.
The Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) has always been a favorite tree since it is associated with my childhood home in Tennessee. I always enjoyed the evergreen leaves and large white flowers. In my parent’s yard, the southern magnolia had branches to the ground that allowed the large leaves to stay hidden in a self- mulching area. I never recall the tree begin called messy because of this growth style.
A Southern Magnolia in a Tennessee winter. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County
Many landscapes today may not have room for a southern magnolia that can grow an average of 60 feet in height with an average spread of 25 feet. Because it’ qualities are still desirable, nursery professionals have developed southern magnolia cultivars that are very popular as landscape features due to different growth habits, leaf sizes, and hardiness to our area’s weather. Although the cultivars will be different from the old favorite southern magnolia in growth form and size, homeowners should still do their homework to make sure trees are located in spots for plants to reach proper height and width growth. Also, like I mentioned for my parent’s tree, many of the new cultivars look best if the lower limbs are not removed.
If you or your landscaper are considering a Southern magnolia cultivar, here are a few details about some you may find available.
‘Little Gem’ dwarf southern magnolia has been the go-to magnolia for new landscapes. The dark green leaves are smaller and the plant will be more compact than the traditional southern magnolia. It is often misplaced in landscapes because of these features. Trees still grow about 25 feet high with a spread of 15 feet.
‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ is a very attractive magnolia when given room to grow. Foliage is very attractive with shiny green above and brown on the undersides. This plant can grow 40 to 50 feet in height with a spread averaging 20 feet. Plan not to prune lower limbs to maintain a beautiful form.
Bracken’s Brown Beauty as an accent tree in a lawn area. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County
Bracken’s Brown Beauty flower. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County
‘Southern Charm’ magnolia, registered as Teddy Bear is also a compact plant. It grows upright to about 20 feet with a spread about 15. You still have the beautiful green and brown leaf color along with 6 inch wide flowers.
Gardeners are always fighting the endless weeds that pop up in landscape and flower beds. When homeowners put in a new landscape bed and want to prevent future weed invasions, many think that putting down landscape fabric is a great way to keep the weeds from emerging and protect the newly planted trees, shrubs or perennials.
An example of failure of landscape fabric to control weeds less than 2 years after planting. Note the peeking through at the edges. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF/IFAS Extension.
Is Landscape fabric a good choice? Why or why not?
If landscape fabric is not covered up, sunlight will degrade the fabric. When mulch is placed on top of the fabric (and we all do want to cover it up – the fabric is not very attractive) the mulch breaks down into soil. Inevitably, weed seeds blow in and settle and germinate and grow on top of landscape fabric. And here you are with a weed problem. Weeds also find their way into the openings cut for desirable plants and along the edge of the fabric.
Landscape fabric is porous when put in place to allow water to pass through, but as time passes, the pores can get clogged and water penetration is restricted – rain and irrigation runs off and the plants you meant to protect are not getting the water they need.
Maybe the worst effect is that the landscape fabric creates unfavorable soil conditions. A healthy soil is key to good plant health. One thing soil needs to have is an exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen between the soil and the atmosphere. Recent studies from Washington State University demonstrated that gas movement between the soil and the atmosphere is restricted about 1,000 times more when landscape fabric is present than when areas have only wood mulch.
So, if landscape fabric is not a good choice, what is?
Mulch made from wood, bark, fallen leaves and pine needles. See Gardening Solutions: Mulch for sustainable ideas.
For more information:
Improving Weed Control in Landscape Planting Beds
More and more homeowners are incorporating edible plants into their home landscape in order to enjoy the fresh taste of fruits and vegetables. Another trend to consider this coming cool season is to start a few common flowers that can serve as flavor enhancements for many of your dishes.
There are numerous plants that we commonly grow that have edible flowers but before striking out on your first taste test, be sure to research first. Always remember the common saying that every flower is edible once. Find a reputable reference guide from a friendly neighborhood Extension office for a list of common edible flowers, then be ready to start from seeds. It is best not to purchase transplants from an ornamental nursery unless you are sure of all the treatments for that plants. Nurseries are often selling these for beauty alone, not with intention that they will be eaten.
Here are a few edible flowers to try:
Pot marigold or Calendula is a wonderful cool season flower on its own. Brightly colored orange or yellow flowers improve the drab colors of our cool season and plants are sturdy annuals for borders, mass plantings, or in containers. Petals have a peppery flavor and add spice to salads and sandwiches. You may also add flowers to soups, fishes and butters for added coloring. Calendula petals can be a saffron substitute.
Calenduala is easily started from seeds and will reseed in your garden once established. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
The well known dianthus is a great transition plant as our days cool and warm up again the spring. Use as front of the border plantings or in containers as a filler. When harvesting petals of dianthus, you will want to remove the white petal base which is a little bitter. The flavor is a little more delicate than cloves so you can add petals to punches, desserts, and fruit salads.
If you like a little more spice, try nasturtiums. We often plant these after the last frost and they grow until we get too hot. Since our fall weather is so unpredictable, you may be able to start some seeds for a fall planting and have flowers before our first cold spell. Either way, nasturtium flowers are often sliced for salads and sandwiches as a mustard or pepper substitute. You can also mince flowers to add to a butter. If you let some flowers go to seed, collect the unripe seeds to make a caper substitute vinegar.
Grow nasturiums during our transition times of spring and fall. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
If you are going to use edible flowers from your garden remember to keep all non food labeled pesticides away from plants. Harvest flowers at their peak after the dew dries. Separate petals from other flower parts and if you have allergies be sure to remove any pollen. Place flowers in a moist towel in the refrigerator if you will not use them immediately. Rinse carefully so not to damage tender petals.
There are many other ornamental plants that offer edible flowers you may want to consider growing in the future. These flowers not only enhance the look of the dish but can offer unique flavoring from a locally grown source – your own backyard.