American fringetree Chionanthus virginicus), a native deciduous small tree with delicate blooms in spring. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF/IFAS Extension.
January and February are ideal months for adding a tree or two to your landscape in the Florida panhandle. In the cooler weather, the ground stays moist for a longer time, which helps prevent drought stress and the drying out of the rootball. Also, the winds are generally milder, and the tree will have a chance to get established and anchored in before the wilder winds of summer roll in.
Before investing time and money in a tree, take a few minutes and be sure that the species you choose is right for your particular landscape.
Here are some things to consider:
- Whether the area can accommodate the ultimate size of the tree, both height and width, and not grow into overhead wires, streetlights, or your house.
- Are there any underground utilities or septic? A call to 811 can check on where your utilities are.
- The hardiness zone for the tree. Be aware that zone 8 or 9 in the western United States is a different climate with respect to moisture than the same zone 8 or 9 in Florida.
- Whether the tree can thrive in your soil – sandy, loam or clay, loose or compacted, high and dry, or wet and low.
- The amount of sun it requires.
- Whether you want native species that provide food and habitat for native birds and animals.
- Salt-tolerance if located on the coast.
- Wind tolerance, especially if located on the coast. Many fast-growing trees are brittle and susceptible to breakage.
- Whether you prefer an evergreen or deciduous tree. Evergreen trees, like hollies, provide a natural screen all year while some deciduous trees, like maple and bald cypress, provide fall color.
- Is the tree messy, dropping large seed pods, fruit, or leaves?
- The color and shape of leaves and flowers and other ornamental qualities.
- Whether the tree species has known disease or pest issues.
Florida red anise (Illicium floridanum), a small tree/large shrub for shady locations. Photo credit: Mary Salinas UF/IFAS Extension.
Once you choose what species of tree you will add to your landscape, here’s information on Selecting Quality Trees from the Nursery.
Optimum tree health and vigor also depends on the correct methods of Planting and Establishing Trees.
And this site has even more comprehensive information on trees and shrubs: University of Florida/IFAS Landscape Plants.
Lately, to survive in Panhandle landscapes, plants must be able to tolerate extremes. Summertime temperatures over 100 degrees F, hurricane force winds up to 150 mph, deluges of 1’ of rain in a single day, spring and fall month-long droughts, and the wild winter weather swings we’re experiencing right now. That’s quite a tall order for most plants to bear, however one of our best native trees handles all of the above conditions with relative ease, the stately Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). Though Bald Cypress primarily inhabits flatwood “dome” swamps and areas along the periodically flooded edges of waterways and other wetlands and most folks think of it as just “water tree”, the species is more than capable of handling anything Florida’s climate can throw at it, including thriving in home landscapes.
Bald Cypress in mid-January. Notice the excellent branching structure and the buttressed lower trunk. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
While there are lots of pretty trees in the Panhandle’s natural areas, not many of them possess the longevity, adaptability and well-behaved nature that makes Bald Cypress a great landscape tree. Bald Cypress are capable of living for hundreds of years and grow steadily to a normal landscape height of 50-60’, truly perfect for a specimen shade tree. The species also possesses a strong, wide spreading root system and a special above ground root adaptation, known colloquially as “knees”, that enable Cypress to reach deep to outlast droughts, grow unfazed even when the water rises, inhabit many different soil types, and resist hurricane force winds. While some homeowners object to the presence of Cypress knees in their yard, as the above ground structures can damage mower blades and make for uneven terrain, I’ve found an easy solution is to simply keep the area under the tree’s canopy mulched and forgo mowing there altogether. It looks nice and means less grass to cut!
Bald Cypress isn’t just a big, tough, adaptable tree, it’s also gorgeous. The bright green, finely cut, featherlike leaves give the trees an airy appearance in the spring and summer, nicely offsetting common coarse textured yard trees like Magnolia, Sycamore, Red Maple, and others. However, it is in the fall and winter when Bald Cypress really shines. Though Florida is not known for its fall foliage, Cypress is a notable exception! When the weather gets cool, Bald Cypress leaves transition from green to a yellowish orange before finally arriving at a beautifully unique, rusty, orange-brown color. There isn’t another species out there with a similar show. The foliage holds deep into winter before finally falling to reveal the attractive branching structure, sweeping buttressed lower trunk, and peely gray bark underneath, completing the four-season show.
Bald Cypress foliage on December 31, 2020. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
In addition to being a near perfect landscape tree, Bald Cypress embodies much of what folks admire about life in the South, living the slow life near the water and enduring everything that’s thrown at it with grace and strength. Other than possibly the Live Oak, Bald Cypress is the tree that comes to mind first when I think about the tree that most represents where we come from. From their majestic, buttressed trunks, to the Spanish Moss that hangs loose from their limbs, to the slow, dark water than meanders nearby, the species is iconically Southern. When looking for an impossibly tough, adaptable, and attractive tree, one could do a whole lot worse than Bald Cypress.
If you have any questions about Bald Cypress, other landscape tree options, or any horticultural topic, please reach out to your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy gardening!
Native yaupon holly with bright red winter berries. Photo credit: Larry Williams
Holly plants are sometimes associated with Christmas. Their dark evergreen leaves and bright red berries fit right in with the Christmas Season. Some people intentionally plant hollies for the purpose of eventually using this desirable combination of green and red to create a more festive Holiday Season. But what if your hollies never produce berries?
The reason may be because you have a male plant. Male holly plants never produce berries. Holly plants are either male or female. The botanical term for this is dioecious. If a male plant is selected, it will produce male flowers and pollen but never set fruit.
One way to know that you’ve selected a female holly is by purchasing a plant with berries. However, you still will need a male plant nearby or no berries will be produced. Generally one male plant is adequate to insure pollination and good fruit set of berries on all female plants in a landscape. Your next-door neighbor may have a male holly plant that would serve as a pollinator for your hollies. Pollen produced by male flowers is transported by bees from distances up 2 miles. And because we are blessed with a number of native hollies in North Florida, chances are good that there will be a male holly within the appropriate distance in the wild to take care of the pollination.
The holly genus (Ilex) offers a terrific variety of plants from which to choose. Some horticulturists estimate that there are about 700 species worldwide. And there are a great number of cultivated varieties! When selecting a holly for your landscape, it is important to know that most dwarf holly cultivars don’t produce fruit as they are propagated by cuttings from male plants. Not all hollies have spiny leaves. For example, many of the Japanese hollies (Ilex crenata) have spineless leaves. There are hollies that grow tall, eventually making a tree. There are dwarf hollies that grow to only three to five feet in height. There are hollies with variegated leaves. And even though most hollies are evergreen, there are a few deciduous hollies that make nice additions to North Florida landscapes such as Ilex ambigua (Ambiguous Winterberry) and Ilex decidua (Possumhaw holly). Some hollies produce bright red berries but berry color varies from red, orange, yellow and even black or white, depending on variety. There are weeping forms available such as the weeping yaupon holly. There are those that have a very narrow, upright growth habit.
For more info on this diverse and interesting group of plants, visit the below UF/IFAS Extension webpage.
The blackgum/tupelo tree begins changing leaf color in early fall. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Florida isn’t necessarily known for its vibrant fall foliage, but if you know where to look this time of year, you can find some amazing scenery. In late fall, the river swamps can yield beautiful fall leaf color. The shades are unique to species, too, so if you like learning to identify trees this is one of the best times of the year for it. Many of our riparian (river floodplain) areas are dominated by a handful of tree species that thrive in the moist soil of wetlands. Along freshwater creeks and rivers, these tend to be bald cypress, blackgum/tupelo, and red maple. Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is also common, but its leaves stay green, with a silver-gray underside visible in the wind.
The classic “swamp tree” shape of a cypress tree is due to its buttressed trunk, an adaptation to living in wet soils. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one of the rare conifers that loses its leaves. In the fall, cypress tress will turn a bright rust color, dropping all their needles and leaving a skeletal, upright trunk. Blackgum/tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) trees have nondescript, almost oval shaped leaves that will turn yellow, orange, red, and even deep purple, then slowly drop to the swamp floor. Blackgums and cypress trees share a characteristic adaptation to living in and near the water—wide, buttressed trunks. This classic “swamp” shape is a way for the trees to stabilize in the mucky, wet soil and moving water. Cypresses have the additional root support of “knees,” structures that grow from the roots and above the water to pull in oxygen and provide even more support.
A red maple leaf displaying its incredible fall colors. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The queen of native Florida fall foliage, however, is the red maple (Acer rubrum) . Recognizable by its palm-shaped leaves and bright red stem in the growing season, its fall color is remarkable. A blazing bright red, sometimes fading to pink, orange, or streaked yellow, these trees can jump out of the landscape from miles away. A common tree throughout the Appalachian mount range, it thrives in the wetter soils of Florida swamps.
To see these colors, there are numerous beautiful hiking, paddling, and camping locations nearby, particularly throughout Blackwater State Forest and the recreation areas of Eglin Air Force Base. But even if you’re not a hiker, the next time you drive across a bridge spanning a local creek or river, look downstream. I guarantee you’ll be able to see these three tree species in all their fall glory.
In the Panhandle, fall is the prettiest season for wildflowers. Our roadsides and woodlands are covered with pinks, whites, yellows, blues, purples, and even a little red here and there. Pretty as it may be, the beautiful wildflower look isn’t super appropriate for most yards. It would look unkempt, a little “wild” if you will, would be hard to manage and is probably best enjoyed in natural areas. However, we can bring some of the native colors of fall into our landscapes in a much lower maintenance, refined manner with two Panhandle species that pair excellently together, Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and Darrow’s Blueberry (Vaccineum darrowii).
Muhly Grass and Darrow’s Blueberry in a local landscape. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
Muhly Grass, the native grass with the pinkish/purple panicles blooming right now, has gained much popularity in recent years, earning a reputation as a near pest/disease free, drought tolerant, attractive landscape plant. Operating in lieu of more traditional low growing shrubs in landscapes, Muhly is an airy, greenish gray bunch grass growing about 3-4’ tall and wide, lending informal, coastal texture to landscapes most of the year and really shining in fall during its flowering season. Once established, it never needs extra water, prefers little fertilizer, and only needs a rejuvenation prune (or burn – the Leonard preferred method. It’s fun and mimics the role of fire in Muhly’s native ecosystems!) every couple of years to keep it looking tidy.
Unlike Muhly Grass, Darrow’s Blueberry has not caught on broadly in the landscape industry but is no less deserving. This native blueberry species only grows a couple of feet tall, produces edible fruit that wildlife enjoy, and adds an unusual blue green color to landscapes via its tiny-leaved, evergreen foliage. It prefers the same sites as Muhly and is part of the reason they pair so well together. Our mostly sandy, well drained soils work just fine, but both plants can handle soils that are occasionally wet. A bonus, Darrow’s also has tiny, bell shaped flowers in spring that attract all manner of beneficial bee species. This makes it a must in any native pollinator garden!
As good as these species are alone, I think they are better together. In my family’s yard, we created a loose screen of widely spaced (8’ apart) Muhly Grass specimens around a pool, in the spirit of giving the area a “coastal” airy feel, and interspersed Darrow’s Blueberry in between.
The pink Muhly Grass flowers pair nicely with the green blue foliage of Darrow’s Blueberry. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
The look has been outstanding, particularly in the late summer/early fall. The pinky purple flowers of Muhly Grass complement the green-blue foliage of the blueberries nicely and provide easy, lasting color without having to worry about planting finicky annuals or perennials each season.
Landscaping with natives does not have to look wild and unkempt, nor does it have to be drab and unattractive. Combining native yet showy plants like Darrow’s Blueberry and Muhly Grass makes for an unusual, refined, nearly no-maintenance feature in your landscape. Look for these and other neat native plants at native nurseries and independent garden centers around the Panhandle. If you’d like more information on native grasses, blueberries or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office! Happy Gardening!
Stoke’s aster ‘Mel’s Blue’ 20 days after Hurricane Sally’s landfall. Notice how soil was washed away from root ball, all the leaves emerged post-hurricane. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF/IFAS Extension.
Hurricanes can wreak havoc in your landscape, but they can also reveal what plants are the toughest and most resilient. It’s a great learning opportunity.
A few weeks ago, Hurricane Sally came along and brought about 10 feet of surge and waves across my landscape and completely covered everything except the tallest trees for about 18 hours. (Fortunately, our house is on stilts and we did not have intrusion into our main living areas.)
As expected, the trees, including Dahoon Holly and Sweetbay Magnolia, took a beating but stayed intact. With their dense fibrous root system, most of the clumping native grasses also stayed put.
Perennial milkweed 3 weeks post-hurricane. New topsoil and compost now covers the rootball. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF/IFAS Extension.
The most surprising plant species that survived were about a dozen Stoke’s aster and 3 perennial milkweed. 4-5 inches of soil all around them was washed away, most of the roots were exposed, and the leaves were stripped or dead. The other perennials that had lived nearby were all washed away. To my surprise, within about 10 days after the storm, these two plant species started poking up new stems and leaves.
Here’s a list of some of the plants either in my yard or in the neighborhood that survived Hurricane Sally’s storm surge and may be suitable to add to your coastal landscape:
- Dahoon holly, Ilex cassine
- Muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris
- Dwarf Fakahatchee grass, Tripsacum floridanum
- Perennial milkweed, Asclepias perennis
- Stoke’s aster, Stokesia laevis, specifically the cultivars ‘Mel’s Blue’ and ‘Divinity’
- Bottlebrush, Callistemon citrinus
- Gardenia, Gardenia jasminoides
- Bougainvillea, Bougainvillea spp.
- Flax Lily, Dianella tasmanica
- Crapemyrtle, Lagerstroemia spp.
- Cabbage palm, Sabal palmetto
- Canary Island date palm, Phoenix canariensis
- Sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana
- Augustinegrass, Stenotaphrum secundatum
- And, unfortunately, the rhizomes of the invasive torpedograss also survived.
For more information on salt tolerant and hurricane resistant plants, see:
UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions: Coastal Landscapes
UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions: Salt-tolerant Lawngrasses
UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions: Trees That Can Withstand Hurricanes