Azaleas are a beautiful shrub for the north Florida landscape, especially if pruned properly. Source: Larry Williams, UF/IFAS
The sight of azaleas in the north Florida spring just makes you feel good. They are so vibrant, and with such variation, that you can’t take your eyes off them. As an appreciator of these beautiful displays of color, nothing pains me more than to see an improperly pruned azalea during this time. If you must prune your azaleas, please, please only prune them once a year and only soon after flowering has ended! This public service announcement will hopefully ensure we all get to see the full azalea show. Otherwise, we’ll be left with mostly green hedges, some flowers uncomfortably tucked in the interior of the plants, or flowers poking out the sides like a middle-aged man’s balding head.
If pruned properly and at the right time, this azalea shrub would be a mass of flowers. Source: Mark Tancig, UF/IFAS.
The common flowering azaleas in landscaped settings are native to Japan and a relative of blueberries. They comprise many different hybrids, cultivars, and varieties of plants in the genus Rhododendron (Greek for rose-tree) and have been cultivated for centuries. Long ago, I’m sure, those who studied plants and tinkered with azaleas realized that their vegetative growth (new leaves and stems) ends soon after flower bud initiation. This means that later prunings, or multiple prunings throughout the year, will be taking off more developing flower buds than new leaf and stem growth.
To prevent depriving us all of less flowers, consider why – or if – they need pruning in the first place. Proper planning and planting can prevent azaleas, which naturally want to be a sprawling shrub, from growing into the sidewalk or driveway. If you’ve inherited azaleas that may be the right plant, but slightly in the wrong place, they can be heavily pruned every couple of years to keep them in check, and can even be transplanted. Azaleas are not a good choice for formal hedges. If given the right place and enough space, the only required pruning would be dead, diseased, or crossing branches.
If you decide you need to prune – whether to knock back for space or for general shape – only bust out the loppers once the flowers have withered on the ground… and then lock those loppers away so that you won’t be tempted. If you have landscapers working for you, remind them to keep the hedge trimmers away from the azaleas.
Azaleas are vibrant, even in black and white! Source: Florida State Archives, Florida Memory Project.
For the love of flowers, please prune azaleas thoughtfully, and share this information with others
P.S. We also have several species of native azaleas (including Rhododendron austrinum and Rhododendron canescens) that can be a beautiful addition to the landscape.
Fatsia japonica, common name Japanese aralia, provides tropical texture to your landscape. That coarse texture is attributed to its large (nearly a foot wide) leaves that are deeply lobed (maple leaf shaped). This shade-loving plant performs well in moist (not soggy) locations. Upright stems originate near ground level usually near the base of older stems. The stems grow to about eight feet tall before bending toward the ground under their own weight.
Even though the foliage of this species is enough to make you want it in your own garden, you will absolutely fall in love with its blooms. Upright clusters of showy, creamy white flowers begin to appear in fall. These little snowballs provide wonderful color to your garden. The shiny, black fruits appear in winter and are prominent for several weeks. The fruit are know to attract birds to the landscape.
A Fatsia japonica specimen in full bloom. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension
Fatsia japonica thrives in the shade in slightly acidic, nutrient-rich, moist soil. Older stems become leggy and can be cut back to encourage branching. In the right place, Fatsia japonica is low-maintenance and not typically bothered by pests. It is also known to perform well in coastal landscapes. It fits well in entryways, in containers, or in mass plantings spaced three feet apart.
One of my favorite native plants is winged sumac. I like this plant not only for its ornamental beauty, but also for its fruit that can be dried and used as seasoning and to make tea. So you can understand my concern when one of my prized winged sumac plants had distorted leaves.
Eriophyid mite damage on winged sumac. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County
After doing a little research and speaking with one of our UF/IFAS Specialists, I was able to determine that the leaf distortion was caused by eriophyid mites. Mites are not insects and are more closely related to spiders. They normally have four pairs of legs, however eriophyid mites only have two pairs of legs. They are microscopic, elongate, spindle-shaped, and translucent.
An eriophyid mite. Photo Credit: USDA, Agricultural Research Service.
Eriophyid mites cause galls (sometimes called witch’s broom) on various species of ornamental shrubs. Symptoms include early and late bud distortion, distorted leaves, and possibly plant death. In fact, the species Phyllocoptes fructiphilus is the vector for the viral disease of roses called Rose Rosette Disease. Sometimes the damage can be confused with herbicide damage.
Control options are currently being evaluated for eriophyid mites in the home landscape. Removing distorted plant material and removing it from the site can help prevent the spread of mites. If you suspect eriophyid mites are the cause of your distorted plants then samples should be collected. To collect samples: 1) Prune off symptomatic plant material and immediately place into a vial with rubbing alcohol; 2) label with collection date, plant species, and location; 3) mail to the Landscape Entomology Lab in Gainesville at P.O. Box 110620, Gainesville, FL 32611.
For more information on eriophyid mites and the sampling process, please see the fact sheet “Unusual Galls on Woody Ornamentals” from Erin Harlow and Dr. Adam Dale.
For more information on other mites that could be infesting your landscape, please go to this link from the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, FL.
American Beautyberry Fruit.
Photo credit: Larry Williams
American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) puts on quite a show during late summer and fall with its bright purple fruit. I have some of these plants in my landscape and they are beginning to show color now with their profusion of berry-like fruit found along the thin branches, resulting in the plant taking on a weeping habit.
Each fruit is only about 1/3 inch in diameter but collectively form roundish clusters that encircle the stems. The berries are particularly showy in September and October. They remain on the plant, even after its leaves have dropped, into early winter if not eaten by birds and other wildlife.
Many species of birds will eat beautyberry fruit including robins, cardinals, mockingbirds, brown thrashers, finches and towhees. Birds are a major method of seed dispersal for this plant.
One of my neighbors noticed my plants a number of years ago and commented, “I had never thought about using this plant in a landscape.” He grew up in Northwest Florida and had always been used to seeing American beautyberry plants growing in the wild as they are native. The plant is not well suited for manicured, formal landscapes but can be useful in a naturalized garden.
Even though I consider the showy fruit its best attribute, the small, lavender flowers tightly bunched together along the stems during June to August are attractive, as well.
American beautyberry is a deciduous shrub without much ornamental value during the winter. But during the growing season, its somewhat course, fuzzy, light-green leaves look good in a setting with other darker-leaved shrubs.
It grows well in part shade/part sun as an understory plant beneath larger trees such as pines and oaks.
Be sure to allow enough room for this sprawling shrub to develop into its mature size of three to eight feet in height with an equal spread.
It may also be used as an informal screen or even as a specimen plant. But avoid using it where it will require regular shearing as the flowers and fruit are produced on new growth.
Thinning out old or low-growing branches is a better method of pruning this plant. American beautyberry may self-seed but I have not seen this to be a bothersome problem.
America beautyberry is somewhat available in the nursery trade and is fairly easy to propagate from stem cuttings. It can be propagated from seeds, as well. In addition to the purple fruiting types, look for cultivars such as ‘Russell Montgomery’ that produce white fruit. There are also other nonnative species of Callicarpa worth looking at, such as C. dichotoma and C. japonica.
Each time I travel to central and south Florida and observe the wonderfully flamboyant tropical flora, I am reminded of the unique and frustrating climatic characteristics of Northwest Florida. Our weather is tropical enough through the summer to sustain virtually everything our friends to the south grow, but winters north of the Big Bend are just cold enough to prevent long-term success with most tropical species. However, the genus that is maybe most synonymous with tropical color, the Hibiscus (it even has its own texting emoji!), contains several species that are hardy through our winters. The best landscape plant of these hardy Hibiscus species is creatively (sarcasm) called Hardy Hibiscus or Giant Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) and is an absolute star in the Panhandle, bringing the beauty of the tropics to your yard!
Hibiscus ‘Starry Starry Night’ – Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard
Rose Mallow is a native perennial species that occurs in sunny wetlands across the eastern U.S. This species can grow 7-8’ in height in its natural, unimproved state and possesses the largest flowers of any hardy perennial, some varieties easily eclipse 12” in diameter. Rose Mallows bloom through the heat of our long summers and return reliably each winter unfazed by frost. The flowers also happen to be a favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds and bring beneficial wildlife to the landscape. These characteristics and the trend towards the use of pollinator friendly, low-maintenance native perennials in landscapes quickly made Rose Mallow a jewel for plant breeders and now virtually all major horticultural brands have a line of Hardy Hibiscus available at garden centers, in varying sizes, flower color and leaf color/form. Recent breeding efforts have focused on introducing plants with enormous, richly colored flowers held on compact plants with attractive foliage. The results have yielded two series and three individual cultivars that I consider superior selections and are more than worthy of inclusion in your garden:
- Summerific® Series by Proven Winners. This series is comprised of four robust (up to 5’ in height) cultivars, ‘Cherry Cheesecake’ (bicolor magenta and white flowers), ‘Berry Awesome’ (purplish lavender flowers), ‘Cranberry Crush’ (a red you really have to see to believe), and ‘Perfect Storm’ (notable for its deep purple foliage).
- Luna Series by Monrovia. This series is notable for its ultra-compact (3’ in height or less) size and characteristically large flowers. It is also composed of four cultivars, ‘Luna Red’ (deep red), ‘Luna Blush’ (white, fading to pink near flower margins), ‘Luna Pink Swirl’ (pictured and my favorite, bicolor swirly flowers), and ‘Luna White’ (white with a red center).
Hibiscus ‘Luna Pink Swirl’ – Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard
- ‘Starry Starry Night’ by Walter’s Gardens. (Pictured) This cultivar combines dark purple to black leaves with swirled pale and dark pink flowers. It has performed very well in my landscape and if I could only grow one, this might be it.
- ‘Lord Baltimore.’ The classic, large growing cultivar with bright red flowers that is widely available and easily found. An oldie (introduced in 1955) but a goodie.
- ‘Midnight Marvel’ by Walter’s Gardens. A “hot off the press” new cultivar that is currently difficult to find due to popularity, though some online outlets have them available in small sizes. This one is worth your patience. Sporting deep red blooms on near black foliage, there’s nothing else like it in the landscape.
In addition to being gorgeous plants, Rose Mallows are extremely versatile in the landscape and could not be easier to grow. Because the size varies so greatly (from the diminutive 30” tall ‘Luna’ series to the 8’ tall unimproved species), there really is a place for one in every garden. I like to use the smaller cultivars in large containers to facilitate moving them around where their floral display has the greatest impact or to create a tropical effect where in ground plantings are not an option (pool decks, patios, etc). The larger cultivars make spectacular specimen plantings in perennial and shrub beds and even make a really dense, striking hedge (just know they disappear in the winter). Be sure to give them as much sun as possible, as this will enhance the number of flowers on each plant and darken the foliage on the cultivars with purplish/black leaves. Too little sun will result in fewer flowers and lighter green foliage. As wetland plants, Rose Mallows enjoy regular water, either from rainfall or irrigation; they will let you know when they need it – their large leaves readily wilt under drought stress, somewhat like Hydrangea.
For low-maintenance, native, pollinator friendly, cold-hardy tropical color, you need look no further than Rose Mallow. These perennial shrubs come in all sizes and colors and fit any landscape! Look for the above listed series and cultivars at better garden centers and online retailers and enjoy the oohs and ahhs elicited when people first get a glimpse of Hardy Hibiscus in your landscape! Happy Gardening!
Mrs. Henry C. Mills in 1966 with her African violets at the North Florida Fair
flower show. Photo by Dan Stainer/State Archives of Florida.
Growing up, as soon as I entered the fair gates, I always headed straight for the rides. If I was lucky, I was able to get an unlimited pass strapped around my wrist and didn’t need to worry about rationing any tickets. Although I usually didn’t remember the names of particular rides – they were clear in my imagination. The spaceship, the circular mini roller coaster, the alien arms… and of course, the Ferris wheel. It wasn’t until I was about a dozen rides in – and starting to feel a little queasy – that the fun houses and win-a-goldfish-by-throwing-a-ring or shoot-a-basketball-for-a-giant-stuffed-tiger games drew my attention. After that, I was ready for funnel cake. Maybe even a corn dog and an assortment of fried cheese, pickles, and the like. Inevitably, I would eat too much and be out of commission for any more rides I was hoping to squeeze in – or squeeze into! This is when I might finally make my rounds through one or two of the giant warehouse-looking buildings that lined the way to the exits, where I knew there was at least a llama or a goat to be fed at the petting zoo.
Instead of simply attending the North Florida Fair this year, submit your garden’s best for competition. Photo by North Florida Fair.
But when I started volunteering at the Leon County Animal Shelter as part of the 4-H Pet Partners at age 12, I was introduced to these buildings in a whole new light. We were assigned the task of creating papier-mâché cats and dogs to display at the fair to help build awareness of pet overpopulation. I remember my dog well – he was beagle-like, with long droopy paper ears and stiff pointy legs that I struggled to keep balanced. The day we went to set up our display, my adrenaline soared, as I knew our creations were to be judged and ribbons to be bestowed. Ever since, I no longer view the fair buildings as a last stop – rather, I relish my stroll through each of them, as they contain so many handmade treasures, many of which are adorned with blue rosettes of triumph.
The tradition of displaying and competing for the best quality handiworks at the fair goes all the way back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, where merchants sold and traded agricultural goods that had been grown over the summer and freshly harvested in the fall. Naturally, competitions arose during these times, as they strove for the finest products.
Today, fairs reflect the personality of an area, and nearly universally include judges who inspect home grown fruits and vegetables, flowers, preserved foods, and baked goods entered into competition by the community. The North Florida Fair awards about $80,000 in cash prizes to citizens who create and grow various items. Anyone living within the 24 counties that comprise North Florida – from the Suwannee, west to the Alabama line – is eligible to enter as many of the exhibit categories as they would like.
A youth showcasing his prize winning chicken at the North Florida Fair. Photo by Aly Donovan.
The exhibits are arranged into various departments, such as Home Agriculture, Capital City Garden Club Flower Show, Poultry, Baked Goods, and Fine Arts and Crafts. Within each department, there are various classes that are split into certain age divisions (i.e., youth only) or experience levels (i.e., amateur vs. professional). Under the Home Agriculture department there are 42 classes, including 13 classes covering fresh vegetables. The Capital City Garden Club Flower Show department has 13 classes, including annuals, perennials, hanging baskets, fruiting shrubs, trees, and vines, succulents, and much more. If you would like to submit something you’ve grown, now is the time to begin planning, as this year’s fair is set for November 8-18.
All of the details for each department and class can be found on the North Florida Fair website (http://northfloridafair.com/), under the Exhibitors tab. Pay close attention to the application and submittal deadlines for each specific category, as most items are due for judging the week prior to the fair opening.
So, let nostalgia win you over as you prepare your home-grown vegetables and flowers for submittal to the North Florida Fair. You might just earn a blue ribbon to be displayed for all fair attendees to admire, either as they walk off a full stomach in preparation for more rides, on their way to the exits, or just as they get started creating their own fond fair memories.