Importance of Native Plants for Wildlife

Importance of Native Plants for Wildlife

Native trees, like this Live Oak (Quercus virginiana), provide habitat for various insects fed upon by birds. Source: James Holland, Bugwood.org

 

Planting native plants is a topic many north Florida gardeners, and subscribers to Gardening in the Panhandle, have seen covered in various ways and formats. It doesn’t take a great leap of understanding to realize that native plants are highly valued by our wildlife, which have adapted to living with these plants for millennia. However, we also get a lot of information about the latest, greatest landscape plant variety, many of which are non-native, and are lured to purchase them by their beautiful flowers and/or foliage. In the wake of Hurricane Michael, the importance of selecting native plants for the landscape becomes apparent when you look around and see whole forests severely disturbed. Furthermore, recent research has shown how much our native wildlife prefer native plants and need them for the best chances of survival.

Eastern bluebirds are an example of a bird that relies on insects. Source: Sandysphotos, Creative Commons.

Why Native Plants?

It’s not that non-native ornamental plants are “bad”, unless they’re the terrible invasive, exotic species like kudzu, Chine privet, etc., it’s just that the food chains that support our wildlife are adapted to native plants. A recent report published in the National Proceedings of Science found that chickadees had far better success fledging young when they foraged landscape areas containing 70% or more native plant cover. The reason for their success was that the insects they feed on utilize native species more than non-native plant species. Does that mean non-natives provide no value? Not necessarily. Non-native ornamental plants can be important sources of nectar and pollen and, as you know from experience dealing with pest problems on non-native plants, they also support insects. Native plants just support more of an abundance of these insects.

Following a large disturbance like Hurricane Michael, many insects, birds, and other wildlife will likely see a decrease in numbers and/or reproductive success due to the loss and/or disruption of native plant ecosystems. As stated in the recent report, restoration of urban areas should prioritize native plants to support local food webs.

The FloridaYards.org website is a great resource to find native trees for your area. Source: Screenshot, FloridaYards.org.

The FloridaYards.org website is an easy way to start putting together a list of potential plants. The website’s Florida-Friendly Plant Database allows users to select the area of Florida they live in, site conditions, plant type (tree, shrub, etc.), and to specify native plants only. It then searches the database for plants that meet those conditions and creates a list of species, along with photos and care information. If you’re thinking about how these trees hold up to storms, you can cross-check that list with UF/IFAS’s Wind and Trees EDIS publication. Of course, if you have any questions along the way, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.

Heating up with Hardy Hibiscus

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!

 

Tired of Turf? Try Groundcover Alternatives Instead!

If you’re like me, growing turfgrass is often more of a hassle than anything else.  Regardless of the species you plant, none tolerates shade well and it can seem like there is a never-ending list of chores and expenses that accompany lawn grass:  mowing (at least one a week during the summer), fertilizing, and constantly battling weeds, disease and bugs.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were an acceptable alternative, at least for the parts of the lawn that get a little less foot traffic or are shady?  Turns out there is!  Enter the wonderful world of perennial groundcovers!

Perennial groundcovers are just that, plants that are either evergreen or herbaceous (killed to the ground by frost, similar to turfgrass) and are aggressive enough to cover the ground quickly.  Once established, these solid masses of stylish, easy to grow plants serve many of the same functions traditional turf lawns do without all the hassle: choke out weeds, provide pleasing aesthetics, reduce erosion and runoff, and provide a habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife.

The two most common turfgrass replacements found in Northwest Florida are Ornamental Perennial Peanut (Arachis glabra) and Asiatic Jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum); though a native species of Mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa) is gaining popularity also.  All of these plants are outstanding groundcovers but each fills a specific niche in the landscape.

Perennial Peanut Lawn

Perennial Peanut is a beautiful, aggressive groundcover that spreads through underground rhizomes and possesses showy yellow flowers throughout the year; the show stops only in the coldest winters when the plant is burned back to the ground by frost.  It thrives in sunny, well-drained soils, needs no supplemental irrigation once established and because it is a legume, requires little to no supplemental fertilizer.  It even thrives in coastal areas that are subject to periodic salt spray!  If Perennial Peanut ever begins to look a little unkempt, a quick mowing at 3-4” will enhance its appearance.

Asiatic Jasmine

 

Asiatic Jasmine is a superb, vining groundcover option for areas that receive partial to full shade, though it will tolerate full sun.  This evergreen plant sports glossy dark green foliage and is extremely aggressive (lending itself to very rapid establishment).  Though not as vigorous a climber as its more well-known cousin Confederate Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), Asiatic Jasmine will eventually begin to slowly climb trees and other structures once it is fully established; this habit is easily controlled with infrequent pruning.  Do not look for flowers on this vining groundcover however, as it does not initiate the bloom cycle unless allowed to climb.

Sunshine Mimosa

For those that prefer an all-native landscape, Sunshine Mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa), also known as Sensitive Plant, is a fantastic groundcover option for full-sun situations.  This herbaceous perennial is very striking in flower, sending up bright pink, fiber-optic like blooms about 6” above the foliage all summer long!  Sunshine Mimosa, like Perennial Peanut, is a legume so fertility needs are very low. It is also exceptionally drought tolerant and thrives in the deepest sands.  If there is a dry problem spot in your lawn that receives full sun, you can’t go wrong with this one!

As a rule, the method of establishing groundcovers as turfgrass replacements takes a bit longer than with laying sod, which allows for an “instant” lawn.  With groundcovers, sprigging containerized plants is most common as this is how the majority of these species are grown in production nurseries.  This process involves planting the containerized sprigs on a grid in the planting area no more than 12” apart.  The sprigs may be planted closer together (8”-10”) if more rapid establishment is desired.

During the establishment phase, weed control is critical to ensure proper development of the groundcover.  The first step to reduce competitive weeds is to clean the site thoroughly before planting with a non-selective herbicide such as Glyphosate.  After planting, grassy weeds may be treated with one of the selective herbicides Fusilade, Poast, Select, or Prism.  Unfortunately, there are not any chemical treatments for broadleaf weed control in ornamental groundcovers but these can be managed by mowing or hand pulling and will eventually be choked out by the groundcover.

If you are tired of the turfgrass life and want some relief, try an ornamental groundcover instead!  They are low-maintenance, cost effective, and very attractive!  Happy gardening and as always, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office for more information about this topic!

Why Are There Holes in My Tree?

Why Are There Holes in My Tree?

Have you noticed strange rings of pencil-sized holes on the trunks of certain trees in your landscape recently?  If so, take heart that these holes are not emanating from an infestation of destructive insects but rather from a perfectly native, rather attractive migratory woodpecker, the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (Syphrapicus varius)!

The Sapsucker is a smallish bird with a chisel-like bill, easily distinguishable by bold black and white face stripes and a conspicuous bright-red crown and throat.   If you have any problem identifying it by its features, look to its migration pattern, the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker overwinters in mild winter areas of the Americas (like Florida’s Panhandle) and causes damage during this period (roughly December through March).  If you notice a bird wreaking havoc on your backyard flora this afternoon, it is likely a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker!

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (male) on pecan
James Solomon, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

 

Like other members of its family, this woodpecker makes a living by “pecking” holes in trunks of trees and small shrubs about chest-high from the ground and feeds on sap and the occasional insect drawn to the sap.  Fortunately, the damage is not usually harmful to the tree except in severe cases where the trunk may be girdled or secondary infection occurs from pests/diseases entering the tree through the holes.  Unfortunately for Florida gardeners, this little bird has preferences in which trees it attacks, the majority of which are favorite landscape plants.  For example, heavy feeding has been observed, both anecdotally by the author and more scientifically by researchers and birding enthusiasts, on Red Maple, Pecan, Chinese Elm, American Holly, Pine and Live Oak.  They also really seem to enjoy any soft-wooded shrub limbed-up in a treelike form like Waxmyrtle, Viburnum and Dahoon Holly.  Talk about frustrating!

Sapsucker damage in a tree trunk.
Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Extension.

After learning that Sapsucker damage is not usually harmful, most homeowners opt to not control the birds’ feeding.  However, if the aesthetic damage is not acceptable in your landscape, there are a few semi-effective control options and a host of other, less-effective home remedies.  Wrapping the trunks of favored species with a loose, thick material such as burlap or felt is the preferred method of many ornamental nurseries and tree farms due to the material’s reusability and ease of removal after the migration has passed.  Other commercial enterprises have had mixed success with hanging visually frightening CDs, pie plates and the like from low branches.  Even less success has been seen with other homemade “cures” ranging from rubbing trunks of favored trees with Ivory soap to the use of sticky materials to deter perching.  Shooting or trapping Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers is not permitted as the birds are protected by state and federal wildlife law.  As always, please contact your local UF / IFAS Extension office for advice and recommendations for other methods of discouraging unwanted bird visits!

Happy New Year and good gardening!

 

Acorns Abound!

Live oak with immature acorns. Photo credit: Wendy VanDyke Evans, Bugwood.org.

Do you have more acorns than you know what to do with? When oaks produce loads of acorns, it sometimes is called a “mast” year. Do you remember the oak tree pollen and all those catkins that fell from oaks earlier in spring?

Catkins are the male flowers in oaks. Some people refer to them as tassels or worms. The airborne pollen from these catkins were part of the reproductive process in fertilizing the female oak flowers that ultimately resulted in all of these acorns. Oaks produce separate male and female flowers on the same tree. Female flowers in oaks are very small. You’d have to look very close to see them. Many oaks did well in their reproductive efforts this spring. Acorns are oak seeds. This entire process is part of the cycle of life.

There are theories about mast years, wildlife’s use of these acorns and what gardeners can expect next year as a result of this year’s abundant acorn crop. Timing of mast years is still a mystery. Numerous theories exist ranging from weather to geography to the life cycles of predators.

The most likely reason for high production seems to be weather-related. When oak trees have favorable weather at the time of oak flowering and good growing conditions, the mast seems to be increased.

But mast years happen irregularly, making it difficult to understand what causes a mast year. Heavy acorn production can occur twice in a row or it might be separated by several years or more. There’s no good way to predict it.

Mast years are important to wildlife, as acorns are an important food for many animal species. In low crop years, birthrate for some wildlife species, such as squirrels, will decline the following year. This also may involve increased competition for food and survival rates. The recent crop means that more young are likely to be produced by animals that forage for acorns.

Wildlife play a big role in forest regeneration. When acorns drop out of oaks, many animals help distribute these seeds. Squirrels can bury hundreds of acorns. Some of these acorns germinate and grow to become the next generation of oak trees. Some will be eaten by birds, bears, deer, rodents, including squirrels, and other wildlife. Rodents are in turn eaten by carnivores and deer browsing shapes which kinds of plants become established and survive. All those acorns have far-reaching impact on wildlife and our forests.

So, try to keep this in mind as you are fussing with all those acorns in your lawn and landscape this season.