The number one request all would-be gardeners and budding landscape enthusiasts have is “I want something that I don’t have to take care of, tolerates the heat, blooms, and comes back every year”.  That is a tall order in our climate but not an impossible one, especially if one is willing to take a step back in time and consider an old Southern passalong plant, Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata)!

Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) in a Calhoun County landscape. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

This old heirloom perennial is an outstanding ornamental for Panhandle landscapes.  Every spring, Garden Phlox emerges from a long winter sleep and shoots its attractive bright green foliage straight up, reaching 3-5’ in height.  After hiding inconspicuously in the landscape all spring, Phlox then blasts into fiery magenta bloom during the heat of summer, beginning the show in late June.  While individual Phlox flowers are only 1” wide or so, they are held prominently above the plant’s foliage in large clusters up to 8” in diameter and are about as eye-catching as flowers come.  The flower show continues through July and August until finally fading out as fall rolls around.  Plants then set seed and ready themselves for winter dormancy, repeating the cycle the following spring.  A bonus, though individual Phlox plantings start off as small, solitary clumps, they slowly expand over the years, never over-aggressively or unwanted, into a mass of color that becomes the focal point of any landscape they occupy!

In addition to being gorgeous, Phlox is adaptable and demands very little from gardeners.  The species prefers to be sited in full, blazing sun but can also handle partial shade.  Just remember, the more shade Phlox is in, the fewer flowers it will produce.  Site accordingly.  Phlox is also extremely drought tolerant, thriving in most any semi-fertile well-drained soil.  Though it can handle drought like a champ, Phlox will languish if planted in a frequently damp location.  If water stands on the planting site for more than an hour or so after a big rain event, it is most likely too wet for Phlox to thrive.  Once established, Phlox is not a heavy feeder either.  A light application of a general-purpose fertilizer after spring emergence from winter dormancy will sustain the plants’ growth and flowering all summer long!

Clump of Garden Phlox in a Calhoun County landscape. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Though the ornamental and low-maintenance attributes of plain Garden Phlox make it sound like a perfect landscape plant, it is uncommon in the modern nursery trade, having fallen out of favor as many old plants often do.  The species is still a familiar site around old home places, cemeteries, abandoned buildings, and the like throughout the South, but is difficult to find in most commercial nurseries.  The primary reason for this is that the commercially available modern Phlox hybrids sporting exotic flower colors and shapes are not tolerant of our growing conditions.  These new Garden Phlox hybrids were bred to perform in the milder conditions of more norther climes and are extremely susceptible to the many fungal diseases brought on by Florida’s heat and humidity of summer, particularly Powdery Mildew.  It’s best to avoid these newcomers and stick to the old variety with its pink flowers and ironclad constitution. Plain old Garden Phlox can be found in some independent and native plant nurseries, but the best and most rewarding method of acquisition is to make friends with someone that already has a clump and dig up a piece of theirs!

If you have been looking for a low-maintenance, high impact perennial to add to your landscape, old-fashioned Garden Phlox might be just the plant for you!  For more information on Garden Phlox, other landscape perennials, passalong plants or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office.  Happy Gardening!