False Foxglove in a Calhoun County natural area. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
Fall is the absolute best season for wildflower watching in the Panhandle! When mid-September rolls around and the long days of summer finally shorten, giving way to drier air and cooler nights, northwest Florida experiences a wildflower color explosion. From the brilliant yellow of Swamp Sunflower and Goldenrod, to the soothing blue of Mistflower, and the white-on-gold of Spanish Needles, there is no shortage of sights to see from now until frost. But, in my opinion, the star of the fall show is the currently flowering False Foxglove (Agalinus spp.).
Named for the appearance of their brilliant pink flowers, which bear a resemblance to the northern favorite Foxglove (Digitalis spp.), “False Foxglove” is actually the common name of several closely related species of parasitic plants in the genus Agalinus that are difficult to distinguish by all but the keenest of botanists. Regardless of which species you may see, False Foxglove is an unusual and important Florida native plant. Emerging from seed each spring in the Panhandle, plants grow quickly through the summer to a mature height of 3-5’. During this time, False Foxglove is about as inconspicuous a plant as grows. Consisting of a wispy thin woody stem with very small, narrow leaves, plants remain hidden in the flatwoods and sand hill landscapes that they inhabit. However, when those aforementioned shorter September days arrive, False Foxglove explodes into flower sporting sprays of dozens of light purple to pink tubular-shaped flowers that remain until frost ends the season.
False Foxglove flowering in a Calhoun County natural area. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
In addition to being unmatched in flower, False Foxglove also plays several important ecological roles in Florida’s natural areas. First, False Foxglove’s relatively large, tubular-shaped flowers are the preferred nectar sources for the larger-sized native solitary and bumble bees present in the Panhandle, though all manner of generalist bees and butterflies will also visit for a quick sip. Second, False Foxglove is the primary host plant for the unique Common Buckeye butterfly. One of the most easily recognizable butterflies due to the large “eye” spots on their wings, Common Buckeye larvae (caterpillars), feed on False Foxglove foliage during the summer before emerging as adults and adding to the fall spectacle. Finally, False Foxglove is an important indicator of a healthy native ecosystem. As a parasitic plant, False Foxglove obtains nutrients and energy by photosynthesis AND by using specialized roots to tap into the roots of nearby suitable hosts (native grasses and other plants). As both False Foxglove and its parasitic host plants prefer to grow in the sunny, fire-exposed pine flatwoods and sand ridges that characterized pre-settlement Florida, you can be fairly confident that if you see a natural area with an abundance of False Foxglove in flower, that spot is in good ecological shape!
The Florida Panhandle is nearly unmatched in its fall wildflower diversity and False Foxglove plays a critical part in the show. From its stunning flowers to its important ecological roles, one would be hard-pressed to find a more unique native wildflower! For more information about False Foxglove and other Florida native wildflowers, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.
Photos by Sheila Dunning
The showy chaste tree makes an attractive specimen as the centerpiece of your landscape bed or in a large container on the deck. Much more of them are being seen since the Florida Department of Transportation has recognized the tree as a desirable median planting. Easy-to-grow, drought resistant, and attractive to butterflies and bees, Vitex agnus-castus is a multi-stemmed small tree with fragrant, upwardly-pointing lavender blooms and gray-green foliage. The chaste tree’s palmately divided leaves resemble those of the marijuana (Cannabis sativa) plant; its flowers can be mistaken for butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.); and the dry, darkened drupes can be used for seasoning, similar to black pepper, making it a conversation piece for those unfamiliar with the tree.
Vitex , with its sage-scented leaves that were once believed to have a sedative effect, has the common name “Chastetree” since Athenian women used the leaves in their beds to keep themselves chaste during the feasts of Ceres, a Roman festival held on April 12. In modern times, the tree is more often planted where beekeepers visit in order to promote excellent honey production or simply included in the landscape for the enjoyment of its showy, summer display of violet panicles.
Chaste tree is native to woodlands and dry areas of southern Europe and western Asia. It will thrive in almost any soil that has good drainage, prefers full sun or light shade, and can even tolerate moderate salt air. Vitex is a sprawling plant that grows 10-20 feet high and wide, that looks best unpruned. If pruning is desired to control the size, it should be done in the winter, since it is a deciduous tree and the blooms form on new wood. The chaste tree can take care of itself, but can be pushed to faster growth with light applications of fertilizer in spring and early summer and by mulching around the plant. There are no pests of major concern associated with this species, but, root rot can cause decline in soils that are kept too moist.
On August 12, 2021, our panel answered questions on a wide variety of landscape topics. Maybe you are asking the same questions, so read on!
Ideas on choosing plants
What are some perennials that can be planted this late in the summer but will still bloom through the cooler months into fall?
Duranta erecta ‘Sapphire Showers’ or ‘Gold Mound’, firespike, Senna bicapsularis, shrimp plant, lion’s ear
Where can native plants be obtained?
Dune sunflower, Helianthus debilis. Photo credit: Mary Salinas UF/IFAS Extension.
Gardening Solutions: Florida Native Plants – see link to FANN: https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/native-plants.html
What are some evergreen groundcover options for our area?
Mondo grass, Japanese plum yew, shore juniper, ajuga, ferns such as autumn fern.
What are some ideas for partial morning sun butterfly attracting tall flowers to plant now?
Milkweed, salt and pepper plant, swamp sunflower, dune sunflower, ironweed, porterweed, and salt bush.
I’m interested in moving away from a monoculture lawn. What are some suggestions for alternatives?
Perennial peanut, powderpuff mimosa, and frogfruit.
We are new to Florida and have questions about everything in our landscape.
Florida-Friendly-Landscaping TM Program and FFL Web Apps: https://ffl.ifas.ufl.edu/
UF IFAS Gardening Solutions: https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/
What are some of the top trends in landscaping today?
Houseplants, edible gardens, native plants, food forests, attracting wildlife, container gardening, and zoysiagrass lawns
Artwork broccoli is a variety that produces small heads. Photo credit: Mary Salinas UF/IFAS Extension.
What vegetables are suitable for fall/winter gardening?
Cool Season Vegetables: https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/edibles/vegetables/cool-season-vegetables.html
North Florida Gardening Calendar: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/EP451%20%20%20
Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/vh021
How can I add herbs to my landscape?
Herbs in the Florida Garden: https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/edibles/vegetables/herbs.html
My figs are green and hard. When do they ripen?
Why Won’t My Figs Ripen: https://www.lsuagcenter.com/profiles/rbogren/articles/page1597952870939
What is best soil for raised bed vegetable gardens?
Gardening in Raised Beds: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/EP472
And there are always questions about weeds
How can I eradicate cogongrass?
Chamber bitter is a troublesome warm season weed in our region. Photo credit: Brantlee Spakes Richter, University of Florida, Bugwood.org
Is it okay to use cardboard for weed control?
The Cardboard Controversy: https://gardenprofessors.com/the-cardboard-controversy/
What is the best way to control weeds in grass and landscape beds?
Weed Management Guide for Florida Lawns: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/EP141
Improving Weed Control in Landscape Planting Beds: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf/EP/EP52300.pdf
Can ground water be brackish and stunt plants?
Reclaimed Water Use in the Landscape: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/ss545
How can I prevent erosion from rainwater runoff?
Stormwater Runoff Control – NRCS: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/water/?cid=nrcs144p2_027171
Rain Gardens: https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/design/types-of-gardens/rain-gardens.html
What is the best time of the year to propagate flowering trees in zone 8B?
Landscape Plant Propagation Information Page – UF/IFAS Env. Hort: https://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/database/lppi/
Which type of mulch works best on slopes greater than 3 percent?
Landscape Mulches: How Quickly do they Settle?: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/FR052
When should bulbs be fertilized?
Bulbs and More – UI Extension: https://web.extension.illinois.edu/bulbs/planting.cfm
Should I cut the spent blooms of agapanthus?
Agapanthus, extending the bloom time: https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/agapanthus.html
Monarch caterpillar munching on our native sandhill milkweed, Asclepias humistrata. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF IFAS Extension.
I planted native milkweed and have many monarch caterpillars. Should I protect them or leave them in nature?
It’s best to leave them in place. Featured Creatures: Monarch Butterfly: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf/IN/IN780/IN780-Dxyup8sjiv.pdf
How does Vinca (periwinkle) do in direct sun? Will it make it through one of our panhandle summers? Can I plant in late August?
Periwinkles and No more fail with Cora series: https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/periwinkles.html#:~:text=Plant%20your%20periwinkles%20where%20they,rot%20if%20irrigated%20too%20frequently.
Insect and disease pests
What to do if you get termites in your raised bed?
The Facts About Termites and Mulch: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/IN651
How to combat fungus?
Guidelines for ID and Management of Plant Disease Problems: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/mg442
Are there preventative measures to prevent diseases when the humidity is very high and it is hot?
Fungi in Your Landscape by Maxine Hunter: http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/marionco/2020/01/16/fungi-in-your-landscape/
If you missed an episode, check out our playlist on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bp0HfdEkIQw&list=PLhgoAzWbtRXImdFE8Jdt0jsAOd-XldNCd
Brown-eyed Susan makes a nice addition to a pollinator garden. This one is visited by a scoliid wasp, a parasitoid of soil-inhabiting scarab beetle larvae. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF/IFAS Extension.
Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta, has been a very popular garden perennial for generations. Fewer gardeners have experience with, or even heard of its’ close relative, brown-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia triloba. So, what is the difference between them?
- Brown-eyed Susan has more numerous flowers and generally flowers for a longer period in spring, summer, and fall.
- Black-eyed Susan has bigger flowers and bigger leaves.
- Both species are perennial, but the brown-eyed Susan tends to die out sooner after a few years. The good news is that both readily spread through seed to replace older plants.
Brown-eyed Susan. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF/IFAS Extension.
Brown-eyed Susan is native to the eastern and central United States and, although native to Florida, it has only been vouchered in the wild in 5 counties in Florida. Gardeners can find seed and plants readily online and at a few native plant nurseries. It is best to try to source wildflower seed from plants grown in the same region. Brown-eyed Susan seed from plants grown in Nebraska or Michigan may not be as well adapted to the Florida environment as locally grown seed.
If you want to add this pollinator attracting perennial to your garden, choose a spot that is sunny or partly sunny. Although it prefers moist soil, brown eyed Susan adapts to most soil types and is drought tolerant after establishment.
The ancient cycad, coontie, is a hardy and attractive plant for Florida landscapes. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The plant has a crazy-sounding name, more like some little animal you’d find in Australia than a native plant. However, an ancient Florida plant it is, and a tough one at that. Growing close to the ground, it most resembles a large fern or a sago palm, if the sago had smooth, rounded leaf edges. Like the sago, the coontie (Zamia floridana) is a cycad—a group of palmlike plants that have been around so long that triceratops and stegasauruses ate them! Coonties are the only cycads native to North America, found in the states and island nations like Cuba and the Bahamas.
Male cones (strobilus) of coontie are thinner and shorter than female cones. Photo credit: Dan Culbert, UF IFAS
Another interesting feature of the coontie is its seed cones. These are large reddish orange cones that resemble magnolia seedpods. Both sexes of plant produce them in clusters ranging from one to five of the 2-7” long cones. Cones from the male produce pollen, while females produce seeds. If you are interested in attracting wildlife to your yard, the coontie provides good low-growing cover for birds and small mammals. It is also the preferred food for the caterpillar of the rare Atala butterfly. Members of the Timucuan and Calusa tribes ground up the starchy root of the coontie as a flour. However, the root contains a toxin and if it is not removed first, ingestion could result in severe abdominal pain and vomiting. From the late 1880’s through World War I, a large starch industry existed in Florida, producing flour from the coontie root.
Adult female atala butterfly, showing royal blue streak on forewings. Photo credit: Sandy Koi, University of Florida
At home in drier soil conditions like oak hammocks and pinelands in north central Florida, these plants can also adapt to a variety of soil pH types. Coonties are drought, cold, and salt tolerant, thus a great landscape choice for coastal landscapes near the Gulf or a bay. The plants are very long-lived and adaptable. In fact, the book Florida’s Best Native Landscape Plants notes it is “Very hardy and easy to care for. Will grow well in any part of Florida, even outside its normal range. An exceptional replacement for the closely related, often used, but non-native sago palm.” In other words, this is an ideal landscape plant that should be used more throughout Florida.
Landscaping with native plants brings opportunities and challenges while adding diversity and beauty to the home. There are many factors that come into play to successfully grow plants. As gardeners, we all want things to look exceptional for all to enjoy. Native plants have evolved over long periods of time naturally in a given region without intervention, bringing much needed diversity to natural areas and landscapes. A big plus for natives are the flowers presented for the local bee populations and other pollinators assisting in the continuation of the plant species potentially established over thousands of years.
Landscape of Native Plants. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS Extension Santa Rosa County
Native plants have evolved in natural communities and are found to be interdependent not only plant to plant yet with soil type, soil microbial activity through bacteria and fungus, specific site location and others though biodiversity of these living communities. Part of this community is often referred to as the soil web creating the connections of billions upon billions of organisms in the critical survival of the plants, insects and other animals we see. The first steps when considering native plants for your landscape are to do your research and contact your local Extension office. Some questions to consider may include: Does it grow best in well drained sand or wet soils or require high in organic matter? Will full sun, part-shade to full shade be needed?
Coontie Palm in Landscape. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS Extension Santa Rosa
Plants that are native and non-native are often seen in the same landscape setting. Consideration should be taken to determine if either of the groups are aggressive in expanding beyond the intended plant setting. Before moving on, non-native is in reference to plants that are introduced to a plant community that came from a totally different plant location. An example of that location being hollies from southeast Asia or South America or even a different area of the United States. Many have been researched and observed for many years under managed situations before being introduced into the local landscape nursery markets. Once in a while a plant is introduced that has not gone through a long rigorous study and can become naturalized outside of its normal plant zones and establish as an invasive species. This highly adaptable aggressive habit can, and often will colonize a given location out competing the native plants. Kudzu is a good example of an invasive exotic plant that is naturalized in the southeastern U.S.
As gardeners there are opportunities to have positive impacts on some of these diminished native habitat areas that can be threatened by growth of urban and rural areas in Florida. Establishing native plants areas into the landscape with proper soil preparation, managed water needs and more gives that chance for this interdependent system of plants, animals and nonliving elements to remain established with big impacts.
Virginia Sweetspire. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS Extension Santa Rosa County
Native plants can be a working part of the garden from wonderful flowers, season color change, leaf foliage of multiple sizes and shapes to feed the insects that feed the birds, leaves and nuts that feed so many other animals for us to enjoy seeing. Balance is such a big part of being a successful gardener. Remember not all native plants are suitable for landscape spaces, do your research and ask for assistance from the experts to determine if it is the right plant for the right place.