Saw palmetto

Saw palmetto

Saw palmettos provide crucial ecosystem services for the forests of Florida. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is a classic symbol of Florida. Found in upland habitats and just to the edge of wetlands, their brilliant green fronds stand out in the mostly brown pine flatwoods and oak hammocks to which they are endemic. The shrublike saw palmetto thrives in sandy soils, is highly salt tolerant, and is tough as nails. The plant’s root is one of the sturdiest in nature. Imagine the trunk of a palm tree laid horizontally and just underground—this is the plant’s base. This root system lends stability and tolerance to nearly every tough Florida growing condition, including drought, floods, and fire. Saw palmettos are extremely slow growing, and there are stands in south Florida in which botanists have found individual plants and clonal colonies several thousand years old. Saw palmettos are one of the few members of the palm family that thrive in the panhandle. While many palm trees are planted here, most are native to more southern climates with warmer winters and karst geology—a higher pH soil composed of limestone and often prone to springs and sinkholes.

The tough, serrated edges of the saw palmetto gave it its name. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The saw palmetto’s name comes from the serrated, saw-like edges of the stem. These are quite tough and can cut your skin and clothing if not careful. A very similar palmetto, the bluestem, grows in wetter soils. It can be differentiated from the saw palmetto because its stems are smooth—no serrated edges—and the whole plant has a bluish cast to it.

The saw palmetto has long been prized by humans for its practical uses. The “ethnobotanical” history of this plant has ties to Native American tribes who used the fronds for roofing and building material, brooms, fishing nets, and fans. The leaves were utilized for rope, and multiple plant parts for food and medicine. The dark blue/black fruit of the saw palmetto was considered an aphrodisiac and has been used to treat prostate problems for centuries. According to a UF publication on the saw palmetto, “Modern day development of a purified extract from the berries greatly improves symptoms of enlarged prostate. Florida is the biggest source and producer of saw palmetto products. With about 2,000 tons harvested from South Florida and exported to Europe each year, the fruit crop estimate is $50 million a year in the state.”

Saw palmetto berries are a staple of Florida wildlife diets. Photo credit: UF School of Forest Resources & Conservation

Besides the human uses, saw palmetto serves as a crucial component in the diet of native wildlife. Florida black bears, panthers, 20 other species of mammals, over 100 types of birds, 25 amphibians, over 60 reptiles, and countless insects depend on saw palmetto berries as part of their diet. The wild harvest of saw palmettos is regulated by the state to prevent overharvesting and negative impacts to the wildlife food supply.

Saw palmettos also make a great home landscape plant, as they can grow in a wide variety of conditions, provide wildlife food and habitat, and add visual interest. There are few plants more “low-maintenance” than an established saw palmetto. A mature one is so difficult to remove, that it’s best to leave it where it is anyway!

Drought-Tolerant Landscape Plants

Drought-Tolerant Landscape Plants

When we go through dry periods in North Florida some residents become interested in drought-tolerant plants to include in their landscapes. The need for irrigation can be reduced when drought-tolerant plants are used. But don’t overuse these plants. Remember we have periods of rainy weather, too.

Gulf Muhly Grass in Flower

Gulf Muhly Grass in Flower. Photo credit: Larry Williams

Some drought-tolerant plants have poor tolerance to the other extreme – too much water. There are a few plants that can tolerate both extremes but they are the exception. Avoid using drought-tolerant plants on naturally wet or poorly drained sites. But if you have the typical deep sandy well drained soil Florida is famous for, you’d do well to include some drought-tolerant plants on your site.

Drought-tolerant plants are especially well suited for areas that receive little to no irrigation.

Some plants are genetically better able to withstand drought. They have a built-in tolerance of drought. Many of our Florida native plants are designed to grow in our poor water holding sandy soils. Many of the plants native to arid areas of the world possess high drought-tolerance. These plants have characteristics that allow them to better survive dry weather. These features include thicker or waxier leaves, large surface root areas or deep roots and the ability to drop leaves in drought and regain them when moisture is adequate.

Beautyberry with clusters of bright purple berries

Beautyberry with fruit. Photo credit: Larry Williams

It’s important to realize that these plants must first establish a root system before they can cope with severe dry weather. Plan to irrigate during dry periods for the first season to allow them to become established.

Some outstanding trees to consider include crape myrtle, redbud, Chinese pistache, cedar (Cedrus species), hawthorn (Crataegus species), American holly, yaupon holly, Southern red cedar (Juniperus species), Live oak, Sand live oak, winged elm, pond cypress and bald cypress. Some people are surprised to learn that pond cypress and bald cypress have high drought-tolerance because these trees are associated with swamps, many times growing in standing water. But once established on a dry site, they exhibit very good drought-tolerance.

Some outstanding shrubs with drought-tolerance include glossy abelia, dwarf yaupon holly, Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis species), beauty berry (Callicarpa americana), pineapple guava, junipers, oleander, spiraea, blueberry or sparkleberry (Vaccinium species), viburnum, Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) and coontie (Zamia pumila).

Close up of pineapple guava in bloom

Pineapple guava in bloom. Photo credit: Larry Williams

Some outstanding drought-tolerant groundcovers to consider include beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis), daylily, juniper, lantana, liriope, rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides), Asiatic jasmine and society garlic. Many of the ornamental grasses such as Gulf muhly are good choices as well.

For more ideas on developing a Florida-friendly, water wise landscape, contact the UF/IFAS Extension Office in your County or visit the below website.

Yaupon Hollies Are a Great Fit and Tasty Too!

Yaupon Hollies Are a Great Fit and Tasty Too!

Yaupon hollies (Ilex vomitoria) are evergreen, provide great fall/winter color, and can adapt to numerous landscape situations.  They are also very durable and can survive extreme drought.


Yaupon hollies are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are produced on separate plants and berries are only produced on female plants.  Flowers are creamy white, but not showy on both male and female plants and berries can range in color from red to yellow depending on cultivar.  The plants are favored by wildlife – pollinators are attracted to the flowers and birds love the berries.

Yaupon hollies are native plants with a number of different cultivars available at plant nurseries.  ‘Jewel’ is a cultivar that produces an ubundance of red berries and ‘Aureo’ produces yellow berries.  ‘Nana’, a dwarf, compact male cultivar is an excellent replacement for boxwoods.  Large growing cultivars can grow to 15 to 25 feet tall and can be shaped as trees or left as large shrubs.  ‘Folsom’s Weeping’ and ‘Pendula’ are two weeping cultivars that can be utilized as dramatic specimen trees.

Dwarf Yaupon hollies will naturally form a mound without pruning. Credit: Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

Dwarf Yaupon hollies will naturally form a mound without pruning.
Credit: Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

Yaupon holly fruit and foliage. Photo courtesy UF/IFAS.

Yaupon holly fruit and foliage. Photo courtesy UF/IFAS.













Plant Care

Yaupon hollies prefer to be planted in full to partial sun.  It is important to note that they are drought tolerant and require a site with well-drained soil.  Because only the female plants produce berries, it is best to purchase plant material when plants contain berries in late fall and winter.  Yaupon hollies spread readily by vegetative sprouts.  Sprouts should be pruned down to the soil line 2 – 3 times per year. They do not have many disease or insect problems, but scale, leaf miners, mites, and aphids can sometimes be a problem.

Fun Facts

The leaves of the yaupon holly contain a higher caffeine content than any other plant native to North America.  The Seminole Indians would purposely brew a concentrated “Black Drink” tea to induce vomiting and diarrhea for believed purification.  Southerners utilized the caffeine in the leaves during the Civil War.  If the leaves are steeped for a short period, a black tea or coffee substitute can brewed. A related species of holly (Ilex paraguariensis) from Brazil is used to make a drink called Yerba Mate, which is as popular in South America as coffee is in North America.

For more information on yaupon hollies, please visit the publication located at this link

Native Yuccas: Low Maintenance, Slow Growing and Attractive Blooms

Native Yuccas: Low Maintenance, Slow Growing and Attractive Blooms

Native yuccas fit easily into the landscape without breaking the bank or the back of the gardener.

Native yuccas fit easily into the landscape without breaking the bank or the back of the gardener.

Being sharp is usually considered a complement. It implies the recipient of this assessment has the intellectual ability and the mental acuity to handle with ease the rigors of contemporary life.

In north Florida’s native plant world the yucca genus was sharp long before people employed it in landscapes. It also has the sharp pointy spines to enforce its tactics.

Local yuccas are perennial shrubs which can grow into small trees with a unique shape. There are approximately 50 species in this genus worldwide on every continent except Antarctica.

Their most obvious and notable feature which makes them easy to identify is their leaves. These are elongated in thick clusters around the stems.

The sword-like shape is tipped with a hardened point which can quickly get the attention of anyone passing too close. The bristly structure of these evergreen plants gives them an intimidating appearance which most animals and people avoid.

The annual blooms appear at the top of these plants and protrude above the greenery. Honeybees and other pollinators will visit the profusely fragrant bell-shaped flowers to collect nectar and pollen.

In their native range, these plants are seen in sites where there is high exposure to the sun. They will not grow in heavy shade, and languish with little change if there is less than six to eight hours of daily sun.

Sandy well drained soils are the most likely locations where yuccas will prosper and grow. Their nutrient requirement are low, so they rarely display symptoms of a nutrient deficiency.

Likewise, their need for water is paltry. Once established they will easily withstand droughts and extended dry periods.

The common species native to north Florida in this genus are Adam’s needles (Yucca filamentosa) and Spanish bayonets (Yucca aloifolia). These plants are similar in appearance, but each has distinctive traits.

Adam’s needles are the smaller and shorter of the two species. The multiple stems may reach three feet in height, but extend to over six feet when the cream color blooms appear in early summer.

The green leaves are pliable with white threads of fiber trailing from each. There is a variegated cultivar which is popular for landscaping projects.

Spanish bayonets produce multiple trunks per plant and may grow to over 15 feet. They produce rigid dark green leaves projecting from the thick trunks and will impale any trespasser.

White blossoms appear in the center of the plant above the foliage from spring to late summer depending on several weather related factors. These yuccas have a high salt tolerance making wild plantings common to coastal areas.

Disease and insect problems are few for these hardy plants. Too much water resulting in excessively wet roots and extreme cold are the biggest problems.

For the sharp homeowner these native plants make a pointedly good addition to the landscape.

To learn more about native yuccas in north Florida, contact the nearest UF/IFAS Extension office.

Succulents Thrive in Summer Heat

Succulents Thrive in Summer Heat

Summer is here, along with its heat, humidity, drought and stress! One easy way to garden during summer is to use succulents and other drought adapted plants.

The sea urchin cactus (Echinopsis spp.) produces large, stunning flowers.

The sea urchin cactus (Echinopsis spp.) produces large, stunning flowers.

Succulents are heat-adapted, water-efficient plants often associated with deserts and dunes. Usually succulents have thick leaves or stems that store water. A cactus is a familiar type of succulent, as are agave, aloe, yucca as well as bromeliads like dyckia. Other dry-adapted plants can retreat into bulbs, rhizomes or other thick plant parts to go dormant until rains resume. A few other strategies used by plants to save water include: waxy or hairy coverings to reduce water loss; extensive root systems to absorb water; and silver- or blue-colored leaves and stems to reflect light and reduce heat.

Succulents’ tough qualities make them well-adapted to the harsh conditions of urban living amid concrete, brick, asphalt and other “hardscapes”. This adaptability translates into low maintenance since they need little or no irrigation, fertilization, pruning or spraying. Do you like container gardens? Succulents are almost the perfect container plant, because they hardly ever need watering!

The American century plant (Agave americana) is large growing succulent with silver-grey leaves.

The American century plant (Agave americana) is a large growing succulent with silver-grey leaves.

Above and beyond their toughness, succulents capture our imaginations because they are often dramatic, dangerous and slightly unpredictable. Drama stems from the architectural forms of many thick-leaved plants like agave. Danger arises from the thorns and spines of plants like cactus. Unpredictability results from bulbs and perennials that can quickly explode into flower, and then disappear just as suddenly. Often succulents have outrageous flowers with wild, bold colors and strange shapes!

While many succulents are native to deserts, others are Florida natives where they can be found in coastal dunes or in areas with sandy soils that have little water-holding capacity. For example, many native yuccas are excellent succulents for use in dry gardens or in containers.

For best growth and appearance, most succulents require well-drained soil and full sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day). Succulents are ideal plants for garden beds near roads, sidewalks, driveways and south-facing walls because they tolerate limited soil moisture, higher soil pH and reflected heat and light usually associated with these areas. On the other hand, try to avoid planting succulents in shady areas, wet areas, low areas that collect water and areas with heavy soils.

Summer gardening is easy with succulents!

For more information:

Agave and Yucca: Tough Plants for Tough Times

March – Time for Lions and Lambs

March – Time for Lions and Lambs

“If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb?”

Weather sayings can be quite colorful. Some of them may be connected to scientific observations, while others are more superstitious in nature. What the weather will do this month can change on a moment’s notice. March is definitely one of the more unpredictable months. One week the temperatures are warm and spring-like. A few days later the weather turns stormy and cold. Depending on the groundhog you follow, spring will be here, or not, in the next few weeks.

But, any long time Northwest Florida residents knows, summer will be here eventually and it is going to get hot and dry. So, while trying to figure out whether to wear your T-shirt or arctic parka today, take a moment to locate “that patch” of the landscape and consider adding a “lion” or “lamb.”lions ear flower

Lion’s ear and Lamb’s ear are two plants that survive under hot, dry conditions. Lion’s ear, Leonotislions ear real nepetifolia, is a tall-growing (8 feet) annual with orange tubular flowers that peek out of the spiny bloom head, giving the appearance of a lion’s ear. Hummingbirds reportedly hover next to a flower or even perch on a cluster, drinking for 10 seconds or longer. That’s an eternity in hummer world and about as long as any lion would tolerate someone messing with his ears.


lamb with lambs earLamb’s ear, Stachys byzantina, is an easy care perennial with wooly gray-green leaves and lavender colored flower spikes. It makes an attractive accent in a container or excellent groundcover that invites you to experience its soft “wool”, like those cute little ears of a baby sheep.

Both of these plants are self-sustaining species that establish well in open dry areas. The lion’s ear must self sow seed to return each year. Whereas, the lamb’s ear will return from the roots and can be divided if relocation is desired.


Lion or lamb, March is a good time to plan for easy care, summer, blooming flowers. While it may be “freezing” now, you know once it gets hot, the last place you will want to be is outside in the blazing sun. Maybe the thoughts will warm you.