Sunday, September 23, 2018
Home and Garden

Diggin' Florida Dirt: 5 favorite Florida natives to plant this fall

Raise your dulled and sweat-stained bushwhacking tools if you've had it with summer!

I yearn to come home to a landscape that hasn't wilted in the afternoon sun, to garden after 9 a.m. and to spend that time doing something besides wrestling weeds and whacking back the jungle.

Bring on fall!

Along with cooler temperatures and lower humidity, the coming months bring us a time-traveler's view of Florida. We'll see our native plants, those that grew here before Ponce de León found us in 1513, put on their biggest show: lavender, crimson and golden blooms and berries.

Placed in the right conditions for each species, native plants require less irrigation and no fertilizers (good for us and the planet). And they provide food and shelter for our struggling native pollinators and other wildlife. Win-win-win!

I asked more than 300 Bay area gardeners to share their best fall-color natives. Here are five of their favorites. If we all add just one to our landscapes this month, we can make a difference!

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

Recommended by multiple gardeners, including Allen Boatman, Lutz, agriculture instructor at LaVoy Exceptional Center, Tampa

The edible fall berries of this large shrub attract people and birds; people for the bright lavender color, birds for the flavor. Crush the leaves and rub on skin or pets' fur for an effective mosquito repelllent. The plant thrives in full sun to partial shade and is easily propagated by cuttings.

Asters (Symphyotrichum)

Recommended by multiple gardeners, including Julie Wert, Aripeka, Florida Native Plant Society Nature Coast Chapter secretary

These perennials sport lavender to purple blooms. Rice button aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum) and scaleleaf aster (S. adnatum) like fairly dry conditions including sandhills, pine flatwoods and hammocks. Climbing aster (S. carolinianum) prefers wet areas and needs irrigation during dry periods.

Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia)

Tanja Vidovic, Safety Harbor, sustainable edible gardener

A small tree or large shrub, the Chickasaw produces tiny edible plums that may be tart or sweet and are enjoyed by both humans and wildlife. Better yet is its stunning show. "It has beautiful dark bark with horizontal lines surrounding the trunk," Tanja says. "In the winter, it loses all its leaves and gets covered with dime-sized white blooms. It looks just like a northern tree covered with snow." Plant in full sun to dappled shade and water well until it's established. After that it will be drought-tolerant, but may need irrigation during long dry spells.

Firebush (Hamelia patens)

Joanne Drake, St. Petersburg, Master Gardener

"It offers fall colors of yellowish red tubular flowers contrasting against lush, green leaves tinged with red and berries that birds just love," Joanne says. A favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds, she keeps this large shrub in check with annual trimming. It blooms spring to frost and may die back to the roots in a freeze but returns "with zest" in a few months.

Sweet acacia (Acacia farnesiana)

Pam Brown, Oldsmar, former Pinellas County Environmental Horticulture Extension agent

Fragrant "yellow puffball blooms" make this small tree a sweet addition, Pam says. It grows in a spreading vase shape, 15- to 25-feet tall and wide. Drought-tolerant once established, it has few pests or disease problems and likes full sun. One negative is some long thorns, so avoid planting along a walkway.

Where to find them

Some bay area nurseries carry native plants year-round — find one near you at the Florida Association of Native Nurseries' site, And check out the upcoming fall native plant sales.

Contact Penny Carnathan at [email protected], her blog,, and join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt.