TAMPA — Oh, the smoked chicken wings, pear salad and home-brewed beer and wine at the Seminole Heights Brew Station were probably scrumptious.
I wouldn't know.
Stop No. 5 on the second annual Taste of the Heights walking tour also had jaw-dropping 6-foot blazing purple liatris. One glimpse and I immediately abandoned food and friends and buzzed to that garden like a hummingbird to a fat red flower. (Yes, that was rude. Yes, I have remarkably forgiving friends.)
The Taste of the Heights, held last month, was a beautiful Sunday afternoon walking through a couple of blocks of historic bungalows shaded by enormous oak trees, listening to live bands at some of the homes, and eating your way through food and beverages supplied by some of the neighborhood's best restaurants and chefs.
I brought my camera in hopes I'd spot some interesting plants. Tampa's older neighborhoods always seem to have great big granddaddy pass-alongs that have been growing for decades. Instead, I spotted Ryan and Tiffany Horstman's mostly native bed in peak bloom at their home on E Emma Street.
I wasn't the only one dazzled.
"We got a lot of comments," says Ryan, an ecological and environmental project manager for Stantec consulting firm. "People were taking pictures. We even had a note on the door asking us to call and give them information."
Ryan and Tiffany, a hydrogeologist for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, bought their home in 2005 and started their garden about three years ago. Although they expand it every year, it's done a lot of the work all by itself, they say.
"Those liatris started from just three planted a year ago," Ryan says.
Now, there's too many to count. Correction: too many to count if you're flower intoxicated.
Ryan says they're Liatris spicata, commonly known as blazing star, the Florida native readily available as a sack of bulblike corms in lots of garden centers. But they usually grow only about 3 feet tall. Ryan's been researching to find out whether his super-tall plants are some variation, but he hasn't found one.
Floridata.com notes that spicata can get 6 feet tall, but usually doesn't. I've had other plants, notably orange cosmos, that occasionally grow into mutant Goliaths, so it's possible Ryan and Tiffany just got lucky.
In the full-sun bed, the liatris is vividly complemented by yellowtop flaveria, Flaveria linearis, another native. As the name suggests, yellowtop has bright, lemon-colored blooms. It's a shrub that grows to about 3 feet and even wider than that, according to a University of Florida website. It reseeds easily, and if it dies back after all-out blooming, you can cut it back and it will spring forth anew.
Ryan says his sunny native bed, which also includes muhly grass, firebush, salvia, beach daisy, herbs and milkweed, among other plants, requires little work. Using a micro-irrigation system, he always waters well for a few weeks after planting to get roots established (important!). After that, the plants are drought-tolerant.
He never fertilizes — natives don't need it. And because he lives in an older neighborhood, his soil has had decades of leaves and other organic material to enrich it, so he doesn't amend the sunny bed. (He does add peat for some of his shady bed plants, including oakleaf hydrangea and wild coffee.)
Best of all, he doesn't have to cover anything in the winter, except his American beautyberry, a shrub that produces clusters of lustrous lavender berries. And he does that only for aesthetics.
"After the freezes the last couple years, a lot of people were paying to replace plants," he says. "We didn't have to replace anything."
Regrets? Maybe the beach daisies. They're so happy, they clamber over their neighbors. And after a particularly wet summer, they tend to rot.
Failures? A native lantana and verbena. But on second try, both did well.
Ryan says some of his native plants bloom from spring through fall, with the biggest show in fall. But the rest of the year, those plants are growing and others are blooming, so there's always something to watch.
"A lot of people think native doesn't look so good, but they're people who don't get out in the woods," he says. "We like the random look of the natural natives.
"It's nice to have people recognize our garden. Hopefully, they'll go home and plant native plants."
Chat with Penny and other Florida gardeners at www.digginfladirt.com or at digginfladirt on Facebook. She can be reached at email@example.com.