If certain plants are supposed to attract butterflies, bees and birds, then why don't these creatures hang around the "big box" retail garden centers where thousands of the flowering specimens are regularly stocked? Are hordes of shoppers scaring them away, or is the enormous asphalt parking lot a deterrent?
This disappearing act has Ray Wunderlich III worried. It's unnatural to shop for plants and see no wildlife, and then grow a home garden that's equally devoid of life.
The big retailers stock aisles of lush tropical foliage and exotic flowering specimens that most people associate with Florida. But that's part of the problem. Most of those plants don't attract wildlife.
If large retailers stocked native Florida plants, more people would grow them and we'd see more birds, bees, butterflies and other desirable wildlife, says Wunderlich, whose St. Petersburg home is landscaped almost entirely with native plants and whose garden is regularly inhabited by winged visitors.
He has a valid point. When I moved to Florida, my first home was landscaped entirely with palm trees, exotic tropicals and St. Augustine lawn. Pelicans and herons visited often, but I soon realized I hadn't heard a single songbird or laid eyes on a butterfly, hummingbird or other garden visitor I was accustomed to.
Finding a native plant to bring back wildlife isn't always easy, especially for new Florida gardeners. Only a handful of nurseries in the Tampa Bay area specialize in native plants. You can find them at other small nurseries, but usually not in great number or variety. Limited in supply, native plants aren't typically low in cost.
"It comes down to supply and demand. If there were more people looking at native plants, the prices would go down," says Wunderlich, a member of the Suncoast Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, a 2,000-member group that promotes preservation, conservation and restoration of native plants in the state.
The group's annual conference, Wednesday through May 18 at the Manatee Convention Center in Palmetto, will feature the state's largest native plant sale, with thousands of individual plants, including trees, shrubs and wildflowers, grown by a dozen vendors from throughout Florida. The sale, free and open to the public, is from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and May 17. The conference, for which paid registration is required, offers expert speakers, field trips to more than 20 natural areas (some by kayak and canoe), forums on climate change and the impact on butterflies and birds, and a marketplace of eco-friendly crafts, clothing, books and environmental art.
"It's essential that you do your homework before you buy a native plant," Wunderlich says. "People many times think, 'It's native; throw it in the ground and forget about it.' But you need to water every day (for two weeks) to get it started." That's the same advice for non-natives. But after that initial establishment period, natives have the DNA to survive just about anything Mother Nature throws at them. Non-natives don't.
Why not make it a goal this month to plant at least one Florida native that attracts wildlife? And the next time you're shopping at one of the "big box" garden centers, ask a manager to start stocking natives so more gardeners will plant them.
Who knows? Maybe those mega stores won't be as quiet as Wunderlich finds them, and our home gardens will be even livelier with wild visitors.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.