If you've started planting Florida natives in response to our relentless drought and water restrictions, now you have an even greater reason to make the switch from exotics to eco-friendly plants. Natives, which are perfectly adapted to our environment, are better equipped to handle whatever Mother Nature sends our way — including hurricanes.
Studies of hurricane-ravaged areas, including South Florida, the Panhandle and other coastal areas, repeatedly find that native plants weather the high winds and flooding with the least damage and provide valuable protection to the landscape. More than 2,000 Florida native plants have evolved to best withstand the dramatic forces of this climate.
The 2008 hurricane season started June 1, but there's still time to prepare your home landscape with storm survival in mind.
What you plant and the way you plant it have an enormous impact on how your house and landscape will fare in a hurricane, says Pamela Crawford, landscape architect and author of Stormscaping: Landscaping to Minimize Wind Damage in Florida (Color Garden, 2005; $29.95). She urges homeowners to evaluate their landscape and strategically plant hurricane-worthy trees and plants to prevent damage.
Start by making a list of every tree within falling distance of your home, says Crawford. Will each tree provide protection or become a source of damage and danger? "You can avoid property damage if you have the right trees around your house," she says.
Crawford should know. Her 10-acre Lake Worth property, which served as trial gardens for her horticultural work, was hit by three hurricanes in 2004. Based on her own experience and extensive research in other storm-ravaged areas of Florida where she interviewed residents, horticulturists, extension agents and other experts, Crawford developed a list of trees and plants most likely to survive up to a Category 3 hurricane, as well as undesirable plants with the potential to damage property.
According to Crawford, when groups of trees and plants that tolerate high winds are strategically placed in the landscape, they form a wind shield, from the ground up to about 30 feet high. Native and Florida-friendly trees and palms, including live oak, southern magnolia, bald cypress, gumbo limbo, ironwood, crape myrtle, sea grape, sabal palm and pygmy date palm have superior wind tolerance, she says. One of the hardiest trees is the live oak, which has a low center of gravity for greatest stability. When high winds hit its canopy, those winds are forced up and over nearby structures, which prevents structural wind damage. Other experts contend that nonnative trees that are compact and have extensive roots and a dense canopy can withstand storm damage.
According to Crawford, trees and palms with low wind tolerance include ficus, sand pine, jacaranda, elm, tabebuia, queen palm and cat palm. It's the laurel oaks and Australian pines, however, that pose the greatest hazard in the Tampa Bay area, she says. "Those two I would classify as killer trees. If they are near your house, I advise pulling them out."
Crawford may not have to worry about killer trees this year. After living through several hurricanes and researching storm damage for her book, she moved her home and horticulture business to northern Georgia. "The financial devastation was so huge. I thought it would be nice to be somewhere where it wasn't windy," she says.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.