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In autumn, Florida wildflowers put on a show

This is the time of year when my lawn really comes to life.

I get cheery daisy fleabane flowers, with their hippie fringe petals, and Florida tasselflower, to name just a couple. If it weren't for all the wildflowers, my "grass" would be mostly weeds.

Fall is prime time for wildflower blooms in Florida. Instead of crimson and gold foliage, we get purple blazing star, sunny coreopsis and the hazy red glow of muhly grass.

"I love the muhly grass," said photographer and master naturalist Kathleen Nichter, leading a hike recently at Brooker Creek Preserve in northern Pinellas County. "During the Fall Wildflower Festival, it's going to look like there's fire waving back and forth."

The free festival is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 26, timed to coincide with peak blooming in the 8,700-acre park at 3940 Keystone Road, Tarpon Springs. The event includes presentations and a wildflower sale, a butterfly tent, honeybees, a scavenger hunt on the trails and kids' crafts.

The day before, you can get a preview and photography tips from Kathleen and her husband, Karl, during a free guided hike from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. I just love these two fun and knowledgeable volunteers! I've now logged two hikes with them and I'll go again because I learn something new every time. Sign up at brookercreekpreserve.eventbrite.com.

If you can't wait to get your wild on, pack your picnic basket and head to Apalachicola National Forest in the Panhandle this weekend. The wildflowers along State Road 65 and throughout the area are said to put on the best show in the Southeast. They were predicted to peak this week. Print a color map highlighting the best roads for wildflowers in that Panhandle area and a plant identification guide from the Florida Wildflower Foundation at bit.ly/panhandlewild.

Closer to home, the Suncoast Parkway is a gem among gems, said Lisa Roberts, executive director of the foundation.

"The Florida Turnpike does a fabulous job" planting wildflowers and protecting the areas where they grow, she said. "The Suncoast Parkway puts on a very strong show."

Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka is also looking great right now, especially in the open areas near the Primitive Youth Camp, Lisa said.

Of course, you can also plant your own. The wildflower foundation defines "Florida native wildflower" as any flowering herbaceous or woody species with ornamental flowers that grew wild here in the 1560s. We have more than 3,600 species, according to the nonprofit Nature Wise TV. Of those, about 300 of them grow nowhere else in the world.

"I took a pledge of no non-natives in my yard and I can't tell you how much life there is in my landscape now," said Lisa, a former Orlando Sentinel journalist who lives in Maitland.

Natives attract birds, butterflies and other wildlife that rely on their flowers or seeds for food. They have fewer issues with pests and, because they're adapted to our conditions, they're generally easier to grow, but only if you put them where they want to be. The toughest, shade-loving native is guaranteed to crumble in full sun.

To ensure you're getting true natives, Lisa recommends buying from a native grower.

The Florida Association of Native Nurseries has a nursery locator at plantrealflorida.org that lists growers in the bay area. In Pinellas: Twigs & Leaves in St. Petersburg; Wilcox Nursery and Landscape in Largo; and Hawthorn Hill in Seminole. Pasco County has Cypress Acres Nursery in Land O'Lakes. It doesn't list any in Hillsborough or Hernando counties.

Of course, the "wildflowers" popping up in my front yard didn't come from a nursery, native or not. Which makes me wonder — am I kidding myself? Are they really just weeds?

I asked Lisa.

"Daisy fleabane is a wonderful wildflower," she said. "It's really stunning on roadsides. It's just so sunny. It's tiny but it does a big job in nature."

Thumbs up!

Florida tasselflower, however, despite its nickname, is non-native and invasive: a weed.

Boo.

But, as Lisa pointed out, a weed is really just any plant growing where it shouldn't be.

Since I want everything that's willing to help fill in my patchy turf, all of my weeds are wildflowers!

Penny Carnathan can be reached at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Find more on local gardening on her blog, digginfloridadirt. Join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt or follow her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.

In autumn, Florida wildflowers put on a show 10/16/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 1:03pm]
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