While we need to add natives to our landscapes to promote sustainable and ecologically healthy ecosystems, we also need to understand the importance of diversity.
Native plants are not only beautiful but also come in a variety of form, color, texture and fragrance. Too many homes use the same material for their foundation plantings, creating costly, unsustainable monocultures that require harmful chemicals and constant attention: perfectly trimmed walls of green island ficus, manicured spikes of podocarpus, and adjacent rugs of jasmine minima add nothing to the surrounding landscape.
If this is the look you’re after, you may as well be planting plastic for all the help you’re giving the environment. Besides, don’t you want to be a little more creative? Foundation plantings don’t need to be boring, symmetrical and lifeless; they provide far more curb appeal with diverse heights, shapes and textures.
A foundation using cocoa plum or wild coffee could still be pruned, but at least it would be providing pollinators with a food source. For added interest, Jamaican caper could be added along with the dense, rounded black torch and pearlberry.
Jamaican caper, Capparis cynophallophora, is one of Florida’s most versatile ornamentals, working equally well as a specimen, hedge or accent plant. The neat, pyramidal growth habit never needs pruning and the attractive leathery green foliage has a soft rose-tan underside. The fragrant white to purple flowers are reminiscent of starbursts, with long stamens extending far beyond the petals. These only appear from April to June, but are well worth the wait
Black torch, Erithralis fruiticosa, is a wonderful accent shrub with glossy evergreen foliage and delicate panicles of small star-shaped white flowers followed by clusters of shiny black berries. It does well in sun or shade.
Pearlberry, Vallesia antillana, is a rare specimen shrub with shiny, deep green leaves and small white flowers followed by iridescent, almost translucent white berries, hence the common name. This is listed as critically imperiled and endangered by the state, so you will be doing yourself as well as the plant a big favor by incorporating it into your landscape.
Saw palmetto along a wall provides sculptural and textural interest with beautiful spikey grayblue fronds; and the fragrant white flower clusters host numerous bees and butterflies, including the rare Atala.
If you want to add additional color, try incorporating the lovely Necklace pod, Sophora tomentosa, with its arching spikes of bright yellow flowers. All of these plants are salt and drought tolerant, requiring little maintenance once they are established.
If you’re dealing with a shady area and looking for a spot of color, try Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. This shrub grows to 5 feet, producing graceful arching branches covered in thick clusters of deep purple pearl-like berries. There is an equally beautiful white variety.
Palm Beach is an island of hedges, but as Ficus benjamina is now banned from future planting, let’s explore some of the many more interesting, beautiful and sustainable options that never need spraying of any chemical pesticides or fungicides. Instead of a single plant hedge, envision a stunning assortment of thatch palms, Simpson’s stopper, buttonwood, wild coffee and saw palmetto, with some marlberry, myrsine and Bahama strongbark thrown in for a splash of color with their bright black and red berries.
Thatch palm, Thrinax radiata, is a tough native that tolerates salt and drought as well as a variety of adverse conditions. Its lovely dark green fan shaped fronds are slightly drooped at the ends, giving it a graceful appearance. White flowers appear on yellow stems in clusters 3 to 4 feet long. This makes a lovely specimen or can be incorporated into a hedge for added interest.
Simpson’s stopper, Myrcianthes fragrans, is one of Florida’s best small trees, as a stunning single specimen or planted en masse to form a thick hedge. As a single specimen, its ornamental exfoliating light brown bark is a show stopper, and the fragrant white flowers attract numerous butterflies and pollinators. Birds love the red fruit that follows. This is a slow grower, requiring little to no maintenance once established, as it is drought and salt tolerant. It can be sheared to 6 to 8 feet if you want a more formal look or left alone to reach a maximum height of 20 feet. It performs well in sun or shade.
Buttonwood, Conocarpus erectus, makes a terrific hedge or specimen, and it tolerates wind, salt and drought. It can be clipped to any desired height or left to grow to 25 feet. The silver variety is slightly smaller than the green form, and the cultivar ‘’SilverSheen’’ is the best of the lot as it is resistant to scale and mealybugs, which can cause sooty mold on the common silver variety.
Marlberry, Ardesia escallonioides, makes a beautiful screen or background plant for shady locations. Its large clusters of fragrant white flowers attract butterflies and pollinators and the lovely clusters of purplish black fruits are loved by an assortment of songbirds. Plant this in a shaded entryway or courtyard where the fragrance can be appreciated. The name is actually a shortened version of marble berry, as the fruits were thought to resemble marbles.
Myrsine, Myrsine cubensis, is a close relative to the marlberry, though with a more narrow habit and less conspicuous flowers that lack fragrance. Still, the small purple fruit that ripens along the stems are very popular to native birds and wildlife, and this adds dense lush texture to a shady hedge.
Bahama strongbark, Bourreria ovata, with its fragrant white flowers and showy clusters or orange red fruit, makes a wonderful decorative tree or can be added to a hedge. Salt and drought tolerant, and not fussy as to soil, this is a great trouble-free native for any landscape.
Wild coffee, Pyschotria nervosa, is excellent for a shady screen, with its glossy dark green, deeply serrated foliage. Oval red berries follow the small white flowers, making this exceptional for attracting birds, butterflies and other pollinators. Multi-stemmed, this is a fast grower and makes a stunning highly ornamental hedge.
These are just a few ideas for adding diversity to the landscape. We are exceptionally lucky to have so many beautiful and interesting native plants from which to choose. Try some and you’ll be glad you aren’t allowed to plant Ficus benjamina hedges any longer. And since you won’t need to spray, you’ll be able to appreciate the wonderful fragrance of all the flowers.