Right Plant, Right Place

Proper plant selection in the Florida Keys is determined to a large degree by location. In natural areas, an elevation difference of a few inches can alter the appropriate native species group dramatically. Since landscape sites differ in growing conditions, plants should be carefully chosen. Consider soil alkalinity, salt exposure, light exposure, flood risk, drought tolerance, and the maintenance you are willing to give your choice.

With the above considerations in mind, the more the homeowner tries to emulate the naturally occurring environment by using native species, the more success is likely when landscaping the Florida Keys yard. When designing a landscape, it can be helpful to observe what grows well in the undisturbed areas near the neighborhood. In addition, native plants provide optimal food and shelter for wildlife.

A final caution is to remember that the Florida Keys is a unique environment. Attempts to recreate northern gardens here will frequently result in a frustrated gardener. Container gardening can be an alternative to in-ground planting, for those desiring to plant less hardy non-native species.  Also, please learn to identify exotic pest plants and don't use them in your landscape.  Happy Gardening!

Canopy Trees

Canopy trees are under-grown in the hammocks of the Keys. Few of the following canopy trees will reach full height.

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba) Native to the Keys. Maximum height 40-60 ft. Used for shade. Well suited for perimeters, parking lots, roadsides, and residences free of overhead power lines. Flowers are insignificant, but the bark is attractive. Fast growing. Branches will root directly into the ground. Highly drought and salt tolerant, and grows well in alkaline soil.

Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula) Native to the Keys. Maximum height 35-50 ft. A fast growing tree used in parks, residences, and road medians. Flowers are showy, whitish-lavender, white, and lavender. Bark and other parts can be used to stupefy fish. Highly drought tolerant.

Mahogany (Swietenia mahogani) Native to the Keys. Maximum height 40 ft. Good framing tree in landscapes and does not cast heavy shade. An upright tree with a broad, rounded, symmetrical crown. Flowers are inconspicuous; brown pods hang from cords in winter. It can adjust to most soil and light conditions, and is wind and salt tolerant. Needs plenty of room and will undermine structures.

Green Buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus) Native to the Keys. Used in residences, by seasides, or in parks, roadsides, road medians, and parking lots. Flower is insignificant. Fruit is in clusters of crusty spheres, like buttons. Its hard wood is used for smoking fish, and was once an important Keys fuel as charcoal. Salt and wind tolerant, and the best survivor of severe weather.

Pigeon Plum (Cocoloba diversifolia) Native to the Keys. Maximum height 40 ft in full sun; in shade, it becomes bushier. The bark peels with gray-brown on top and purple under. Shiny green leaves, which can be round, pointed or elliptical. It flowers in March and fruits in summer, giving small purple berries. Tolerant to salt, wind, and alkaline soil.

Understory Trees

Understory trees provide privacy, shade, and habitat for wildlife.

Green Buttonwood  Refer to Canopy Trees. If pruned, this tree makes an excellent hedge.

Silver Buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus var. sericeus) Native to the Keys. A sub-species of buttonwood. Used as a small tree or shrub, it makes a silvery contrast to other plants. Salt, wind, and drought tolerant.

Satinleaf (Chrysophullum oliviforme)  Native to the Keys. Used in parking lots, road medians, roadsides, residences, and parks. Provides shade. Leaves are glossy on top and bronzy satin below. Medium to high salt and drought tolerance.

Autograph Tree, Pitch Apple (Clusia rosea) Native to the Keys. Maximum height 30 ft. Slow-growing evergreen that provides a tropical effect. Leaves are large, bold, thick, leathery, and shiny. Writing on leaf is permanent until leaf drops. The bark is gray and may send down aerial roots. Flowers are large, pink or white, hard, and develop into seed pods. Mature trees produce large green fruits with red flesh. Salt and wind tolerant.

Locustberry (Brysonima lucida) Native to the Keys. Maximum height 15 ft. A small tree with shiny leaves. Colorful flowers in spring. Birds like the fruit. Will attract a lot of pollinators, bees and wasps, so don't plant near kids play areas.

Lignum Vitae (Guaiacum sanctum) Native to the Keys. A slow-growing tree that does well when planted some distance from the shoreline. It grows in a twisted manner, which causes a bush shape. Leaves are opposite, with 4-8 leaflets, shiny above and pale below. Blossoms in spring with a showy mass of small purple-blue flowers. The tree requires water and iron until established.

Shrubs

Shrubs provide privacy and habitat for wildlife.

Janaica Caper (Capparis cunophallophora) Native to the Keys. Compact crown. Leaves are leathery, having curled, notched edges, and are dark green above and bronze below. Brush-like flowers bloom white and turn purple during the day. Branches are thick and twiggy. Salt, wind, and drought tolerant. Requires little care, but caterpillars may attack mid-summer. However, the leaves will grow right back.

Coco Plum (Chrysobalanus icaco) Native to Florida. Maximum height 12 ft or taller if not pruned. A shrub or stubby tree that makes an excellent wind break. Dense foliage from the ground up, with a naturally symmetrical shape. Fruit is dark purple; both fruit and kernel are edible. Salt and wind tolerant. Requires little care after establishment.

Proper plant selection in the Florida Keys is determined to a large degree by location. In natural areas, an elevation difference of a few inches can alter the appropriate native species group dramatically. Since landscape sites differ in growing conditions, plants should be carefully chosen. Consider soil alkalinity, salt exposure, light exposure, flood risk, drought tolerance, and the maintenance you are willing to give your choice.

With the above considerations in mind, the more the homeowner tries to emulate the naturally occurring environment by using native species, the more success is likely when landscaping the Florida Keys yard. When designing a landscape, it can be helpful to observe what grows well in the undisturbed areas near the neighborhood. In addition, native plants provide optimal food and shelter for wildlife.

A final caution is to remember that the Florida Keys is a unique environment. Attempts to recreate northern gardens here will frequently result in a frustrated gardener. Container gardening can be an alternative to in-ground planting, for those desiring to plant less hardy non-native species.  Also, please learn to identify exotic pest plants and don't use them in your landscape.  Happy Gardening!

Ground Cover

Once established, ground cover provides soil stabilization and a finished look to the landscape surrounding the home. Turf has been the ground cover most commonly used until the recent movement to native ground covers. The choices of ground cover material are many. The advantages of native ground covers include low maintenance, drought tolerance, tolerance to native alkaline soil, reduced fertilizer requirements, reduced weeds, and an interesting look to your landscape.

Golden Creeper (Ernodea littoralis) Native to Florida. Height 1-3 ft. Undulating, woody growth. Yellow-green leaves. Year-round pink flowers, and yellow seeds. Excellent sand binder. Plant in coastal, sporadically flooded areas.

Blanket Flower (Gaillardia pulchella) Native to Florida. Height 1-1.5 ft. Round clumping, herbaceous growth. Gray-green leaves. Year-round red or yellow, showy flowers with citrus scent. A favorite of bees and other pollinators. Plant in open areas.

Railroad Vine (Ipomoea pes-caprae) Native to Florida. Height 0.3-0.6 ft. Herbaceous growth. Green leaves. Purple, showy flowers in summer-fall. Plant in banks, slopes, open areas, and sandy areas.

Sea Purselane (Sesuvium portulacastrum) Native to Florida. Height 1-1.5 ft. Herbaceous growth. Green fleshy leaves. Pink, showy flowers year-round. Common seaside plant. Edible.

Sea Oats (Uniola paniculata) Native to the Keys. Height 3-5 ft. Herbaceous growth. Green grass-like leaves. White flowers in spring-summer. Endangered species. Plant seaside and use as dune stabilizer.

Dwarf Lantana* (Lantana involucrata) Native to the Keys. Height 0.7 ft. Herbaceous growth. Green leaves. Yellow or orange-red, showy flowers year-round. Plant in open areas, slopes, and banks. * Be sure to get the native species, not the exotic Lantana camara.

Blue Porterweed* (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) Native to the Keys. Height 1-1.5 ft. Herbaceous growth. Green leaves. Bright blue flowers year-round. Plant in open areas, banks, and slopes. * Be sure to get the native species, not the exotic Stachytarpheta Spp.

Spider lily (Hymenocallis latifolia)  Native to Florida. Height 1-3 ft. Bulb that forms large clumps in time. Green leaves. Showy, fragrant flowers in summer. Produces seeds readily. Plant in open areas, banks, slopes, seasides, and under trees.

Crinum Lily (Crinum Spp.) Some varieties are native to Florida. Height 5 ft. Herb with onion-like bulb. Light green, smooth leaves. Fragrant flowers cluster at top with 10-20 blooms. Buds are dark red outside, open flowers are white with a red stripe. The flower stalk is often purple.

Beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis) Native to the Keys. Height 1-2 ft. Herb with yellow, showy flowers year-round. Self seeding. Drought and salt tolerant. Not flood tolerant and does not like over-watering.

Coontie (Zamia pumila) Native to Florida. Height 1-3 ft. Woody plant with green, stiff leaves and no flowers. Palm-like Cycad that cannot be sheared or mowed.

Turf  Not native. There are four types of grass that will grow in the Keys: St. Augustine, Bermuda, Zoysia, Bahia grass. Sod works best in the Keys; seeding is not a good method of establishment. It is important to apply 6-8 inches of 90% sand : 10% organic matter before laying sod. You will need to consider the requirements of the different turf varieties if this is your choice of cover. This includes, sun or shade, soil alkalinity, traffic, salt tolerance, drought tolerance, flood tolerance, nematode tolerance, irrigation, fertilization, the correct mowing height of your grass, and the correct type of mower.

Plants that Strut Their Stuff

Use caution as these plants may have thorns, irritating sap, or the plant parts may be poisonous.

Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea Spp.) Not native. Height variable. Shrub with long, thorny canes with alternate, heart-shaped leaves and flowers, enclosed by highly colored bracts. Tolerant to full sun, salt, and soil alkalinity. Can be grown as small tree, hedge, or trellised.

Croton (Codiaeum variegatum) Not native. Height variable. Very colorful shrub. Leaves are coarse in texture and brightly variegated in color. Moderately tolerant of salt.

Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) Not native. Height variable. Multiple-stemmed, robust shrubs with evergree leaves. Year-round showy flowers come in various colors. May lose buds before opening due to midge insect larva. Not tolerant of salt or alkaline soil. Nutrient requirement high.

Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia) Not native. Maximum height 40 ft. Used for shade, framing, roadside, or free-standing specimen. It is called the world’s most flamboyant colorful tree for its riotous flower color in summer. Tolerates alkaline soil, salt. Wide spreading canopy and leaf drop can be extreme and will affect plants underneath. Also roots will disrupt foundations and sidewalks.

Frangipani (Plumeria Spp.) Not native. Maximum height 25 ft. Used as a patio tree, part of a shrubbery border, or freestanding specimen. For the fragrance of the beautiful blossoms, these are among the most popular trees in the Keys. Blossoms are beautiful, waxy, very fragrant, and come in various colors. Tolerates salt.

Oleander (Nerium oleander) Not native. Maximum height 20 ft. Used as a screen, windbreak, or free-standing specimen. Leaves are long, thin, leathery, dark green above, and light green below. Flower color can be red, pink, yellow, white, and may be single or double forms. Tolerant of wind, salt, drought, and alkaline soil. All plant parts are poisonous if eaten.

Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata) Not native. Height 35 ft. Evergreen tree with green foliage.  Year-round flowers are yellow, extremely fragrant, and used in perfume. The wood is weak, therefore, it is not wind resistant. Tolerant of alkaline soil and light. Low salt tolerance.

Palms

Palms are lovely and tropical. They are the plant that people associate with South Florida.

Florida Thatch Palm (Thrinax radiata) Native to the Keys. Maximum height 30 ft. Fan-like leaves are 3 ft long and yellowish-green.

Key Thatch Palm (Thrinax morrisii) Native to the Keys. Maximum height 25 ft. Fan-like leaves are light-green on top and silvery or bluish on the underside.

Florida Silver Palm (Coccothrinax argentata) Native to the Keys. Usually low growing but can reach a maximum height of 40 ft. Fan-shaped leaves are silver-white on the underside, and the trunk is slender. Edible fruit is purple to black. Leaves can be woven into hats, baskets, and matting.

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) Native to the Keys. Dwarf palm with creeping stem 8 ft long; sometimes grows erect to height of 20 ft. Fan-shaped leaves are 4 ft across. Flowers are fragrant, small, white, and densely massed in elongated plume-like clusters. Fruit is black and oblong.

Florida Royal Palm (Roystonea elata) Native to Florida. Maximum height is 100 ft. Feather-shaped leaves are dark green and 15 ft long. Trunk is smooth, cylindrical, light gray, and topped by a sleek, green crownshaft. Flowers are whitish-yellow and hang in clusters; Fruit is dark purple.

Cuban Royal Palm (Roystonea regia) Not native. Maximum height is 70 ft. Feather-shaped leaves are dark green and 10 ft long. Trunk is similar to the Florida Royal Palm. The inflorescence is shorter and wider than the Florida Royal, and the fruit is oval.

Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifero) Not native. Used on roadsides, and in landscapes as a background, framing or free-standing specimen tree. Only certified Maypan or Malayan dwarf should be used because of resistance to lethal yellowing disease. They are single-trunked, with fronds 10-15 ft long. Maypan grows more rapidly and produces fruit after 5 years. Excellent salt and wind tolerance.

Bismark (Bismarckia nobilis) Not native. Maximum height 60 ft. One of the most beautiful and desirable fan palms in the Keys landscape, although it can appear out of scale with small houses. It is bold, formal, and massive.

Buccaneer Palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii) Native to the Keys. Maximum height 10 ft. One of the most durable palms for seaside planting. Growth is slow, and no two trees look alike.

Arikury Palm (Syagrus schizophylla) Not native. Maximum height 15 ft. Grows well in shade and indoors. Flower is white, and fruit is orange.

Washingtonia Palm (Washingtonia robusta) Not native. Maximum height 100 ft. Tallest growing of the hardier palms. This palm is distinguished by the dense “petticoat” of dead leaves covering the trunk.

Foxtail Palm (Wodyetia bifurcata) Not native. Maximum height 30 ft. The name comes from the bushy appearance of the leaves. Commonly has problems with manganese and zinc deficiency.

Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto) Native to the Keys. Height to 40'.  Used as a framing tree, in palm groupings, as a free-standing specimen, patio tree, or on roadside. Grows slowly and requires little maintenance after establishment. The native cabbage palm cannot be excelled. It is Florida’s state tree. Tolerant to different light conditions, salt, and alkaline soil.

Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor) Native to the Keys. Maximum height 6 ft. Good specimen plant in partial shade.