Why Native Plants?

We are creatures of habit.  Buying plants we are familiar with or plants we have admired in our neighborhood.  With aisles full of beautiful plants, it takes a strong will to resist those impulse purchases.  But why resist?  Why not plant whatever you want… it’s your right!

The case for going native:

The majority of plants in the big box stores have their origins in other countries.  Such wide-spread use of exotics has caused Florida to lose its unique natural identity.  From the East coast to the West coast, we all use the same plants in our landscape.

Developers destroy native habitats and then the landscapers install cookie cutter designs.  Diversity and function are traded for aesthetics.

Native plants remain under-utilized in commercial and residential landscapes.  If you are concerned about the environment and if you want to develop a healthy ecosystem, you need to use native plants.

What’s difference between native and exotic plants?

A native plants is one that was present in our landscape before the first European contact (Florida statute 5B-40.00).  They are part of our natural landscape and support our native wildlife.

The first settler’s brought plants from their homeland for various reasons, introducing them into our landscape.  These plants are exotics and classified into two categories.

  1. Naturalized exotics:  Non-native plants that have acclimated themselves to our environment, they now persist in our landscape.  Naturalized exotics don’t displace native species or cause damage to Florida’s habitats.
  2. Invasive exotics: Non-native plants that have acclimated themselves to our environment.  Invasive exotics crowd out native plants and diminish food supply for our wildlife.  They diminish conservation lands and waterways.

What are the impacts of invasive exotics?

¹Invasive exotics rob our natural wildlife of refuge, forage, breeding and nesting grounds.

  • Brazilian Pepper has routed mangrove birds from their natural rookeries and disrupted the nesting habitat of the gopher tortoise.
  • Chinese Tallow commonly displaces native vegetation, and ultimately establishes itself as a monoculture. Along waterways, estuaries and coastlines, decay from its persistent leaf drop encourages algal blooms.
  • Small mammal population densities are much lower where Melaleuca forests thrive.
  • The Australian Pine is an allelopathic species. It releases toxins through its root system and abundant leaf litter that quickly make an area uninhabitable for other trees and vegetation (although, Carrotwood seems oddly immune).  Along our coastline, Australian Pine stands also encourage beach erosion, with dense but shallow roots that prevent endangered sea turtles and American crocodiles from excavating suitable nesting cavities.

²The Nature Conservancy estimates the cost of managing Florida’s invasive plants alone to be $100 million dollars each year. The damage to our environment is second only to destruction of natural habitats by development.

Invasive Exotics in Sarasota County:

Sarasota County encourages the removal of the following species.  The damage to the environment is so severe, they are banned from sale, propagation or planting (Sarasota County Ordinances, Article XIX, §54-621).

Beach Naupaka:

Carrotwood:  Fast growth rate and ease of propagation made carrotwood popular as a landscape tree in the 1960s, but those same properties have enabled it to overtake native plant communities in 14 south Florida counties.  Carrotwood invades beach dunes, marshes, tropical hammocks, pine lands, mangrove and cypress swamps, scrub habitats and coastal strands altering understory habitat.

Brazilian Pepper:  Brazilian pepper was present in Florida as early as 1840 and was widely sold as a landscape ornamental in the 1920s.  Dense thickets completely shade out and displace native vegetation and alter natural fire behavior. Because it is in the same family as poison ivy, sap may cause skin irritation and produce an acrid smoke when burned. Seeds are widely dispersed by raccoons, opossums and fruit-eating birds. It is the most widespread invasive plant species in Florida, occupying more than 700,000 acres. It may exude a chemical that inhibits the growth of native plants.

Chinese Tallow:  Grown in China as a seed-oil crop for about 1,500 years, Chinese tallow was introduced to the U.S. as a landscape plant in the 1700s.  Chinese tallow thrives in most soils and tends to colonize large areas. It is now widespread in Florida along roadside ditches, coastal areas and streams, often forming dense thickets. Its rapid growth and spread threaten aquatic and upland environments.

Australian Pine:  Australian pine was introduced to the Miami and Palm Beach areas from Australia in the 1890s to be used as windbreaks around canals, agricultural fields, roads and houses. By the 1990s, it had escaped into natural habitats of native plants.  Because they are resistant to salt spray and can grow close to sea water, Australian pines have invaded thousands of acres of southeastern and southwestern Florida coastline.

This video is an example of the effect one invasive species can have on our environment.

An ounce of prevention before you plant prevents a pound of cure: 

Don’t plant a recognized invasive.  The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council has designated other non-natives for their negative influence, adverse impact or unsuitability for our environment (2011 FLEPP list).

Plant Real Florida is a website designed to help you find native plants and suppliers in your area.

In our area:

Florida Native Plant Nursery

Sweetbay Nursery

¹Sarasota County Urban Forestry Exotic Species

² Combating invasive species in Florida