Planting native plants in Palm Beach is ‘just smart landscaping’

Planting native plants in Palm Beach is ‘just smart landscaping’

I’ve discussed the importance of native plants for the survival of our pollinators and birds, but I haven’t really explained why invasives are so damaging to our environment.

For over a century, we’ve imported plants to South Florida from all over the world. Some were thought to be beneficial while others were just ornamental. Many couldn’t adapt and disappeared, while many more grew nicely here and caused no problems. But some found the environment perfect: they went to seed and spread to new territory, choking out the existing native plants that couldn’t compete with their vigorous growth and, in so doing, displaced the associated pollinators, birds and wildlife.

Once established, invasive species adversely affect native-plant communities, outcompeting and killing the existing native species and damaging natural ecosystems. We need to be proactive in addressing this issue to maintain the health, function and long-term productivity of our landscapes.

Because Florida’s climate is so accommodating, invasive species cause more crises here than anywhere else in the United States. All of Florida’s native habitats marine, freshwater, and terrestrial are threatened by invasives.

Tegu lizards can grow to 5 feet in length.
  • The omnivorous Argentine black-and-white tegu lizards can grow to 5 feet in length and feast on the eggs of ground nesting birds.
  • Burmese pythons have been spotted swimming from the Everglades to the Florida Keys. These invasive constrictors feed on native species and can grow upwards of 20 feet.
  • Beautiful and exotic lionfish devour smaller species of native fish and have no known predators.
  • Studies have shown that non-native wood boring insects promote disease and reduce a forest’s ability to capture and store carbon.

The cost of managing Florida’s invasive plants is upwards of $100 million every year. The cost of animal management could easily exceed this.

Lionfish devour smaller species of native fish and have no known predators.

Proper IDs

The first step in controlling invasives is identification: you can’t remove them if you don’t know what they are and you need to identify them so you don’t buy them accidentally. A few to be particularly aware of are: Japanese climbing ferns, melaleuca trees, Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, common lantana (Lantana camara), heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense), coral ardisia, and tropical or scarlet milkweed (Asclepias curassavica).

Tropical milkweed, Asclepius curassavica, is widely used and often sold as a native. It can cause monarchs to have a deadly parasitic infection called OE. If you have this milkweed, make sure to cut it back to the ground after monarch caterpillars have eaten the leaves.

Milkweed, you say? Isn’t that the essential host plant for the monarch butterfly? Yes, but it is important that you buy the native species, as the non-native can transmit the deadly OE bacterium to the monarch caterpillars, causing wing deformity, an inability to fly and ultimate death. Plant butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) or rose milkweed (Asclepias incarnata): If you have the scarlet milkweed in your garden, as many of us do, make sure you cut it back to the ground after the caterpillars have defoliated it. This will decrease the risk of the OE bacterium.

Unfortunately, many of these invasives are still being sold at nurseries under incorrect names.

Native lantana has yellow flowers and is a low growing, spreading ground cover. It is not poisonous, but the invasive Lantana camara is.

One of the worst offenders is the invasive Lantana camara, often sold as the native Lantana depressa. The best way to avoid the invasive species is to understand the differences between the two.

Lantana camara, native to the West Indies and called shrub verbena, was loved by gardeners for its bright multicolored flowers, but it will dominate understory vegetation and is listed as a category I invasive. It has outcompeted our native Lantana depressa to the point that this is now listed as endangered.