An Examination of Native Floridian Vegetation

Conservation is crucial to protecting our environment, and one of the best methods of approaching this issue is through educating oneself on the very vegetation that we aim to conserve. The following is an examination of several species of plant life native to Florida, all of which can be found on campus; in fact, many can be cultivated easily as they grow well in their native habitat.

Originally from the southwest grasslands and Gulf Coast, the G. pulchella can grow in various kinds of soil; it currently inhabits most of the continental US, but has not been documented in the northwestern US and some mid-Atlantic states. G. pulchella grows anywhere from 30 to 61cm (1 to 2 feet) tall, and the flowers are about 3.8 to 7.6cm (1.5 to 3.0in) in diameter. In Florida, the pinnacle of flowering for the G. pulchella is from May through August; however, it can bloom year-round in south Florida. G. pulchella is pollinated by insects such as bees and soldier beetles. Its preferred habitat is dry, sunny sites, as well as sandy soil (it is frequently found in coastal areas). Collectively, the petals of the flower, the corolla, are radiant and bicolored (typically red and yellow), which can be seen in the picture above. In some cases, the corolla can be completely red or yellow. Occasionally, the G. pulchella has red on the innermost sections of the petals and fades into solid white at the tips. The rarest variation of the corolla is when it is entirely white.

If you wish to grow your own Gaillardias, simply gather the dry seed heads and then plant, you are actually allowed to gather them from the restoration area! Gaillardias are often used as decorative plants in flowerbeds, due to the flowers' brilliant colors. Other attributes that make them desirable for décor, especially near the ocean, is the fact that G. pulchella is relatively low-growing, and also salt tolerant. An interesting feature of this hardy plant is that it can withstand about a week submerged in water. They require little maintenance, and so many states actually place them along freeways and highways, so if you don't exactly have a "green thumb" you might want to try growing these!

As for the Wild Liatris spicata, it is most commonly seen in moist parts of the Eastern US; it can grow in a variety of habitats, such as pine flatwoods, wet savannas, and even roadsides! Popular in gardens, L. spicata can actually reseed itself. Reseeding is when a plant,”...blooms, sets seeds, and once those seedheads are brown, they will fall off into the garden soil to create more ... plants if conditions are right.” (Beth). The dense blazing star has a feather-like appearance due to the way each flower is clustered along the stem, especially because it is composed solely of disc flowers. Ray flowers have petals radiating from the eye (what you would typically picture when the word flower comes to mind), but disc flowers grow directly out of the flower head's "eye.” The disc flowers on the dense blazing star are tubular and most commonly pink/purple in color; however, they can sometimes be white.

Stems of the L. spicata can reach as high as 2 meters (6 feet) tall, and can surprisingly become so heavy that they cannot support themselves, and therefore fall to the ground, so when walking through the restoration area, or any other place with dense blazing stars, watch your step! L. spicata, like the blanket flower, is very low maintenance and a rather hardy plant, it will last quite a while after being cut, and so many florists utilize this native plant in arrangements. It is excellent for attracting butterflies and bees, in fact, dense blazing stars are highly recommended for butterfly gardens along with milkweed. In the photos above, you can compare the native L. spicata to the cultivated ones found in back of Cook Hall by the bay. Some Native American tribes actually ate the roots of the L. spicata and other species of Liatris after baking them. Liatris can also lie dormant for about a century before blooming! They will finally bloom after a forest fire.

The Iris hexagona Walt. Var. savannarus (Small) Foster is a particular wetland iris that occurs only in south and central Florida. Habitats include seasonal ponds, swamps, ditches, and wet prairies. This perennial plant flowers on stalks that are about 5-9 dm tall, and is known for its deep violet flowers and sword-shaped leaves. The flower itself is composed of 3 dark violet sepals (that look like large petals), and then 3 smaller upright petals. The wetland iris flowers in spring, and its fruit consists of capsules that contain several rows of flat, buoyant seeds. Due to the fact that these plants thrive in wet habitats, more colonies of wetland iris will bloom after a wet winter, and vice versa. The rhizome (a horizontal growing root) of this plant is actually poisonous; however, it was used in small amounts by Native Americans and settlers. This used to be one of the most popular medicinal plants, as it was utilized for ailments such as, “respiratory problems, colds, and poultice was made for burns and sores.”

Meadow beauties (R. cubensis Griseb) typically grow in acidic, or sandy, wet soils. Although they frequent pineflatwoods, seasonal ponds, ditches, and marshes of the Southern US, they are sometimes found in the West indies, Calidornia, and Mississippi. R. cubensis Griseb. is known for its bright, purple-pink flowers, and its prominent yellow anthers (the top parts of the stamen). Its family, melastomatacae, is often nicknamed the 'Grecia urn family' due to their distinctive floral tubes, the hypanthium, or the cup-shapedpart of the flower that typically holds pollen or nectar. This small, perennial herb grows to be about 5 dm tall! Meadow beauties, as the name implies, are often used for décor and are great in wetland gardens; however, they are edible and are sometimes used in salads. The leaves have a, “...sweetish and slightly acidic taste, while the tubers are pleasantly nutty in quality...the tubers are usually used raw although the leaves may be cooked.” Deer also favor Rhexia, hence the common name of Deergrass.

A hardier plant, the Asclepias tuberosa L. ssp. Rolfsii Woodson (A. tuberosa), spans over mostly the eastern, southwestern, and Midwestern parts of the US. It prefers dry and sandy soils, and grows in pinelands, fields, and roadsides. This long lived perennial herb is approximately 7dm (about 28in) tall. Its flowers grow in orange-red clusters, as the common name Orange Milkweed implies; however, the flowers can be yellow in color. Seed pods are small and brown with tufts that are easily distributed by the wind, similar to that of dandelions seeds. 

Due to its popularity among butterfly gardens, this plant is the most common native wildflower in cultivation. This plant is crucial for some butterflies, as young caterpillars depend on it for food, shelter, and a location to form their chrysalis on. Butterflies aren't the only organisms attracted to A. tuberosa, other pollinators like various insects and hummingbirds also frequent the plant. On the other hand, some small insects die trying to free themselves after slipping on the crown of the flower and then falling into slits that house the sticky pollen sacs. Those that do make it, end up bringing the pollen on their legs to the stigma of other Butterfly Weed plants by doing the same thing. Similar to the Wetland Iris, the rhizome was also utilized by a few North American tribes in treating pleurisy, pulmonary, and respiratory problems, as well as sores and burns. Because of its expectorant properties, it also became a popular American medicinal source, it was even combined, “...with other plants in southern folk medicine for colds and rheumatism." The young shoots and seed pods of this plant are edible, although the leaves, like rhizome is poisonous.

In contrast to the tough A. tuberosa, the Helianthus is Latin for sunflower and debil means weak. This is the plant's binomen due to its weak stems. While Dune Sunflowers are typically found on coastal dunes and beaches, they also have the ability to grow more inland when there is disturbed soil present. You can identify these plants by the 10-20 yellow ray petals on each flower head, as well as their glossy and irregularly shaped leaves. Florida's beaches face the challenges of erosion constantly, and so due to their success in mass plantings, H. debil are excellent for dune stabilization. Native Americans had numeral applications for the Dune Sunflower, including a remedy for sunstroke and for treating snake bites. The seeds were used, "... to make a cooking meal and a peanut butter-like finger food...” They were also boiled to make cooking oil, while the brightly colored petals were used to make dyes. Today, the plant, “... is used to treat bronchial and other pulmonary problems, colds." In addition to these uses, it can also be eaten as a vegetable, as well as create potash fertilizer.

Sida rhombifolia, also known as Arrowleaf Sida Teaweed, is a perennial plant that is very common in the Southern US and are small hibiscus lookalikes! T can be anywhere from pale in color, to a bright yellow. While the flowers for each species are the same, the acuta (the more prevalent of the two) has lanceolate to ovate shaped leaves, while the rhombifolia's are thin and linear. Arrowleaf Sida Teaweed is great for attracting bees and butterflies, but it is better known for its medicinal properties. The leaves have the ability to reduce swelling and the fruits can be used to relieve headaches.

G. heterophylla is another lovely plant that can flower year round, and the shrub can grow between 4 to 8 feet tall. The rosy and purple-white flowers cover the plant, while it's alternating wavy leaves grow from its woody stems (heterophylla means ‘with leaves of different kinds'). Due to Florida's little remaining scrub habitats, Garberias are actually considered threatened in Florida. Garberias can be found throughout Florida, especially in sandier central and northeastern areas. It can also grow in pine and oak scrub habitats of Texas, California, Georgia, and Louisiana. These wildflowers can grow in a variety of harsh habitats, such as acidic, sandy, and loam (rich in sand, silt, and clay) soil. Garberia is often used, “ attract butterflies, as a reclamation plant, for bordering, and mass planting.” Although it is closely related to the Liatris, Garberia is a shrub (not a herbaceous perennial). Additionally, their karyotypes differ as well.

Another sand-loving plant would be the Palafoxia which grows in sunny, sandy uplands, such as scrub and sand hill habitats; Palafoxia is only found in the southern two-thirds of Florida. This plant is known for its height, as it grows at least 6 feet tall. Being in the asterceae family, it has disc flowers, not ray, that are white in color with maroon styles and white stigmas. Palafoxia acts as a food source for insects like bees and wasps, as well as larvae for certain Lepidoptera species. While this plant is great for attracting butterflies and birds, it is not commonly used in small gardens due to its height. Folk medicine has utilized Rosy Palafox, Palafoxia rosea, “ treat fever, nausea, and chills.” The genus Palafoxia comes from the Spanish captain-general and Duke of Saragossa (1776-1847), Jose de Palafox y Melzi.

Pityopsis is a wonderful plant that is used for attracting butterflies, as the nectar it produces draws them in. Due to the habitats that the plant prefers, its name is derived from the Greek word “pity" which means “pine, fir” and “opsi” for “appearance.” It is native to Florida and can also be found in Georgia, Texas, and Mississippi; it is a perennial herb. It typically blooms from January to December. This plant can reach about 1-3 feet in height, and its leaves are silvery and arranged opposite one another on each stem. The flowers of the Pityopsis are composed of bright yellow petals in 2 inch clusters of corymbs. This plant thrives in full sun, and so it is best to avoid planting it in shady areas. Pityopsis is very tolerant to droughts and is used mostly for décor in gardens; however, it is known to slowly spread throughout a plant bed and form colonies.

Pinus elliotti var. densa 51 is a species only found in Florida, and it can live up to 200 years old. The South Florida Slash Pine generally becomes 30 to 50 feet tall in Southern Florida; however, it can reach up to 64 feet in other parts of the state! This evergreen is known for its rather long pine needles, and it is pollinated by the wind. Sometimes this pine gets confused with the Longleaf Pine (which has thicker needles). Slash pinecones are roughly smaller than your hand, as opposed to the lengthier Longleaf cones. These pines are actually the most abundant of pines in the state of Florida, as they are typically in pine flatwoods, the most abundant type of ecosystem across Florida. Although Slash Pines are used in reforestation projects and timber plantations, they were once very important to the naval stores and turpentine industry. This is because the turpentine and crude rosins that the pine produces can be used to manufacture a myriad of goods, such as poles, pilings, railroad ties, etc.

Portulaca pilosa is a perennial native to Florida, it can be found in, “...Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana Montana, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.” Pink purslane grows very close to the ground, it is typically described as a "fleshy...plant with small, magenta flowers at the end of branches with tufts of whitish hairs in the leaf axils." The Pink purslane are smaller and more rice  shaped in comparison to the exotic species, the Paraguayan purslane, which is also present in this area. This plant serves well as an accent in gardens. In addition to décor, it can also be used to attract bees and butterflies. Its sister species, Portulaca grandiflora (native to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina), is now considered an invasive species in many areas


  1. Fenner, E., Hannah, S., Locicero A., Weigel T., (2012) Field Guide to the Native Plants of the Heart of the Campus Restoration Area. New College Environmental Studies Program, Sarasota, Florida.
  2. "IRC - Natives for Your Neighborhood." IRC - Natives for Your Neighborhood. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.
  3. "Floridata: Pinus Elliottii." Floridata: Pinus Elliottii. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.
  4. "Florida Scrub-Jay Trail News." Florida Scrub-Jay Trail News. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
  5. Huffman, Jean. "Wildflowers." Pine Flatwoods and the Seasonal Ponds of Southwest Florida. N.p.: n.p., 1982. 109-09A. Print
  6. Huffman, Jean. "Wildflowers." Pine Flatwoods and the Seasonal Ponds of Southwest Florida. N.p.: n.p., 1982. 103. Print
  7. Conrad, Jim. "Composite Flowers." Composite Flowers. N.p., 13 Aug. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
  8. Beth, Mary. "What Is the Trick to Cilantro?" Bonnie Plants. N.p., 29 June 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
  9. Christman, Steve. "Floridata: Liatris Spicata." Floridata: Liatris Spicata. N.p., 13 June 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
  10. Green, Deane. "Liatris, Dotted Blazing Star." Eat The Weeds and Other Things Too RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.