Observing the Plants Where You Visit: St. Augustine, Florida

crinum lily flower fla 1-21-2016

Flowering crinum lily in St. Augustine, Florida, January 2016.

“Send me outdoors and I shall be well-entertained.”
Iris P. Weaver

I got a fabulous Christmas present from long-time friends this year: a round-trip ticket to visit them at their condo rental in St. Augustine, Florida, in January. Besides the obvious pleasure of being in at least marginally warmer climes than New England, the trip was a chance to meet new plants and see a very different environment than I inhabit in northeastern Massachusetts. I always love seeing what the plants are wherever I am visiting.

Before I left I didn’t even know where St. Augustine was in Florida, and had to look at a map when I got there to discover that it is in the northeastern part of the state. I did know that it is on the ocean, as beaches were mentioned before I left.

In Massachusetts I also live near the coastline and beaches, and so know the coastal landscape and flora quite well. It has been fascinating to observe the differences between the two coastal areas.

I didn’t know that Florida has a range of climate zones. I had previously only been to Orlando and Miami Beach, and just assumed that Florida is warm, warm, hot year-round. Not so. There are actually several growing/climate zones, ranging from Zone 8a to 10b according the USDA Plant Zone hardiness map. A book I got (Florida Landscape Plants: Native and Exotic*) divides Florida into 3 zones: North, Central, South, but the USDA map is more nuanced, dividing Florida into six growing zones. I had no idea there was so much variation in temperature and climate in this one state! The USDA places St. Augustine in Zone 9a and Florida Landscape Plants in the Northern zone.

flowering aloe-Florida, 1-21-2016

Aloe in bloom, St. Augustine, Florida, January 2016.

I was surprised to find that there is not as much diversity of plants in St. Augustine, both garden and landscape plants and weeds/wild-growing plants, as there is in New England. I guess I thought that warmer automatically meant lots of diversity, maybe even more than in colder climes.

Nevertheless, it was wonderful looking at the plants and wondering what they were, or seeing familiar plants, some that live only in pots in Massachusetts (though of course some of them live in pots in Florida as well).

It was so different from the last time I went to Florida, almost 40 years ago. Not that I didn’t notice the plants then, and wonder at and appreciate them. But since then my connection with them has grown so much, and my knowledge and ability to observe have grown as well. I am able to see, know, and understand so much more about the plants that I am meeting, and able to make some educated guesses about the plants that I don’t know.

It is amazing, for a Northern gal like me, to see plants growing in the ground that in Massachusetts are sold in the indoor, tropical plants section of stores like Home Depot, and that must either live entirely indoors, be brought in before the snow begins to fly, or get treated as annuals. For instance, lantana grows wild as well as being a garden plant, and hibiscus bushes bloom everywhere in front yards and ornamental hedges.

Plants that live in pots or are annuals in New England

asparagus fern, Florida 1-2016

Asparagus fern with ripe berries, St. Augustine, Florida, January 2016.

As well as the lantana I mentioned that gets treated as an annual in New England, and the various tropical hibiscuses that also have to winter over indoors, there were other tropical plants in the ground in Florida, such as asparagus fern (related to our culinary asparagus), snake plant or sanseiveria, and philodendrons. Agapanthus, lily of the Nile, was everywhere, though it wasn’t blooming. I recognized it by its leaves. There were clumps of aloes by the sidewalk where we walked to the beach, and a few were just starting to bloom!

Live oaks and Spanish moss

spanish moss strand curly

A single strand of Spanish moss.

I was ecstatic to get off the plane and see live oaks and Spanish moss. For some reason I hadn’t seen them when I had been in Florida before. I had to ask to be sure the trees I was seeing were live oaks, because they have small, unlobed leaves that are very different from our oaks in New England, and from many other oaks. But the Spanish moss was unmistakable! I recognized it immediately.

Fresh living Spanish moss is greyish, with a slight greenish tint to it. It is surprisingly springy and alive-feeling if you’ve only ever encountered it as the dry stuff used for crafts and basket filler.

spanish moss strand stretched

A strand of Spanish moss stretched out to show growth pattern.

It has a very interesting growth habit. It has a rosette  of skinny leaves, around 4 or 5 of them. One of the leaves grows a few inches longer and another rosette grows out of it, then another one of the leaves grows longer and another rosette grows out of it, and so on. This is how you get a long strand of Spanish moss. This strand is actually very elastic—if you pull it out and let go it will quickly pull itself back into its somewhat wavy, curly pattern. It doesn’t exactly snap back, but springs back.

You get a lot of these growing together and they become long beard-like formations dripping off of trees, or sometimes even directly on the bark of tree trunks.

Palm Trees

There were so many palm trees! which I knew there would be. It was interesting to see how many different kinds of palm trees there are. Since I just didn’t know them well enough, I couldn’t tell if some palms were different species or just the same species at different point of development or growth. But I was able to tell a few kinds of palms were the same.

One ubiquitous palm is the cabbage palm, state tree of Florida, and a native plant. It was recognizable because of the falls of black berries hanging under the palm fronds. I also saw a palm which had tannish-yellow berries which looked edible and I learned in a book they were, but I didn’t buy the book, and the palm wasn’t in the book I got, so I don’t know its name.

Also, there were lots of palmettos, looking like very truncated palm trees, one of which is saw palmetto, whose berries are used medicinally.

Visiting a Historical Garden

blooming cactus, Florida 1-25-2016

Blooming, leafy cactus, seen on one of my walks; St. Augustine, Florida January 2016.

I went to a historical site, the Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. It’s a family estate that was given to the state to be used for the enjoyment of the public 50 years ago. The woman who gave it to the state was a talented gardener and her gardens have continued to be maintained. They are lovely. I saw so many cool plants!

The gardens are beautifully laid out with a wide variety of both native and introduced/exotic plants. There were 2 species of bird-of paradise, one that gets about 4 feet tall, and one that gets about 20 feet tall! There was also a beautiful Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochea) climbing on a short fence near an orange tree. It has an odd, amazingly shaped and  colored flower. You can wander around for a quite a while looking at the broad variety and beauty of the plants.

Same Plants Down There As Up Here

 The Washington Oaks Gardens has an herb garden in raised beds near the parking area. There are some familiar plants included, such as thyme, rosemary, and mint. It was lovely to see familiar friends.

In various places I went I also noticed dandelions and chickweed, inkberry (a native holly), and gaillardia, also called blanket flower and another native.

What I found most interesting was to see the wide growing range of some the plants that I know so well in New England.

So what places have you visited and what plants have you seen that piqued your interest? Comment below (the problems with commenting should be fixed).

*Florida Landscape Plants: Native and Exotic 3rd edition 2014 University Press of Florida



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  1. Pingback: Learning the Plants, Part 1 - Iris WeaverIris Weaver

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