As VISTA Gardens’ Wildflowers consultant Bruce Turley says, “Plants are the grocery, apothecary and hardware stores of the past.” VISTA Gardens’ Resident Experts have uncovered many Fun Facts about the wildflowers they care for on the berm running along the South Village Drive sidewalk.
Roberta Owens found that in the language of flowers, Tickseed, better known by its genus name Coreopsismeans “always cheerful,” and these delightful natives of the Americas live up to this designation in glorious fashion. Although typically seen in colors of yellow and gold, many species also contain red, bronze and burgundy and have been used commonly as dyes in native fabrics. To slake their thirst, the flowers were also boiled into teas by the natives of North America before the introduction of coffee. In recognition of the importance of the genus, Florida and Mississippi named Coreopsis their state’s wildflower.
Looking into the history of Many-wings, Coastalplain Palafox (Palafoxia integrifolia) in the Aster family, Sue Mao and her daughters Vivian and Kaydence report that it is native to North America and found primarily in the southern United States and northern Mexico, regions formerly controlled by Spain. How did it get its name, you ask? This genus is named after José Rebolledo de Palafox, Duke of Saragossa, a captain-general who fought in Mexico for Spain against the French in the early 1800s. Coastalplain Palafox grows only in Florida and Georgia.
If you love Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), you’ll be delighted to know why they look so beautiful in the fall. Vicki Kuse tells us this grass produces tiny, conspicuous flowers that give the appearance of a pinkish haze just above ground level. This plant is named for Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815), also Heinrich Ludwig Muehlenberg, or Henry Muhlenberg, who was a German-educated Lutheran minister and the first president of Franklin College, now Franklin and Marshall College, Pennsylvania.
Another attractive grass, Elliott's Lovegrass (Eragrostis elliottii) is a larval host for the Zabulon skipper, a bright brown and orange butterfly. It is named for the American botanist, Stephen Elliott.
Ellen Bernal found that Florida Greeneyes (Berlandia subacaulis) are informally referred to as "chocolateflowers'' because the open disk florets emit a subtle chocolatey fragrance. You can find these wonderful plants all over west central Florida.
And interestingly, Florida Paintbrush (Carphephorus corymbosus), according to Daniel Austin in his encyclopedic book “Florida Ethnobotany,” is a urinary antiseptic that was sold under the proprietary name Rasapen. The common name Florida Paintbrush comes from the extremely large and colorful flowerheads that seem to paint the landscape during fall months.
With three varieties of wildflowers to care for, Leyla and her grandmother, Ruth Wedoski are busy with Beach verbena (Glandularia maritima), also known as Coastal Mock Vervain, which is a perennial wildflower with pink to purple blooms. It is a strong attractor to pollinators, like hawkmoths, gulf fritillaries, miner bees and long-tailed skippers.
Another of Leyla and Ruth’s wildflowers is Pineland Lantana (Lantana depressa var. depressa) whose leaves are toxic to most animals. They produce small berries, bright green when unripe and a metallic blue when ripe. Beware: the unripe green berries are highly toxic, but apparently the berries become edible once ripe (although we advise that you do not test this yourself). Unfortunately since this plant is highly hybridizable, the gene pool of native pineland lantana has been contaminated through hybridization with the invasive Lantana camara.
Leyla and Ruth’s third plant is Trailing Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), which has long, green asparagus-like spikes that reach towards the sky from the top of the plant. The dainty purple flowers bloom along these spikes and will only open for one day! If you’re hungry, much of this plant is edible and the flowers have a mushroom-like flavor. And if you’re thirsty, historically the leaves have been dried and brewed as beer.
The mint family includes False Rosemary (Conradina canescens), which is a robust evergreen flowering shrub. Many pollinators are attracted to False Rosemary, but bees are its most prominent visitor. Jennifer Grebenschikoff and Diana Rao found that while False Rosemary may look like its namesake cousin whose leaves you probably use as a savory cooking spice, these members of the mint family emit a mint-fresh smell when their leaves are bruised or crushed.
Another member of the mint family is Dotted Horsemint (Monarda punctata), which contains thymol, the same oil as thyme and oregano! It can be used as a substitute for Mediterranean herbs. A medicinal use for Dotted Horsemint: crush fresh leaves, steep in cold water, and drink to ease backache, fever, inflammation and chills.
The third member of the mint family that Jennifer and Diana are caring for is Calamintha (Calamintha georgiana). This extremely hardy plant is a favorite native herb for many native plant gardeners since it will grow in full sun and partial shade, and it is also evergreen. Calamintha is not only aromatic but also flavorful. Some foodies use it to season chicken dishes and to make tea.
So wherever you are in Florida, there are wildflowers and native plants to enjoy for their beauty, variety and Fun Facts!
Reminder: Before trying any of these plants in your foods or beverages, please consult your physician or health care provider.
VISTA’s Florida Landscape Demonstration Garden is supported by major funding from the 2021–22 Viva Florida Landscape Demonstration Garden Grant Program, sponsored by the Florida Wildflower Foundation, and from other generous donors.