Low-Maintenance Landscape
Plants for South Florida

Jody Haynes, John McLaughlin, Laura Vasquez, and Adrian Hunsberger

Introduction

This publication was developed in response to requests from participants in the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods (FYN) program in Miami-Dade County for a list of recommended low-maintenance landscape plants suitable for south Florida. The resulting list includes over 350 low-maintenance plants. The following information is included for each species: common name, scientific name, maximum size, growth rate (vines only), light preference, salt tolerance, and other useful characteristics.

Criteria

This section will describe the criteria by which plants were selected. It is important to note, first, that even the most drought-tolerant plants require watering during the establishment period. Although this period varies among species and site conditions, some general rules for container-grown plants have been determined experimentally; they are as follows: 6 months for a 1-gallon plant; 1 year for a 3-gallon plant; and 6-12 months per inch of trunk diameter for larger trees.

The term ‘low-maintenance’ refers to a plant that does not require frequent maintenance—such as regular watering, pruning, or spraying—to remain healthy and to maintain an acceptable aesthetic quality. A low-maintenance plant has low fertilizer requirements and few pest and disease problems. In addition, low-maintenance plants suitable for south Florida must also be adapted to—or at least tolerate—our poor, alkaline, sand- or limestone-based soils.

An additional criterion for the plants on this list was that they were not listed as being invasive by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (FLEPPC, 2001), or restricted by any federal, state, or local laws (Burks, 2000). Miami-Dade County does have restrictions for planting certain species within 500 feet of native habitats they are known to invade (Miami-Dade County, 2001); caution statements are provided for these species.

Both native and non-native species are included herein, with native plants denoted by § in the following table. Some plants listed also tolerate wet soil conditions or even periodic flooding; these are denoted by ª. Also, a variety of plants that are not commonly available in south Florida nurseries or garden centers were intentionally included with the hope that increased demand will generate increased supply; plants that are commonly available are denoted by ¨.

Categories

Plants were evaluated according to their function or role in the landscape, and were then assigned to one or more of the following categories: A. Perennials; B. Annuals; C. Shrubs & Hedges; D. Flowering & Shade Trees; E. Fruit Trees; F. Palms, Cycads & Palm-like Plants; G. Ornamental Grasses; H. Groundcovers; I. Vines; J. Epiphytes; and K. Herbs & Vegetables. A definition of each category follows.

  1. Perennials.
    Perennials are typically herbaceous plants that live three or more years. They often bear attractive flowers, and many can be used as groundcovers. (37 perennials are listed)
  2. Annuals.
    An annual is a plant that typically lives for one year or less—or is commonly treated as such in the landscape. Although most annuals require moist soil, a few are considered low-maintenance. In south Florida, many annuals are cool-season plants, and, thus, will not tolerate the heat and/or wet/humid conditions of summer. Only drought-tolerant annuals were included. (18 annuals are listed)
  3. Shrubs & Hedges.
    A shrub is typically a woody plant with several stems. However, a wide variety of plants can function as shrubs. A hedge is simply a row of closely planted shrubs that form a border or boundary; hedges may require some pruning to maintain proper form or function. (117 shrubs and hedges are listed)
  4. Flowering & Shade Trees.
    A tree is a woody plant that is usually very large (tall or wide or both) and usually bears a single trunk. Flowering trees are those that are cultivated primarily for their showy flowers, whereas shade trees often lack significant floral displays. (59 flowering and shade trees are listed)
  5. Fruit Trees. Fruit trees are typically grown or cultivated for their edible fruit. To ensure a healthy, productive fruit tree, it may be necessary to feed and/or water them during fruit set. (13 fruit trees are listed)
  6. Palms, Cycads & Palm-like Plants. Palms are predominantly tropical and subtropical evergreen trees, shrubs, or woody vines of the Family Palmae (also known as Family Arecaceae). Palm stems are generally unbranched, bear a single growing point, and are topped by a crown of pinnate (feather-shaped) or palmate (fan-shaped) leaves bearing conspicuous parallel venation. In a few cases, entire palm genera are considered low-maintenance, including Brahea, Coccothrinax, Copernicia, Livistona, Phoenix, Sabal, Thrinax, and Washingtonia. Although many palms require regular fertilization, the species listed herein require less than most. (44 palms are listed)

    Cycads are cone-bearing evergreen plants of the Division Cycadophyta; they are often mistakenly considered palms. Note, the cycads included on this list are resistant to the cycad aulacaspis scale, which is a serious pest of cycads in the genus Cycas (which includes the sago ‘palms’). (20 cycads are listed)

    Palm-like plants are those that superficially resemble palms but belong to unrelated plant families. (four ‘non-cycad’ palm-like plants are listed)
  7. Ornamental Grasses.
    Ornamental grasses typically grow in tuft-like clumps and bear numerous small flowers on tall stalks that rise above the blade-like leaves. Many are quite showy, and are welcome additions to a non-traditional landscape. (14 ornamental grasses are listed)
  8. Groundcovers.
    This category includes a diverse group of unrelated plants that are used to cover areas of ground for aesthetic purposes (e.g., in shady areas where grass will not grow). Groundcovers also function to stabilize soil, or to provide focal points at the front of planting beds. Generally planted in dense stands, groundcovers can be vines, small shrubs, annuals, perennials, or grasses. (59 groundcovers are listed)
  9. Vines.
    Vines are weak-stemmed plants that derive their support from climbing, twining, or creeping along a surface. Although most people think of vines as climbing vertically, a few species also grow horizontally and can function as groundcovers. Some vines have aggressive growth habits, so they need to be watched carefully to prevent them from growing out of control. (25 vines are listed)
  10. Ephipytes.
    Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants (e.g., trees) or objects (e.g., rocks and boulders) for support or anchorage, but not for water or nutrients. This category includes orchids, ferns, bromeliads, and some cacti. (11 epiphytes are listed)
  11. Herbs & Vegetables.
    Herbs are plants whose leaves, stems, or roots are used as flavoring in food or as non-traditional medicines, while vegetables are plants that produce edible parts (roots, stems, leaves, or fruit) that are grown for food. Although not included in most landscapes, some herbs and vegetables have ornamental value. (four herbs and two vegetables are listed)

Selecting the ‘Right’ Plant

Putting the right plant in the right place is of foremost importance in creating a healthy and successful low-maintenance landscape. However, this principle is dependent upon one’s ability to accurately select the ‘right’ plant species for a given location. Common names are often misleading, and sometimes more than one plant species may be referred to by the same or similar common name. Therefore, whenever possible, it is best to refer to scientific names when researching and selecting plants for your south ‘Florida Landscape’.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the following UF-IFAS Specialists for reviewing this article: Dr. Robert Black, Dr. Kimberly Klock-Moore, Dr. Kenneth Langeland, and Dr. Eva Worden. In addition, Roger Hammer, Head Naturalist for Miami-Dade County Parks & Recreation, contributed significantly to this publication, and we thank him also.

References

  • Austin, D.F. Pine Rockland Plant Guide. Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resource Management, Miami, FL.
  • Black, R.J. 1997. Native Florida Plants for Home Landscapes. University of Florida-IFAS Publication ENH-25, Gainesville.
  • Black, R.J., and E.F. Gilman. 1997. Your Florida Guide to Bedding Plants: Selection, Establishment and Maintenance. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.
  • Broschat, T.K., and A.W. Meerow. 1991. Betrock’s Reference Guide to Florida Landscape Plants. Betrock Information Systems, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
  • Burks, K.C. 2000. Non-native Plant Species Restricted by Federal, State, or Local Law in Florida. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Invasive Plant Management, Tallahassee, FL.
  • FLEPPC. 2001. List of Florida’s Invasive Species. Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council. Internet:
  • Florida Water Management Districts. 2001. Water Wise Florida Landscapes: Landscaping to Promote Water Conservation Using the Principles of XeriscapeTM.
  • Gilman, E.F., and R.J. Black. 1999. Your Florida Guide to Shrubs: Selection, Establishment and Maintenance. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.
  • Haynes, J.L. 2001. Virtual Cycad Encyclopedia. Palm & Cycad Societies of Florida, Inc. Internet:
  • Haynes, J.L. 2001. Virtual Palm Encyclopedia. Palm & Cycad Societies of Florida, Inc. Internet:
  • Hubbuch, C. 2001. Water shortage continues… and not a drop to irrigate. Garden Views. Fairchild Tropical Garden, Miami, FL.
  • Maidman, K. 1997. Ten great palms. Garden News. Fairchild Tropical Garden, Miami, FL.
  • Meerow, A.W. 1991. Native Shrubs for South Florida. University of Florida-IFAS Publication EES-59, Gainesville.
  • Meerow, A.W. 1996. Native Trees for South Florida. University of Florida-IFAS Publication EES-57, Gainesville.
  • Meerow, A.W. 1999. Native Ground Covers for South Florida. University of Florida-IFAS Publication EES-60, Gainesville.
  • Meerow A.W., and R.J. Black. 1993. Enviroscaping to Conserve Energy: Ground Covers for South Florida. University of Florida-IFAS Publication EES-39, Gainesville.
  • Miami-Dade County. 2001. Dade County Landscaping Manual. Miami-Dade County, FL.
  • Misitis, M. 1997. Salt Tolerant Plants for Dade County. UF/Miami-Dade County Extension publication, Homestead, FL.
  • Osorio, R. 2001. A Gardener’s Guide to Florida’s Native Plants. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.
  • Riffle, R.L. 1998. The Tropical Look: An Encyclopedia of Dramatic Landscape Plants. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
  • Scheper. J. 2001. Floridata. Internet.
  • Whistler, W. A. 2000. Tropical Ornamentals: A Guide. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
  • Wilson, J. 1994. Landscaping with Herbs. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.