Ground Covers: Some Midsummer Recommendations

Perhaps you have an area in your yard that can’t readily be mowed. Or maybe you’re just tired of mowing at all. Then consider replacing grass with attractive, flowering ground covers. Here is a sampling of suitable species being grown at Richard Lyons’ Nursery:

Perennial Peanut, Arachis pintoi and Arachis glabrata: According to Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), in the nearly 80 years since this remarkable plant was introduced to the U.S. from Brazil, it has never suffered a significant disease, insect or nematode pest! And because it doesn’t reproduce via seed, it hasn’t demonstrated any signs of invasiveness. It makes a nice ground cover if you provide good drainage. Perennial Peanut bears edible, peanut-flavored yellow flowers on and off all year. And the plant is tough enough to tolerate salt spray and occasional foot traffic.

Carnation ‘Firewitch’, Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’: If our weather forecast suddenly calls for a low of 35 below zero, you might not survive, but this plant will! Capable of growing in a vast range of temperatures, this Carnation cultivar produces bright purplish-pink flowers, as well as a clove-like fragrance. Even when not in flower, Firewitch’s blue-gray foliage makes it an attractive ground cover that stays under a foot high. Plant in sunny exposures with excellent drainage.

Golden Dragon Impatiens, Impatiens repens: This Sri Lankan species, now likely extinct in the wild, doesn’t look like what most people think of when they consider Impatiens. Leaves are more rounded than pointed, and they help create a nice ground cover. I. repens produces succulent, burgundy-red, creeping stems complemented by yellow flowers. For best results, plant in filtered light.

Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus var. mexicanus: Though capable of growing into a moderate-sized shrub, Turk’s Cap is also amenable — through judicious pruning — to being maintained as a ground cover. It produces bright red, pendulous flowers which call to mind less-than-fully unfurled blooms of hibiscus, to which it is, in fact, related. This plant is a bird and butterfly attractant. For best results, plant in a well-drained site, in full sun to light shade, and provide regular watering. Conduct pruning operations during the cooler months of the year.

Lavender Star Flower, Grewia occidentalis: Native to Africa from Mozambique southward, the Lavender Star Flower possesses several desirable features: Glossy, deep green leaves; edible, square-looking compound berries; non-aggressive roots; attractiveness to butterflies and birds; tolerance of drought, salt spray, strong winds, and light frost. Though capable of being trained to grow as a small tree, G. occidentalis also functions as a ground cover when left to wander around. For best results, plant in full sun and provide supplemental iron occasionally.

Lantana spp.: The genus Lantana comprises about 150 species native to both the Old World and New World tropics. Many of them are widely used for their spectacular color combinations, the length of their flowering seasons, and their success in attracting butterflies and hummingbirds. Plant them in full sun. They are amenable to being pruned vigorously to keep them compact and improve flowering. Richard Lyons’ Nursery recommends L. camara (Lantana), L. canescens (Hammock Shrub Verbena), L. involucrata (Button Sage), L. depressa  (Pineland Lantana), and L. montevidensis (Lavender Trailing Lantana).


Desert Cassia (Senna polyphylla)

If the Desert Cassia could talk, it would almost certainly wail, “Woe is me!” And who could blame it? After all, botanists have been tinkering with its name seemingly for years. It was moved from the genus Senna to the genus Cassia, then back to Senna. Despite the turmoil, however, Senna polyphylla has continued to be a dependable and popular element of the landscape of southern Florida.

The common name Desert Cassia is actually doubly wrong. Not only is it not a Cassia, but it isn’t native to any desert. S. polyphylla occurs naturally in both dry and moist forests of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, where average annual rainfall ranges from 30 to 47 in. One of the features accounting for its strong following in southern Florida is its undemanding nature. It is perfectly at home in rocky soils so long as they drain well. It is also virtually free of pests. Its other strong suit is its small growth habit. S. polyphylla generally matures in the 7-11 ft. range, although it sometimes reaches 15 ft. Its thin branches have a weeping or cascading habit, and the bark is grooved or furrowed.

Desert Cassia produces yellow flowers about an inch in diameter. Heaviest flowering occurs during the period from October to May, but blossoms may also pop open at other times of the year. A sunny exposure yields the most prolific flowering. Since S. polyphylla is found natively at elevations from near sea level to nearly 1,000 ft., it is capable of withstanding a bit more cold than other Sennas. It is  a host plant for the Sulphur Butterfly, and a nectar source for all of our butterflies.

S. polyphylla is available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in several sizes.

The Imperial Bromeliad (Alcantarea imperialis)

Alcantarea imperialis is endemic to Brazil and is one of the largest terrestrial bromeliads. Its leaf color is very variable, ranging from all green to deep purple and various combinations in between.  You may recognize this bromeliad as Vriesea imperialis, its former botanic name.  At 5′ across it can take up to ten years to attain this size.  The flower spike is also of a spectacular size as it can reach upwards of 6-8′ and flower for 5 months or more.  The spike can produce 400-600 flowers for the potential of 80,000-200,000 seeds.  As with all bromeliads, once the plant flowers, the main plant dies and pups or offsets are produced along the base of the dying plant to begin the process all over again.

Richard Lyons’ Nursery sells these bromeliads in 15 gallon containers.


Strawberry Tree (Muntingia calabura)

Strawberries growing on trees?  Well, not exactly. But there is something called the Strawberry Tree, and it does produce a nice, edible red fruit. Just to add to the confusion, the common name doesn’t refer to the plant’s fruit, but to its flowers, which resemble those of the traditional strawberry.

We’re talking about Muntingia calabura, a fast-growing shrub or small tree native over a large range from southern Mexico through the Caribbean and Central America, and into South America as far south as Argentina. It exists at elevations from sea level to 3,300 ft. Where native it may reach 35 ft. or so in height, but in southern Florida 12-15 ft. is more likely. It bears oblong or lanceolate leaves on spreading, almost horizontal branches. The Strawberry Tree is amenable to poor soils, whether alkaline or acidic and, once established, capable of withstanding drought and neglect. It can also be planted next to fresh water bodies, but will not tolerate salt. It has a reputation for holding up well to polluted air. For best results, plant this species in full sun.

The fruit of M. calabura is round and smooth, up to 1/2 in. or so in diameter. Those characteristics account for some of its other common names: Jamaica Cherry, Panama Berry, and West Indian Cherry. It has lots of other common names, a tribute to its distribution around both New World and Old World tropics, where it has picked up local appellations. The flesh of the fruit is soft and quite sweet, somewhat fig-like in taste, and can be eaten out of hand or made into jams or tarts.

The Strawberry Tree has a number of interesting features besides the eating quality of its fruit. Its flowers provide a source of nectar and pollen for beekeepers. Its wood serves as a source of fuel, as well as of timber for interior locations. Its bark contains fibers that can be fabricated into twine and rope. And it is reputed to possess various medicinal properties, including antispasmodic, antifungal, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, analgesic, antibacterial, and antipyretic.

M. calabura should not be confused with Arbutus unedo, another species also commonly known as Strawberry Tree. The latter will not grow sastisfactorily in southern Florida.

M. calabura is available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 3-gal. containers.

Mysore Raspberry (Rubus niveus)

As you know, we in the subtropical region of Florida are fortunate to be able to grow many, many different plants, both tropical and temperate. But, try as we might, we have found only one species of raspberry that has proven dependable here. It is the Mysore Raspberry, Rubus niveus.

Some sources state that the Mysore Raspberry is native to India and Myanmar (Burma), while others believe that it occurs naturally over a much larger swath of southern Asia. In any event, it is found over a fairly large altitude range, conferring some temperature hardiness to it, certainly enough to handle the typical readings experienced in southern Florida year-round.

R. niveus is a fairly large, sprawling shrub that can reach 10 ft. or more in height. Its cylindrical stems are pubescent (downy) when young, and bear hooked thorns. Its compound leaves possess serrated leaflets that are dark green on top and whitish and fuzzy on the undersides. The flowers of the Mysore Raspberry are pink to reddish-purple, about a half inch across, and clustered.

But, of course, the most desirable feature of the Mysore Raspberry is its fruit. Shaped much like that of the red raspberry, that is, rounded-conical, with a flat base, it is considerably larger, 1/2 to 3/4 in. in diameter. It is red when immature, but darkens to purple-black upon ripening. The ‘bumps’ typical of raspberry fruit are more accurately known as drupelets. Luckily, the small seeds of R. niveus are inoffensive. And the taste is wonderful — sweet and juicy. Not only is the fruit a good source of Vitamin C, but one researcher considers it to be “a valuable natural antioxidant that has an immense scope as an effective source to cure skin diseases, wounds, and tumors.”

The Mysore Raspberry made its way into Florida by a rather circuitous route. First, it was introduced to Kenya many years ago. Then, in 1947, a South African, F.B. Harrington, obtained seeds, and a year later he supplied seeds to the University of Florida’s Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) in Homestead. By 1952, many nurseries in Florida were offering the plant for sale.

Fortunately, R. niveus seems to be tailor-made for the soils of southern Florida; it thrives in alkaline limestone or in acidic sand. Supplemental irrigation should be supplied during the dry season. The best fruiting occurs when plants are grown in less than full sunlight. And while this species fruits all year long, the best combination of quality and size occurs in the winter and spring. Accordingly, a homeowner may want to prune plants significantly in late spring. On the other hand, if left alone, R. niveus, with its thorns, makes a formidable barrier planting that discourages both animal and human intruders.

Mysore Raspberry can be found at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 3-gal. containers.