We’re High on Grass at Richard Lyons’ Nursery

Ornamental grass, that is, and we’d like to introduce you to some of our favorite species.

Fakahatchee Grass, Tripsacum dactyloides and Dwarf Fakahatchee Grass, Tripsacum floridana: Around most of the world, these grasses are known as Eastern Gamagrass, but folks in Florida prefer to give it a more localized moniker. Native over a large range in the eastern U.S., it’s a bunching grass — distantly related to corn — that grows from 2-10 ft. high. The leaves and stems of Fakahatchee Grass are a purplish color, and flowers are borne on red spikes during the warmer half of the year. This is one tough plant. It prefers moist soils and, in fact, is capable of withstanding periodic flooding, but it can also handle droughts, thanks to its thick, deep-growing rhizomatous roots. T. dactyloides and T. floridana are seldom bothered by diseases or insect pests.

Red Fountain Grass, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Cupreum’ and White Fountain Grass, Pennisetum caudatum: Fountain Grass has become so popular as an ornamental plant that hybridizers have developed a number of cultivars. Originally found in a vast Old World range from Africa to Asia, Fountain Grass has now been distributed into many other tropical and subtropical locales. The cultivar called P. setaceum ‘Cupreum,’ also known as ‘Rubrum,’ grows in clumps to a height of 3-4 ft.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) of Great Britain has conferred its Award of Garden Merit on Red Fountain Grass, and it’s no wonder. The plant’s strappy, curved leaves are of a reddish hue. The foot-long
inflorescence, colored copper or purple-pink, sits atop a flexible, yard-long flower stalk. For best results, Red Fountain Grass should be grown in full sun on a site that drains extremely well.

Bamboo Muhly, Muhlenbergia dumosa, and Pink Muhly Grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris: These closely-related species not only succeed as stand-alone landscape elements, but they also work well as clumping, tall ground covers. M. dumosa, native to southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico, has lacy, fine-textured foliage and an attractive billowing growth habit It is the taller of the two grasses, reaching 4-6 ft. high. M. capillaris, native over a wide expanse of North America, grows 1-3 ft. high. It is particularly attractive in late summer, when it produces long flower stalks that imbue the plant with a pink to purplish color. M. capillaris is the more drought-tolerant of these species, but both are known for their ease of maintenance.

Tiger Grass, Thysanolaena maxima: This fast-growing Asian native can be used to great effect where a bamboo-like look is sought in the landscape. Maturing to about 10 ft. in height, T. maxima grows significantly taller than the previously-described grasses, and, while it is successful when grown in full sun, it can also perform well in partially-shaded spots. Its distinctive arrow-shaped leaflets attract a lot of attention, and it tolerates temperatures down into the upper 20s. Tiger Grass functions well as a stand-alone specimen or as a hedge for settings in which a screen or windbreak is desired.

All these species are available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery.

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.