At the Balosie Garden in Boca Raton, a mallow scrub-hairstreak butterfly rests on a bloodberry, which has flowers that give off a sweet odor. This is one of six gardens featured during the Oct. 2 Garden Tour, hosted by the Palm Beach County Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. / Contributed
Visit a white and silver garden, see how hot-colored plants attract hummingbirds, and gain inspiration from landscapes filled with hundreds of different native plant species.
October has been proclaimed Florida Native Plant Month. So it’s fitting that the Palm Beach County Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society (FNPS) is hosting its annual Garden Tour on Sunday, Oct 2.
To make travel convenient, this year’s tour is based in the southern part of the county, with five of the six homes on tour in Boca Raton; the other is in Delray Beach. Here, the homeowners, like many Florida gardeners in other areas, were faced with back yards filled with Brazilian peppers, melaleucas, ficus trees and areca palms.
But with a lot of work and sweat, as well as the help of local nursery owners, they’ve filled their yards with native plants that attract a wide variety of birds, beneficial bugs and other wildlife.
Susan Lerner, president of FNPS’ Palm Beach Chapter, said her club’s mission is to promote, preserve, conserve and restore native plants to South Florida.
Give an assist to nature
“What many of us do is, instead of planting our yards and gardens to help nature thrive, we plant them as if we live in a museum and our gardens are our paintings,” she noted.
Lerner said many gardeners bring in exotic plants like hibiscus or bougainvilleas, and use them to create their artistic vision of a garden. In the process, they ignore the needs that local wildlife has for food and habitat.
For example, the distinctive blue, black and orange atala butterfly was endangered because it lays its eggs only on coontie. Coontie isn’t a particularly showy plant, but if it’s not planted, the atala will not survive.
A similar problem is developing as roads are paved and their edges sprayed with weed-killers. This is wiping out large swaths of milkweed – which monarch butterflies need to lay their eggs and that helps to feed their caterpillars.
Only as homeowners recognize the value of locally important plants will local wildlife thrive. “It’s an uphill battle, because people forget they like to live where there are butterflies and birds,” Lerner said.
Native plants are foundation for crucial symbiotic relationships
After all, if you don’t have the native plants, you don’t have the native insects. And if you don’t have the native insects, you won’t have the amphibians or birds that feed on them; and so forth up the food chain.
“What you end up with is a quiet landscape, lacking life,” Lerner explained.
Through the local Florida Native Plant Society garden tour, she hopes to showcase how native plants can be used in real-life settings.
Consider the garden of Andrew Furman, in Boca Raton, that will be open to the public. He started with a yard that had a stunning canopy created by nine live oaks. But in the understory (the vegetation underneath the main canopy), invasives thrived.
“It was like someone had taken a lot of potted houseplants and just dumped them there,” said Furman, an English professor at Florida Atlantic University and the author of Bitten. The book is about making nature in Florida a part of everyday life.
Over six years, he and his wife Wendy cleared out the undergrowth and planted over 50 varieties of natives, including Jamaican caper, wild coffee and marlberry. “You can follow the paths through what now feels like a hammock in the Keys,” Furman noted.
And today his yard is a haven for a variety of butterflies: atalas, Julias, zebra longwings and giant swallowtails. “This morning, I even saw a yellow-throated warbler harassing a gnatcatcher. It was fun to watch,” he said.
Last year, the tour attracted 200 visitors and earned the club $2,000 for local projects. This year, Lerner hopes to top that attendance.
“I feel like my personal goal is to save the planet, one back yard at a time,” she said.
IF YOU GO
What: Garden Tour of the Palm Beach County Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society
When: Sunday, Oct. 2, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For information: 561-247-3677; palmbeach.fnpschapters.org
Tour admission and entry in a photo contest are free to society members, and $10 for the general public.
Buy a ticket at any of the participating homes:
The Balosie Garden, 520 NE 34th St., Boca Raton
The Casamento Garden, 17839 Crooked Oak Ave., Boca Raton
The Furman Garden, 1100 SW 17th St., Boca Raton
The Martin Garden, 20300 Hacienda Court, Boca Raton
The Tramell Garden, 271 NW Eighth St., Boca Raton
The Wilson Garden, 2325 Greenbrier Drive, Delray Beach
At each home, you will greeted at a welcome table, which will feature information about the plants at that home, as well as general information about native and invasive plants.
The homeowners and guides will be available to answer questions. You will also receive directions to other homes on the tour, which you may visit in any order.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a longtime Florida journalist covering the local food and gardening scene. With a master’s degree in agricultural journalism, she served as food editor for The South Florida Sun-Sentinel for over 20 years. Today, she is a certified “master gardener.”