Monday, March 26, 2012

A cheery Florida native

Cheerful flowers that resemble black-eyed-Susan blooms cover a sprawling mass of Helianthus debilis

Simply Living
March 26, 2012

My daughter Amber brought me a gift — a rooted cutting of beach sunflower from her garden. Amber knows I'm partial to daisy-like flowers and beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis) fits the bill.

The 2-inch wide blooms of this cheerful looking Florida native are bright yellow with reddish-brown centers. Like many members of the Asteraceae family (the largest family of flowering plants in the world), beach sunflower has heart-shaped leaves with rough, hairy undersides. Although related to the tall sunflowers that adorn many gardens, this drought-tolerant groundcover stretches outward instead of upward.

Easily propagated from seeds, divisions or cuttings, beach sunflower does best when placed in sunny locations with sandy, well-drained soil. A single rooted cutting like Amber gave me, can span an 8-foot-by-8-foot area in one summer.

That's what happened at my daughter's house.

Last year, Amber planted a small sprig of Helianthus debilis in her front yard. She placed it beneath a palm tree in unimproved soil. The only irrigation the plant received was an occasional blast from the garden hose.
Despite the lack of attention (or maybe because of it!), the cutting thrived. After only a few months of hot weather, Amber's solitary plant had multiplied to such an extent it encircled the palm tree and was inching outward toward the driveway.

I find such aggressive behavior coupled with a need for minimal attention appealing in a plant, especially if that plant is a Florida native flower with a face that reminds me of a black-eyed-Susan.

"Take some cuttings," my son-in-law said one day when my visit included my usual raves about beach sunflower's beauty. "I just finished trimming a bunch of it growing into the lawn."

Beach sunflower will do that. Also known as dune sunflower because of its ability to tolerate salt spray in seaside locations, Helianthus debilis is not the right plant for tight places. If the intention is to line a walkway with a low-maintenance plant or to edge a narrow space with cheery color, don't plant this sprawling sun lover. In no time at all your initial planting will overflow its intended location and turn into a maintenance headache.

That seems to be what happened along a segment of the West Orange Trail.

A small patch of Florida native plants once grew in a garden bed located where the bicycle trail intersects Mohawk Street in Clermont.  That particular stretch parallels Washington Street, a road I frequent. Whenever my route took me down the two-lane, I paid special attention to the blooms that dressed up the macadam.

Week by week, I noticed as the plants grew broader, inching their way outward onto the pavement. Every now and then, someone would trim back the rambling growth, but inevitably the plant simply rebounded.
Then one day, as I drove down Washington Street, the triangular-shaped garden bed was bare. I was disappointed, but I can't say I was surprised. Despite being a drought-tolerant, disease-free native, beach sunflower's sprawling nature wasn't right for such a restricted location.

I don't have that problem where I live. Surrounded as we are by so much acreage, there are countless spaces for sprawling plants to grow. Unfortunately, years ago we made the mistake of filling many of our steep inclines and difficult-to-mow places with wedelia — a groundcover that is also in the Asteraceae family.

Like beach sunflower, wedelia is a low-growing, hardy perennial with long-lasting daisy-like blooms that spreads aggressively. Unlike its cousin, wedelia is not native to the Sunshine State. Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council lists it as a Category II invasive species because it forms dense thickets that crowd out other species.

I wish I had known about beach sunflower before planting wedelia so extensively. Not only do I find its flowerheads more attractive than those of wedelia, I'd also feel better if I knew my landscape included more native plants instead of invasive exotics.

But dwelling on "could-of-should-of's" is nonproductive. The important thing is to focus on the future.

Thanks to Amber's thoughtful gift, I have the start of a new direction in groundcover plantings. While removing all the wedelia is impractical, I can anticipate the day when butterfly-attracting stands of beach sunflowers will augment the landscape. Someday, the cheery blooms of beach sunflower will be sprawling over the ground, down embankments and filling in the dry, bare places where other flowers refuse to grow.

From one to many — that's my plan — but, this time, with a more appropriate plant.