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Amid drought, passion blossoms

A society promoting Florida flora says growing such plants helps save water. But the plants may be harder to find at gardening stores.

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Jim Bierly and his wife, Teddi, tend to some non-native zinnias in their Sugarmill Woods front yard.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


The turf runs from Jim Bierly's Sugarmill Woods home with manicured precision, around the shrubs, past the pool and the fish pond.

Then it stops dead, severed by a bone-dry patchwork of white sand and dense scrub.

Amid this scorched terrain, Bierly is cultivating a vision of Florida that has nothing to do with a vast green lawn festooned with a palm tree and a plastic flamingo.

The 66-year-old former St. Petersburg resident is part of a growing movement of amateur botanists working to raise the profile of native plants.

Native plants -- a variety of flowers, shrubs and trees -- use far less water, pesticides and fertilizer than other species and require virtually no maintenance.

Birds rely on native plants for food and shelter and certain butterfly species will only lay eggs on native plants.

Despite these advantages, native plants remain unknown to many people, in part because major retailers, such as the Home Depot and Lowe's, offer few native plants.

"Nobody knows about them," said Bierly, showing off one of his favorites: the passion vine, a robust creeper with three-lobed leaves and magnificent white-purple flowers.

To change that, Bierly has formed the Citrus County chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society.

The group, which in three months has attracted 60 members, has several goals, none perhaps more critical and timely than reducing water consumption in a time of severe drought.

Citrus residents used approximately 12.9-million gallons of water per day in 1998, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Thirty percent to 50 percent was used for landscape irrigation, said Albert Bond, a conservation analyst for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The figures to do not include water from private wells, so the actual usage is likely much higher, he said.

Bierly said the county's exploding population is the largest concern.

"It's the growth that really takes the water," he said.

To spread its message, the society is planning plant sales and expects to spend a lot of time talking with developers, with the aim of reducing by half the amount of space taken up by thirsty turf.

"There is a place for a lawn but the key is it doesn't need to be a giant expanse," said Randy Hobson, a member of the society.

Hobson sells 40 different native plants at his Crystal River nursery, Hobson's Herbs & More. Because they are not widely available, some native plants cost slightly more than those at major retailers.

St. Augustine, a particularly thirsty variety of grass because of its shallow roots, is used widely in Florida because it can withstand the intense heat and remains vividly green.

Persuading the general public to replace its lawns is not easy.

"It's something that's been in our culture for many, many decades so we don't know anything else," said Chuck Coburn, president of the Native Plant Society chapter in Pasco County.

Slowly, though, change is occurring, spurred by the drought and water restrictions. Coburn said he has noticed a steady increase in native plant sales in the past 18 months.

A Pasco developer Coburn knows has started using native plants for landscaping.

Non-native plants still reign in Citrus County -- among the more popular are hibiscus and oleander -- but Hobson said he also is experiencing greater sales.

"Because of the hard winter and extended drought, people are disgusted with losing plants and are happy to get something that is hardy," he said.

Widespread acceptance will take time. The plants grow in the wild, so many people overlook them, even though they are fairly abundant. "It's human nature to dismiss things that are right under your nose," Hobson said.

Another obstacle is that gardeners have not perfected ways to landscape native plants in an attractive way. "Until there are enough examples out there for people to see how native plants can be used in landscaping, then the cycle of using other types just perpetuates itself," Hobson said.

At least one subdivision is exploring ways to reduce the demand on water supplies. Officials at Sugarmill Woods, a deed-restricted community, may allow homeowners to add more drought-tolerant plant species into their landscapes.

"Even if the rainy season comes this year, it's not going to solve the drought," said Gail Lucas, president of Sugarmill's property owners' association. "We're trying to look at the long-range, what can we do over the next five to 10 years that could alleviate the draw on water supplies."

On the Web

To learn about native plants, visit the Florida Native Plant Society's Web page: http://www.fnps.org/

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