Photo: Kim Frisbie, Palm Beach Daily News
“…Trees protect coastal communities from severe flooding and storms by slowing water’s strength and absorbing excess water in the soil, preventing billions of gallons of runoff annually. And let’s not forget ecological restoration; a tree can be home to hundreds of species of insects, fungi, moss, birds, mammals and plants…

But not just any tree; we need to plant natives if we are to create sustainable habitats for our indigenous insects, birds, and mammals…

The following native trees all thrive in South Florida and will bring a wealth of bees, butterflies, birds and clean air back to your gardens.

Let’s start with lignum vitae (Guaiacum sanctum), often considered the ‘royalty’ of native Florida tropical trees, and also known as the tree of life due to the resinous wood that was once thought to possess magical qualities. With a canopy of dark green leaves, this excellent multi-trunked shade tree, sprinkled with lovely blue flowers in spring and summer, deserves a place of honor in any garden. Yellow fruits split open to reveal bright red seeds loved by a variety of birds. Skipper butterflies frequent the flowers while new growth provides larval food for the lyside sulpher, a rare butterfly of the Florida Keys.

Tolerant of full sun or part shade, not particular as to soil type, and oblivious to wind and salt, this is also ideal for seaside plantings. Slow growing, reaching only 10-15 feet, this is not found farther north than coastal Palm Beach, so we are fortunate to be able to include it in our gardens. As the exceptionally hard black wood is prized by woodworkers, it has been over-collected and is now considered endangered, having disappeared from most of its original habitat. All the more reason to add this to your landscape!

Black ironwood (Krugiodendron ferreum) is a 25-foot evergreen tree with the densest wood of any North American plant. Slow growing, with shiny, oval, dark green leaves and a narrow crown, it’s exceptionally drought tolerant and will thrive in full sun to part shade. The greenish flowers are extremely fragrant and attract a variety of pollinators. Juicy, sweet black fruits ripen in fall and are coveted by birds, who find good cover in the dense branching habit. Cold tolerant to the mid 20s, this is adaptable to a wide range of landscape conditions, and makes a wonderful accent tree or understory specimen. Plant it where it’s wonderful fragrant flowers and interesting form will be appreciated.

Bahama strongbark (Bourreria succulenta) is a rapid growing, shrubby evergreen tree 10-20 feet tall, with clusters of fragrant white flowers in summer followed by abundant orange-red berries in fall and winter. Hummingbirds, butterflies and a multitude of pollinators are drawn to the flowers while the fruit provides food for numerous birds and small mammals. I saw one in a friend’s garden last week and its canopy was literally alive with butterflies. Medicinal tea made from the leaves was used by native Bahamians to give them strength and a ‘strong back.’

Cinnamon bark (Canella winterana) is a wonderful small tree for a sunny or partly shaded landscape. With a dense rounded crown, lush, glossy aromatic leaves, and clusters of beautiful maroon flowers that become bright red berries, this is loved by birds and wildlife and is a nectar source for the beautiful Schaus swallowtail. The bark produces a lovely cinnamon fragrance when bruised. Tolerant of most landscape conditions, this will make a wonderful addition to your garden as a specimen or used as informal screening.

Gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba), is one of my favorite native trees, with its spectacular cinnamon bronze-colored peeling bark. Mature specimens given room to show off their magnificent coppery trunks and lovely broad canopies are simply stunning. This thrives in any soil, in sun or shade, and is an exceptionally fast grower, reaching an ultimate height of 60 feet. Tolerant of salt spray and cold temperatures into the 20s, it will do well in any landscape setting, and can be propagated by simply sticking a cut branch into the ground. While the rich green foliage is deciduous for a short period in late winter, small white flowers appearing at that time attract numerous insect pollinators and the reddish fruits are loved by birds and mammals.

There are many more excellent natives: palms, oaks, maples, magnolias, pines, cedars, acacias, and the list goes on. We just need to recognize the importance of adding these diverse species to our landscapes…”

— Kim Frisbie, Palm Beach Daily News
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