12 Plants That Thrive in the Sun: How to Make Your South Florida Flowerbed Beautiful
A Difficult Place to Grow Plants
South Florida can be a difficult place to get plants to grow well in the summertime. The combination of intense sunlight, fiery heat, stifling humidity, and rainstorms that can last for days make it a climate that is not very friendly to many northern-garden favorites. Plants that are able to survive this hostile climate often need to be babied in order to not look scraggly and pathetic. This is especially true if you have a flowerbed that is in the full sun during the hottest part of the day.
If you have despaired of finding plants that will actually grow in south Florida, then please allow me to recommend a few I have found that work well in a sun-soaked flowerbed. All of these plants have the added advantage of needing only very basic care, so you don't have to worry if you cannot tend to them for a few days. As long as you start them out right by ameliorating the soil and mulching the bed to lock in moisture/block the weeds, they should reward you with a lovely flower garden all summer long.
Plant in the Cool Season
While all these plants thrive in the heat and sun, they will do much better if you plant them in mid-February—May. Planting them in the cooler season ensures that they are well-established by the time the worst of the heat comes.
Lilyturf/lilygrass (Liriope muscari) is a native of East Asia. This hardy perennial is great for bordering your flowerbed, as it is low-growing. It does well in spots where many other plants simply will not grow. I have had it thrive in both full sun and part shade. It seems to tolerate moderate drought fairly well, though it will start getting a few yellow leaves if it is chronically under-watered. It needs a good trim at least once a year in the springtime to keep it from looking overgrown and unkempt.
Pentas (Pentas lanceolata) is a perennial whose native home is Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Pentas are a favorite of mine, as they produce clumps of lovely little flowers all summer long. These flowers, which can commonly be found in white, pink, crimson, and lavender, often attract butterflies. While the dwarf varieties seldom need trimming to keep them under control, the normal type occasionally needs to be cut back to prevent them from becoming gangly in appearance. Pentas, while tolerant of heat and drought, prefer to be watered well at least once a week if there is no rain. Fertilizing now and then helps keep them looking healthy.
3. African Bush Daisy
African Bush Daisy (Euryops pectinatus) originally hails from South Africa. This perennial puts on a continual show of cheerful yellow blossoms during the summer. The plant does look more attractive if you trim the dead blooms off it periodically. As long as it receives a weekly drenching from either rain or your water hose, it holds up well during the hot months. The plant does need to be trimmed back in the fall, as it tends to become "leggy" after several months' growth. Its one drawback is that it seems to draw snails and slugs, which will readily eat it up if you don't keep snail/slug bait spread around it.
4. Mexican Petunia
Mexican petunia (Ruellia simplex) is a perennial from South and Central America. It takes a little while to establish itself after being planted, but once it does, it grows to about 3–4 feet tall. At this point you will have to trim it occasionally, both to keep the stalks at a reasonable height as well as to control its outward spread. The lovely purple blooms appear in the morning and typically fall in the afternoon heat. It is not water-needy, but enjoys a good drink like any other plant!
5. Firecracker Flower
Firecracker flower (Crossandra infundibuliformis) is a tropical shrub from South Asia. The plant's glossy dark green foliage makes it an attractive addition to any flowerbed year-round. The flower spikes put out showy orange flowers all summer long. When the flower spikes are spent, they turn brown, so the plant needs to be trimmed now and then. It also tends to need a general clipping in the fall to maintain a proper shape. This plant prefers to have a drink a little more often than some of the others in this list and will begin to wilt if it is deprived of water for too many days.
6. Chinese Fringe Flower
Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense) is an ornamental shrub that produces delicate little flowers throughout the summer. As indicated by its name, this plant is native to Asia. Its foliage stays attractive even in the wintertime, making it a plant that can add beauty to your landscape year-round. It tolerates a lack of water fairly well. An end-of-the-season pruning is a must to keep it from looking too unruly; you may also have to trim stray branches now and then during the summer if the shrub is extra-happy about where it has been planted.
7. Rosy Periwinkle
Rosy Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) is originally from Madagascar but is now cultivated around the world. Though a common garden plant even in cooler climates, this perennial is hardy enough to withstand a Florida summer. Its showy flowers come in shades such as pink, lavender, and white. Like the firecracker flower, it prefers to have as much water as you have the time to give it. It only requires pruning when its stems start becoming too long; a snip back here and there before that happens helps to maintain a pleasing shape.
8. Asparagus Fern/Foxtail Fern
Asparagus fern/foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus) comes from the southern part of Africa. Its evergreen, "foxtail" spikes can add an interesting touch to a garden filled with more typical-looking plants. The asparagus fern does not grow extremely tall nor very wide, so you can safely plant it in a tighter space without worrying that it will choke out all the plants around it. It is generally not a fussy plant when placed outside in a warm climate such as the one we have in Florida. A moderate water supply and an occasional trimming of dead spikes are all that the asparagus fern usually requires to be content in your flowerbed.
9. Crepe Myrtle
Dwarf varieties of crepe/crape myrtle (most commonly Lagerstroemia indica or a hybrid with Lagerstroemia faueri) are stunning shrubs that have been cultivated in the United States for generations, having been brought here from their native Asia. If you have ever seen a crepe myrtle shrub (or its larger tree cousin) in bloom, you will quickly appreciate why it has become a garden staple in many places. Though not fragrant like a lilac bush, it voluminous flower bunches can easily rival lilacs for beauty.
The shrub blooms profusely from late spring through the end of summer in shades of carmine, pink, lavender, or white, depending on the variety. This plant likes water, but tolerates dry conditions quite well if necessary. A moderate pruning after its leaves have turned and start to fall is a must to ensure it keeps a tame shrub shape.
10. African Iris
African iris (Dietes bicolor) is, as the name implies, an iris variety that originated in Africa. These hardy cousins of those lovely bearded irises that populate grandma's garden up north may not be as showy, but they are much better suited to the climate of southwest Florida. The yellow flowers with purple and orange accents appear on stalks that come up from the midst of the long, grass-like leaves. The plant itself is a pleasant garden addition even when not in bloom, as it remains green year-round. It can withstand being watered only once a week during the height of summer. African iris does spread slowly outward over time, so you will have to cut back (or even dig out) unwanted expansion at least once a year.
11. Spider Plant
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) is an African perennial that is often thought of as a houseplant, though it can also be grown outside. While it tolerates cold, Florida's climate is optimal for this plant that grows profusely in warm temperatures. This profuse growth is the spider plant's main drawback, as it can quickly take over an area if you don't keep it under control. Cutting it back is simple, however, since it spreads through runners that have plantlets at the end that just need to be snipped off as they appear. The plantlets can be placed in other areas or pots if you wish to grow them somewhere else. This plant is very low-maintenance overall, and rarely browns or shrivels during times of drought.
12. Crown of Thorns
Crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii) is a shrub from Madagascar. While not very child-friendly due to its thorny stems, it is still worth considering for your garden because of its hardiness and the fact that it blooms year-round. The flowers grow in clumps of either white, red, or pink blossoms at the end of slender stems coming up from the main body of the plant. Crown of thorns is quite drought tolerant, though it is happiest being watered thoroughly at least once a week. Spent branches and overgrowth need to be trimmed off on occasion; healthy cuttings can be transplanted elsewhere if you want to propagate the plant in another spot. Be sure to wear gloves when pruning, though, not only because of the thorns, but because the plant's sap can be mildly irritating to the skin.
Honorable Mention: Yellow Alder
It has only been a year (2019) since I first planted this shrub, yet I was so impressed with its hardiness in the full sun that I knew I had to add it to this plant list. The yellow alder (Turnera ulmifolia), also known as ramgoat dashalong, originally hails from Mexico and the West Indies. Its bright yellow, buttercup-like flowers bloom both in the hot and cool season. The woody stems are covered with serrated, medium-green leaves that give the plant a full, rounded appearance as it grows. It does grow rather quickly, reaching 3–4 feet in height, making it a good plant to place in the back of your flowerbed. It does not, however, spread outward as much, which makes it easy to keep under control. If you want it to be large, prune it back once at the end of November or in early December; if you would prefer it to remain a smaller shrub, you will have to trim it every 6–8 weeks after it becomes established. Yellow alder is tolerant of dry conditions, but prefers a weekly watering.
As you may have observed, all of these plants hail from parts of the world with climates similar to that of south Florida, which makes them ideal for no-fuss flowerbeds in the Sunshine State. I will note that because these species are from warm climates, they will need to be covered on the few nights a year that have freezing or near-freezing temperatures. The firecracker flower and asparagus fern, in particular, do not like the cold at all.
While there are quite a few other plants that do well in the Florida heat and humidity, I have chosen to focus on plants that I have had long-term experience with for this article. I will give the name of a few others here that did not make the list, but are also worth considering:
- West Indian Jasmine (Ixora)
- Blue plumbago (Plumbago auriculata)
- Snow bush/rosy snow bush (Breynia disticha)
- Dwarf morning glories (Evolvulus)
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