Native Plants That Benefit Native Wildlife in the Florida Panhandle1
Florida ranks very high (7th) among all 50 states in the United States in biodiversity when we consider just the number of species of vertebrates and plants. Nationwide, Florida ranks 4th in number of reptile species and 5th in number of bird species. Florida hosts nearly 400 species of birds, 90 species of reptiles, 90 species of mammals, and 60 species of amphibians. This biodiversity is not only enjoyable to observe, it is also valuable to the natural environment. Animals help maintain the health of our natural systems through the many important roles they play in our complex food webs, acting as herbivores (eating plants), carnivores (eating other animals), scavengers (eating dead plant and animal material), and assisting with essential natural processes such as pollination and seed dispersal.
The key to enhancing wildlife (and attracting it to your property) is to provide the resources wildlife need. This means supplying food, water, and cover within the space you own and manage. Because the needs of each wildlife species for food and cover vary from one season to the next, a mix of plant species is required to meet the needs of a species all year round. And because each species has different needs, attracting and maintaining a wide variety of wildlife year round requires a wide diversity of plants. A property owner interested in attracting wildlife should nurture a wide variety of native plants to ensure that there is a large assortment of food and cover options available all the time.
Advantages of Using Native Plants
"Native" in this document refers to wildlife and plant species with natural ranges in the Panhandle of Florida. Native plants and wildlife evolved together in communities, so they complement each other's needs. Furthermore, native plants are suited to the local climate, which means that within the historical range of weather conditions, and when properly sited, they can survive without fertilization, irrigation, and cold protection. Non-native plants from other parts of the world may provide some of the resources needed by native wildlife. However, their benefits can come with a high cost.
Non-native plants become "naturalized" if they establish self-sustaining populations. Nearly one-third of the plants currently growing wild in Florida are not native! Some of these naturalized plants have become "invasive," displacing native plants and animals in natural areas and disrupting natural patterns of water flow, fire, animal movement, and animal foraging. These invasive species cost millions of taxpayer dollars to control.
In years past, some highly palatable and prolifically fruiting exotic species were planted and promoted by wildlife enthusiasts before their negative effects on the natural world became apparent. Some examples of invasive plants we caution against include Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense), and coral ardisia (Ardisia crenata). Many of the benefits provided by these invasive species could instead be provided by native species we describe below.
By choosing to use native plants and removing non-native invasive plants, you can attract and enhance wildlife and prevent non-native invasive plants from disrupting natural areas. In this document we provide recommendations for plants native to the Florida Panhandle region that provide benefits to wildlife. Below, we describe which wildlife species benefit from each plant, what resources the plant provides to wildlife, what time of year those resources are available, and the growing conditions under which each plant species thrives (i.e., soil moisture, sun exposure). This list is not exhaustive. We have limited coverage to plant species generally available for purchase from local nurseries and to plant species with known benefits to birds, mammals, and/or reptiles (although we note when these plants provide benefits to some insects). Beware that some of the fruit-bearing plants recommended for wildlife can be messy if they are planted near a driveway, sidewalk, or patio!
Sources of Additional Information
Huegel, C. N. 2010. Native plant landscaping for Florida wildlife. University Press of Florida.
IFAS Invasive Plant Working Group. 2008. IFAS Assessment of Non-Native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ag376.
Miller, J. H., and K. V. Miller. 1999. Forest plants of the southeast and their wildlife uses. University of Georgia Press.
Nelson, G. 1996. The shrubs and woody vines of Florida. Pineapple Press.
Stein, B. A., L. S. Kutner, and J. S. Adams. 2000. Precious heritage: the status of biodiversity in the United States. Oxford University Press.
USDA Forest Service. "Fire Effects Information System". http://www.feis-crs.org/feis/