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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Exploring plant paradises on Florida vacation

What does a plant person do on a Florida vacation? Find plants. Identify plants. Compare landscapes. Go to garden centers. Look for shows and festivals. Appreciate everything green. Winter in the South is deeply satisfying, especially if we can see and talk plants.

What plant is that?

Whatever the field of knowledge it’s good to speak a common language. Walking down a street seeing a median planting anywhere, or observing flowers outside a restaurant, you can ask most people, “What is that?” and they don’t know. Or they call the plants yellow daisies or Christmas trees, meaning nothing. In Florida, feeling the need to know what I was seeing, I collected some clippings and retained others in my mind’s eye and went off to Rock Ledge Gardens. How pleasing to talk plants with professionals, and get real names in Latin (the great equalizer). How satisfying to read labels and learn the names of everyday shrubs. Now I recognize a Japanese pittosporum and know that I saw a naturalized Melampodium. They use many kinds of Podocarpus in public plantings, and the showy red flower is an Ixora.

In the North or South, a garden center is a great place to figure out what you’re seeing and to straighten out your horticultural perspective. In Florida many of their perennials and shrubs are our houseplants. Our vine is their invasive species. You can see your holiday plant, amaryllis, planted in the ground. You must, however, learn to decode plant tags and signs and ask questions. Just because the garden center is showing a plant outside in January doesn’t mean it’s hardy in the region. As everywhere, retailers will push the hardiness and heat zone limits because people want exotic plants – so learn your zone.

The zone analysis sent me off to find books and use the Internet. My mother’s condo is in Cocoa Beach, near the ocean east of Orlando, rated as USDA hardiness zone 9b. That means that occasionally the winter temperature sometimes dips as low as 25 or 30 degrees. (I know, Buffalonians mock ... but it’s tough if you have an orange grove.) I borrowed “The Southern Living Garden Book” (Oxmoor House, 1998) from the library, a tremendously useful encyclopedia of 5,000 plants used in the South, with lists of their uses, origins, habits and growing requirements. While that may sound like a lot of plants, I can reassure northern plant professionals and intense gardeners that you would probably recognize 80 percent or 90 percent of the species names or pictures; it’s just the timing, uses and sizes that differ greatly.

Beyond USDA hardiness zones, in different plant worlds you may encounter other ways to define regional growing conditions. The Southern Living editors divided the southern U.S. into five climate zones, with the coastal Carolinas and much of Florida labeled “Coastal South” and Cape Canaveral (my turf) to the Everglades as “Tropical South.” So now I know I could grow a lime tree outside in this region – until a severe cold snap kills it one winter – and it’s actually too hot for blueberries and peaches.

Southern horticulturists study heat zones as well as hardiness zone maps. If it’s any consolation, shivering Northerners, remember that tropical climates have a downside: No forsythias or hostas for these folks, and summer is way too hot and humid for most gardening.

Another good way to get oriented in a different gardening zone is to contact a county cooperative extension office. In the past I did that and found county agents in Brevard and Orange counties very helpful. I even attended a master gardener meeting that included a tasting to compare backyard grapefruit cultivars.

Shows and tours

Late in my vacation I needed one more infusion of horticulture, and went to the Orlando Home and Garden Show. As is often the case with shows that begin with “Home ...” the show was more about home and cooking than about gardening and landscapes – but the limited gardening components were great. I met a camellia grower whose farm offers tours. (Who knew there was a whole camellia show last week, and they flower in so many colors!) A couple of landscapers outdid themselves with elaborate fountains, pools, gazebos and landscape plantings, reminding me of Plantasia just ahead. Some products and garden art were new and innovative (always the case in shows), and oh, the orchids and pitcher plants I could have brought home!

Florida offers so much for naturalists to tour and study as well. Last year I attended part of the annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville – a huge, nationally important event that includes river cruises, hikes, classes and a wealth of information and supplies for anyone caring about nature and Florida’s range of habitats. Coastal Florida has many ways to get on the water – whether ocean, rivers, bays or inlets – to see and learn about manatees, dolphins, fish, turtles and birds.

And for next time ... I’m already planning a tour itinerary: the Harry P. Leu Botanical Garden is one I have seen, but I want to go just when the azaleas are opening. Bok Tower Gardens with the incomparable carillon is a must-see, as well as Cypress Gardens with 11 theme gardens (especially the butterfly and tropical ones). I want to see the orchids and cycads in the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and the bonsai at Heathcote Botanical Gardens – home of the largest public bonsai collection in the United States.

As you see, there are so many plants to see, so much to learn and so many gardens to visit in most places you go, once you begin the quest. A gardener on vacation doesn’t have to set aside her gardening passion. And garden travel even teaches us about those plants back home: No wonder my kumquat tree is dropping its leaves and the Crown of Thorns looks peeked: They are forced to live far, far away from a proper amount of winter sunshine (as do I). So how about it? Next January, shall we all go to see the plants in sunny Florida?

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.