We can fix our broken ecosystem in our own backyards

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In EO Wilson’s book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”, this Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist – who died in December – reminds us that we lack clean water, fresh air, ocean riches, rainforests and the species of flora and fauna essential to sustaining life on earth.

His proposed solution: set aside half the planet as a nature reserve without humans to preserve biodiversity.

Half the planet sounds like a far-fetched idea, until you consider each of us to be stewards of our own separate piece of land. Coexisting with Mother Nature means restoring and conserving the natural resources of our own properties.

Here in Palm Beach, we’ve talked about adding native species to our landscapes because these natives support the pollinators and wildlife they’ve co-evolved with over millennia. Plus, they don’t require any toxic chemicals to survive in their native South Florida climate.

These toxic chemicals are really at the heart of the problem: we need to stop using pesticides that kill beneficial insects that we desperately need. Imidacloprid, used on ficus hedges to control whiteflies, is a nerve agent with proven links to leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. It is also extremely harmful to pets. Glyphosate, the herbicide used in Roundup, has direct links to autism in children.

The people of Palm Beach are some of the best educated in the country, but every day an army of trucks travels to our fragile barrier island and applies poisons that pollute our air, water and soil. The problems with our drinking water are already well documented; blue-green algal blooms of cyanobacteria are directly linked to excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in our waterways. Let’s not pay to have pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers applied to our properties regardless of the consequences.

Individual actions are the basis for restoring and repairing our broken ecosystems. If each of us stopped spraying pesticides on a planned plan and only used chemicals as a last resort and only when specifically needed, and if we all added just a few native plants to our landscapes to support various ecosystems, we could significantly improve the quality of our environment.

The small, fragrant white flowers of sea lavender bloom all year round and attract many pollinators and butterflies.

Sand dunes

I was asked what to plant if you live along the coast and what can survive on sand dunes? It turns out that many beautiful plants thrive in these conditions. Sea Lavender (Heliotropium gnaphaiodes) is a beautiful evergreen shrub with stunning soft greyish-green foliage. The small, fragrant white flowers bloom all year round and attract many pollinators and butterflies.

It is an excellent accent plant or spreading shrub, growing 3 to 5 feet with equal width, forming graceful, rounded mounds in full sun. Drought and salt tolerant, and able to survive hurricane-force winds, it is exceptionally useful for dune restoration. Overdevelopment causing habitat loss has resulted in sea lavender’s endangered status, so if you’re looking for something to plant along the sand, this is a great choice.

Dune sunflower will grow in sandy areas if it gets full sun.

Dune Sunflower (Helianthus debilis) is another excellent plant for sandy areas in full sun. With brilliant yellow flowers on sturdy, spreading stems, this will quickly fill a large area along a dune or a sandy strip of highway.

The brilliant, daisy-like flowers attract many pollinators, including butterflies, moths, and bees. The dense, intertwining growth reaches a height of around 18 inches and provides cover for small animals, while the seeds are a good food source for birds. It does well in an indoor garden if given plenty of room, but will need to be trimmed regularly to keep it within bounds.

It is wonderful to lay along the sand, providing cheerful color and significant dune stabilization. Tolerant to drought, wind and salt, it requires little attention once established.

Inkberry is listed as threatened in Florida.

Inkberry or beachberry (Scaevola plumeria) is a hardy evergreen succulent shrub forming dense clumps that are valuable for dune stabilization. The semi-showy white to pink flowers resemble small halved daisies and are followed by glossy black fruit. Threatened in the state of Florida, it is an important native that attracts many pollinators and provides habitat for small birds.

Unfortunately, the non-native beach naupaka (Scaevola frutescens) has naturalized here and, due to its invasive tendencies, has become more common than the native species. If you plant Scaevolamake sure you get the native one.

Scaevola will pair well with other drought-tolerant flowers such as portulaca.
A silver palm is shown at Pan's Garden.  The tree occurs naturally from Palm Beach to the lower Florida Keys.

Landscape Ideas

Silver Palm (Coccothrynax argentatalisten)) is one of 11 species of palms native to Florida. Occurring naturally from Palm Beach to the lower Florida Keys, this rare and elegant slow-growing palm is particularly notable for its fan-shaped blue-green fronds with silvery undersides that glisten in the wind above the vertical trunk. It makes a terrific specimen tree or can be added to a shrub border. Growing 15 to 20 feet, it is salt and drought tolerant with no pest or disease problems. Birds enjoy the red to black colored fruits that hang in long clusters in autumn; and it is the larval host of the skipper monk.

Pearlberry, which does well in partial shade, is listed as threatened in the state.

Pearlberry (Caribbean Valley) is another beautiful, tall shrub that should be used more widely in Palm Beach landscapes. The delicate star-shaped white flowers shimmer in the filtered sunlight above the glossy green foliage. It does well in partial shade and is undemanding to soil type. The flowers become translucent berries resembling small pearls, hence the common name. This is listed as endangered in the state of Florida.

Lancewood (Nectandra coriacea) is a wonderful evergreen shade tree with glossy bright green aromatic leaves that fall from smooth green twigs. Pollinators are attracted to the small, fragrant, creamy-white flowers. These are followed by purple to black fruits attached to bright red cup-shaped stems, making for a very interesting and colorful display. Birds look for these berries.

Lancewood can be used as a specimen, reaching 30 feet, or pruned to form a boundary hedge or buffer that is very drought resistant once established. The dark brown heartwood is excellent for cabinet making.

Understanding the growing requirements of plants in your landscape will also reduce the need for added chemicals. Planting shade-loving specimens or sun-loving specimens in the shade will compromise their health, making them more susceptible to attack by predators. Too much or too little water will also result in poor performance.

Often owners see a plant failing and assume it needs fertilizer or chemical treatment when it is simply growing in the wrong place. Again, do your homework and only use chemicals as a last resort.

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