While Central Jersey was in the midst of summer temperatures last week, I had the opportunity to attend the National Association of County Farm Agents conference in West Palm Beach, Florida. The weather in the Garden State and Sunshine State has actually been pretty similar, although we’ve had a few thunderstorms in the south and it’s been very dry at home.
While in Florida, I had the opportunity to visit a local native plant garden supported by the Palm Beach Conservation Foundation. Pan’s Garden was established in 1994 as Florida’s first all-native botanical garden. Located on half an acre in the Palm Beach area, it is free and open to the public. The garden was created as “a place where people can find peace of mind and where children can find joy in living things.”
Pan’s garden features winding paths that wind through the lower wetlands, complete with a stone footbridge that crosses the pond and eventually leads to uplands that support drier plant habitat. These diverse areas are home to hundreds of plant species native to South Florida, some of which are endangered. Interestingly, there were quite a few familiar plants that I recognized because they are also native to New Jersey.
The path leading down to the pond features Virginia Sweetspire (Itea Virgin), which is a native shrub that grows along stream banks and moist forest edges along much of the east coast. Florida is the southern habitat of this plant, and New Jersey is the northern habitat. While not in bloom at this time of year, Virginia Sweetspire will produce tassels of small, white, fragrant flowers that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds in early summer.
In its southern range, the leaves of Virginia Sweetspire remain semi-evergreen, but further north the leaves turn bright red in autumn. This easy-to-grow shrub will also make a great addition to the home landscape. It is commercially available from local nurseries and is an excellent substitute or substitute for the non-native burning bush (Euonymous alatus), which tends to become invasive.
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Crossing the stone bridge across the pond, I saw purple hyacinth-like flowers emerging from the water. They came from a plant called Pickerelweed (Pontederia heart-shaped). Pickerel is an aquatic plant native to Florida all the way to Nova Scotia. It grows in shallow ponds and other still bodies of fresh water with roots that grow in the mud underwater. Its heart-shaped leaves and spikes of schizo-purple flowers grow above the water. Blooms continue throughout the summer, attracting bees and hummingbirds, while the foliage provides habitat for dragonflies and dragonflies. The fruit is a popular ornamental aquatic plant for home ponds and water parks and has even won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Horticultural Merit.
Sweetbay Magnolia (Virgin magnolia) marked the transitional section of the garden, which goes from wetland plants to highlands. This small tree is native from Massachusetts to Florida and grows only 10 to 20 feet tall. It is evergreen in the south, but loses its leaves in the fall in the northern part of the range. It produces fragrant white flowers in early summer that turn into red fruits that are eaten by wildlife later in the season. It attracts butterflies and birds and is a host plant for the unique silkworm (Callosomia is protected). The Sweetbay Magnolia is a good specimen tree in the landscape and can do well in rain gardens.
Of course, you don’t have to travel far to experience the beauty and ecological benefits of native plants, as there are many fantastic outdoor parks and gardens right here in Central Jersey.
Deep Cut Gardens is a free public garden that sits on 54 acres and is part of the Monmouth County Park System. The grounds have a living catalog of cultivated and native plant materials that can be observed throughout the seasons. There is a reference library with helpful staff and regular gardening programs and classes. It is located at 152 Red Hill Road in Middletown and is open from 8 a.m. to dusk year-round.
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Another gem is Holmdel Park, which sits on 664 acres and has been a popular destination since it was purchased by the Monmouth County Park System in 1962. While many visitors enjoy the variety of outdoor activities that Holmdel Park has to offer , garden enthusiasts should also check out the David C. Shaw Arboretum. Located on 22 acres of parkland, the Arboretum contains hundreds of species and varieties of ornamental trees and shrubs well suited to growing in Central Jersey. Holmdel Park is located at 44 Longstreet Road in Holmdel and opens daily at 7 a.m.
William Erickson is the Monmouth County Rutgers Cooperative Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent.