Flowers, Pollinators, and the Art of the Shade Garden

Steve Pritchett

A garden visitor recently asked what plants hummingbirds like. Hummingbirds often visit our firebush, Amistad salvia, and hibiscus. Those can be found in our Lifestyle Track garden, located east of the greenhouse at Wilmot Botanical Gardens.

About four years ago, we planted a pollinator garden on the east side of the track. Hummingbirds and butterflies are beautiful, and they are also pollinators. With the worldwide bee population on the decline, we wanted to amass more and more flowers to do what we could to help pollinators breed. Pollinators keep the cycles of our plants and gardens running well. We planted several varieties of salvia, pentas in many colors, ixora, Mexican heather, bulbine, and society garlic to name a few.

One of the most attractive plants for pollinators in the track is tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). It attracts plenty of pollinators but especially monarch butterflies. Tropical milkweed propagates itself very well, so be warned. At the end of its bloom cycle, you will find stringy, cottony seed pods taking flight in all directions, and those seeds are very successful wherever they land.

There is a bit of controversy about tropical milkweed between two groups of scientists. One group believes that tropical milkweed should be cut down in the fall so monarchs won’t stay here. (They usually migrate south.) If they stay in North Florida, one group says, their mating habits put them at risk for a deadly parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. Also, if they linger in this region, they may be killed by early frosts. Another group believes that, since tropical milkweed grows year-round in Florida, it could build larger populations of monarchs. As you can see, plant selection and management is quite important to ecological cycles.

We’ve experienced a drier summer this year compared to last summer. Even the full-sun plants can look a bit peaked in all that sunshine. In Florida, full-sun plants come in all stripes, but maybe you’ve had trouble picking something for your shady spots—those cooler places on the north side of your house or beneath giant oaks. Ferns are great woodland, shade-loving plants, and there are many varieties, from very short to waist-high specimens. Just be sure not to plant an invasive species. There are two varieties of sword fern—one native, and therefore preferable, and one invasive. The bad news is that they look almost exactly alike and they have the same name. Be sure to learn how to tell them apart.

One of our favorite shade-loving plants has iridescent lavender flowers and lush green leaves with feathery patterns on them like a peacock—and that’s where it gets its name: peacock ginger. They top out at about eight inches, and they can handle part sun. Due to the removal of some trees at Wilmot Gardens, some of our peacock ginger gets a blast of afternoon sun. They wrinkle a bit when it gets really hot, but they always relax again overnight. They look fine the next morning and they come back every year in late spring or early summer. As long as they’re not in the sun from morning to evening, they should be fine, but they certainly prefer cool shade.

Coleus does well in shade or part shade. Depending on how long our hot weather lasts each year, coleus will even last well into the winter. Don’t forget to pinch off the flower stalks on your coleus or they will get sickly and not very attractive. Actually, your coleus will die if you don’t remove those flower stalks.

If you have very wet ground from rainy runoff, try an elephant ear—Alocasia or Colocasia. They handle shade very well, and they will drink the excess water. We have one in a muddy zone in the northeast section of the garden that has grown to massive size—a fine example of the right plant in the right place. Be wary of picking a variety of elephant ear that is invasive. Do your homework and please do not plant an invasive by a waterway that could propagate for miles downstream.

Hydrangeas are another shade lover, but we have never had great success growing them. Depending on the variety, they seem to get smaller and smaller each year when they return, and they don’t flower very well. However, one variety planted a year ago—which is now beneath the fronds of our gigantic elephant ear—is making small flower bunches and is still a foot and a half high. Perhaps this year we will work on our hydrangea lore.

Stephen Pritchett