Power Plants

I should have gotten over it after 25 years in Florida. But I’m still amazed to look out the window on a frigid (for Orlando) day and see blazing red hibiscus blooms and a wild bougainvillea that appears to have been fertilized with psychedelic drugs.

Even more amazing to me than flowers blooming like neon in midwinter is the fact they grow at all. I’m surprised anything grows here without human intervention. Back home in Indiana, plants grow in soil— black, loamy stuff which, when mixed with water, produces mud.

There is no mud in Florida—of the thick shoe-sucking variety you have to scrape off with a stick—because there is no real soil. The official state “soil,” Myakka, is mostly sand. There’s a word for places that are mostly sand: the desert.

So how come it’s a jungle out there? How is it possible that I find myself in hand-to-branch combat with vegetation that is not just growing, but thriving in sand?

When I put these questions to Ed Thralls, a master gardener at the Orange County Extension Education Center in south Orlando, he just smiled—patiently and with a bit of pity, I think. Northern transplants bring many misconceptions about Florida flora, he said.

“There’s a saying that ignorance is not so much what you don’t know. It’s that so much of what you do know is just not so.”
It turns out that most of what I knew is just not so. Root systems here are shallower. Not so. St. Augustine grass is really just a weed. Not so. Plants can’t grow in sand. Obviously, not so.

It was easier hearing this from Thralls, 66. He’s a fellow Hoosier who moved here when he was nine. He remembers mud—it was fun sliding in it in summer—but doesn’t miss it. “I’m too old for that.”

Soil is made of three things, he explained: sand, silt and clay. Florida soil is mostly sand with teensy amounts of silt and clay, which is why it looks like sand, feels like sand, and drains like sand. But even in the sandy faux soil, “most roots grow out to the side and find the nutrients they need to sustain them,” he said. (Another Just Not So. I was positive that roots grow down, not out.)

Thralls told me that plants here don’t go dormant the way they do up north, where they are dead to the world for a while like my Uncle Mike after a night of drinking. Here, they’re like a hibernating bear keeping its options open in case conditions look good for a midwinter romp. I witnessed this after the great freeze of 1989. We had just moved into a suburban ranch house in Winter Park with banana trees along one side of a screened pool.

I loved the banana trees—their long diaphanous leaves nodding in the breeze against a blue sky the very picture of “tropical”—and was sad the morning after the freeze to find them withered and brown. Taking a deep breath, I sawed the dead trees to the ground.

I was spooked the next day when I walked by the moribund banana trees and saw whitish-green shoots jutting an inch or two from the center of the stump.  “That’s not normal,” I thought. “Nothing grows that fast.”

It does in Florida. A few years ago we planted the dying sprig of a bleeding heart bush in a small patch of Myakka near the front porch, figuring we were giving it a decent burial.
Today, with no help from us, it’s like the voracious flower in Little Shop of Horrors, an explosion of pearl-size magenta and purple blooms, several feet wide and high, threatening to take over one side of the house.

It just doesn’t seem normal, this frenzy of propagation in the sand, I told Thralls. What is going on here?
For lack of a better scientific term: sex.

“What’s its purpose in life? If it’s a plant, it wants to grow,” Thralls said. “It’s going to do whatever it can to produce that seed for the next generation.”
And no suburban homeowner with a set of hedge clippers is going to stop it.

Email Greg at feedback@orlandomagazine.com

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