13 Best Native Plants for Your Orlando Garden

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Close-up of bright red and orange blooms from a firebush plant

Orlando might be a paradise for tourists, but native plants can keep it from being hell on Earth for a lot of gardeners. Native plants are hardier, so they’re better able to tolerate the sandy soil and hot and humid summers here in Central Florida.

Advantages of Florida native plants:

  • Drought tolerant: Native plants don’t need frequent watering. 
  • Hurricane resistant: Native plants can withstand strong winds and pounding rain.
  • Low maintenance: Plant them and forget them. Well, almost. Native plants thrive in Central Florida naturally, so they won’t need much help from you to grow.

How to choose native plants for your Orlando yard:

When researching native plants, look for species suitable for Orlando’s 9b USDA hardiness zone, where the lowest temperatures are about 25 to 30 degrees. That’s what we did.

We’ve collected 13 of the best native plants for Orlando to give you a little inspiration, but these are only the tip of the iceberg — or tip of the ice plant (which is slightly better suited for South Florida than Orlando). 

1. American beautyberry (callicarpa americana)

vibrant purple berries in clusters on a beautyberry plant
Tony Alter | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The American beautyberry shrub is practically a staple of Florida landscaping. It grows naturally throughout the state, and it’s just as used to crazy Florida weather as the locals. American beautyberry is hurricane-resistant, which means when those 100+ mile-per-hour winds blow through (knock on wood), you’ll likely find this shrub still standing and healthy. 

Aside from being durable, the American beautyberry is colorful and beneficial to wildlife thanks to its bright purple fruits. Many species of birds will visit your garden for a taste of the berries, and pollinators like bees and butterflies will love the flowers it produces before bearing fruit. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-10b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-8 feet

2. Carolina jessamine (gelsemium sempervirens)

Large bush with yellow flowers of Carolina jessamine
Surely Shirly | Flickr | CC0 1.0

Carolina jessamine is a lovely vine with dark green spear-shaped leaves and brilliant yellow trumpet-shaped flowers. Growing up to 25 feet long with proper care, this climbing vine is perfect for adding a touch of elegance to a trellis, arbor, fence, tree, or other landscape feature. You can grow Carolina jessamine horizontally and use it as ground cover, too, but it won’t produce as many blooms grown this way. 

Aside from providing a splash of color, Carolina jessamine will also bless your garden with a pleasant aroma. It attracts all kinds of beneficial wildlife, including hummingbirds, mockingbirds, cardinals, bees, and butterflies. 

  • Plant type: Vine
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Climbs up to 25 feet

3. Coral honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens)

cluster of pink coral honeysuckle flowers
Jo Naylor | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Coral honeysuckle is another great option if you’re looking for a colorful vine. This one tends to grow wide instead of just climbing up, so it can have the appearance of a hedge if you let it grow thick on a trellis or fence. When mature, it can sprawl 9 feet wide by 15 feet tall. The coral honeysuckle produces intriguing clusters of bright red tube-shaped flowers that look delicate and tropical. 

A note on maintenance: If you decide to grow the coral honeysuckle along a trellis (which is where it looks and performs its best), you’ll have to trim it back annually. Even if you want lots of growth, you want that growth to be healthy, so it’s a good idea to remove leggy branches and old blooms as necessary. 

  • Plant type: Vine
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-10b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade, full shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Clay, loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Climbs 12-15 feet

4. Firebush (hamelia patens)

bright yellow and red blooms of a firebush plant
reader of the pack | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

As you might have guessed from its common name, this tall shrub has a fiery appearance. The firebush‘s thin red flowers bloom densely on its branches, seeming to spray color in every direction. Because one bush can grow up to 10 feet tall and wide, firebush makes a great privacy hedge, especially if you want something more captivating than the usual wall of green. 

Like the American beautyberry shrub, firebush is hurricane wind-resistant from years and years of adapting to life in Florida. Keep in mind though, firebush tends to die if it freezes. If the weather forecast shows temperatures dropping below 32 degrees for a few days or nights, you’ll want to cover your firebush to protect it from frost. Central and South Florida homeowners don’t have to worry about that happening too often. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 9a-11b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Up to 10 feet

5. Hairy leafcup (smallanthus uvedalius)

yellow hairy leafcup flowers
Fritz Flohr Reynolds | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Its common name doesn’t sound too attractive, but the hairy leafcup is actually a beautiful, dainty, bright yellow flower in the sunflower family. It typically grows 3 to 6 feet tall but can sometimes reach up to 9 feet under the right conditions. You should be able to grow hairy leafcup just about anywhere in Orlando since it thrives in sandy soils and adapts to almost any soil pH. 

So, what makes the hairy leafcup special? It blooms in late summer or early fall. When most of your other flowering landscape plants have gone to rest from the intense heat of summer, hairy leafcups will raise their golden heads to keep your garden colorful until temperatures start to drop. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-9b
  • Sun: Partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-6 feet

6. Joe-Pye weed (eutrochium fistulosum)

close-up of pink blooms from joe-pye weed
liz west | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

This lovely lavender flower is another late bloomer, usually showing its colors in late summer. Grow several Joe-Pye weeds in a cluster, and they’ll adorn your garden with a beautiful blanket of pinkish-purple year after year. These flowers typically stand 4 to 6 feet off the ground, so they make a great background plant for flower gardens. Since they have a bit of a wild appearance, Joe-Pye weeds are best for informal or “bedhead” style gardens. 

Even though these flowers won’t need frequent watering, they do best in naturally moist areas. If you live near a body of water like a stream or pond, your garden is probably the perfect place for Joe-Pye weeds. The plants are also somewhat salt-tolerant, but that trait shouldn’t come into play too often. In Orlando, Joe-Pye weeds usually only encounter large quantities of saltwater on rare occasions, such as during a major storm. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-10a
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Loamy, rocky, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 4-6 feet

7. Prairie iris (iris savannarum)

Anyone familiar with irises will recognize the delicate, somewhat complicated construction of the prairie iris‘s white, purple, and lavender flowers. They’re beautiful but small, growing only about 3 to 4 feet tall and a foot wide at most. Prairie irises make pretty additions to pollinator gardens since they attract bumblebees.

Despite what its name suggests, the prairie iris’s natural habitat is marshes, swamps, and other wet areas. So these flowers need lots of water. If you already have moist soil or live near a body of water, that’s a great start. Even so, keep an eye on prairie irises and be sure to water them if there’s no rain for a while.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: High
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-4 feet

8. Rusty lyonia (lyonia ferruginea)

green leaves and translucent brown flowers of Rusty lyonia
Homer Edward Price | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

Depending on your needs, you could grow the rusty lyonia as a tall shrub or small tree. The main draws of the rusty lyonia are its interesting shape and foliage, so you’ll want to plant it in a spot that will display its unique beauty for all to see.

This tree gets its name from the rust-orange color of new leaves, which grow on the tips of branches and stand out brilliantly against a backdrop of light green older leaves.

For all its exotic visuals, the rusty lyonia is reportedly easy to take care of. It needs sandy soil to thrive, which makes it perfect for Central Florida. Rusty lyonia does well in a wide range of moisture conditions, from moderately moist to extremely dry environments. 

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-10b
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Medium 
  • Soil: Sandy
  • Duration: Evergreen perennial
  • Mature height: 10-15 feet

9. Sabal palm (sabal palmetto)

close up of palm fronds form a sabal palm
Calmuziclover | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

We can’t talk about native trees in Florida without mentioning the official state tree, the sabal palm (sometimes called the cabbage palm). The sabal palm, like most palms, is drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, and hardy through cold and other harsh conditions.

With time and care, a sabal palm can grow upward of 100 feet tall. The flexible, spiky trunk withstands hurricanes extraordinarily well, which is perhaps the reason this tree has come to symbolize the (perhaps misnamed) Sunshine State.  

Interestingly, once the fronds die and begin to hang down toward the ground in a yellowish-brown cluster, they become a roosting habitat for yellow bats. You might be excited at the possibility of housing these little critters in your yard, or you might want to remove dead fronds ASAP to keep the bats at bay. You can also expect to find birds, bees, and butterflies flitting around a sabal palm tree.

Pro Tip: If you want the classic palm tree look but don’t have room for a huge sabal in your landscape, there are many small palm varieties you could try instead. You might consider the coontie palm or saw palmetto.  

  • Plant type: Palm
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-11b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade, full shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Evergreen perennial
  • Mature height: Up to 100 feet

10. Southern wood fern (dryopteris ludoviciana)

long green stems of southern wood fern
Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.5

Looking for plants to grow in a shade garden or around the base of a shade tree? The southern wood fern is perfect for these conditions. It thrives in shady, moist environments.

Under the right conditions, the southern wood fern can grow into a large patch without much encouragement from a gardener. This plant has the soft, bright green, feathered fronds typical of a fern. It makes a good ground cover or backdrop for showier plants. 

You’ll find that the southern wood fern is evergreen in Orlando most of the time. It may lose its leaves if winter temperatures drop below freezing, but anyone would know that isn’t a common worry around here.

  • Plant type: Fern
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-9b
  • Sun: Partial shade, full shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Sandy
  • Duration: Evergreen perennial
  • Mature height: 2-4 feet

11. White fringe tree (chionanthus virginicus)

white fringe tree flowers in bright white
bobistraveling | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

When in bloom in late spring, the white fringe tree is a sight to behold with tufts of small white flowers that make the tree look almost frosted. This small to medium tree would be perfect as a standout specimen showcased in the front yard.

White fringe trees are somewhat drought-tolerant, which makes them easy to care for.

Downsides: Unfortunately, the tree is deciduous, so it sheds its flowers and leaves in fall and loses a lot of its intrigue. Also, white fringe trees are often a frequent target of pests. For example, boring insects, or “borers,” often attack these trees.

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-9b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: High
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Deciduous perennial
  • Mature height: 10-20 feet

12. Yellow star anise (illicium parviflorum)

large green leaves of a yellow star anise plant
Homer Edward Price | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Yellow star anise shrubs typically grow 15 to 20 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide, so they work well as hedges and privacy screens. Their bright green leaves create a wall to block views and provide a backdrop for the tiny yellow flowers that resemble buttercups.

If you’re only looking for a single plant and not a whole hedge, these shrubs can look great as specimen plantings, too. 

The yellow star anise is a special treat for Orlando gardeners because it’s endemic to a small portion of Central Florida. Basically, that means here is the only place in North America where the shrub grows naturally. This bush is closely related to the non-native species that produces the star-anise spice, and it releases a similar aroma, which can be a nice touch for your yard. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-10a
  • Sun: Full shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Evergreen perennial
  • Mature height: 15-20 feet

13. Zephyr lily (zephyranthes atamasca)

single white Zephyr lily
Doug McGrady | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

These little lilies love rain, so much so that their other name is “rainlily.” You’ll often see them blooming after showers or in very wet environments such as river floodplains. Most years, they unfold their pure white petals in late winter or early spring. 

When they aren’t in bloom, Zephyr lilies have rather plain foliage. You can make good use of them in a wildflower garden or mixed in with another ground cover plant. They grow to only about a foot tall and a few inches wide per flower, but most of the time, several will grow together in clusters. If you plant Zephyr lilies in clusters, you can expect them to live longer. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 8a-10b
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade, full shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Loamy, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: About 1 foot

How native plants make gardening easier

Native trees, vines, and flowers! Oh, my! Orlando’s collection of low-maintenance native plants has everything you could want for a unique or traditional Florida landscape. 

And low maintenance landscaping with native plants won’t mean trips out in the sweltering summer heat to water or weed these beauties. Instead, you could be inside in your AC planning your next landscaping project — or scouting more native plants for your yard.

If only a few of our 13 best native plants fit your vision for your Orlando garden, you can find a more comprehensive list of Florida’s native plants on the University of Florida’s Gardening Solutions page and the Florida Native Plant Society website. 

If you’d prefer to leave the landscaping to the professionals, find an Orlando lawn care pro who can care for your gardens and lawn from start to finish.

Main Photo Credit: Mokkie | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

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