Spring in South Florida is plant sale season. Cities and garden clubs throughout the region are hosting sales of flowering shrubs, palms, exotics, and native plants — and very often, gardeners drive a long way to find their perfect plant, a great deal, or both.
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the arrival of spring than with a display of vibrant colors, a site for eyes sore from the dreary grays of winter. Even South Florida, often accused of not actually having a change of seasons, wants to get in on the spring act.
At last, I’m able to sit down and concentrate on part two of my south Florida spring post. You see, for the past week or so, numerous northern friends have traveled south for spring break so they can get a taste of northern summer.
Such is the state of spring in the Sunshine State. Even as I write this, the outdoor thermometer reads 90 degrees in the shade.
Still, my Florida gardening friends have assured me — on more than one occasion — that there are, in fact, subtle signs of spring in zone 10, and if I want to see them, I have to know where to look.
I’m not sure when I fell in love with spring, but I have a feeling it began at birth. I’m an April baby, so for all of my life, I anticipated the season with excitement.
Spring. It’s the word and the season that seems to be on everyone’s lips this year — mine included. Perhaps it’s because this past winter was less wonder and more blunder.
Even the posts of this blog have been overly devoted to thoughts of spring. First there was the lament over the loss of the season as I’ve always known it. Then came the quest to discover spring in my new surroundings.
And now, here is a return — if only for a week — to my Long Island roots, where Joe and I visited family and friends for the Easter holiday. As we spent time at Joe’s sister’s house with her horses, and then at my parents, it was clear that this spring is like no other.
The lingering winter chill seems to have spring pressing the snooze button. The season isn’t too quick to reveal all of the richness and fullness of its colors — but the hints are everywhere. Sunny breezes. Songbirds. Peeks of green that seem to multiply with each new day. And a mid-April snow, winter’s reminder that spring best take its time waking up.
A few posts ago, I found myself in a bit of a spring funk. On the one hand, I was excited about spring’s arrival — after all, little darling, in the words of Lennon, Harrison, and McCartney, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.
When spring arrived, I was in south Florida — where it’s not so much here comes the sun but rather there is always sun. No one but me seemed to notice that the earth was standing a bit more upright as the northern hemisphere tilted toward the sun. In fact, one deejay wondered aloud on air, “Does South Florida even have a spring?”
Of course, South Florida has a spring. I’m just not sure when it actually happened. I think it was that morning when it was about 70 degrees for a few hours.
Many of you suggested I talk to some locals in order to get a better understanding of spring in these parts. And that’s exactly what I did. Feeling a bit like Ponce de Leon in his search for the Fountain of Youth in Florida, I became an explorer in search of my own newly sprung spring.
Since I don’t have a garden here, I turned to the gardens of my neighbors for some springtime inspiration. On one side, my neighbor has a wildly overgrown bed — for lack of a better word — of banana trees. They’re a bit weed-like — and I’m itching to get in there to clean out the dead leaves and stalks — if only to reach up and grab what is just out of reach from my side of the fence.
The neighbor on the other side has a very lush, attractive landscape — including this hidden heliconia.
Hanging over our shared fence are the branches and blooms of brugmansia, more commonly known as angel’s trumpets. It’s one thing to stand on my side of the fence and take in all of the pendulous blooms . . .
. . . and quite another to lay down in its shade and look upward.
But bananas and brugmansia hardly a spring make. What about bulbs and songbirds, bed cleaning and nurseries stocking up? In fact, nurseries here always seem to be full of potted products — and so the seasons seem to flow seamlessly, perhaps even unnoticeably.
I went in search of experts — and I didn’t have to go far. Charles Livio is the horticulturist for Oakland Park, FL. (Yes, the city has its own horticulturist!) In the summer of 1972, Charles and his family left the New York metropolitan area and arrived in South Florida.
“Yes, our spring is radically different here in our sub-tropical climate,” said Charles via email. “First, let’s throw out that children’s calendar rhyme from up north, ‘April showers bring May flowers.’ First of all, we have flowers blooming all year long, and second, April is not a rainy month here. Our rainy season is normally from late May through early October.”
Echoing this same idea is a regular reader/commenter of this blog, Mary Collins, who is the senior horticulturist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens in Coral Gables, FL. Like Charles, Mary is a South Florida transplant, having arrived in 1973.
“I describe the seasons in South Florida like this,” Mary wrote in a recent email. “Winter: December, January, February is cool and usually dry. Spring: March, April, mid-May is warmer, dry and windy. Summer: late-May, June, July, August, September, mid-October is hot, humid, very rainy, stormy, with June and October often being our rainiest months. Fall: late-October, November is a bit cooler and less humid.”
Now that I have a better understanding of the seasons, I wonder if I’m still missing something. Up north, spring meant excitement. It meant life. It meant green.
But in a land that is perpetually green, where this year’s spring temperatures feel more like a New York summer, where is the excitement? I mean, there are always shoppers in the nurseries but not in the numbers as up north — and much of that might have to do with the limited time gardeners have in colder climates.
Do South Florida gardeners take seasons for granted? Why get excited about any season if the changes are barely perceptible? The answer to my question could not have been more obvious. When searching for garden excitement, talk to a gardener.
At the mention of spring, both Charles and Mary responded with the feeling that I feared was lost — and their excitement for spring is infectious.
“Springtime in South Florida is much more subtle than up north, but there are things to look forward to,” wrote Charles. “In late winter/early spring, the purple trumpet trees are in bloom, followed by the pink trumpets, and then the yellow trumpet trees are masses of gold by April.”
Similarly, Mary picked up the call of the trees. “There are several beautiful trees which bloom during the spring, including the shaving brush tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum) with pink or white blooms and our native lignum vitae (Guaiacum sanctum) with beautiful violet blue flowers.”
Several trees experience both fall and spring at this time of year. According to Mary,
“This is the time of year when our live oaks (Quercus virginiana) and mahogany (Swietenia mahogany) trees drop their leaves. The oaks produce small, inconspicuous flowers and new leaves shortly after their last year’s flowers have dropped. Mahogany trees also produce new leaves shortly after their old leaves have dropped. Both the oaks and the mahogany are described as being ‘briefly deciduous.’”
Briefly deciduous. Now that’s a term that can get me revved up about spring, that makes me want to go outside and get dirty, to try my hand at some seed sowing in this climate. If I were in New York, I would have already started seeds in advance or patiently waited for the soil to warm up to direct sow. The soil in Florida is already nice and warm, so . . .
Charles offers a word of caution to slow down. “If you were to plant your garden down here the same time in the spring you planted it up north, you would be missing 2/3 of our vegetable growing season. Cool weather crops have already been harvested, and the warm weather crops are being picked. Our very warm and humid summers are not conducive to growing most vegetables. If the insects don’t get you crops, the diseases will. However, there are some tropical crops that will produce during our summers, such as cassava [yuca], pigeon peas, malanga [a root vegetable] and chayote [it’s easier to provide a link for this edible tropical plant]. We may not grow apple, pear, and cherry trees down here, but we have mangoes, avocados, and papayas!”
Mary added: “Spring in this area means orchid shows and spring plant sales. This is an excellent time to purchase plants for your own garden. Don’t forget to plant some of our South Florida native species for our native birds and butterflies! It’s a wonderful time to go for a hike in the Everglades! The water levels are at their lowest; the wildlife is found near the remaining water holes, and the ‘Glades prairies are filled with wildflowers.”
So to answer that South Florida deejay who openly questioned if South Florida even had a spring, the answer is, “Yes, Ponce de Leon, there is a spring.” You just have to know where to look and what to look for. According to both horticulturists, there is one plant in particular that can lead the way. Bougainvillea is at its brightest and boldest at this time of year.
And that’s cause for excitement no matter where spring is springing along.
Spring arrived the other day — and as a northern gardener, it means so much. Despite the winter-like temperatures that continue to hold on, this spring is a milestone. Not only does it mark time in the calendar, it’s the light at the end of winter’s dark tunnel. It’s the promise of new, green growth and branches filled with buds, of garden clean-up and future plans. It’s hopes and wishes and dreams in the blink of a season.
Those were my thoughts — and feelings — as I sat in my South Florida backyard, staring at a tree that looked more summery than spring-like. In fact, according to my skin, spring arrived here months ago — even before I arrived in February — and this vernal equinox felt more like a summer solstice.
That’s when it struck me. Do gardeners experience something akin to phantom limb syndrome? Inside I’m cheering spring’s arrival. I imagine myself examining each inch of soil in a search for bulbs pushing through the last remnants of snow. After that, I’m clipping some of my neighbor’s forsythia branches to bring them inside for forced blooming. And then I’m removing fallen leaves from the hydrangea’s comb-like branches, giddy with the appearance of green shoots. Each of my senses is experiencing its own spring awakening.
Here in the subtropics, though, I’m searching for signs of the spring that I know, that I feel. Maybe it’s because this is my first actual change of season here or that I’m still green — so to speak — in a land that never seems to lose its green, but I can’t seem to find spring. Even a local radio deejay sounded overjoyed at the first day of spring, but before the notes of the next song could play, she took a step back and wondered aloud, “Does South Florida even have a spring?”
Of course, it has a spring — a different kind of spring — and I so badly wanted to do something to recognize the season that I knew, but nothing seemed to fit right. So I sat and stared at a tree and allowed my senses to enjoy the sensations of previous springs. Besides, this warm, moist Florida air seemed better suited for lounging — and reflecting.