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Date of Issue: March 01, 2007

Flora forum focuses on native plantings

The specialists assembled on Fat Tuesday at a Holmes Beach forum gushed not about gumbo but about the gumbo-limbo.

They were gathered not to celebrate Mardi Gras but to promote going native - planting local flora in public and private places on Anna Maria Island.

The forum, presented by the Holmes Beach Parks and Beautification Committee at city hall Feb. 20, featured four speakers on the topic of "Go Native with Plants and Trees." The panelists included Island landscaper Mike Miller, nursery owner and Manatee Audubon Society president Tom Heitzman, master gardener Maureen Hirthler and Manatee County extension service agent Peggy Dessaint.

The program began with the introduction of beautification committee members, followed by a welcome from Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger.

Committee member and moderator Kathy King then introduced the speakers and invited Miller, of Perfect Island Indigenous Landscaping, to make the first presentation.

Miller spoke about his work and his vision for the Island, illustrating his comments with photographs projected on a screen at the front of the city commission chambers.

Miller began with a rhetorical question. "If it is these islands on this coast on this particular sliver of earth that we love so much, why have we landscaped them from one end to the other with the vegetation of China, the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia, Madagascar, West Africa, Cuba and Brazil?"

He wondered why chambers of commerce promote the Island as "second-rate copies of a Tahitian tropical dream rather than for the unique beauty of the sub-tropical palm hammocks on the Gulf Coast."

Miller emphasized that locations lose their uniqueness when exotics dominate the landscape. Mother Nature, he said, designed "every corner of this earth with a unique combination of trees and plants and hence a unique beauty of its own."

Dessaint also discussed the unique characteristics of the Island, emphasizing that this is a sub-tropical rather than tropical zone, with soil different from the soil as near as Bradenton.

"The most common soil in Manatee County is Myakka soil and that isn’t what’s on the Island," Dessaint said. She encouraged gardeners to consider the soil, rainfall, sunlight, temperature and wind when they select plants.

Hirthler talked about gardening, specifically her recent experience landscaping her back yard. She encouraged gardeners to apply Zen principles to landscaping, such as recognizing the divine spark in all living things.

"We’re people living in harmony with nature," Hirthler said. "We want to do no harm."

When Zen principles are applied, Hirthler said the gardener naturally will lean toward using native plants - which will need less fertilizer, less water and make less waste.

"You have to go out of your way" to find Florida natives for sale because they are not readily available in big box stores, she said.

Such plants are available at area nurseries and Heitzman, the owner of Sweetbay Nursery, was present to show audience members some favorite plants best suited for the barrier island.

Heitzman and the other panelists, in addition to talking up the gumbo-limbo tree, recommended buttonwood, Christmas berry, firebush, Florida privet, Jamaican caper and native palms for coastal planting.

For groundcover, recommendations included beach elder, beach sunflower, yellow Jessamine, coral honeysuckle, golden creeper, railroad vine, sea oats and yellowtop.

"How do we recapture the image of nature’s islands, incorporate into it the functions of our lives and end up with a native habitat more beautiful than the artificial exotic one we replaced?" Miller asked.

"Go native," he answered, "so that you could land a boat on our native bay beaches, walk across the Island to our native Gulf beaches and never see along the way the landscapes of somewhere else."

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