Friday, August 13, 2010

Blast From the Past

My Florida Backyard will be on its own for the next few days while its owners head north to visit family. In the meantime, you might enjoy this article I co-wrote with Kristen Gilpin, who runs the BioWorks Butterfly Garden at MOSI. It's an interesting look at how different gardening in Florida was 50 years ago, when DDT was still A-OK and the term "exotic invasives" just didn't exist...

Where it All Went Terribly Wrong: Post-WWII Landscaping in Florida
by Kristen Gilpin and Jill M. Staake

Most Florida gardeners today are familiar with the concept of “Florida-Friendly Gardening”. It involves simple steps like eliminating water-hungry turfgrass, minimizing use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to protect our waterways, focusing on native plants, and avoiding exotic invasives. But the ideas behind Florida-Friendly Gardening didn’t evolve overnight - instead, like many things, they were developed in response to serious mistakes Florida residents made in the past. A Florida gardening book from 1962 shows the astonishing turnaround Florida gardeners have made in the last 50 years.

The Way We Were: In the last one hundred years, Florida’s population has boomed to over 18 million residents. But in 1900, Florida had a population of 528,542 people and was a largely agrarian state. That all changed with the land boom of the early 1920’s and near doubling of the state population just after World War II. Low property costs, a gorgeous climate, and an inexpensive cost of living saw rapid Florida development. Urban areas sprouted vast tracts of suburban housing developments and millions of new residents streamed into Florida. These new homeowners were from all parts of the nation and looking for some ways to make their new properties look lush and tropical.

Gardening in Florida is like gardening no where else in the country. High temperatures, seasonal rains, and extended dry seasons test even the most experienced of gardeners. New Florida residents were looking for gardening tips and wanted fast-growing plants that would make their property look more established. Without  the Internet or TV gardening programs to consult, many residents of Pinellas and Hillsborough county tuned their radio dials to listen to Uncle Pasco Roberts’ Radio Garden Club.
“The Radio Garden Club is a 15-minute program over Radio Station WSUN (St. Petersburg, Fla.) five days a week (Monday through Friday) at 1:45 to 2pm. It is devoted to What Grows in Florida... How to Grow It... and Where to Get It.” (Florida State Horticultural Society, 1950)

pascoroberts Uncle Pasco’s show was so popular it led to the publication of The Book of Florida Gardening in 1962. It featured a month-by-month gardening guide and even a section on the newest gardening craze, hydroponics. It’s clear that Uncle Pasco wanted to provide his readers with garden tips that would help them combine traditional northern gardening with the exotic feel of the tropics. The first chapters of the book focus on establishing a turfgrass lawn (“No matter whether you have a modest or palatial home, estate of building, it usually takes a beautiful lawn to give it the proper setting,” he notes on page 15), along with planting roses, azaleas, and lilies - plants Northerners would be familiar with, even if they were a little challenging to grow in Florida’s climate. He also provided lengthy chapters on hibiscus, camellias, and gardenias, appealing to the desire to create a tropical oasis. Judging by the stock most nurseries carry, it’s fair to say these same desires exist among gardeners today. Although Uncle Pasco rarely recommended a native plant to these new Florida gardeners, many of his recommendations are still popular and acceptable in modern Florida gardens.

So What’s the Problem?  It’s when Uncle Pasco begins to focus on trees that we begin to see how these new residents quickly created an ecological nightmare for Florida’s native plants. Of the 24 trees he recommends in his chapter “Fast Growing Trees”, 18 (75%!) of them can now be found on the FLEPPC Category I and II invasive species list, which includes plants that are or may become “invasive exotics that are altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives.”

Let’s take a look at some of the recommendations from Uncle Pasco:
  • Golden Rain Tree: (Koelreuteria elegans) native to eastern Asia, in China and Korea is a fast growing and colorful tree that does incredibly well in Florida. It is now listed as a category 2 invasive species in Florida.
  • Melaleuca : (Melaleuca quinquenervia) is an aggressively spreading member of the myrtle family with blooms that attract butterflies and bees. Planted in numbers to help drain swampy portions of the Everglades, these trees quickly escaped plantings. Mellaleuca is highly flammable, which helped to worsen wildfires in the area and increase their intensity. It is now listed as a category 1 invasive in Florida.
  • Tree of Gold (Tabebuia argentea) is native to South America where it was an important nesting tree for the highly endangered Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii). Each year it blooms with brilliant yellow trumpet shaped flowers.
  • Golden Shower Tree (Cassia fistula) is native to southern Asia and blooms with lovely yellow flowers each spring. It develops large seed pods and has seeds that are toxic.
  • Earleaf Acacia: (Acacia auriculiformis) It is native to Australia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. It is now listed as a category 1 invasive in Florida.
  • Australian Pine is native to Australia. Uncle Pasco Roberts notes that the shallow root system has been recently identified as a problem with the note “during the worst of hurricanes in the Everglades, they blew across the roadways and became a hazard.”. He further notes that the planting of this tree has become prohibited but continues to recommend it as windbreak protection perfect for wide open spaces and sandy beaches! It is now listed as a category 1 invasive and is prohibited from further planting in Florida.
  • Chinese Tallow (Sapium sebiferum) is native to Eastern Asia and is now listed as a noxious weed on the Florida Invasive Species List. This tree had rapid growth and quickly outperforms native tree species. It is now listed as a category 1 invasive species in Florida.
  • Mother’s Tongue Tree (Albizzia lebbek) is native to tropical southern Asia and drops huge seed pods over the course of two months in the spring. It is now listed as a category 1 invasive in Florida.
  • Monkey Pod Tree (Pithecolobium) native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. Uncle Pasco Roberts writes: “The tree is good for shade, ornament and for food for monkeys”. Well, at least our Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay can find some good forage out there!
Perhaps the most interesting recommendation is the Java Plum (Syzgium cumini), which is native to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Indonesia. Uncle Pasco particularly praises this tree for for its fruit, and includes a recipe from his wife for Java Plum jelly. He proudly credits himself with the spread of this Category I invasive in the Tampa Bay area, noting on page 61:
The author came across several [Java Plum] trees in Laurel, Fla. about 1949 and from seeds and small trees obtained... I have helped popularize this tree in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties to the extent that there are many hundreds now growing and some have reached 60 to 70 feet in height. The first seeds I planted produced a growth of 20 feet within three years...
 Uncle Pasco does not recommend a single native tree from Florida or even from the Southeast United States. This sort of gardening advice is precisely what landed Florida in the spot it is in today. Costly remediation efforts are being conducted every year to remove trees like these that have escaped cultivation and are outperforming our native trees. Non-native species are often unaffected by local diseases and pest populations and can spread unchecked by the normal balances of nature. To learn more about the problems caused by invasive plants in Florida, visit the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council website.

A 1962 view of “pesky worms”: Uncle Pasco’s 50-year-old advice contains other recommendations that modern gardeners would do well to ignore. Among these are his recommendations on fertilizer (everything needs it!) and pesticides.

Butterfly gardening has really only been popularized in recent years, so reading DSC01370 50-year-old commentary on caterpillar destruction can be a touch unsettling.The beautiful Cloudless Sulhpur and Orange Barred Sulhpur butterfies host on many species of cassia, including Christmas Cassia (Cassia bicapsularis). Butterfly gardeners today welcome these creatures, but Uncle Pasco disagreed. In the planting guide for April on page 89, he says, “This is the month that most of the insects, pests, etc begin to show up in numbers... For instance those pesky worms appear on... cassia (Cassia bicapsularis)... and look like part of the foliage or flowers. Spray with arsenate of lead.”

Uncle Pasco seems to dislike caterpillars on general principal. The quick and darting Canna Skipper butterfly hosts in the leaves of native and ornamental cannas where it rolls the leaf around itself for protection from predators.  In the February planting guide (p. 86), he tells us, “One of the old time garden favorites that is staging a comeback is the canna... they are very easy to grow but are bothered however with leaf-rollers that cut good sized holes in the leaves. This may be controlled with a Chlordane dust.”

Not surprisingly, every pesticide Uncle Pasco recommends is now banned or not used in the United States. Chlordane was a carcinogenic insecticide that has not been sold in the United States since 1983; arsenate of lead was banned in 1988. He also recommends Nemagon (banned in 1975), Toxaphene (banned in 1986), and explains the proper application of DDT for flea control.

Lessons Learned: It’s important to remember that we can’t blame Uncle Pasco Roberts for his advice. A number of the species he suggests were also found listed in an article by the Florida State Horticultural Society from 1951 entitled Ornamental Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for South Florida Homes by Frank J Rimoldi. Clearly, this was the sort of information that was available to new Florida residents in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and they didn’t know then what we know now. The gardeners of 50 years ago had no idea how out of control their plantings could become. No one meant to destroy native habitats, or apply pesticides that would cause cancer, but lack of knowledge caused widespread and far-reaching damage.

What should we as modern gardeners learn from Uncle Pasco? Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that we all must become more considerate and thoughtful gardeners. We should learn more about the plants we choose to put in our yards, and think about what will happen when we’re no longer there to take care of them. Mexican Petunia is tempting at the nursery with its fast-growth habit and numerous pretty purple flowers, but this Category I invasive is displacing native wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) used by Buckeye caterpillars as a host plant, and it’s nearly impossible to remove once established in a yard due to its deep root system and aggressive seed distribution. Florida-Friendly Gardeners are learning to consider native plants when possible and carefully investigate non-native species before introducing them into the ecosystem.

It’s really about a return to common sense. If we can avoid chemicals in the garden, we should, whether the EPA tells us they’re safe or not. Today’s “safe pesticide” is tomorrow’s DDT. When chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers are necessary, we can use them sparingly, rather than applying them widely and regularly regardless of need. Rather than looking for fast results, which Uncle Pasco and the new Florida residents of 50 years ago desired, we can plan for the future and work toward a yard worth having and enjoying - safely.

Uncle Pasco teaches us to learn from the past. As Dr. Dale E. Turner said, “Some of the best lessons we ever learn are learned from past mistakes. The error of the past is the wisdom and success of the future.” We don’t need to cast blame on Uncle Pasco and his contemporaries, but we can certainly see where they went wrong and try to avoid similar mistakes in the future.


  1. Thanks for the great article!
    I have a book on Florida flowering trees from 1990 that still recommends these invasive trees. It only briefly mentions that Mother's Tongue is considered by some to be "dirty" but the author quickly assures us that its a good thing because the pods, leaves and seeds make good compost!

  2. It's amazing how attitudes have changed toward gardening WITH our environment. I know my Mom planted many ivansives in our Tampa yard in the 50's and 60's. Not that she was insensitive to their envionmental impact, but rather she was reading books like the one in your post. I've made my fair share of mistakes with invasive species too, but I'm slowly remedying them thanks to good info like is found on your blog:)

  3. Thank goodness times have changed. Very interesting and enlightening article. Articles such as yours will help educate people and prevent many of us from making mistakes.

  4. Good story! We have hindsight, and we all know that is 20/20. Did Uncle Pasco have any good advice?

  5. Uncle Pasco!! We believed in you!!
    Actually, I'd never heard of Uncle Pasco, which is part of the reason I found this a really good read. It's so interesting to me to learn the local garden history, what gardeners in decades past liked, what their philosophies were, etc. ... No, we can't blame Uncle Pasco. As you very smartly noted, today's "safe" may be tomorrow's "WARNING!" Best to proceed with caution. (Poor sulphur caterpillars. I love them!)

  6. I do not have a lawn. Most of my space is devoted to my veggies. My future son in law lawn looked like a bomb went off after last winter. I have now got it looking so good! But to me a lawn is just so much more work to keep up. The first thing I got him to give up was Chem-lawn all those guys do is poison you and your yard! Baby steps first I had to prove to him I could repair the damage. I did that his yard is the healthiest in his neighborhood next is making his back yard Florida friendly.