Native plants stand up to serious drought

Lake Okeechobee's water level has fallen below 10 feet for the first time since 2007.

Our supplier of potable water, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, has been running its energy-intensive desalination plant at Florida City for several months to supplement our supply from the freshwater Biscayne Aquifer with brackish water from the Floridan Aquifer.

And, despite the fact that our main tourist season is over in the Keys, water consumption has not dropped off as much as expected. In fact, it is just as high as during our peak months, and it is possible that irrigation is a contributing factor because of the prolonged drought.

Creating a yard or garden with a lush look and feel is a goal for most Florida Keys gardeners. However, salt spray, intense heat, high humidity, alkaline soil, little organic matter, prolonged drought and water restrictions make it very challenging.

Thankfully, Florida has some wonderful native plants that are adapted to drought conditions and are salt-tolerant and hardy enough to survive in the poor quality soil with no need for fertilizers or pesticides and little if any manual irrigation once established.

After Hurricane Wilma’s storm surge pushed 20 inches of salty sludge onto our property, I decided to replace the non-native plants it killed with salt-tolerant natives because I did not want to waste years of sweat and toil — not to mention money -- again.

My sabal palm, silver buttonwoods, sea grape bushes and bay cedar lived through that 2005 storm.

I replaced a row of dead areca palms with green buttonwoods and planted Florida thatch palms to replace the flowering shrubs that perished. The buttonwoods are now 17 feet high and form a natural privacy screen, and the 6-foot thatch palms produce really large attractive fronds.

The best part is that, despite the drought, the natives still need very little water and can go for months without watering.

-- Shirley Gun is a member of the Keyswide nonprofit Green Living & Energy Education. She writes about green living and the four R’s -- reducing, reusing, recycling and rot (compost). She can be reached at