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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Brrrrr! Did your natives withstand the big chill? Here's how to find out

By Claudia Larsen

Although it’s in the 80s again in Florida, several blasts of freezing air this winter brought temperatures in the 20s and 30s in January and February that left some Florida wildflowers in disheveled heaps.

Your wildflowers may be just fine after a freeze. Photo/Claudia Larsen
Gardeners in Central and South Florida, especially, were caught by surprise, and many have wondered if their native plants were dead.

Don’t despair - those little plants are tougher than they look! Temperatures below 25 are pretty devastating, but Florida native plants are adapted to temperature changes and will survive much better than non-native varieties.

Frost can occur when temperatures are below 40 and the wind is still, causing brown tip burning on leaves or even total leaf damage. Damage can vary plant to plant, and even in by location in your yard. Tree canopy or a house wall can modify temperatures in garden beds. Roots will be better insulated if they are well watered the day before cold is expected.

If plants look water-soaked and melted, I give them a slight tug. If they are totally dead, the plant will easily pull up. If it resists, there may be hope. Annuals are more susceptible to cold, but perennial plants have tough roots that persist and sprout new leaves when the weather warms.

Even though they’re ugly, leave the dead tops for 3-4 weeks so you know where plants are, and keep looking for new growth at the base of the plant.  When you see new leaves, you can cut off dead stems. If you have already cut off their tops, the plants will still try to renew themselves if they’re alive. If there’s no new growth by March 1, you can replace them with new plants or seeds.

Pay attention to the five- to 10-day forecast of night temperatures from January through March. When a freeze or frost is forecast, cover your wildflowers with an old sheet or store-bought frost cloth – both are good insurance that will get tender plants through a couple chilly days, especially if temps are in the low 30s or colder.

Mulching with leaves or pine needle affords protection as long as all parts of the plant are covered. Plants can stay covered for several days.

Claudia Larsen owns Micanopy Wildflowers, a nursery in Micanopy, Fla.

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