Northeast Florida Garden Talk

Learn about native azaleas and other Florida gardening topics from the Nassau County Extension.

University of Florida/IFAS Extension Director for Nassau County, Rebecca Jordi, provides expertise and tips about landscaping and gardening in northeast Florida.

Native Azaleas Grow Wild In Northeast Florida
Native Azaleas Grow Best in Cold Hardiness Zones 8-9

QUESTION:  Can you identify these shrubs? They are all over my back wooded landscape. RB

JORDI:  Thank you for sending me a photo of this lovely shrub. This is a native azalea, Rhododendron canescens, which is commonly grown in upland hardwood forests, flatwoods, near swamps, bluffs, slope forests, and secondary woods. It prefers partial sun to partial shade. In Northeast Florida, it is critical to keep native azaleas out of the hot Western, afternoon sun.

For anyone interested in planting a native azalea, it would be a good idea to plant it in sandy, well-drained soil. Like other azaleas, these plants prefer acid soil. Remember, when you are planting a tree or shrub, do not add amendments to the hole. If you want to alter the soil, alter the whole bed. Never plant the tree or shrub too deeply. They should be planted at or slightly above soil level.

Unlike the cultivated, hybrid azaleas with large flowers, native azaleas have a cluster of honeysuckle-like flowers similar to other Rhododendrons. Two very important and valuable differences between the native azaleas and the cultivated ones is, the native flowers have a lovely, sweet aroma and it attracts hummingbirds, bees and butterflies.

Native azaleas grow best in cold hardiness zones 8-9, but they are not salt tolerant. Most of these native azaleas are deciduous, meaning they drop their leaves in cold weather. Often people think the tree is dead, but it will come back in the spring.  In a perfect environment, the shrubs can reach heights up to 15 feet.   

QUESTION: This plant was given to me by a neighbor.  He said it is used in cooking.  Can you identify it? 

Hoja Santa (Piper Auritum) Has Potential To Be Florida Invasive Plant
Hoja Santa (Piper Auritum) Has Potential To Be Florida Invasive Plant

JORDI:  This was difficult to identify since it did not have any flowers.  But one of the Master Gardener volunteers earned her title today by looking for it on-line. One very distinctive characteristic was the uneven shape of the leaf at the base. It also helped when you told us it has a thin finger-like white flower. Once the volunteer discovered a possible choice with a photo (Hoja Santa), you agreed she identified it correctly.

Hoja Santa or Root beer plant, Piper auritum, may emit a scent like root beer or anise – depending on who is smelling the crushed leaf.  The leaves are chopped or minced and added to cooking or used as wraps for meat stuffing. It can reach heights up to 6 feet, it is considered a large shrub.  Its origin is Mexico through Columbia and does not have any preference to soil type.

Potential Invasive Plant

It can reproduce from rhizomes and spreads readily through the root systems. It does grow well in our area, prefers shade but can tolerate full sun and requires little water.  In fact, it grows a little too well. We are concerned this plant will become another unwanted plant pest. Please be on the lookout for it. In the UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native plants in natural areas, Piper auritum has received a high score indicating it has a good potential for being an invasive plant. We should start looking for this plant and removing it immediately. I am going to encourage you to become good stewards of the land by not transferring plants from other regions – especially tropical areas.  Thank you so much.

QUESTION:  What can you tell me about the pawpaw plant? DM

JORDI:  Pawpaw​Asimina triloba, is a deciduous, native tree, which means it drops its leaves in the winter. It can grow upwards to thirty feet tall but most often only grows to about 15 feet and about the same width.  It is often found as multi-stemmed rather than having one strong leader trunk. This tree could be pruned to have a more central leader for stronger structure.  It does have thorns. 

Pawpaw Not Best Tree For Coastal NE Florida

Pawpaw grows in cold-hardiness zones 5a through 8b.  This means it is on the outer edges if grown west of I-95. It is probably not the best tree for those along the coast in Northeast Florida.  Its native habitat is Canada down to the South.  The most common areas for it to grow are along the forest edge. It can provide good fall color when the leaves turn a bright yellow. Pawpaw produces attractive burgundy colored flowers (1-1.5 inches across) in the spring. The fruit ripens from green to brown and once ripen the outer skin becomes wrinkled. The fruit is a good source of food for wildlife like raccoons and birds.  Pawpaw is also a good larval food source for the zebra swallowtail butterfly. 

QUESTION:  What is this on my fruit trees? DK

White Peach Scale (Photo UFIFAS)
White Peach Scale (Photo UFIFAS)

JORDI:   All of the white, covering the trunk of your tree is actually an insect. White peach scale, Pseudaulacaspis pentagona (Targioni), is believed to have originated in Japan or China, although one report places the point of origin in Italy where is was first described in 1886 by Targioni. This insect is an important economic pest of peach trees as well as woody ornamentals in the southeastern United States.

In the early part of this century, white peach scale destroyed numerous peach orchards in Florida and completely decimated a grove of 10,000 peach trees in south Georgia. The white peach scale inhabits up to 121 host plants in Florida and can cause major economic damage. Some of the host plants identified are fruit trees, privet, mulberry, paper mulberry, catalpa, and chinaberry. Thousands of dollars are spent each year on the control of this pest as infestation can become significant. The white peach scale will infest the bark, fruit and leaves of plants, thus making it a “triple threat” to growers. Control methods are often best directed at the larval or crawler stages which are the most vulnerable. Traditional methods of control have included various insecticidal oils as well as a number of other pesticides. This information is from UF/IFAS Featured Creatures:


Rebecca L. Jordi
Nassau County Extension Director
UF/IFAS Environmental Horticulture
543350 U.S. Highway #1
Callahan, FL 32011