Appreciation of Native and Exotic Trees of South Florida

Wayside Trees of Tropical Florida

Florida has long been celebrated as one of the most fertile and cultivated states in the country. The flora is so diverse and exciting. The trees of South Florida alone are varied and interesting enough to fill a book.

David Lee & Stacy West’s book, Wayside Trees of Tropical Florida, describes the native and exotic trees as seen along the streets and highways, and parks and home gardens, of tropical south Florida. The Tropic of Cancer, the line of latitude that separates the most northerly part of the globe from the south, runs right through Lake Okeechobee and distinguishes the tropical region of south Florida from the north. As is the case with the rest of the world, most of Florida’s native and tropical trees grow only south of the line.

Poinciana Tree - Native or Exotic?There are about 125 species of native trees in Florida, but fewer than half are found commonly along roads and in yards and parks. The bulk of the Florida tree flora consists of exotic species, including those that survive because they are cultivated or have become naturalized (i.e. can flower and produce seeds on their own). A few species have done so well that they have even become invasive, or harmful to the native environment that existed before it was introduced.

Among the most attractive hardwoods in south Florida are the Caribbean mahogany (Featured on the right), False tamarind and Jamaican dogwood. These native and exotic trees are prized by crafts people such as wood-turners and furniture and musical instrument makers. Two important exotic timbers are teak and Indian rosewood.

Most of the trees native to south Florida are used to a tropical climate where the average monthly temperatures do not vary much. Such native trees include the following:

Caribean Mahogany - Native Florida tree

  • Caribbean mahogany,
  • bald cypress,
  • red mulberry
  • sweet bay
  • red bay
  • southern ash
  • red maple
  • gumbo limbo
  • wax myrtle

Some tropical trees may be sensitive enough to Florida’s cooler and drier winters to cease the growth of wood during autumn, leading to winter dormancy, including Caribbean mahogany, gumbo limbo and red bay. These are all included in Wayside Tree of Tropical Florida, Page references in Wayside Trees of Tropical Florida are Caribbean mahogany (164), Gumbo limbo (107) and Red bay (149).

Still other trees in south Florida may alter the patterns of cells due to one or more dry periods, producing rings more sporadically. Such tropical examples include false tamarind, fish poison tree (Jamaican Dogwood Tree), lignum vitae, soapberry, paradise tree and dahoon holly.

There are many common exotic tree species in south Florida. Below are four examples.

  • The tung oil tree is a handsome tree, with attractive white flowers. Its seeds produce the tung oil used in paint manufacture and furniture finishing.
  • The spinach tree is rather small in stature; Its leaves have stinging hairs, but are cooked and eaten as a vegetable, popular among several ethnic groups, including Caribbean Indian immigrants who have moved to south Florida.
  • The sandbox tree is rare but its trunks, with numerous small spines, make them easy to identify.
  • The Chinese tallow-wood tree is invasive further north, but rare in the south of Florida.

Many trees in south Florida, exclusively of tropical origin, produce wood throughout the year and thus have no growth rings. These include: short leaf fig, mastic, poisonwood, cocoplum, satinleaf , red mangroves, tetrazygia and pigeon plum. Curiously, our most common temperate broadleaf tree, the live oak , produces no annual growth rings in our climate.

The Figure of Wood.

Examples of wood grain from Trees native to FloridaCraftsmen prize and carefully manipulate rich colors and interesting grains in woods.  Some woods are exceedingly beautiful, with rich colors and interesting grains. Certain characteristics produce the “figure of wood”; craftsmen, such as wood-turners, learn to prize and carefully manipulate such woods.

Various factors contribute to this beauty. Variations in growth and the sizes of vessels contribute to the grain. Also, tree trunks produce long lived cells, rays, that connect the outside of the trunk to the inner heartwood. These cells transport chemicals to the interior that contribute to the strong color of the heartwood. Some of these molecules are very effective fabric dyes. The heartwood of Brazil wood yields a valuable fabric dye, haematoxylin.

The most common 167 trees (and palm trees) are included in the key, generally are illustrated with multiple photographs, and are described in some detail. These are the trees you will encounter 95 % of the time.

Whether a tree is native, exotic, or exotic and invasive is provided in the descriptions of individual trees in the main section of the book, Wayside Trees of Tropical Florida, which is also the source for the text of this article on Native trees in South Florida.

Why should we prefer Native trees and plants and be cautious of Exotics?

Though the book Wayside Tree of Tropical Florida celebrates all of the tree inhabitants of the fertile state, there is some debate on the safety of incorporating exotic trees into a new environment. There are strong motivators for preferring native trees and plant over exotics, and visa versa. See our article on Native vs Exotic Pants and Trees.

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