South Florida and the Caribbean have much in common, including similar weather patterns—sunny winter days, warm, wet summers and hurricane threats. Because of geographic proximity, a considerable number of South Florida’s native vegetation originates from Caribbean plants. Additional species were brought here through regional trade.

It’s not surprising that many plants from our geographic neighbors make outstanding contributions to our gardens. Some are quite common, but others should be better known. The variety of suitable ornamentals is enough to plan a spectacular garden exclusively of Caribbean plants.

Not all Caribbean plants are appropriate choices, however. Some are found in areas with specialized soils that are high in toxic metals or on rich volcanic slopes that receive frequent rain or in swamps. Others can be weedy and threaten our natural plant communities. Here are a few good suggestions:

  • Frangipani, Plumeria obtusa, is a small- to medium-sized tree from the Caribbean and Mexico. Numerous cultivars and hybrids have been developed with colorful flowers that often are fragrant. (Think citrus, mango, peach, coconut and other delicious scents.) In the wild, frangipani grows in seasonally dry and rocky areas. It’s fairly drought-resistant and doesn’t need much coddling. It drops its leaves before winter and doesn’t need supplemental watering until growth resumes. 
  • Several anthurium species found in cultivation come from Caribbean islands. The big birds-nest types used in landscaping are sometimes hybrids of Anthurium hookeri, a Caribbean species. A different group of species and cultivars with large, dark green, heart-shaped leaves with prominent light-colored venation also are worth finding. These plants aren’t grown for their flowers but for their exquisite foliage. Give them partial shade, even moisture, and a sheltered location that protects them from wind. Whether growing in the ground or a pot, they appreciate some coarse bark mixed with the growing medium to provide better drainage and gas exchange around their roots.
  • The Caribbean region also is home to some of the world’s most distinctive and beautiful fan-leaved palms. The many Copernicia species from Cuba, the Coccothrinax and Thrinax species found on various islands—all do well in South Florida. The Overtop Palm, Syagrus amara, from the Lesser Antilles, is handsome, easy to grow and highly storm resistant. It does best when planted in our typically alkaline soils if given occasional applications of 8-2-12 palm fertilizer.
  • Flame of Jamaica, Euphorbia punicea, is a large shrub or small tree related to poinsettias that is found exclusively on its namesake island. It grows slowly to a maximum of 12 feet or so with a somewhat open, elegant shape. Intensely red bracts surround the flowers. Liking good drainage and little winter water, it’s one of the glories of the Caribbean.

Harvey Bernstein is the horticulturist at Pinecrest Gardens.