Since the early decades of the last century, South Florida has had a rich tradition of Mediterranean-style buildings and gardens. The intense light and dryness of our winter and spring seasons evoke the summer climate of lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, with the accompanying fantasy of enjoying good food, good wine and lazing in historic landscapes.

Geographic areas that share the climate of the Mediterranean Basin are few: coastal California, part of coastal Chile, the southwestern coast of South Africa near Capetown, and southwestern Australia near Perth. These places have climates characterized by warm, dry summers and mild winters with modest rainfall. When it doesn’t rain, humidity tends to be fairly low. These areas have distinctive local plants that have been used in gardens worldwide.

Mediterranean gardens are characterized by the following:

  • Shelter from the sun and wind and a sense of enclosure. Plants and structures such as walls and courtyards enhance the time spent in the garden.
  • Use of local materials. In South Florida, local limestone for hardscaping is a possibility.
  • Silver, olive green and bluish-leaved plants as an important part of the plant palette.
  • Fragrant herbs and flowers enriching the garden experience.
  • Precious water, especially the sounds of it splashing into tiled fountains and pools. That’s a beloved part of a Mediterranean theme. 

South Florida’s climate is different from the world’s Mediterranean regions: dry and warm in winter, extremely wet in summer, and with days that have fairly high to extreme humidity. Most Mediterranean-climate plants won’t grow in the southeastern United States, but some are spectacularly adaptable. Where true Mediterranean plants would struggle, substitutes can be used to provide the same effect. Here is a brief list of good basic plants to try:

  • Our native Southern live oak, with its twisty branches and dark leaves, is a good substitute for the famous cork oak.
  • Although date palms are widely planted, they struggle in our summer wetness and extreme humidity. Use Silvester date (Phoenix silvestris) if a large palm is needed, otherwise, try to find the beautiful Cliff Date (Phoenix rupicola).
  • European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) is a Mediterranean native that can be used in our gardens. The shrubby silver form is popular, but doesn’t reach its full potential in rainy South Florida. The typical green form is a classic Mediterranean garden plant that makes for a much nicer specimen.
  • Oleander is one of the best-known Mediterranean flowering shrubs or trees that thrives in South Florida.
  • The strikingly shaped Hollywood juniper (Juniperus chinensis or Torulosa) is one of the few nontropical evergreens that will do well here.
  • Bougainvillea, although not from a Mediterranean climate, long has been used in traditional gardens.
  • Although citrus varieties have been set back by diseases and pests lately, their fragrant blossoms and fruit are important components of the Mediterranean garden style. Try the tough-as-nails Key lime, or petite calamondin. Either can be kept in a large pot or tub.
  • For accent plants, try using intensely blue-leaved agaves or the dramatic forms of dry-growing cycads such as Dioon edule and the striking Encephalartos horridus.
  • Seasonal pots or herbs such as rosemary and finer-leaved forms of basil and oregano can complete the setting.

Harvey Bernstein is the horticulturist at Pinecrest Gardens.