Using plants to add movement to the landscape

Story by Jane Jordan

Strong winds can cause plants to move excessively, which in turn pulls on their roots and weakens brittle branches. Some plants embrace this movement – they have strong roots, clumps that hug the ground, and stems that can stand up to gusts or just move gently with the lightest breeze. 

In landscape design, plants can be arranged to influence the concept of movement – a curving path leads the eye and promotes movement from one space to another. Plants themselves add to this concept, the way they dance with the breeze can have an enchanting visual effect by drawing the eye to this constant movement.

Grasses most often come to mind when thinking about achieving movement in plants, and there are some truly beautiful grasses for a Florida garden, although there are other plants that have an equally delicate composition. These plants not only sway and bend gracefully as the wind blows through them, they produce masses of flowers as well. 

Burn jelly plant (Bulbine frutescens)
A perfect perennial plant for Florida, with an added advantage of being drought tolerant, they bloom repeatedly with flowers at the end on long grass-like foliage. They are clump forming and can reach up to 4 feet wide, non-invasive, they make a good ground cover with flower stalks that reach 2 feet tall. 

B. frutescens produces cheerful yellow and orange flowers. Photo courtesy of Jane Jordan.

Bulbine blooms repeatedly and does best in full sun. They grow well in poor soils, being suited to Zones 9-11. The leaves produce a juice that is similar to Aloe, which can be used for treating burns and insect bites. 

This plant’s most charming features are the yellow and orange flowers. They sit atop the long stalks that catch the lightest passing breeze and wave in the air. 

Whirling butterflies (Gaura lindheimeri)
Whirling butterflies is also known as butterfly gaura, white gaura, or clockweed. This is one of the prettiest plants that move in the wind, resembling a mass of hovering pink and white butterflies. This plant is often called white gaura, even though the flowers come in all shades of pink

Whirling butterflies blowing in the breeze. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Arnold.

Whirling butterflies are clump forming, have a long taproot, and require well-drained soil. They are hardy to Zones 5-10 and do best in full sun. This is a good plant for hot climates, dry soils, and perfect for a wildflower or informal garden where they will self-sow.

This is the most graceful of ornamental plants – the individual butterfly-shaped flowers form on long sinewy stems and move delicately as the lightest of wind fans through them. 

I have used gaura in both containers and ornamental beds and it did well in southwest Florida. It was cut back when the flowering declined, which made it grow back stronger and produce another round of flowering. 

Society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea)
Another clump-forming perennial with lavender flowers atop long slim stems that tolerates heat and humidity, these are not only practical, but beautiful additions to a Florida landscape. Society garlic can be used as an eye-catching ground cover or in a perennial border. The grayish green foliage spreads slowly, and this plant is often used in containers. 

The bulbs and leaves of society garlic are edible and smell like garlic, although the flowers produce a sweet fragrance reminiscent of hyacinths. Photo courtesy of Manuel Martín Vicente/wikicommons.

Society garlic is a lovely accent for a sunny location and thrives in sandy soils in Zones 7-10. The leaves smell like garlic, but the flowers have a sweeter scent, reminiscent of hyacinths. The clusters of dainty, tubular-shaped flowers spread out to form an open star, which catches the breeze and floats lazily above the 2-foot-tall stems.

Dune sunflower (Helianthus debilis)
Dune sunflower is also known as eastern dune sunflower or beach sunflower. As the name suggests, dune sunflower is salt tolerant, thrives in sandy soil, and full sun. This native plant has a long taproot to anchor the plant in the sandy soils on sand dunes. A mature plant can spread 6-8 feet in Zones 8b to 11.

Dune sunflower is a highly salt-tolerant plant. Photo courtesy of Bob Peterson/wikicommons.

The bright yellow daisy-like flowers bloom year round and are a nectar source for butterflies. Stems can grow up to 3 feet tall with the flowers at the top. Dune sunflowers are tough plants, withstanding coastal gusts as well as gentle sea breezes, and rather than merely moving with the wind, these tough plants can withstand any onslaught nature throws at them. Not only do the rooted stems control erosion, but the dancing yellow sunflowers brighten the day. 

Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.) 
Saving the best for last, as Coreopsis is the official state flower of Florida. There are 14 species found in Florida and 11 of those are native to Florida. 

Coreopsis is often seen along roadsides in mass plantings. Photo courtesy of Shane Darby.

These cheerful plants from the daisy family are multi-stemmed perennials that produce vibrant yellow flowers, often with a darker center, and they bloom year round. The achenes (dry fruits or seeds) of the flower resemble ticks, hence the common name of tickseed. 

Once established, this plant self-seeds readily, ensuring a long-lasting mass of flowers. Coreopsis are often used along Florida highways as part of beautification programs, and for good reason: They are drought tolerant, thrive in sun, and do well in Florida’s sandy soils. This plant is a must-have addition for native or butterfly gardens, where they will attract many different pollinators. 

Coreopsis leavenworthii is the most common of all the species, but all Coreopsis have a slim and graceful form, which allows the lightest of breeze to sway the stems and seemingly dance with the wind. While the daisy like flowers nod regally, as if in understanding of the grand status that has been bestowed upon them. 

Mass plantings of flowering plants and grasses that blow in the wind are ideal for coastal regions that experience stronger winds. Wind-resistant plants have flexible stems that allow them to bend and sway without breaking. Even after a hurricane, these plants may look a little battered, but a little tidying up will see them bounce right back to their delicate form. Place these plants in drifts in the landscape to maximize the effect of dancing in the wind.

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