Plants along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico confront a variety of challenges. Soils vary from saline and sandy to the brackish muds of estuarial areas. Climate challenges include high heat, high humidity, areas of drought and tropical storms. Residential and recreational expansion continue to threaten native plantings and, with them, fragile ecological systems. Identifying and encouraging environmentally suitable plantings along the Gulf Coast is a goal of federal conservation agencies, area universities and local native plant societies.
Gulf Coast Ecological Systems
Home to USDA growing zones 9 and 10, the Gulf of Mexico is often regarded as the American Mediterranean, with extended warm growing seasons, subtropical temperatures and humidity levels, and hundreds of miles of beautiful sandy beaches. The Gulf contains heavily fished stores of shrimp and warm-water fish along with well-known stores of oil and natural gas. Wetlands and swamps mediate between salt- and freshwater. Pressures on the ecosystems of the Gulf are residential, recreational and commercial, involving federal, state and nonprofit organizations in protecting delicate ecosystems from destruction.
Federal Sources of Plant Information
Planting and restoring plants that contribute to ecological health is an issue of great concern to the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "Plants for Gulf Coast Restoration" contains lists of plants suitable to varied soils, water and growing conditions, from mangrove swamps to beaches and dunes, along with further information on choosing and caring for plants. References include possible vendors.
Biology and botany departments of state universities collect and disseminate information on Gulf Coast plants. The University of Southern Mississippi, for example, hosts the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, which lists invasive plants and maintains a regional native plant nursery for habitat restoration. The University of Florida's Institute for Food and Agriculture Extension contains the Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants. Those seeking information from algae to grasses to trees and their relationships to local environments can look at photos and obtain fact sheets.
Native Plant Information and Organizations
With hundreds of miles of fragile environments to protect, native plant societies take an active role in community information and activities. On the basis of web information, state societies in Texas and Florida display high levels of Gulf Coast involvement. Because each state and society has unique concerns and challenges, seek advice on specific plants from the society closest to where you want to plant. In Texas, an additional source of native plant information is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin; both its database and its "Ask Mr. Smarty Plants" column can help you find or identify a particular plant. State-based Master Naturalist programs have expanded to regional concerns; Chevron Oil funded the Mississippi pilot program in 1998 and notes the creation of a new coastal chapter in the Delta. Master Naturalists offer educational programs through high school on plants, animals and ecosystems of the Gulf.
County Extension Plant Resources
USDA County Extension Offices disseminate land-grant university research and fFederal government program information to urban and rural gardeners and farmers in nearly every county in the United States. The University of Florida IFAS Extension, for example, publishes a list of flowers, shrubs, grasses, ferns and groundcovers for home gardeners. The list includes trees with, as might be expected, a separate list of palm trees. Extension agents throughout the Gulf Coast can advise new or experienced gardeners in environmentally sound practices and plants suitable for challenging ecosystems.