The largest tree in this photo is a baobab, which stands out for its swollen trunk. Baobabs are native to Africa, where they are revered as sacred.
There’s something rebellious and exciting about growing unusual perennials in your garden, especially with the diverse choices we have here in Florida. Still, why stop there? Anyone can stash a few odd potted succulents on their patio, but only the most ambitious of gardeners dares to let their freak flag fly by planting a weird tree in their yard. Here’s an introduction to some of the most peculiar species our state has to offer.
First, one weird tree that you shouldn’t plant. Northerners are familiar with Norfolk Island “pines” (Araucaria heterophylla) as houseplants and living Christmas trees, but in coastal South Florida they rise up to dizzying heights beside high-rise condos like random toilet brushes in the sky. Even if that’s the look you’re after, be advised that they’re among the first trees to get struck by lightning or fall during hurricanes.
Instead, choose a smaller tree like the flying dragon citrus (Poncirus trifoliata, Zones 6-11). If you’re willing to sacrifice the palatable fruit of normal citrus trees for something more wicked, this cold-hardy tree will stop visitors in their tracks with its twisted corkscrew branches and its long, recurved thorns. The native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana, Zones 4-9) isn’t that weird, but its cherry-sized fruits are only ready to eat when they’ve nearly rotted. One of the native persimmon’s relatives is the black sapote (Diospyros digyna, Zones 10-11), and its disgusting-looking overripe fruit tastes and feels like chocolate pudding. Jaboticaba (Myrciaria cauliflora, Zones 9b-11) has the bizarre distinction of developing flowers and shiny black fruits on its limbs and trunks. It takes 30 years to do so, but is a great tree in the meantime.
The custard apple family (Annonaceae) has its share of oddities. The native pawpaw (Asimina triloba, Zones 5-9) produces a custard-textured fruit with a flavor reminiscent of bananas and tropical punch. Even weirder is the pond apple (Annona glabra, Zones 10-11), which develops gnarly, buttressed trunks to help it “breathe” in swamps and relies on wild boar and alligators to disperse its seeds. Rollinia deliciosa (Zones 10b-11) is known as “snotfruit” for the phlegmy consistency and texture of the fruit’s flesh, yet it tastes like lemon merengue.
The bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla, Zones 6-9) is a deciduous temperate tree with huge, tropical-looking 12-36-inch long leaves. Clusia rosea (Zones 10b-11) goes by the name “autograph tree” because if you etch your autograph on the leathery paddle-shaped leaves, it will stay embossed until the leaf falls away. You might point and laugh at the native gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba, Zones 9b-11) for its flaky and peeling red trunk, but it’s a great tree that should be planted more for its drought and hurricane tolerance.
Some trees may have personality, but others seem to take on a life of their own. Banyans (Ficus benghalensis, Zones 10-11) are known for sprouting in the canopy of other trees, putting down snaky roots and eventually wrapping around a host until it becomes a behemoth with numerous muscular trunks. Our native strangler figs (Ficus aurea, Zones 9-11) aren’t as destructive as the introduced banyans, but you probably won’t be inviting one into your garden any time soon. If you can’t resist that wild banyan look, choose the less invasive native shortleaf fig (Ficus citrifolia, Zones 10-11) instead.
Our next group of odd trees are members the Bombacaceae family and are related to hibiscus, okra, and cotton. The silk floss tree (Chorisia speciosa, Zones 10-11) and its close cousin the silk cotton tree (Bombax ceiba, Zones 10-11) both have extraterrestrial-looking prickly trunks, spectacular flower displays and seed pods that open up to reveal silky tufts of cotton. Both are often called “kapok” trees, but the true kapok (Ceiba pentandra, Zones 9b-11) is an enormous rainforest tree that produces the kapok fiber of commerce.
The Bombacaceae family has some other odd trees worth seeking out. Baobab trees (Adansonia spp.) are known for their massive swollen trunks, and the shaving brush tree’s (Pseudobombax ellipticum, Zones 9b-11) bare limbs fill with cigar-like flower buds that open to reveal a fiber-optic display of pink or white stamens.
The rainbow gum (Eucalyptus deglupta, Zones 9-11) is the only eucalyptus in the Northern Hemisphere and has rainbow-hued strips of peeling bark along its trunk. Though it has recently made its way into garden centers, be advised that it reaches well over 200 feet tall in its native habitat.
When choosing a tree, just remember that if a plant is rarely grown, there might be a reason. It could simply be new or hard to propagate, or it might just not be a good fit for most gardens. Do your research and make sure that you can accommodate the tree’s needs before you take it home.
A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 21 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Steve Asbell.