Extension Service: Florida pusley could offer a flowering ground cover alternative

So what was that tiny white flowered plant that seemed to be everywhere the last several months? It’s none other than Richardia scabra, better known as Florida pusley.

The abbreviated University of Florida description for Florida pusley is an erect-to-prostrate, loosely branched annual with hairy stems, up to 0.8 m (approx. ¼ inch) long. The flowers are in a terminal head-like cluster with 20 or more flowers. Each flower consists of six narrow lobes joined at the base to form a tube. The petals are usually white, occasionally pink or lavender and are somewhat funnel-shaped.

The seeds are called nutlets and the outer surface of the nutlet is covered with wart-like protuberances. With the exception of the “wart-like protuberances,” Florida pusley sounds like something I’d like in my garden.

From a panoramic look around the Extension office, Florida pusley looked like a dusting of snow, although it is waning somewhat now. I’ve seen Florida pusley in insignificant clumps before, but it seems there are more than clumps dotting the landscape this year.

It was the snow resemblance that drew my attention and I wondered at the rapid spread of such a tiny plant. A little research explained the spread, but I’m still wondering.

Research revealed each flower typically produces 3 nutlets from 0.07- 0.13 inches in length and about 0.07 inch width. We are talking about three very tiny seeds per flower. Considering there are 20 or so flowers in each cluster, if one plant had only one cluster — wishful thinking — approximately 60 seeds would be spread with each swipe of the mower. In terms of seed dispersal, that would make the mower Florida pusley’s best friend and may account for the fact that the plants are everywhere. Strong winds may have also helped spread the seeds.

So far, Florida pusley is a small-leaved ground cover with pretty little flowers; its common name indicates it belongs here, and indeed this plant is everywhere. According to UF, Florida pusley is found in “... sandy savannas and grasslands, on roadsides, turf and in cultivated fields and waste areas from central Florida northward to southern Virginia, and westward to Texas.”

This statement gives the impression Florida pusley might not do well here in southern Florida, but we know that isn’t true. The plant seems to be doing very well here. University of Florida fact sheets go on to say Florida pusley’s range is “continuous from this area southward through Mexico and Central America to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia in South America, and Cuba and Jamaica in the West Indies.” The warm climates listed explain why Florida pusley blooms in almost any month that lacks frost.

Typically, Florida pusley is grown as forage, green manure and cover crop in southern U.S., yet it is cursed by farmers as a weed. So if Florida Pusley is such a weedy nuisance, why plant it as a forage and cover crop in the first place? I freely admit an inability to follow such logic, but since my research provided no answers to that question, perhaps it is a matter of perspective.

Florida pusley is actually pretty along the interstate. It’s also pretty in almost every median, swale and wide patch of green throughout the area, not to mention several front yards. Thinking outside the box a bit, and at great risk of sounding like a horticultural crackpot, I can see this plant as a ground cover alternative to turf grass.

Florida pusley responds well to mowing, minimizes the need to irrigate and fertilize, spreads quickly, and adds color. I don’t have it in my lawn just yet, but if I did, I might not do too much about eliminating it.

Of course, once Florida pusley appeared in my lawn, it would then be everywhere, and as I’ve never seen my lawn service hose off and sanitize the mower blades before moving on to the next lawn, the problem would be getting my neighbors to buy into the idea of something other than green for the front yard.

Although it’s doubtful Florida pusley will put an abrupt end to the American love affair with lawns, for large public landscape areas it might not be a bad idea to turn a deaf ear to the words “weed control.”

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Cathy Feser is the urban horticulture extension agent with the University of Florida Collier County Extension Service. For more information on home gardening, contact the Collier County Master Gardener Plant Clinic, at 353-2872 visit the Web site: collier.ifas.ufl.edu. For specimen identification, the Extension Plant Clinic at 14700 Immokalee Road is open 9 a.m. to noon and 1-4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; call 353-2872.

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