published Oct 8, 2006
Local woman wants Florida to be wild about
You know the saying: As the twig is bent,
so grows the tree.
It applies to wildflowers as well.
At least, that's part of the reason Joanna Booth wound up in the
vanguard of the new Florida wildflower industry. She had the example of
her father, the late Chuck Salter.
"I definitely draw a parallel with what Dad was doing with the
native-plant industry in the 1970s and wildflowers," Booth said. "Upsy
Daisy was at the beginning of our being aware of the native plants
Longtime Tallahasseeans will remember Chuck Salter as one of the members
of the whimsically named Upsy Daisy Plant Uplift Society. The other two
members were from this newspaper: the late editor Editor Malcolm Johnson
and a now-retired city editor, Paul Wills.
The three men were enthusiastic botanists who spent weekends tramping
around the North Florida woods. In the early 1970s, the trio organized a
series of community "digs" to rescue native plants about to be bulldozed
away by construction of Interstate 10.
There were a total of 15 digs, which attracted an estimated 40,000
participants - including famed journalist Charles Kuralt, who filmed one
of his "On the Road" segments at a dig. More than 100,000 trees and
shrubs were hauled away - and thousands of native dogwood, sweetgum and
crabapple trees, plus native azalea, rhododendron and chokeberry bushes
still thrive in Tallahassee yards three decades later.
"You name it, (the diggers) saved it," said Gary Henry, executive
director of the Florida Wildflower Foundation. "The plants are all over
town now - and no one would know they were dug up in the woods."
Salter, who died in 2002, followed up on that success. A retired
military officer and forester, he turned his pine-tree farm near Madison
into a native-tree-and-shrub nursery. Salter pioneered the commercial
sales of native plants and became a mentor to businesses that followed,
including Tallahassee's popular Native Nurseries. After his death, his
oldest child, Booth, took over his Salter Tree and Herb Farm. And
recently, she has branched out into a new native-plant industry:
Wildflowers are, well, wildly popular in Florida. The Department of
Transportation plants them on highway medians. The Department of
Environmental Protection and water-management districts plant them along
retention ponds and water banks. Civic and gardening groups landscape
public areas with them. Wildflowers protect the soil while providing
But for years, most planted wildflowers in Florida have been imported:
They were purchased from other states, such as Texas and California,
because Florida had a paucity of commercial wildflower growers.
Importing raised issues. Non-native wildflowers don't prosper as well as
native plants and run the risk of becoming invasive predators (see also:
kudzu, Chinese tallow trees, Japanese climbing ferns). Importing plants
costs more, and some questioned the appropriateness of beautifying with
non-native plants when Florida is rife with natural wildflowers.
So Florida officials set out to correct the situation. In 2000, the
Florida Legislature approved a Florida Wildflower automobile license
plate, the proceeds of which are used for grants to state growers to
raise wildflowers commercially. Last year, wildflower tags ranked 22nd
in sales among the 104 styles of Florida license plates and raised
$600,000, almost all of it spent on grants.
One of the chief aims of the state initiative is to raise wildflowers
for seed. Henry said container wildflowers run about $3 apiece, while
"10 pounds of seed can cover a mile eight feet wide."
Booth is one of the state-encouraged growers. In 2005, she received a
$15,000 grant from the Florida Wildlife Foundation to grow the
pastel-colored Phlox pilosa. This year, she received a $25,000 grant to
grow the increasingly rare Phlox nivalis. She also received a $5,000
grant to plant Phlox pilosa in three public areas in Madison.
Booth is already marketing four or five types of wildflower seeds at
several Big Bend locations (see
www.saltertreeandherbfarm.com), and ultimately hopes to market a
dozen types of wildflower seeds.
"Right now we're in a situation of trying to attract more growers, which
is a twist," she said. "Normally, people try to create a demand for
their product, but now a product is being created to meet a demand that
Raising wildflowers has rejuvenated Booth, 57, who lost her taste for
nursery operations during a seven-year stint in Kentucky raising
traditional garden plants. A longtime Tallahassee massage therapist, she
reluctantly agreed to take over her father's farm after his death but
was determined to take it in new directions.
The wildflower program provided the spark. She revels in the subtle
beauty of the wildflowers, the daily battles with wildlife who feast on
them - and the opportunity to follow her father in spreading enthusiasm
for Florida's native plants.
"This fledgling industry is beginning to take off because of the
interest and support of the public for wildflowers," she said.
"Wildflowers are beautiful; they just make people feel good."
Phlox pilosa is one of the wildflowers that Joanna Booth of
Madison earned a state grant to grow.