South Florida lawns dusted in flowery “snow” with dry November

Winter storm Blanche may be dumping snow in the frigid northern Plains, but South Florida has its own dusting of white with the fall proliferation of the pusley plant.

The delicate flower dotting lawns and swales thrives during autumn’s drier months and can take over large swaths of grass stressed by insects, improper mowing, disease or lack of water.

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With funnel-shaped flowers of white, pink or light purple, pusley, nicknamed “Florida snow”, can be a burden or beauty depending on perspective. It’s drought tolerant and attracts butterflies, but turf purists may rebuke the invading ground cover as a weed.

“Some people see it and think it looks so pretty along the road they want to know where to get it,” said Joel Crippen, horticulturist for Mounts Botanical Garden in unincorporated West Palm Beach. “We have a little here and there, but don’t really worry too much about it because when it’s not blooming, it stays green.”

Pusley thrives in drier soil and November has been more parched than normal. According to the South Florida Water Management District, much of Palm Beach County is down nearly three inches of rain for the month, and is running a 7-inch deficit since June.

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Because pusley — formally known as Richardia scabra — grows very low to the ground, it often escapes mower blades that are usually recommended to be set at 3 to 4 inches so as not to scalp grass.

Once the ground cover is established, each flower produces three sticky nutlets. With each plant cluster containing 20 flowers, it has a lot of seeds to spread.

Ed Skvarch, St. Lucie County Extension director and horticulturist, said his office gets several calls this time of year about the pusley plant, wanting to know what it is and, often, how to get rid of it.

“I explain that we call it Florida snow and that they should embrace it and use it in their winter wonderland Christmas decorations outside,” Skvarch said.

Skvarch took his own advice. He said he once had a large patch of white-flowering pusley in his front yard. He put skies down on it and sat a snowman on top.

“It looked like he was skiing,” he said.

For people who strive for a pristine green lawn of pure St. Augustine or Bahia turf, removing pusley can be a challenge.

A 2011 paper written by a horticulture agent for the University of Florida said hand weeding may be fruitless because the plant’s small seeds will spill to the ground unnoticed, growing new plants. There are three varieties of pusley, which is related to tropical plants such as gardenia, ixora, penta firebush and wild coffee, according to the paper.

“What people are calling pusley, may actually be large-flower pusley or Brazilian pusley,” said Laurie Albrecht, Palm Beach County environmental horticulture extension agent.

Horticulturists steer away from recommending herbicide to fight the pusley, suggesting changes in lawn care maintenance that will improve turf health to help overcome the weed. Those changes can include watering more and setting the lawn mower higher.

But if 50 percent or more of a lawn is overcome, Albrecht said the cure is total turf replacement.

“If it’s over 50 percent, there is no recommendation except to start over and re-sod,” she said. “The problem is, all the flowers turn to seed and they spread and pretty soon there are a lot more.”

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