Kalanchoe plants are destructive to dunes

  • Kalanchoe is a Category II invasive plant (a “bad plant”) in Florida that has spread from yards into our sand dunes, taking over the native plants like  yellow beach sunflowers. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER
    Kalanchoe is a Category II invasive plant (a “bad plant”) in Florida that has spread from yards into our sand dunes, taking over the native plants like yellow beach sunflowers. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been admiring the tall, reddish flowers that have sprung up along our dune areas on the north end of the island. I photographed them and dutifully tried to find them in my wildflower books and wildflower listings online, but with no luck. Eventually, I sent my photos to the Florida Wildflower Foundation (www.flawildflowers.org). Within hours, Stacey Matrazzo, their program manager, responded with the answer. It was either one of two species of invasive kalanchoe, native to Madagascar and Southern Africa, and the plant is trouble for us, as it turns out. This is an invasive species here, taking over our dunes. No wonder I couldn’t find it in my wildflower books; it’s not a North American species at all. The hardiness of these plants and their ability to survive in harsh conditions has led to their invasive spread.

At the same time that I sent off my email to the Florida Wildflower Foundation, I also tried another way to identify this flower. I put a post on the Facebook Group “Amelia Island Fernandina Beach Network,” and within minutes I got the same answer from Betsy Harris.

As people’s comments built up, I learned more and more about this plant. My gardening friend, Anne Dworetzky, seconded that identification and provided a common name, “mother of thousands.” Anne says that each point of every leaf creates a plantlet, which falls to the ground and produces another plant.

Vicki Jacobs Hamilton said she lived on the beach and seeds winded up in her potted plants. The little points of the leaves spread easily everywhere. Polly Pogue Warren described her problems with it: “In October, I cut one stalk and put it a vase inside to see what would happen. The water dried up months ago. It’s not only thriving; it’s actually producing babies.” Many others reported issues with this plant in either their own yard or in their neighbor’s yards, threatening to spread even further.

I’ve also learned that there are some kalanchoe plants off North Eighth Street in the downtown Historic District and many more in American Beach.

Other people had other descriptive names for this kalanchoe: “mother of millions,” “devil’s backbone,” “Mexican hat,” alligator plant,” etc. All agreed that it is a terribly invasive plant encroaching upon the native plants in our dunes. Brenda Kay had the funniest response: “Not to jump on another horse entirely, but perhaps they should be called ‘developer plant,’ since they are ‘aggressive plants that out-compete natives.’”

The upshot of all this is: Do not plant kalanchoe in your garden! These plants are creeping into our sand dunes and replacing native plants like beach sunflower, blanket flower, and sea oats. They also do not have the depth of roots that sea oats have, and unlike sea oats, they do not stabilize and protect our dunes. Kathy Russell with the Fernandina Beach Parks & Recreation Department just finished a project to remove it from the North Beach Park off North Fletcher Avenue, but she expects that it will take years of effort to remove the seed bank. That will not be successfully accomplished as long as the neighbors in nearby areas have these plants in their yards – they will just spread back. If you already have some in your garden, please do the right thing and remove them before they spread into our remaining natural areas.

Now that I know more about kalanchoe, I am well past admiring it and I hope you are too.

Please help spread the word. Remove it from your yards and keep removing it when it sprouts back again. I also learned from the social media crowd sourcing that we have knowledgeable people in our town who are ready to help identify plants and those that are invasive and need removing. When it comes to plants, this online community has my back!

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.