Native Plants Steal the Spotlight At the New St. Pete Pier

If you would like to visit an outstanding native plant garden, look no further than the recently opened St. Pete Pier. The original site of a deteriorating concrete structure with a few surviving palm trees, the pier has been revitalized to include a marina, restaurants and stores, outdoor art, play areas for children, and the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center. Of special interest for any plant enthusiast, however, are the extensive and innovatively designed garden areas showcasing many of our native plant species.

The new pier was a multi-year project with several firms from New York City, Tampa, and St. Petersburg collaborating on the engineering and overall design, and with project oversight from the City of St. Petersburg. As plans moved ahead, two local firms were chosen to complete and implement the landscape and planting plans.

Kimley-Horn and Associates of St. Petersburg designed the plantings for the pier approach, a 23-acre area that includes the Family Park and Playground, a large pond, and multiple locations adjacent to visitor parking. While plant choices were, by necessity, driven by what was available locally, the focus was on choosing hardy and beautiful Florida-friendly plants with the inclusion of as many native species as possible.

Jennifer Daoulas, Landscape Architect at Kimley-Horn, says, “Because it is a city garden, plants had to require little maintenance, have low water requirements, and be able to handle salt spray.” Native plant gardeners will recognize many of their favorites, including oaks (Quercus species), pines (Pinus species), coontie (Zamia integrifolia), Fakahatchee grass (Tripsacum dactyloides), beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis), and firebush (Hamelia patens)—to name a few. The taller plants provide shade and a pleasing backdrop, while the shorter selections add color and interest.

The pond and “bioswale” areas, which help to collect water and control erosion, needed plants that were also capable of tolerating wet feet. Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), red maple (Acer rubrum), sand cordgrass (Spartina bakeri), and a beautiful scarlet marsh hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus) were among the native plants enlisted for the job.

Booth Design Group of St. Petersburg co-led the planting design of the pier head, which includes the Cultural Grove and the Coastal Thicket, in partnership with New York landscape architect Ken Smith of Ken Smith Workshop. Jamie Beatty, Principal at Booth Design says, “We wanted plants that were low maintenance with good salt and wind tolerance. Native plants were the obvious choice.” In preparation for the planting plan, Booth Design staff traveled to Weedon Island to study coastal native species, visited several native plant nurseries, and collaborated with the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida to gather advice on plant requirements and soil amendments.

The Cultural Grove is a 10,500-square-foot garden that helps to transition visitors from the recreational areas to the over-the-water portion of the pier. It includes oaks (Quercus species), cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), Spanish bayonet (Yucca aloifolia), blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella), and several native grasses, which provide relief from the expanse of concrete and will ultimately cast welcome shade.

The Coastal Thicket is the dramatic, 23,000-square-foot, over-the-water deck section running along the north side of the pier. Beatty explains that its layout involved a unique challenge because plantings needed to fit into the 20-foot grid spaces between the support pilings for the old pier but still appear natural. The result is a series of lush gardens connected by a zigzag boardwalk that immerses visitors in the coastal landscape and showcases a palette of native trees, shrubs, and grasses. Among them are buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus), necklace pod (Sophora tomentosa var. truncata), cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), and silver saw palmetto (Serenoa repens).

At the St. Pete Pier, no railings obstruct the view of the gardens, and plants are situated at a level where they can easily be seen and touched. Beatty says, “We wanted to provide an opportunity for visitors to interact with the plants.” Education is a key emphasis of all the gardens, and signage identifies individual species so visitors can gather ideas for inclusion in their own landscapes.

Sharon Heal-Eichler, Professional Landscape Architect for the City of St. Petersburg, sums up the project, “The goal was to create safe, sustainable, durable, and cost-efficient public spaces at the St. Pete Pier. Florida native plants were the right choice to achieve that goal.”

For more information or to plan your visit, go to the St. Pete Pier website:

Debora Moran has a Bachelor of Technology in Plant Science from the State University of New York at Cobleskill and was a Senior Extension Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Schenectady County, New York. She has written for Fine Gardening magazine and Green Scene, the journal of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

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The mission of the Florida Native Plant Society is to promote the preservation, conservation, and restoration of the native plants and native plant communities of Florida.