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An Interview with Noted Nature Author, Gil Nelson
by Ginny Stibolt

Gil Nelson out standing in a field of pitcher plants.

Gil Nelson noted nature author and photographer. 

Gil Nelson was the keynote speaker for Gardenfest 2006 on October 7, 2006 in Jacksonville.

Gil has written Atlantic Coastal Plain Wildflowers, East Gulf Coastal Plain Wildflowers, Florida's Best Native Landscape Plants, and Ferns of Florida, Shrubs and Woody Vines of Florida, Trees of Florida, Exploring Wild Northwest Florida, Exploring Wild North Florida, and more. Plus Gil has taken most of the photographs that illustrate his books.

1) I see that your degrees are all from Florida State University. Did you grow up here or did you come to Florida for a specific reason? Were you ever tempted to leave the area or are your roots too deep?
I grew up in Panama City and moved to Tallahassee to attend FSU. I lived in Florida my entire life, until about 2 years ago when Brenda (my wife) and I relocated to SW Georgia, a few miles north of the FL/GA line, north of Tallahassee. We've thought about leaving Florida a few times, but have always considered this region our home.

2) Why are native plants important in Florida, specifically?
Florida is experiencing one of the worst invasions of non-native species of any state. The huge array of non-native plants that have invaded our remaining natural landscapes are serving to displace native plant communities and the species that depend upon them, change the character of our landscape, and reduce the biological diversity of our natural systems. Non-native invasive species tend to take advantage of favorable environmental conditions that allow for their rapid growth in the absence of the limiting factors of a balanced ecosystem. Hence, they have the potential to become monocultures that destroy the habitats upon which native species depend, and to increase the number of plant and animal species endanger of extirpation or extinction. Native species, on the other hand, have evolved in conjunction with our natural ecosystems, are less likely to become weedy and invasive, and constitute our natural heritage that dates from well before the arrival of European explorers. Conserving these natural plant assemblages is akin to preserving important historical sites. What this means for gardeners is to be careful of the plants we select so that we do not plant species that will move beyond our gardens and contribute to the expanding populations of invasive weeds. While not all invasive species arose from gardens and not all non-native garden plants become weedy, I believe it is incumbent upon us as gardeners to be selective and mindful of our role in preserving our natural heritage by incorporating natives in our landscapes.

3) You've been active in both Florida's and Georgia's Native Plant Societies. What role do you think such organizations play?
Native plant societies have an important educational role to play and should serve as leaders in disseminating information about techniques of native plant gardening, methods for incorporating natives into home and commercial landscapes, where to purchase native plant material, and which natives are best for local areas.

4) Your book Florida's Best Native Landscape Plants was written in partnership with Association of Florida Native Nurseries. What a logical idea. How did this project get started?
David Chiappini and others from AFNN had been interested in pursuing such a publication for some time and modeling it after a similar book published by the Denver, Colorado water department to encourage water conservation. Chiappini and David Drylie of AFNN first approached me about working on the book and were later able to secure support from the Florida Department of Transportation. University Press of Florida was an enthusiastic supporter, also. There are many books that include plants native to Florida. However, only a portion of the more than 2400 plant species native to the state are being nursery grown and are commercially available. Our goal for the book was to provide information to both professionals and homeowners about Florida native plants that are both useful in the landscape and readily available in the trade. An AFNN committee selected 200 species known to be readily available in Florida.

5) How do you select which plants to include in your field guides? Creating the flora portion of Audubon's Field Guide to Florida, for example, must have been difficult. What do you leave out?
What to include in a guide can be challenging. In Trees of Florida, Shrubs and Woody Vines of Florida, and Ferns of Florida I attempted to include all plants within each category that are either native or naturalized in Florida, i.e. plants that might be encountered in natural areas. The sheer number of species made this approach untenable for the Audubon guides and the two Falcon Guides. The publisher of the Audubon guides enlisted the assistance of a variety of consultants to produce the list for these guides. For the Falcon guides, I assembled a group of knowledgeable folks across the regions and asked them to review/contribute plants to the lists of plants to include. I tried to devote about 80% of the Falcon guides to plants common to the region and 20% on species for which good photographic illustrations were not available or which are rarities for which little had been previously published in popular guides.

6) How large is the problem of invasive plants here in Florida's mild to tropical climates. Is there much hope to diminish the extent of their damage to native flora?
As detailed above, the invasive plant problem in Florida is very large and growing. Such species as melaleuca, Japanese and old world climbing ferns, Brazilian pepper, coral ardisia, and the more than 130 species currently listed as exotic pest plants in Florida are well established in natural landscapes. Battling these invasive plants is an ongoing challenge and consumes an enormous amount of taxpayers' dollars. I believe it is important to remain positive about the potential impact and successes of eliminating or controlling invasive species. However, I suspect it is impossible to completely eliminate them. Control is probably the most important goal. Numerous species are also on the ''watch list'' and more potential invasive species regularly show up in our landscapes. As one biologist told me, the worst invasive plant in Florida may not have arrived yet.

7) You have so many projects and areas of expertise: teaching, writing, photography, and consulting. You seem to be your own one-man production company. How do you manage it all?
I have a full life. Managing time is not too difficult when you enjoy what you're doing.

8) Did your interest in photography develop out of necessity to illustrate your work in the field? What type of equipment do you generally use in the field?
I have been interested in photography for many years and had amassed a large collection of images long before contemplating my first book. Being able to use my photography to illustrate my writing is very stimulating and helpful. Many of my photographs were made with a film camera. I prefer Nikon equipment and used an F100 for my transparencies. I have now switched to digital and use the Nikon D2X, which I really like. I virtually always use a tripod because I normally use very slow shutter speeds and a small aperture.

9) Do you like to garden? Do you have time?
I love to garden and try to garden at least one day every week. Nearly two years ago, Brenda and I re-located to south Georgia with a mostly uncluttered opportunity to build a new garden. I've made progress and am enjoying incorporating natives into my new landscape, but I am taking things slowly. I like an ''incremental'' approach to garden design. I have an overall conceptual scheme but I do not have a rigid landscape plat that I precisely follow. I prefer to allow new directions and concepts to develop over time and in response to previous plantings and new discoveries so that the garden becomes random, eclectic, and informal rather than formally planned and executed.

10) Do you have any advice for folks here in NE Florida?
NE Florida is a great place to garden. You are blessed with proximity to the Gulf Stream, which extends the tropical influence far up the coast, providing you the opportunity to use at least a few natives not available to us in NW Florida. Plus, you have a wealth of both coastal and inland landscapes in which to garden and explore. My only advice is to get out and garden, experiment, try new natives, attempt to replicate the natural plant assemblages you discover in local natural areas, challenge plants to grow in varying habitats and conditions, and have fun.

If you're interested in learning more about native plants, there is a new Jacksonville chapter of The Florida Native Plant Society.  Meet Gil, have him sign your books, come to The Gardenfest 2006 10am to 3pm on October 7th.

Click to listen to my Times Union podcast: podcast The Florida Native Plant Society posted 9/20/06


Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners here in northeast Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in planting zone 8/9. She's in the process of writing a book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," to be published by University Press of Florida.

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