Liberty County, Florida
August 3-5, 2007
Finding truly bizarre representatives of the plant kingdom doesn’t necessarily require a journey far from home. Just ask any of the ten intrepid volunteers from the GPC Garden that made the trip to the Florida panhandle in early August, 2007. Ravaged by fire and drought, even trip leader George Sanko was skeptical that the trip would reveal much of anything interesting. “This area is really showy in April, May, and again in September,” says George. “It was necessary to try a trip at this time of year to see what plants might be blooming between the peaks.”
The Florida panhandle in general, and Liberty County in particular, lays claim to one of the richest and most diverse floras in the United States. The area has been touted as second only to one or two counties in California for numbers of rare plant species. Among the examples of the weird found here are the carnivorous species of the Sarraceniaceae(Pitcher Plants), Droseraceae (Sundews), and Lentibulariaceae (Butterworts and Bladderworts). These are but a few of the lost families we would find on this incredible sojourn…
Into the Fire. The stage for a botanical study of the Florida panhandle starts with the roadsides, ditches, and pine savannahs of the Apalachicola National Forest. Surveying these areas by vehicle, we were able to cover 60-80 miles of open road in floral fits and starts over two days. While we were not to witness fire itself, it became easy to determine evidence of recent fire, or the lack of it. Fire is essential to the ecological health of this area, and is in fact critical to the survival of many of the unusual species found here. With particular reference to the carnivorous plants, many of which hug the often saturated, nitrogen-poor soil, several years growth of grasses and herbaceous perennials can shade and choke out these plants. Past practices of fire suppression by forest managers led to a threatened status for many native plants in the area. Botanizing several disjointed areas of savannah, we could soon ascertain by the coarseness and thickness of the grasses and perennials underfoot how recently or distantly in the past fire had visited. Where the ground was exposed by relatively recent fire, the diminutive Sundews and Butterworts proliferated, often in the shade of Pitcher Plants.
More Lost Families. Perhaps not exactly lost, but certainly rare and obscure, the richness and diversity of the Panhandle became more apparent with every stop. Space and time limit the discussion of all of the over 110 species from over 40 families listed by the group in less than 48 hours. Here are but a few of the weird ones we found:
Haemodoraceae: this family tree has but two branches! Only two genera and two species, Redroot Lachnanthes caroliniana, has red roots and rhizomes as the name suggests, iris-like foliage (in fact, the family falls between the Amaryllis and Iris families), and an inflorescence composed of a helicoid cyme. Lophiola americana has a jointed, grass-like inflorescence, and brown to whitish roots and rhizomes. The former is common, the latter is rare, and we saw both nearly side by side in the panhandle!
Asclepiadaceae: Sporting flowers with a waxy, other-worldly appearance, the plants of the milkweed family seemed to be at home in the savannah, based on the diversity we observed. From the fiery orange of Asclepias lanceolata to the barren foliage of A. flexicaulis, that bloomed in June, we were treated to a minimum of 4 species of this bizarre genus, including a rare, large-flowered white milkweed, A. connivens.
Asteraceae: At least two species made stellar appearances on the panhandle: Aster eryngiifolius, the Thistle-leaved Aster, with its white ray flowers and thistle-like bracts, and Rudbeckia graminifolia, the Grass-leaved Rudbeckia, with its deep red, ragged ray flowers.
No less than five species of Rhexia, the gorgeous Meadowbeauties, with their unusual stamens and brightly colored petals, especially those of R. alifanus which stood out like neon signs against the dry savannah. Rhexia is the only indigenous genus of this predominantly tropical family.
Polygalaceae: Seven members of this family were revealed to us with their showy flowers of orange, yellow, and lavender.
Gentianaceae: We frequently saw Sabatia stellaris, and on a lunch stop, were treated to the incredibly show S. bartramii, with over ten showy corolla lobes!
Dioneaaceae: This “family”- lost in the pages of a 30 year-old edition of Vascular Flora of the Carolinas – has since been grouped with Droseraceae, nevertheless a species that we had to see to believe: Dionea muscipula- the Venus Flytrap! Not even listed as a native plant to Florida, this decades-old introduced population of hundreds, perhaps thousands of plants, seemed to thrive in their moist surroundings, crawling up on tree roots and trunks on their sphagnum moss beds to achieve slightly better drainage perched above the saturated soil.
The quest continued on Sunday, the last day of our sojourn, as we headed to Torreya State Park, an other-worldly and unexpected remnant of the Appalachian chain in the north of Florida. The park is named for Torreya taxifolia, the Stinking Cedar, a tree that was once plentiful on the banks of the Apalachicola River, now only represented by dwindling populations due to the ravages of a little-understood fungus pathogen. Newly-planted specimens of the endangered species on the property were grown by the Atlanta Botanical Garden, helping the state of Florida in their efforts to preserve the species. Also at Torreya State Park, we observed the Florida Yew (Taxus floridana) and a rare Ashe Magnolia (Magnolia asheii).
One last stop on our trip led us to extreme southern Georgia, where we observed the rare Croomia pauciflora in its late-summer, nearly dormant state, and in its native habitat.
Here ended our quest for the “Lost Families”. There were several things we all agreed on at the end of our journey: we had all seen bizarre plants we had never seen before, we earned a new respect for this area and the rarities it contains, and we need to see these gardens again in their peak seasons!