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Wild Plants

Florida Mangroves

— Florida Mangroves, A Native Story —

Florida mangroves, also known as walking trees, are native to Florida. There are four tree species that are considered mangroves. They are the red mangrove (Rhizophoraceae family), the black mangrove (Avicenniaceae family), and the white mangrove and Buttonwood (Combretaceae family). These trees all thrive in tidal zones and are very tolerant of salt water and water level changes.

All mangroves can live in freshwater areas but have adapted to brackish areas after being out-competed by freshwater only trees. Buttonwood and black and white mangroves have evolved to excrete the salt they absorb through salt glands at the base of their leaves. Red mangroves do not allow the salt to enter at all.

Mangrove trees produce seeds called propagules. The seeds will begin to germinate and grow roots while still on the tree. The seeds when mature, drop from the main tree and float away with the high tide. They will bobble on the root ball until they find a mud flat where they will attach and start growing into new mangrove trees.

Like many of Florida’s wildlife and plants, mangroves are now protected and it is illegal to destroy a mangrove tree. Human development and impact are the reason the Tampa has lost over 44% of its coastal wetlands acreage which includes mangroves and marshes. Punta Gorda has lost 59% of the mangrove forest due to waterfront development. Lake Worth has experienced an 87% decrease of its mangrove acreage due to invasive Australian pines and urbanization.

What do mangroves do for Floridians? Mangrove forests protect uplands from storm winds, waves, and floods. The wider the mangrove area the more protection they give us. Mangroves can help prevent erosion by stabilizing shorelines with their specialized root systems, filter water, and maintain water quality and clarity. Florida has an average of 469,000 acres of mangrove forests.

Underwater, mangrove roots provide surfaces for various marine organisms to attach. The organisms feed off of organic materials, chemical elements, and nutrients that get trapped in the mangrove’s spider-like root system. The marine organisms are food for a multitude of marine species including snook, snapper, tarpon, jack, sheepshead, red drum, oyster, and shrimp. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida’s commercial and recreational fisheries would drastically decline without healthy mangrove forests.

Above water, Mangrove trees provide nesting areas for birds such as the wood stork, roseate spoonbill, brown pelican, and mangrove cuckoos. They provide a smorgasbord of crayfish, crabs, frogs, mice, small fish and snakes for a variety birds.

So next time you see mangroves, take a closer look at the unique ecosystem right before your eyes. Appreciate the beauty, the wildlife who live within, and the protection the mangroves provide us when we retreat inland. While you are there pick up the trash that always gets caught in the mangrove roots. Together, we can enjoy our mangroves while making a difference for our wild friends and in our wild spaces.

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Curtiss’ Milkweed

— Endangered Milkweed Found by IOF Director —

Species Profile: Curtiss’ Milkweed, Asclepias curtissii, is a Florida endemic species which is also an endangered species.

Imagine Our Florida Director, Andy Waldo, discovered this rare species while hiking. After confirming the plant was Curtiss’ Milkweed, Andy immediately notified the Park Rangers and a biologist who hiked back to the site with him and pinpointed the exact location of this endangered endemic species for further research.

What is an endemic species? It is a species that can only be found in a certain area. That means Florida is the only place you can find this species. As you can see by the range map, Curtiss’ Milkweed can be found in several counties across the peninsula of the state.

This milkweed is a herbaceous perennial species which can grow to heights of 2-4 feet tall. This species often dies back in the winter and may not re-sprout the following year. Curtiss’ Milkweed can lie dormant under the soil surface, re-sprouting after a year of dormancy. They stand erect when small. As they continue to grow, this milkweed will become somewhat vine-like, sprawling over large shrubs. There are no definitive studies on longevity, however, a Curtiss’ Milkweed living in a garden is at least 25 years old. This is definitely a long-lived species and as further studies are conducted, we will likely get a better picture of their longevity.

It should come as no surprise that such a unique and rare species would live in an equally unique and rare ecosystem. This plant can only be found in scrub and Flatwoods scrub habitat. These habitats are known for their very deep, sandy soil which is very low in nutrients and moisture. Within this unique habitat, the Curtiss’ Milkweed has an even more narrow micro-habitat. They are almost only found in sites that have disturbed soil. In modern times, that most often includes along the side of trails and dirt access roads in parks and wild spaces. More natural disturbed soil sites would include gopher tortoise aprons (the sand field in front of tortoise burrows), harvester ant sites, and other similar locations.

The Curtiss’ Milkweed has flowers that develop in clusters and last for about 5 days. They begin to bloom in June and can be found blooming into September. The flowers are pollinated by butterflies such as Ceraunus Blues, Hairstreak Butterflies, and several species of Skipper Butterflies. If the flowers are pollinated, the milkweed produces a fruit that takes 60 days to mature. Inside each fruit, there is an average of 68 seeds that, when the pod opens, are released and spread by wind.

Why is the Curtiss’ Milkweed so rare? Probably the biggest single reason is habitat loss. That very deep sand of the scrub community is also very desirable for construction. This species is also dependent upon fire to maintain an open forest floor and canopy. The policy of fire exclusion in the past further reduced the usable habitat of this species. Curtiss’ Milkweed is a very long-lived species but they have a low reproductive rate. This makes their recovery more difficult.

Their natural herbivores include the larva of the Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus) as well as deer. Curtiss’ Milkweed, like other milkweeds, has a thick, sticky, white sap that contains low levels of cardenolides which are toxic to vertebrates. The levels are low however and deer still will graze upon this species.

Given the status of this plant, as well as the difficulty to locate when not in bloom, park biologists came out to mark the location of the three Curtiss’ Milkweed found in this section of the park. A few more plants in another section of scrub which were located by a biologist who was studying scrub jays are awaiting identification. Documenting the location of these Curtiss’ Milkweeds will help park staff conserve this species within the boundaries of the park.

So the next time you are hiking, keep your eyes open for unusual flowers, plants, and wildlife. Like Andy’s, your discovery may lead to more research about a rare, endangered species.

*Range map used in this post came from the following link:
http://florida.plantatlas.usf.edu/Plant.aspx?id=1193
*Info for this post from The Pollination Biology and Ecology of Curtiss’ Milkweed (Asclepias curtissii) by Francis E. Putz and Maria Minno
*Images by Andy Waldo -Director Imagine Our Florida, Inc.

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Witches Broom

Witches’ Brooms are an interesting sight when out in nature. This mutation can be found in numerous conifers and deciduous trees. There are several factors that can cause this.

Witches’ brooms are caused by stress to the plant. Trees can be infected by a fungus, phytoplasmas (which are wall-less single-celled organisms), or parasitic plants like mistletoe.

These structures can be beneficial to wildlife, providing shelter for animals such as flying squirrels. There are also species of moths that rely on these for shelter as well as providing food for their larva.

Cutting from witches’ brooms can be grafted onto normal root-stocks creating weird, dwarf cultivars that people collect.

The photos here are of a Witches’ Broom growth on a sand pine, Pinus clausa in Wekiva Springs State Park.

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Giant Air Plant

This cool looking plant is Tillandsia utriculata, or the Giant Airplant. Its status in Florida is Endangered (listed as a result of Mexican bromeliad weevil attack).

This one was still small, only about 18 inches in height but these can get up to 2 meters long. When they mature, they produce a single flower spike then die.

The Lake Wales Ridge is home to many rare and endangered plants and animals. Make sure to get out and explore. Use our state parks, wildlife management areas, and National parks. This shows, to government officials, how valuable natural spaces really are to people. Attendance matters.

 

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Fetterbush Lyonia

Lyonia lucida, the fetterbush lyonia, was blooming away in Wekiva Springs State Park. Their flowers can be white, pink, or red. This is an evergreen shrub and reproduces both by rhizome or by seed. If the soil is very poor, it will reproduce only by rhizome. They like acidic, damp soil and can be found in swamps, wet savannas, and saw palmetto prairie habitat. The white one was seen in a hardwood swamp and the pink one was seen in a damp, saw palmetto prairie.

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Momordica charantia

Also known as the balsam apple, balsam pear, bitter melon, bitter gourd, or bitter squash, is a Category 2 invasive plant species in Florida. People have used this plant for medicinal purposes and this has contributed to its spread. The bright red seeds are attractive to birds, who then spread this vine outside of cultivation. The red seeds can be toxic, especially to children.

This is a common invasive plant in Florida. You will often see it showing up along your fence lines. As of 2017, it was still considered a Category 2 invasive. Let’s all do our part to stem the spread of this invasive, non-native vine in our beautiful state.

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Blue-Eyed Grass

Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) is a common flower throughout the U. S. and is found in most counties in Florida. This little wildflower is also used for landscaping. It prefers damp conditions near wetlands. The roots were used by Indigenous people for tea and to help soothe an upset stomach. These little flowers should be appearing as we enter the spring months.

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Lizard’s Tail

This is the flower of the Lizard’s Tail, Saururus cernuus. They can be found across most all of Florida. They typically bloom in the summer and can be found in natural wetlands, often partially submerged. You will often see them in small colonies where they spread by sending out runners.

Post your photos today for all of us to enjoy and remember to get outside and enjoy Florida!

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Florida False Sunflower

Florida False Sunflower, Phoebanthus grandiflorus. This is a Florida endemic species occuring in the central part of the state. It blooms in June and July and occupies sunny, well drained areas. This individual was photographed in Wekiva Springs State Park this week in a beautiful longleaf pine and wire grass ecosystem.

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Florida Golden Aster

The Florida Golden Aster is a perennial herb that has been on the Endangered list since 1986. This plant grows approximately 1 to 1-1/2 feet tall and has yellow daisy like blooms about 1 inch in diameter. The Florida Golden Aster lives a short life and reproduces by seeds which are dispersed by the wind.

The Aster can be found growing in open sunny places. They thrive in vegetation areas that have highly drained, fine white sand and can be found in pine-oak scrub areas. Hardee, Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas county are where this plant can be found in Florida.

This plant continues to be endangered due to habitat destruction caused by over development (commercial and residential), mowing, grazing, and competing grasses and plants.

Recovery is a slow process. Natural and controlled burns help the Aster produce more seeds and bigger blooms. Continued help from volunteers, officials, and preserves like Golden Aster Scrub Preserve will give this plant a good fighting chance to make a comeback.

Golden Aster Scrub Preserve is located at 12181 East Bay Road Gibsonton FL, 33534. It is home to 2 miles of Golden Aster and the Florida Scrub Jay,

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Britton’s Beargrass

Britton’s Beargrass.
Scientific name – Nolina brittoniana
Britton’s Beargrass is found in central Florida counties including Marion, Lake, Orange, Osceola, and Polk.
It is a perennial herb with long, stiff leaves and a bulbous stem rising out a grass like a clump. They can grow 3-6 foot tall with a large cluster of small white flowers.
The plant loves scrub, sandhill, flatwoods and xeric hammock areas.
90% of Beargrass has been destroyed by agriculture including orange groves, and development.
This plant is not difficult to propagate because the plants bear abundant seeds which are easily germinated. Some native plant nurseries are producing this species for sale.
If you would like to help this endangered species, search out a Florida native nursery and purchase a few plants for your yard. Let’s bring the Britton’s Beargrass back to its grandeur.

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American Beauty Berry

The American Beauty Berry, Callicarpa americana, produces the beautiful, showy berries in fall. The plant can be found throughout the southeastern United States. Usually, the beauty berry grows to 3 to 5 feet tall but can occasionally be found up to 9 feet tall under the best conditions.

They produce small, white to pink clusters of flowers and the base of the leaves in summer.

The berries are an important food source for a wide variety of wildlife such as bobwhite quails, mockingbirds, robins, towhees, and brown thrashers. Other animals that rely on the long lasting berries include armadillos, raccoons, wood rats, gray foxes, opossums, and white-tailed deer. Black bears are known to feed on the leaves of this plant as well.

Go out and enjoy all Florida has to offer. And don’t forget to stop and appreciate the nature around you!

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The Goethe Giant

Hiding in the Goethe State Forest lives a Giant! A giant bald cypress tree named The Goethe Giant. At over 900 years in age, the massive tree is an amazing sight to behold.

This majestic old tree lives in Levy County, Florida and can be found by going down the Big Cypress Boardwalk Trail in the Goethe State Forest. Bring your bug spray for sure as this is a swampy location. The trail is a short walk to where the tree is located.

Visiting this old timer is a must do for anyone who spends enough time in Florida. The Goethe State Forest also has many miles of trails to hike and explore. Its a nice, quiet location, away from the noise of everyday life.

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Florida Torreya

The Florida Torreya, Torreya taxifolia, is one of the rarest trees in the world. Living only in Gadsden and Liberty counties in Florida, the Florida Torreya is also one of the longest living trees.

Once numbering over 600,000 during the early 1800’s, their popularity as fence posts, shingles, river boat fuel and Christmas trees reduced the number down to a mere 200 individuals. Because if its extreme rarity, there is a major effort underway to save this species of tree. The Florida Park service along with the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, are taking seeds from individuals growing in Torreya State Park and growing new trees that are being replanted inside Torreya State Park to help increase their numbers.

Despite their low numbers, it is quite easy to see this tree for yourself. Torreya State Park has a nice planting of these trees along their brick walkway leading to the Historic Gregory House. there are also trees planted along the nature trails in the park. The park is also a wonderful place to spend time hiking. When there, you may forget your even in Florida. The ecosystems there are unlike most of what you’ll see in Florida and the hiking is amazing!

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