Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Botanizing the Florida Panhandle: Apalachicola National Forest Part 1

*Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV*

I'm back and ready to move forward with my botanical foray into the wonders of the Florida panhandle!  If you caught my first post in this series on Hosford Bog and its insectivorous denizens, thanks for coming back for more. If you didn't get the chance to read up on one of the most fascinating sites I've ever stepped foot in, please don't hesitate to give it a read by following this link here.

After visiting the bog and spending all morning with the white pitcher plants and Venus fly traps, I hopped back into the car and headed due south into the vast expanse of Apalachicola National Forest.  At over 500,000 acres in size, it's the largest national forest in the entire state of Florida and home to a wide diversity of habitats, flora and fauna.  Being so large and having no prior experience with the region, I went into the foray more or less blind and with little to no expectations on what I might encounter.  Much like my attitude at Hosford Bog, I figured just about anything and everything would have me wide-eyed in wonder and botanical bliss.

*Due to the breadth of items I'd like to share from my time in Apalachicola, I'm breaking this post into two parts to keep things from getting too long and overwhelming.  I figured two shorter posts would be easier to digest than one exceptionally long one; which we all know I'm capable of doing!

Wide open expanse of longleaf pine savanna full of pitcher plants and other oddities

My route initially took me through the heart of some impressive longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) sandhills and woodlands ensconced in a mosaic of bright wildflowers.  Mile after mile passed with the scenery getting more and more impressive before I finally broke out of the pines and into one of the most stunning landscapes I'd ever laid eyes on.  Apalachicola is known for its extensive tracts of longleaf pine savanna and the first one I came upon could not have given a better first impression.

Lovely patch of yellow pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava)

The savannas and their vast openness of grasses and sedges were sparsely dotted with lone longleaf pine saplings or the occasional woody shrub and in exceptional cases littered with large clumps of yellow pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava).  I'd passed countless instances of the pitcher plants on the drive through Apalachicola, but seeing them at 55 miles per hour through the window is apples to the oranges of seeing them in all their glory before you...and in this case oranges are definitely better than apples.

Yellow Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava)

The yellow pitcher plant is one of the most frequently encountered of the Southeast's Sarracenia taxa and can come in all sorts of yellow-to-red color schemes and/or naturally-occurring hybrids.  Their tall golden pitchers are conspicuously topped by a lip called an operculum, which acts as an umbrella of sorts and prevents excess rainwater from diluting the pitcher's digestive secretions and enzymes within.

Pine Lily (Lilium catesbaei) on the savanna

I decided to wade deeper into the savanna's sea of grasses and gluttony of beak-sedges (Rhynchospora spp.) to see what other oddities were hidden within.  Before too long my squinted eyes (that Florida sun is bright!) spotted isolated blotches of vivid red-orange peaking above the surrounding vegetation.  I picked up the pace and found my heart stuck in my throat as the mesmerizing pine lily (Lilium catesbaei) materialized before me.  I meant what I said above on not having any sincere expectations of what was waiting inside Apalachicola, and never in a million years did I think these would end up on the menu.

Pine Lily (Lilium catesbaei) in all their glory 

The presence of the pine lilies sealed the fact this savanna was one of exceptional quality and management.  Once a much more common sight throughout the state, pine lilies rapidly disappeared as their habitat niche of open, sunny habitats on wet acidic soil dwindled due to development and habitat maturation/degradation and are currently listed as a threatened species.  Their presence is intimately tied to a landscape's fire regime and its frequency.  These pine sandhills and open savanna ecosystems evolved with fire playing an integral part in its health and structure.  Fire kept excess woody encroachment in the understory at bay and allowed the grasses, sedges and sun-loving forbs like the pine lily to thrive.

What is more lovely than a fire-red pair of the rare pine lily...

The intensity and saturation of the fire-red lilies was unlike anything your blogger can recall seeing before. Perhaps the harsh Florida sun and stifling humidity were playing tricks on me but their glow on the savanna had me speechless and utterly entranced in their beauty.  It's fair to admit these were the highlight find of my foray into the Florida panhandle.

Bartram's Marsh Pink (Sabatia bartramii)
Bartram's Marsh Pink (Sabatia bartramii)

One of the pieces to the aforementioned mosaic of wildflowers along the roadsides was the dazzlingly pink Bartram's marsh-pink (Sabatia bartramii).  Taking a gander at the reproductive parts at the center of the flower, I was immediately reminded of Ohio's own rose pink (S. angularis) but then taken aback by the number of petals on the Florida specimen.  Turns out that despite the difference in flower part numbers both are relatives and reside in the same genus.  It's rewarding to be able to use one's botanical knowledge from home to help unravel the floral mysteries of afar.

More treeless savanna in Apalachicola National Forest

The magnitude of Apalachicola National Forest accompanied with my iPhone saying "no service" really drove home the feeling of seclusion and isolation while in its depths.  If not for the two lanes of asphalt, I'd have sworn I drove through a wormhole to a time in the distant past.  A great deal of my time is sought searching out tiny pieces of the massive puzzle that is the natural world and a great deal of my emotions are tied up in the success and/or failures of that search.  But the most influential and memorable moments and experiences have always been the feeling of complete and unspoiled solitude.  A landscape bereft of the stains and markings of humanity, whether they be sights, sounds, or smells.  Just me, myself, and I and the giant ensemble of Mother Nature.  I don't have that specific feeling of euphoria very often and cherish it when I do, and believe me when I say the longleaf pine savannas of Apalachicola gave me chills and had the hair on my arms and neck standing up in awe.

Parrot Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia psittacina)

The savanna's masses of yellow pitcher plants were certainly the easiest to find and pick out but they weren't the only ones around.  Often nestled right at the yellow's feet were patches of parrot pitcher plant (Sarracenia psittacina).  This species utilizes a rather unique technique of trapping its prey by means of false exits and dead ends rather than simply falling in and drowning.  Its insect prey is attracted to the small opening at the top and lured inside by the smell and promise of nectar.  Once finding out it was gypped, the insect is tricked into crawling further down the pitcher by changes in light intensity, thinking it represents a way out.  Unfortunately, that's not the case and before long the insect enters the base chamber of the pitcher and with the aid of dense, stiff hairs cannot get out and is slowly digested in the enzymes secreted within.

Parrot pitcher plants in bloom
Foxtail Bog Clubmoss (Lycopodiella alopecuroides)

Apart from the related California pitcher plant or cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica), no other Sarracenia exhibits the same kind of entrapment technique of the parrot pitcher plant.  They were still blooming nicely during my visit too, while most other species were all but done.  Nearly as strange as the pitcher plants and almost always growing right alongside it was a lycopod on steroids in the foxtail bog clubmoss (Lycopodiella alopecuroides).  This fern-ally belongs to a division of plants that are among the oldest and most primitive species still around with their first ancestors showing up over 400 million years ago.

Sandswamp White-topped Beak-sedge (Rhynchospora latifolia)

It's not everyday you're driving down the road and see countless conspicuous specks of white that you assuredly assume are a wildflower, only to find out are actually a sedge!  As much as I love sedges, Ohio doesn't exactly have any that even the most novice of nature-goers can easily spot at highway speeds.  The sandswamp white-topped beak-sedge (Rhynchospora latifolia) has taken a card from plants like poinsettias and Indian paintbrushes (Castilleja spp.) with its snow-white foliaceous bracts.  While they appear like petals or flower parts, they are merely specialized leaves and typically play a role in pollinator attraction.  However, beak-sedges are wind pollinated, so it's interesting they would bother with being so showy.

Thistle-leaved Aster (Eurybia eryngiifolia)

Speaking of showy white plants, another one of my favorite finds out on the savannas was the nearly Florida panhandle endemic thistle-leaved aster (Eurybia eryngiifolia).  It's a bit of an odd name considering its epithet of eryngiifolia is in relation to the plant's leaves that look a lot like rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium).  I found its involucre's spiny phyllaries to be particularly attractive.

Thistle-leaved Aster (Eurybia eryngiifolia)

Thistle-leaved aster has a very narrow geographic distribution and is only found in high-quality open pine savannas in the central panhandle and in only a few select sites in extreme southern Alabama and Georgia.  That makes it a species worth noting and enjoying not only for its physical beauty but its global rarity and vulnerability as well.

Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum)

Tucked away in the understory was a trailing vine I recognized as the spurred butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum), a widespread species of the Southeast and quite similar to the Ohio rarity butterfly pea (Clitoria mariana).  A striking species I wish was able to call Ohio home.  I ended up seeing quite a bit of it during my time in Apalachicola and was thankful for each and every one I saw.

Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) under the longleaf pines (Pinus palustris)

Had I run this post in its entirety we'd barely be at the halfway point, so I think here is as fine a place to pause as any.  I hope you've enjoyed what you've seen so far and are looking forward to more.  Apalachicola National Forest isn't done just yet!

*Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV*


  1. Oh what a feast of flowers we will never find up north! Your photos bring them to us in all their glory, and your narrative shares the thrill of the hunt. Thank you, thank you!

    1. Thank you for your always kind and warm words, Jackie :)

  2. Andrew, you have me salivating for more! I haven't been to the Apalachicola NF, but many of the species you mention are also found along the Carolina coastal plain, my stomping grounds. Your delightful prose reminds me of the prose of the famous explorer of the area, William Bartram. I can hardly wait for part 2...

    Jim Fowler, Greenville, South Carolina

    1. Jim, we definitely have a "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" blogging situation going. We definitely feed off each other's work even if I do insist yours is better. I'd love to live closer to this type of habitat and enjoy its wonders more.

  3. This is my favorite habitat and you are just the person to do it justice. Thanks for the gorgeous tour!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Carol! Glad you found it worthy!

  4. Wonderful post, Andrew, and one that makes me very jealous to do some botanizing outside of the Pacific Northwest. The Pine Lily reminds me of the Wood Lily further north of here (L. philadelphicum) and incterestingly, the carnivores have a home here too though not naturally. There's a muskeg south of here where someone has introduced them and where they are flourishing. YOu must come out some time and see our part of the world.

  5. Pretty unique place! Glad to have it in shorter doses to read.