Thursday, July 31, 2014

Botanizing the Florida Panhandle: Apalachicola National Forest Part 2

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

Let's move on into part two of my time spent exploring the longleaf pine savannas and sandhills of Apalachicola National Forest.  Hopefully you enjoyed part one, which you can read right here and will find this second half just as engaging!

Longleaf Pine stand set against a beautiful blue Florida sky

Not to reiterate what was already said in the previous post but there was something truly magical about the longleaf pines of the coastal plain.  Their cinnamon brown trunks come out of the lush green ground straight as an arrow and are topped with crowns of green tufts of the longest needles of any North American pine.  They were easily one of the most, if not the most handsome pine I've ever seen.

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) out on the savanna

If longleaf pine was the quintessential species of the canopy, then its counterpart on the savanna floor was the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens).  Its tropical look was right at home on the panhandle and provided an aesthetic touch to the landscape unlike anything your blogger had seen before.  The white wildflowers scattered around the palmettos belong to the thistle-leaved aster (Eurybia eryngiifolia), a species featured back in the first installment.

Impressive clump of yellow pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava)

Patches of yellow pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava) seemed to greet the eye at every turn and their highlighter-yellow glow never wore on this botanist.  During the growing season yellow pitcher plants put out their characteristic carnivorous pitcher leaves but come fall begin to produce non-carnivorous phyllodia, which are essentially flat, "regular" leaves.  Lower light levels and a scarcity of active insects makes the effort and energy of creating more pitchers seem futile during the winter months it would seem.

Sand Bog Death Camas (Zigadenus glaberrimus)
Sand Bog Death Camas (Zigadenus glaberrimus)

If any plant really put my car's breaks to the test, it was the tall wands of the sand bog death camas (Zigadenus glaberrimus) beginning to bloom along the roadside.  Despite having never seen the plant before, its large succulent flowers had the same look and feel of Ohio's white wand lily (Anticlea elegans) only on steroids, so it wasn't too hard to put a name to their face.  The genus Zigadenus formerly had well over a dozen species in it but recent taxonomic work has placed all but the sand bog death camas in different genera.

Slender Bog Club Moss (Pseudolycopodiella caroliniana

From the stately and showy to the tiny and hidden, there wasn't a nook or cranny of the savanna that didn't have something to share.  Even the lilliputian world of open sand under the grasses and sedges was colonized by fascinating plants such as the delicate evergreen stems of slender bog clubmoss (Pseudolycopodiella caroliniana) and nearly microscopic basal leaves of the dwarf sundew (Drosera brevifolia).

Dwarf Sundew (Drosera brevifolia) and the largest dime you've ever seen

Plants can be given some pretty bizarre and/or unfitting common names but I think dwarf sundew (D. brevifolia) hits the nail on the head.  On second thought, dwarf seems a bit too conservative for these puny sundews.  There's no trickery in the photograph above, those are fully grown mature specimens and not the world's largest dime. Admittedly this photo was taken last year in southern Kentucky and not Florida but the species remains the same.

Longleaf Pine saplings in the understory 

It must truly be a love affair if we're back to the longleaf pines.  Trees were my first botanical love and I can remember reading about the famed pine lands of the coastal plains when I was first learning my species/eco-regions and how magical they sounded.  The longleaf saplings seemed like small fireworks exploding in a frozen frame of emerald needles; which one can get a much better grasp and understanding of while at eye level.

Slim-leaved Pawpaw (Asimina angustifolia)
Slim-leaved Pawpaw (Asimina angustifolia)

When someone says they've found a pawpaw here in Ohio, there's not much guesswork to be done on what specific species it is.  For us buckeyes and most of the eastern U.S., the only species we have is the common pawpaw (Asimina triloba).  But traveling down into Florida sees one potential species turn into nine different possibilities; including two state endemics.  I happened to catch this slim-leaved pawpaw (A. angustifolia) still in bloom while ambling under the pines and was immediately smitten with its long-petaled flowers.

Narrow-leaved Phoebanthus (Phoebanthus tenuifolius

Without the repeated and cataclysmic interruptions of the North's glacial events, the South has fortuned in having its flora around and evolving for a very long period of time which has spawned some pretty interesting specialties and endemics.  One of those species flew right under my radar while in the field in this DYC (damn yellow composite) I would come to identify as the pineland false sunflower (Phoebanthus tenuifolius).  It was dirt common in many of the areas of Apalachicola I explored and figured it wasn't anything special until I learned it occurred in only five counties in the central panhandle and that was it worldwide.  Glad I thought to at least snap an iPhone photo to help with the future ID!

Rhynchospora corniculata
Fuirena breviseta

Everything is bigger down south, including their beak-sedges (Rhynchospora spp.).  I was quite taken aback by the size of the diffuse inflorescence of the short-bristled horned beak-sedge (R. corniculata) swaying in the warm savanna breeze.  That's one I wouldn't mind calling Ohio home.  Another exciting Cyperaceae find was the presence of another umbrella-sedge in Fuirena breviseta.  That one, or any Fuirena honestly, I really wish would call Ohio home!

Savanna Meadow-beauty (Rhexia alifanus)

One of the first wildflowers I noticed blooming along the roads was the towering pink blossoms of the savanna meadow-beauty (Rhexia alifanus).  I feel like a broken record talking about how much more diverse a particular genus is down south when compared to Ohio and the meadow-beauties were no exception.

White Maryland Meadow-beauty
Rhexia mariana var. exalbida

Another stunning meadow-beauty blooming on the savanna was the white Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia mariana var. exalbida).  They apparently have no shame in flaunting their private parts for all the world to see in their generously-sized golden stamens.  It certainly catches the eye and is a hard aspect to ignore!

American Bluehearts (Buchnera americana)

Familiar faces were hard to come by so far south but a few did occur throughout Apalachicola, including the unmistakable purple-blue blooms of the American bluehearts (Buchnera americana).  A state-threatened rarity in Ohio that only occurs in a handful of extreme southern counties, bluehearts can be found just about anywhere in Florida.

Cross-leaved Milkwort (Polygala cruciata)
Coastal False Asphodel (Triantha racemosa)

Another Ohio rarity that was unequivocally more common in Apalachicola was the bubblegum pink cross-leaved milkwort (Polygala cruciata).  The actual flowers to this species are tiny and inconspicuously placed between the pink bract-like wings that get all the attention.  Only a few flowers bloom at a time at the apex of the stem and leave behind their bracts, making the flower look like it's a lot more "busy" than it really is.  Coastal false asphodel (Triantha racemosa) was like a weed throughout the savanna with many specimens in perfect shape as well.  If you'll remember, this is the same species that occurred in the bog with the Venus fly trap and white pitcher plants.

Wonderful longleaf pine stand

It pained me to see the sun start to wane in the afternoon sky and know my time in Apalachicola National Forest had come to a close.  I could have easily spent all week in its depths continuing to explore and see what I could find.  The three hour drive back to where we stayed went by fast as visions of longleaf pine, lilies, and pitcher plants danced in my head.  I'm incredibly fortunate to be as well-traveled as I am and have experienced so many unforgettable places, so it's hard to sufficiently rank them but it should be said that Apalachicola instantly inserted itself near the top.  I sincerely hope to revisit this place at least a few more times in my life, even if to only gaze upon those longleaf pines again.

That wraps up my posts on Apalachicola!  I have one more topic to share on my time in Blackwater River State Forest to complete this Florida panhandle saga and hope you'll tune back in soon to check it out!

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


  1. Can you recommend a good field guide for plants/trees of the Florida panhandle?

  2. Dan Boone is droolling and so I am I. Awesome Andrew! I love the cross leafed milkwort do you have close ups of it. If you do please post. I would love to see some close ups of the interlaces of the flowers.

  3. Lots of completely new plants to me in this post.