Winter Flowers Dazzle the Eye in SW Florida

February 14, 2015

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

You do not normally expect to see native flowers blooming in winter, but this can happen in Florida after fires release nutrients and expose the soil to light. Although winter is not the natural time for most fires, which would have normally occurred after summer lightning, a prescribed burn about two months ago in Myakka State Forest led to an explosion of flower production. Members of the mangrove chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society ( http://mangrove.fnpschapters.org/ ) walked the Gordon Smith Trail on Feb. 12 and enjoyed seeing a remarkable profusion of winter blooms. The habitat there is a combination of mesic and hydric pine flatwoods with occasional shallow, gently sloping natural wetlands.

Since the soils in this area are predominantly sterile, acidic quart sands eroded from the Alabama and Georgia mountains, fires mobilize scarce nutrients that were held in the existing plants and litter, stimulating other plants to grow and bloom. It reminds me of the famous early spring flush of wildflowers in northern woodlands which seem timed to catch sunlight before the tree leaves have fully emerged. The scarcity of nutrients also favors plants that are carnivorous and can derive essential metabolites from animal flesh. Three species of such remarkable carnivores (remember the movie “Little Shop of Horrors” ) in bloom were the yellow butterwort, the horned bladderwort and the sundew. Each of these animal-eaters has a different mechanism to catch their prey. The butterwort has sticky leaves, the bladderwort has tiny traps on its roots, and the sundew has sticky droplets on the ends of its leaves, all of which ensnare small creatures. Thus nitrogen, phosphorus and minerals can be obtained which otherwise are not only scarce in the soil but subject to severe competition among plants.

A very striking flower we saw was the Sabatia or marsh pink. Its five pink petals surround a yellow center bordered by red. This central design is thought to serve as a “bulls eye” to guide insects to the nectar reward and thus to cross pollinate the flowers. It might surprise you to know that the marsh pink is related to gentians.

An unusual flower we found was the pine hyacinth or leather flower, a type of pinewoods Clematis in the buttercup family. It is only found in Florida and has a very strange seed pod structure consisting of long hairy filaments which bear no resemblance to the flower. Its bluish color suggests that it is particularly attractive to bumblebees as pollinators.

Close to the pine hyacinth we found a number of procession flowers with a very different pinkish color and shape. These are a type of milkwort which have several close relatives in wet pine flatwoods such as bachelor’s buttons, drumheads and candy root. These thrive in sandy soils and some species have bright orange flowers.

A large and spectacular yellow flower in the edge of a wetland was the sneezeweed, Helenium. It is another of those “dyc” plants, the darn yellow composites that can be difficult to identify. The composites or asters are an amazing family of plants whose “flower” is actually made up of hundreds of individual flowers that comprise both the apparent petals (ray flowers) and the central area of disc flowers. The ray flowers do not usually reproduce but contribute to the fitness of their relatives in the disc which produce large numbers of seeds. This “socialistic” strategy of flower structure is extremely successful and highly evolved in comparison with simple primitive flowers such as the magnolias.

So a walk in the woods and fields this time of year need not be without the chance to see wonderful flowers. Look for places where fire has occurred and follow the changes in vegetation over time and you will be richly rewarded by a profusion of interesting flowers.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

View all posts by Bill Dunson