If you are familiar with the annual spring wildflower extravaganza in the eastern US, which is especially prominent in the mountains of the Blue Ridge, you may have enjoyed the remarkable displays of dogwoods, rhododendrons, azaleas, and amazingly beautiful flowers that bloom every year. Now while Florida is a land of many flowers, it does not in general have this type of “knock your socks off” seasonal display of wildflowers. In the eastern forests the so-called ephemeral wildflower displays are actually synchronized with the greater amount of light available to early season wildflowers before tree leaves re-grow and close the canopy. This coordinated seasonal leaf re-growth does not of course occur in FL. Thus many wildflowers in FL bloom when fires open the light canopy.
We are fortunate to have a remarkable demonstration of the FL wildflower phenomenon in early spring in Myakka State Forest along the Gordon Smith Trail. This is an approximately two mile loop that traverses an eastern area that has not burned recently and a western area that has burned recently. In the panoramic photo of the pine flatwoods you will see the recently burned pine flatwoods with widely spaced slash pines and a sparse understory of palmettos and a few bushes. You will not notice any flamboyant flowers at a distance but up close you will see many smaller flowers. On the eastern loop terrestrial flowers are limited by the competition for light with shrubs but there is an open wetland area which has many blooming yellow sneezeweeds and bladderworts. This wetland is healthier when only natural summer fires occur allowing the natural moisture loving plants to flourish.
Here are just a few of the small but abundant and beautiful native flowers of pine flatwoods that are blooming now in late March along the Gordon Smith Trail. One of the rarest is the grass pink orchid Calopogon ; I have seen very few of these over the years in this area. Orchids have very tiny seeds which require a symbiotic association with soil fungi to flourish. Another of my favorites, which is seen every year in small numbers, is the carnivorous yellow butterwort. Sandy soils here are very poor in nutrients so plants which can capture animal prey have an advantage.
The milkworts are common in pine flatwoods and two which are blooming here now are the drumhead and procession flower. They hardly look alike but are closely related in the genus Polygala.
Another pink flower is the pineland Sabatia which may share pollinating insects with other pink flowers which are unrelated.
A peculiar flower is the pine hyacinth which is a clematis but does not look like more familiar flowers in this genus.
You may recognize the tiny native Ruellia which resembles the larger Mexican species which is widely planted in yards.
Finally I found another rarely seen strikingly blue flower, a skullcap, Scutellaria. Blue is not a common color in these woods, perhaps due to its primary use in flowers that attract bumblebees as pollinators.
So if you are used to high altitude wildflower displays in the Rockies or the massive spring wildflower blankets in eastern deciduous forests, you may not be too impressed by the spring “fire flower” displays in FL pine flatwoods. But it is quite beautiful on a small scale and there are thousands of flowers. So get out there and enjoy it while it lasts !