Join us on an adventure across the Apalachicola Lowlands, home to an incredible diversity of carnivorous plants and other wildflowers.
The shoot, technically, was over. Fellow WFSU Ecology Blogger Dani Davis and I had come for frosted flatwoods salamander larvae footage, and we shot our fill. Look for that segment later.
Anyhow, I had driven all the way from Tallahassee. We were at a US Forest Service facility deep in the Apalachicola National Forest, not far from the salamander’s habitat. When we filmed FWC biologist Pierson Hill collecting eggs in December, the animal’s ephemeral wetland breeding ponds were dry. But there’d been a good amount of rain by late March. It was a great opportunity to film the ponds full, to illustrate the wet/ dry cycle of these dynamic wetlands. After all, the frosted’s ecology is bound to it.
So I wanted to get some full pond footage. And also, I’d been seeing flowering carnivorous plants all over Facebook. There were likely to be some around these wetlands… so maybe I wouldn’t have been opposed to some additional exploring.
Pierson gave me the location of a wetland along County Road 379 near Sumatra. And since I’d be not too far away, Dani gave me the location of a recently burned pitcher plant bog. It ended up being a longer shoot day than I had expected, but in the best possible way.
By the Ephemeral Wetland, a Rare Carnivorous Plant
First thought- I should have brought my muck boots. When it comes to those “I’ll get a few shots after” excursions, I get to thinking that I’ll be in and out. Like maybe I could just shoot a few shots from the car on the way home. No, no, no. I’m in the forest with a camera. I’m going to wander.
To set the scene, let’s look at the banner image above. On the left, a well burned longleaf habitat. Sparse trees, the palmettos low to the ground. No large shrubs. To the right, a depression in the underlying limestone. Here, cypress trees and grasses grow (compare to the treeless ephemeral wetlands of the Munson Sandhills, which host different amphibians).
Past the wetland, I saw a line of densely packed hardwood trees lining a creek. At the base of this tree line, I saw fluorescent green specks. Pitcher plants! I started to head over.
Pitcher Plants and Sundews, Too
Longleaf ecosystems come in a few different varieties. You have plants common to all of them, like longleaf pine and wiregrass. But different conditions mean different understory plants. Here, I found little paths in the grass, starting by the road; I was obviously not the first visitor here.
A thin layer of water laid over the exposed muck in these grooves. These are mesic flatwoods, which hold standing water at times. And growing in this wet muck, I saw sundews:
Before I left the USFS work center, Dani and Pierson had said that butterworts had all but lost their flowers, and that sundews were starting to shoot up buds. Here we see a sundew starting to bud. To see a sundew flower, check out this post on the rare plants of the St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve.
Sundews and butterworts shoot their flowers high above their leaves- those are for their pollinators. Down below, the sticky leaves await other insects- those that will become trapped and feed the plant.
When I got to the tree line, it took me a second to make sense of what I was seeing.
I had never seen pitcher plant leaves- their pitchers- dead and grey like this. Thinking back, I had never been in this kind of environment at this time of year. I was seeing something new to me; the pitchers die, flowers shoot up in the early spring, followed by the new pitchers.
A Single Flowering Butterwort
Pitcher plants really do catch the eye, but it’s always worth looking down for the smaller plants. This is true of all longleaf ecosystems; they’re incredibly diverse, and frequent fire creates space where smaller- sometimes rare- plants can thrive.
Near the pitcher plants, I saw this:
I’m not a butterwort expert, but I realized that I had just passed the Apalachicola Lowlands Preserve before pulling over. Last year, Ryan Means of the Coastal Plains Institute showed me a few rare plants there. The rarest? A butterwort with neon green leaves.
So, here I saw neon green leaves. Godfrey’s butterwort is found in a handful of central Florida panhandle counties, with the largest concentration here in the Apalachicola Lowlands region.
As Dani and Pierson said, butterworts had mostly dropped their flowers. This was, in fact, the only butterwort flower I would see all day. What luck! The leaves of different butterwort species are similar, though they come in different shades of red and green. The flowers of the local species are all much more easily distinguished from one another.
Pierson confirmed the identity of this plant. He said that they “have responded well at several wetlands that have been restored and burned for flatwoods salamanders.”
Frequent fire keeps ephemeral wetlands from being crowded by gum trees, making space for the sheltering grasses needed by those increasingly rare salamanders. In the adjacent flatwoods, fire makes space for this rare plant. Godfrey’s butterwort is Federally listed as Threatened.
A Pitcher Plant Bog Responds to Fire
Next, I drove a while to Dani’s spot. I had been just north of Sumatra on County Road 379, which connects with State Road 65 in town. SR 65 is a wildflower corridor, world renowned for the carnivorous plants that line the road and surrounding forests. If you geek out on pitcher plants and other wildflowers, it can be a distracting drive.
After a thirty minute drive, I found the correct forest road, and took the turns as instructed. The spot was familiar; I first came here years ago with Dr. Tom Miller, Dani’s faculty advisor. This time, I was able to see the forest about a month after it had been burned. A month is all it took for that new growth in the photo above to carpet the understory. The pleasant fragrance of recently burned plant matter stayed with me through the drive home.
My last visit here was in mid-May. From March through May, each of our area’s carnivorous plants start to bloom. As you might gather from Dani and Pierson’s comments, and what we’ve seen so far, different species bloom at different times of spring, with some overlap. In late March, The dewthreads that were conspicuous on my last visit were yet to have sprouted.
If you want to learn about the ecology of carnivorous plants here, I’d watch that piece with Dr. Miller. It provides a good background for the observations I captured on this trip.
Palmettos Respond to Fire
Fire adapted plants often start growing within a day or two of being burned completely down to their roots. I’ve seen bright green wiregrass with singed tips a few days after a burn. I’ve also seen singed tipped palmettos growing. But not like this:
I found it curious, so I did some Googling and found a US Forest Service page on saw palmettos (Serenoa repens). It said:
Saw palmetto responds to fire by sprouting soon after fire. Drawing on carbohydrate stores in rhizomes, it initiates leaf production and vegetative production, increasing stem density. The response is so strong that winter-burned saw palmetto will break winter dormancy and produce leaves and fruit out of season.US Forest Service Plant Database entry
Dani said these woods burned on February 19, a little over a month before. A winter burn. Saw palmettos usually produce fruit in the summer, but it seems that this winter burn started the process a few months early.
The Bearded Grasspink
Making my way down the forest road, I start making out flecks of pink and bright yellow/ green. The same conditions favorable to carnivorous plants- where wet areas burn- are also favorable to orchids.
The bearded grasspink is a Coastal Plain endemic. The Coastal Plain is a bioregion encompassing the American southeast, which had historically been dominated by longleaf pine ecosystems.
Chapman’s butterwort (Pinguicula planifolia)
This spot has a higher diversity of carnivorous plants than the last- this is why Dr. Miller uses it as a study site. There were plenty of sundews here as well, and a different species of butterwort:
This butterwort species ranges from the Apalachicola River corridor to the Mobile River in Alabama. I don’t know if the stalk is a flower starting to bud or after the flower has faded.
Burke’s pitcher plant (Sarracenia rosea)
Again, we see new pitcher plant flowers popping up where the pitchers have been spent. This is Burke’s pitcher plant, which is Federally listed as Near Threatened. That’s two Federally listed carnivorous plants on the day.
You can see that the edges of these leaves have been singed. The leaves weren’t altogether destroyed, so maybe this particular spot was wet then?
Yellow Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava)
Looking at the base of those pitcher plants, they had been burned down, and this growth occurred with the last month or so. It’s a little further ahead than the yellow pitcher plants in the last spot, with both flowers and some skinny new pitchers.
These are at the same stage as the pitchers at the last site, only last year’s pitchers have been burned away.
This single pitcher has fully formed, and we can see its “red throat.” This is a variety of yellow pitcher plant known as a cutthroat pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava var. rugelii).
This bog is located where the flatwoods meet a creek that flows into the New River, which in turn flows into the Carrabbelle River. The creek at our last stop flows into the Apalachicola River. Among the dense hardwoods around the creek, we see clusters of pitcher plants.
You can see from the hardwood leaves how fire reached into the floodplain of the creek. In February when this spot burned, conditions were dry enough to let fire penetrate. But the area had in the past been wet enough, for long enough, to protect those hardwoods from fire and allow them to grow larger than shrubs.
It’s this dynamic in which carnivorous plants thrive. They are semi-aquatic plants, and fire adapted as well.
Getting to Know the Apalachicola Lowlands
I’m happy I took extra time to wander these locations with a camera. I’ve been getting to know this region better lately, the Apalachicola Lowlands. It’s this area between the Apalachicola and Carrabbelle Rivers, south of that ancient coastline called the Cody Escarpment. Its flatwoods drain into the Apalachicola’s fabled tupelo swamps; they are tied to the mighty river, and are ecological marvels unto themselves.
In the coming weeks, look for that story on the frosted flatwoods salamander to see another aspect of life here. And next week, in my interview with Bruce Means about his adventures abroad, we meet a snake he described that is found entirely in the Apalachicola Lowlands region.