Reflections on Florida and four of a reporter’s ‘W’s’

Fifth focus is on the ‘who’

Florida paintbrush is a mecca for butterflies. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

First it was WHAT. What is this plant, this animal?

On a plant walk at Oscar Scherer State Park, I can still hear Laurel’s clarion call: “Carphephorus.” (That is Florida paintbrush to the rest of us). A staple of Florida’s natural places, it boasts long pale green stems, some taller than I. Their pinkish-purple topknots are the stuff of dreams for every pollinator in the vicinity.

Referencing Taylor’s Florida Wildflowers and hanging out with those in the know, I developed a nodding acquaintance with some of the state’s 4,000+ flora and fauna.

But then the “Whys” began springing up:

  • WHY did the eastern pondhawk dragonfly cannibalize one of his own when there was plenty else to eat?
  • WHY did Ixia disappear for 140 years after William Bartram saw it in north Florida, only to surface again near Starke? John Kunkel Small found it there because he understood the necessity of fire and smoke to the blooming of this elusive wildflower and the time flowers opened — at dawn, for a few brief hours.
  • WHY are black vultures mostly social animals and turkey vultures more solitary?
  • WHY do some plants grow only in Florida? And why are some rare endemics, such as the Lake Placid scrub mint, found in just the southern Lake Wales Ridge? Because the highest parts of the peninsula stayed above numerous inundations, enabling some species to survive for millions of years. But the high and dry areas attracted farmers, who cleared the land to plant citrus.
  • WHY is the “shy” limpkin at Myakka River State Park suddenly abundant? Because a larger exotic species of his food source, the apple snail, has invaded the park.
  • WHY do some plants grow on one side of the road and on the other side they are missing? Putting in a road often changes the way water flows, which will affect plant growth.

WHY fuels this journey. Little curiosities, mysteries to be chewed on and sadnesses.

The ‘lost’ wildflower, Ixia, was re-discovered near Starke in the 1930s. I ran into these in 2014 in St. John’s County. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Always in the back of my mind were the HOWs. How did Alvah Augustus Eaton navigate the Fakahatchee Strand in 1903, ’04 and ’06 before the huge cypress were logged out of this swamp that is 20 miles long by 5 miles wide? Motivated by his passion for ferns, the New England nurseryman avoided getting lost, starving, being poisoned by a cottonmouth or eaten by a panther — and those big cats were roaming around there back then. How did he survive Florida’s weather? How did he tolerate the clouds of mosquitoes and black flies?

An answer to one question always begets more questions.

As the seasons passed, the WHENs came to the fore.

In my experience, black vultures congregate in groups like these at Myakka River State Park. Turkey vultures are more solitary. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Blooming plants reflect the great cycle of nature. Winter through spring, pawpaw and pennyroyal thrive; in north and central Florida, pitcher plants.

Around here, pennyroyal is among the first to bloom in the new year. In summer, goldenrod and blazing star transform the scrubby flatwoods; in wet places, swamp hibiscus blooms. Fall is red (pine lilies, Virginia creeper and poison ivy), with purple blazing star. Fields of goldenrod make us feel like dancing (not sneezing — ragweed brings that on). Winter is muted earth tones of spent grasses sprinkled with stalwart tickseed and Spanish needles.

Just when I thought I had the WHENs under control, global warming skewed things. I found fetterbush, a winter/spring/summer shrub, blooming in fall, and coral bean blooming way ahead of the arrival of ruby throated hummingbirds, which depend on its nectar after their long migration across the Gulf of Mexico.

WHERE figures prominently in my green pilgrimage. Where do certain animals live? Panthers live in farthest reaches of South Florida, though young males have been known to come north across the Caloosahatchee River in search of new habitat.

Sometimes WHERES are out of place. The secretive American bittern generally hides in grasses, but one stormy day he was tossed by the wind to the top of a tall pine at Carlton Reserve in Venice.

The limpkin is no longer shy, thanks to an influx of exotic snails. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Where are the rarest wildflowers? Plants such as scrub lupine, an endemic that grows on a few “ancient islands” on the Florida Ridge, survived numerous inundations over millions of years. Many lilies prefer wet places after a burn. Black-eyed Susans thrive alongside overflowing ditches.

Pitcher plants are among the rare carnivores in the plant world. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Poking around wilder areas of the peninsula, I wonder WHERE the Calusa and other indigenous groups ended up. In They Called It Tropical, Charles M. Brookfield and Oliver Griswold wrote, “As late as 1903, however, Dr. John C Gifford, professor of tropical forestry at the University of Miami, visited a remote island hammock in the Everglades. Here he found a small village of ‘different Indians’ cultivating the dasheen, sweet potato, and hard skinned Okeechobee squash. Dr. Gifford describes them as definitely unlike the Seminoles in dress and physical appearance. These may have been the last of the Caloosas.”

Goldenrod reigns in the fall. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

WHERE are pristine places in Florida? They are virtually non-existent, lost to logging, mining, ranching, agriculture and residential development. The 100-foot-tall mangroves that Charles Torrey Simpson wrote about in his book In Lower Florida Wildswere destroyed in the expansion of the city of Miami. A tiny 5-acre remnant of rockland, Simpson Park, has been preserved.

Blazing star comes in various shapes and sizes, which vary with its habitat. The endangered round variety — scrub blazing star — is found in the scrub, Florida’s desert. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In west central Florida, phosphate mining has decimated the pine flatwoods and drawn down the aquifer, affecting much of Hardee County.

The Fakahatchee Strand is known as the ‘Amazon of North America.’ Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Scrub in the Florida Ridge has been sacrificed to citrus groves.

Last but not least, WHO am I in all of this?

Big Pine Tract at Chinsegut is near Brockville. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

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