APALACHICOLA, FL – It’s summer in the Florida Panhandle, and we are either drenched in rain or covered in sweat. The mosquitoes are out in full force, and the risk of stumbling upon a venomous snake in the seepage slope and swamps is palpable. If I can look beyond the immediate discomfort, the payoff is enormous.
We walk through areas that were burned last fall, now coated with wildflowers blooming in a rainbow of colors. Here is savannah meadowbeauty (Rhexia alifanus) in bright pink; there is kidneyleaf rosinweed (Silphium compositum) in brilliant yellow. The contrast of the dusky pine flatwoods with the flowers’ vibrancy is stunning.
The natural areas of the Florida Panhandle region are some of the most biodiverse in the state. They encompass more than 650,000 acres and are home to 2,500-plus plant species – many of which occur nowhere else in the world.
I'm here with my colleagues on a scouting trip to potential field sites in the region, looking for places to study a rare plant that is endemic to this part of the state. Our willingness to tromp through swamps and brambles is fueled by the hope of catching a glimpse of “white birds in a nest” (Macbridea alba) in bloom, one of the only times you can spot this plant with ease.
The blooms of M. alba are a beacon of bright white in the pine savannas. The emerging flower buds produce pops of white, like little white eggs, radiating from the top of the plant. They are taller than one would expect of a rare mint and, like many species in this fire-adapted ecosystem, the leaves are surprisingly resilient.
Prescribed fire in this region is crucial to maintaining the natural symbiosis that has persisted through evolutionary time, knocking back woody encroachment and allowing the fuel created by death and decay to burn safely and in a controlled way.
Our goal in the next few years will be to use habitat-suitability modeling to determine the factors associated with successful populations of M. alba in this region, informing management practices to give these plants the best chance to thrive.
I am grateful to my team for sharing countless laughs – despite sweat, brambles and early mornings – while we keep one another abreast of sightings of snakes and gators.
Sara Johnson is a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. The research team also included Illinois Natural History Survey senior plant ecologist Brenda Molano-Flores, Janice Coons, a professor emerita at Eastern Illinois University, and NRES graduate student Eric Janssen.