Florida’s park system has many unique and quality experiences to offer visitors, but few stand out as much as The Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. It is home of the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs.
The brisk water is home to manatees, alligators and a host of diverse wildlife which can be viewed from the shore or a boat. Each season delivers a different selection of birds passing through and offering birdwatchers a prime destination to see the avian residents and visitors in a natural setting.
The bracing, some say chilly, 70 degree waters are sure to refresh bathers even during the hottest summer days. For some human visitors ankle deep is enough to experience.
Wakulla Springs’ history extends back thousands of years with evidence of varied use by people and animals, some long gone. Early residents lived in shoreline villages and took advantage of the plentiful natural resources to support their idyllic existence.
One novel use of the area was by filmmakers who appreciated the primeval quality of the park’s swamps and wildlife as a backdrop for cinematic productions. Hollywood films such as Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) were shot at this location.
The historic lodge is an elegant remnant of old Florida, and set among the ancient cypress trees which surround the swamps. The Spanish style lodge with its period furniture, original elevators and colorful painted ceilings that depicts wildlife and Old Florida scenes still takes lodgers.
For the adventurous, there are several hiking trails requiring varying degrees of exertion. For more information about the park’s amenities visit their website: https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/edward-ball-wakulla-springs-state-park
Only a shell of its former self, the exoskeleton shed by a cicada is all that remains of the previous night’s long pursuits.
Autumn evenings in the panhandle are usually beginning to reflect the official change of seasons with cooler air and a slight lessening of the raucous din created by insects and birds. The recent early-fall hurricanes have brought the area a wide breath of hot, humid air, delaying the long anticipated start of relief from the sultry summer environment.
Anyone hearty enough to take an early evening walk in north Florida will experience a continuation of the frenetic activity and riotous sounds typical to summer in the south. The near deafening call of cicadas (Magicicada spp.) is part of the cacophony.
Once commonly identified as locust in the region, their near-mechanical buzzing originates from the protection of foliage in trees and bushes during the day or twilight hours. During the dark hours they sing often and relocate frequently.
It is important to note cicadas are not the locust of infamy which shred the green, lush landscapes and foretells famine. While locust and cicadas are both insects, the similarities end there.
These seldom seen or captured insects known for their boisterous, sometimes undulating, chorus do leave strategically placed souvenirs for the sharp-eyed observer. This discarded residue of their early life stages is a highly valued tool for many elementary school boys with a prank in mind. The hard shell is harmless, but under the right conditions does have a certain shock value appreciated by juvenile miscreants.
Their nymph stage skeletons are often seen on the trunks of trees, shrubs stalks and even the siding of buildings. The opaque brown shells are abandoned when the cicada outgrows it and then emerges to form a new exterior.
The process is similar in other insect species with an exoskeleton having very limited potential for growth and expansion. The rigid coating provides this creature an armored surface to fend off the challenges of being small and small in a big hungry world.
In some states, cicadas are famous for their periodic appearance in colossal numbers, sometimes as many as 1.5 million per acre. These once every 13 to 17 year swarms do not occur in Florida which has an insect friendly environment.
The 19 Florida cicada species fall into three groups based on overall size measured by the length of the forewings. They produce their songs with timbals, paired drum-like structures on the sides of the abdominal segments.
A muscle attached to the timbal plate causes the timbal ribs to pop inward and project outward when relaxed. Flexed rapidly, the cicada chorus can deliver hours of uninterrupted night music.
In Florida, only males have timbals and the females are mute. Most sounds made by males are calling songs which serve to attract the silent females.
Cicada nymphs live in underground burrows where they feed on xylem sap from roots of grasses or woody plants. Because xylem sap is low in nutrients, complete nymph development takes several years to successfully mature.
All cicada species molt four times underground. When the cicada nymph is ready for its fifth and final molt it makes its way to the soil’s surface. It climbs a short distance up a tree trunk or stem, anchors itself and molts for the last time becoming an adult.
If male, the new cicada will add its contribution to the nightly festivities. If female, she will quietly wait for that special, one in a million, nocturnal crooner.
To learn more about north Florida’s noisy night insects, contact the local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Click here for contact information.
Lantana, on the left, and Mexican Petunia, on the right, are both exotic invasive plants which can displace many native species and disrupt the natural balance.
Autumn is usually considered the season of colors in the natural parts of north Florida, and other locations in North America. This tonal attribute is commonly credited to the foliage changes as the growing season ends.
Maples, sweet gums, hickory and many others make their contributions to the natural palette of shades and hues which have existed since long before human habitation in the area. Even some of the native plants add to the display.
Goldenrod and dogfennel add highlights to the brilliant display as winter, believe it or not, approaches. Unfortunately there are some attractive shades in the exhibition which are an indication of exotic invasive plants which have pushed out native.
Both lantana and Mexican petunias are currently blooming, but an indication of problem species. Both were introduces as ornamental plants, but quickly escaped into the wild where they could colonize unchecked.
Lantana (Lantana camara) is a woody shrub native to tropical zones of North and South America. It flowers profusely throughout much of the growing season.
Because of the plant’s ornamental nature, many different flower colors exist, but the most frequent color combinations are red and yellow along with purple and white. Lantana is now commonly found in naturalized populations throughout the southeastern United States from Florida to Texas.
It is currently ranked as one of the top ten most troublesome weeds in Florida and has documented occurrences in 58 of 67 counties. Curiously, despite the bad reputation it is still found in home and commercial landscapes.
As part of its arsenal of conquest, Lantana produces allelochemicals, or plant toxins, in its roots and stems. These allelochemicals have been shown to either slow the growth of other plants or totally remove them.
Some of these same chemicals give lantana an acrid taste and deter insects or other animals from consuming the leaves. Of importance to pet and livestock owners, these leaf toxins are damaging to animals.
If animals consume the leaves, they often begin to show symptoms of skin peeling or cracking. Once animals show these symptoms, there is little or no treatment that can reverse the process.
Although lantana’s leaves are poisonous, its berries are not. Birds readily consume the fruit and are responsible for much of the seed’s distribution over wide areas.
Mexican petunia (Ruellia simplex) is a native of Mexico, but also the Antilles and parts of South America. Its tolerance of varying landscape conditions makes it a common choice for difficult to plant areas and has contributed to it popularity and wide use.
Mexican petunia tolerates shade, sun, wet, dry, and poor soil conditions. It is a prolific bloomer with flowers in shades of purple and pink peaking in the summer, but with the potential to also bloom in spring and fall in some parts of Florida.
Environmental tolerance, abundant seed production, and an ability to easily grow from plant cuttings have all promoted the spread into natural areas bordering developments. The Mexican petunia has been credited with “altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives” according to the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council in 2011.
Given the continued popularity of both species, plant breeders have developed sterile, non-reproducing cultivars which do not have the negative characteristics of these problem plants. It is recommended using only the sterile type so autumn’s colors continue to be natural.
To learn more about north Florida’s colorful invasive plants, contact the local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Click here for contact information.
The Wacissa River offers paddlers the opportunity to see north Florida unfiltered.
Being off the beaten path has many advantages. In the case of a spring-fed river, it translates to less pressure from human use and a great opportunity for those who do visit to experience the “real Florida”.
The Wacissa River, located in the southern half of Jefferson County, Florida, is near the crossroads identified as the town of Wacissa. There is a blinking light, a post office, and two small convenience stores where beer, ice and snacks can be purchased.
Access to the river is about two miles south of the blinking light on Florida 59, just after the state road veers to the southwest. The blacktop spur quickly become a dirt parking lot after passing several canoe and kayak rental businesses.
A county maintained boat landing with pick-nic tables, a manmade beach, and a tiny diving platform with a rope swing are the only signs of civilization. The cold, clear water extends to a tree line several hundred yards south of the landing with the river moving to the southeast.
The river emerges crystal clear from multiple limestone springs along the first mile and a half of the 12 mile waterway. The adjacent land is flat and subject to being swampy, especially in wet years like 2018.
The river terrain stands in contrast to the Cody Scarp just a few miles to the north. This geologic feature is the remnants of an ancient marine terrace and is hilly, rising 100 feet above the river in some spots.
Cypress, oak, pine, and other trees cover the bottomlands adjacent to the river. The river quickly enters the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area which results in a wide variety of animals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.
The wildlife viewing varies by season. Many migratory birds use the river’s shelter and resources on their annual trips.
Canoeing and kayaking are popular in the gentle current. Powerboats and fan boats can use the area also, but must be on constant alert for shallow spots and hidden snags.
For the adventurous paddler who wants to follow the river’s course, there is a debarkation point at Goose Pasture Campgrounds and another near St. Marks after the Wacissa merges with the Aucilla.
Be prepared when taking this journey. This is the real Florida, no fast food restaurants or convenience stores. Only clear water, big trees and the calls of birds will be found here.
It is easy to notice the display of bright pink puffs erupting on low-growing trees along roadsides. This attractive plant is the Mimosa tree, Albizia julibrissin.
These once popular small trees are commonly found in the yards of older homes in Florida where the display of prolific blooms starts up as the weather warms.
This species is also classified as invasive native to southwest and eastern China, not Florida. Many Florida residents may not realize this tantalizing beauty is actually an aggressive invader in disguise.
The beautiful mimosa is found throughout the Florida panhandle.
Photo: Les Harrison
It has spread from southern New York west to Missouri south to Texas. It is even considered an invasive species in Japan.
Worse yet, mimosas are guilty of hosting a fungal disease, Fusarian, which will negatively affect many ornamental and garden plants. Some palms as well as a variety of vegetables will succumb to this pathogen.
In natural areas the invader will disrupt not only other plants, but also the birds, mammals, amphibians, and insects which depend on the displaced plants for food, shelter and habitat. Other negative traits include the disruption of water flow and aiding the incidence of wildfires.
In natural areas, mimosas tend to spread into dense clumps blocking the light to native plants which prevents them from growing. They are prominent along the edges of woods and wetland areas where seeds scatter easily and take advantage of sheltered, sunlit spots.
Mimosa tree seeds can stay viable for many years in the soil. These seeds will float without damage to their germination potential until they wash ashore to colonize a new site.
Additionally, Mimosa tree seeds are attractive to wildlife. One tree in a yard can infest many acres with the aid of birds and small mammals.
Cut or wind snapped trees quickly regrow from the stump, making this one invader that is difficult to eradicate.
Fortunately, there are a variety of small trees which can replace the Mimosa tree in home landscapes. Many are attractive, but without the unrelenting need to populate the entire subdivision.
This is a beauty-and-the-beast combo tree with too many problems to compensate for its looks.