In the late 1700’s, explorer and naturalist William Bartram and his father, the “King’s Botanist”—visited Pensacola and much of the southeastern United States. Curious observers of everything from plant growth and wildlife to Native American culture, they were also collectors. Countless American plant species were sent to Europe for further examination and later preserved in gardens and arboretums.
If it were not for their formidable observation skills, at least one species of unique native tree would be completely extinct. While traveling along the Georgia coast in 1765, the Bartrams recorded and named a species of small tree they’d never seen anywhere before. They christened it the “Franklin tree” for their friend and compatriot Benjamin Franklin. Known scientifically as Franklinia alatamaha (after Franklin and the nearby Altamaha River), its similarity to the loblolly bay tree landed it in the Gordonia genus for a while. References in the literature to this tree may include Gordonia alatamaha, Gordonia pubescens var. subglabra, or Lacathea florida, although it is now officially Franklinia alatamaha and considered part of the tea tree family.
William Bartram knew this species was unique, as he never saw the tree elsewhere in any of his extensive travels. He returned to the area in 1776, this time collecting seeds from the Franklin trees and propagating five of them successfully back at his home in Pennsylvania. The last time this species was seen in the wild was at the original wetland floodplain along the Altamaha River between 1790-1803. Now, the only Franklin trees in existence are all descendants of the seeds collected by William Bartram.
Their exact cause of extinction is not clear, but there are some solid theories. Land adjacent to the river was cleared for cotton farms, and the Franklin trees were vulnerable to a fungal pathogen that affects cotton. Based on the early records, the very small endemic population was particularly susceptible to habitat destruction and changing climatic conditions.
While no longer growing in the wild, the tree is mostly living in demonstration gardens and Arboretums on the east coast. However, it can be found in the nursery trade and grown in a large swath of the country if cared for properly. I was introduced to this species for the first time at the Brunswick, Georgia marine extension office. In addition to working with fishermen, they also educate residents on native landscaping and ways to prevent stormwater runoff and pollution. Over a span of a few years, they transformed the “front yard” of their office building from a turf lawn with a couple of oaks to a lush landscape full of flowers, shrubs, and pollinator insects. Included is a Franklin tree, with signage explaining its unique history. At about 15-20 feet tall, it has reached mature height. The original site of the Bartrams’ discovery is less than 20 miles from the garden location.
Plant names in today’s industry are not as simple as the established binomial (genus and specific) and a common name. Many of the plants that you get for your landscape are varieties, cultivars, and hybrids. To make matters more complicated, there are trade names that are given to plants to aid in marketing. We see the Endless Summer® hydrangea or Purple Pixie® Loropetalum. Throw into the mix the work of plant taxonomists who are always reclassifying plants and we can all be truly confused about a plant’s name.
Even as names change, it is still fun to learn plant names. Just recently, I sent plant pictures to the UF Herbarium to help get a clarification on the plant I was calling Georgia savory, Clinopodium sp. This is one of my favorite plants because it makes a spreading groundcover that grows about 1.5 feet tall and has tubular flowers in spring and fall. Many pollinators visit the flowers. It also grows well in sandy, well drained soil and thrives on occasional water. I have a single plant in my backyard that only gets water from rain and has grown to five feet wide over several years. It is definitely a low maintenance beauty.
My results back from the UF Herbarium did not completely clear up this plant’s name. There are reports that it is a hybrid of Clinopodium georgianum × Clinopodium ashei ‘Desi Arnaz’. Other information suggests that it is an intergeneric hybrid between Clinopodium and Conradina named x Clinadina ‘Desi Arnaz’.
The lesson from all this confusion is to just do your best. Realize that all of us can be mistaken on a plant’s name and even those that study plants in depth don’t always agree on a name. In the world of plant names, change can happen.
Most of us are familiar with the Appalachian Trail, the popular hiking route that follows the mountains from Maine for nearly 2,200 miles to north Georgia. But did you know you could set off from Fort Pickens at Pensacola Beach and follow the Florida Trail for over 1,100 miles, all the way to Big Cypress in the Everglades?
Inspired by the Appalachian Trail in the 1960’s, Florida Trail Association founder James Kern started gathering support and planning a route for a Florida trail that would take a trekker through nearly the entire length of the state. By 1983, the Association’s efforts resulted in recognition as a National Scenic Trail, with the path currently winding through the property of over a hundred land management partners. Some stretches of the trail are designated for biking or horseback riding, but the vast majority are intended for foot traffic only. A through-hike of the Florida Trail can be challenging, as the weather, water, and insects can be more intense in our climate than cooler areas. Dozens of people complete the journey every year, and the trail is gaining in popularity. In 2020 and 2021, fewer than 20 individuals were certified as through-hikers. However, last year 47 individuals signed the end-to-end hiker roster online, complete with their “trail name” and hometown. Many hikers are Floridians, but more than half the roster included people from other regions of the United States, and even a couple from Germany.
A brick sign echoes the architecture of Ft. Pickens along the trail at the northern end of the Florida Trail. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
At the northern terminus of the trail adjacent to Ft. Pickens, hikers will experience a relatively flat, sandy path along the dunes. A bridge crosses a small freshwater pond, then the trail leads to shadier secondary dunes. On a hike this past October, I saw plenty of blooming fall wildflowers, a turtle, a frog, and numerous birds. The Blackwater Side Trail along Blackwater River State Park and Forest consists of a totally different ecosystem, with 48 miles of shady and hillier terrain. This particular stretch connects with the Alabama Trail, which is still being linked together but aims to run the entire north-south length of the state. According to those who have hiked the whole Florida Trail, the most challenging sections include mucky soil through Big Cypress and rocky, uneven limestone and grasses in south Florida. There are plenty of interesting sights and potential hazards, from alligators and black bears to flooded trail routes and pop-up thunderstorms. But the rewards are vast, too, like having the whole trail to yourself most of the time, with opportunities to see rare panthers and a 2,000-year-old cypress tree. Interested hikers can reach out to the Florida Trail Association’s Western Gate, Choctawhatchee, or Panhandle Chapters if you have questions, (including local member Helen Wigersma). These groups help maintain sections of the trail and are a wealth of information. If you’re up for a new adventure this year, you can start a real one right here in our backyard.
Florida Trail map with alternate routes, provided by the Florida Forest Service. https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/fnst/maps-publications
Twigs dangle from a branch, held in place by horsehair fungus rhizospheres. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Imagine walking through the woods, enjoying the fresh air and birdsong, when you notice a twig just dangling midair. On first glance, you might presume it is stuck in a vine or a large spider web. However, this material is thinner than a vine and there are no spiders or webs to be found. On closer inspection, you see the twig is entangled in a dark knot of string, slightly thicker than a human hair. Following the source of the black string leads to a lacy network of the same material, flat against and around the branch from which the twig hangs. Fifteen feet down the trail, you come across the same thing—more twigs hanging from “string” in the trees, dangling from a knot of thin black material. What is going on here?
After some research, my conclusion is that we have come across horsehair fungus (Mirasmius spp). Mushrooms and other fungi have long, thin, rootlike structures called rhizomorphs. Rhizomorphs are composed of large numbers of microscopic hyphae, which are tubular and exchange nutrients and water among other parts of the fungus. The hyphae are typically located underground, but in this instance, they are visible in the open.
The ropy network of rhizospheres is visible on the branch, then turns into thin fibers that can trap plant debris. Sample provided by Suzy Marshall.
Aerial rhizomorphs are an excellent example of an evolutionary strategy known as resource partitioning. By forming a netted trap to intercept falling leaf material on a tree, the fungus gets a jumpstart on the decomposition process, taking nutrients from dying plant material before it falls to the ground. The tree-dwelling fungus is thus not competing directly with fungi on the ground, and both types of fungi can thrive. In human terms, this is loosely analogous to co-workers labeling their own food in a shared refrigerator. Everyone eats, but no one has to compete with another for nutrition.
A bird’s nest in Argentina is composed primarily of strong horsehair fungus fibers. Photo credit: Danny Newman
The common name, “horsehair fungi” applies to many species around the world. They are most common in nutrient-poor subtropical and tropical forests, where any available nutrients in the soil are used up quickly by the lush tree growth. They can be found here along the Gulf Coast, up to the Appalachian Mountains, and as far away as equatorial rainforests. In a Malaysian study, researchers found that the aerial fungi trapped up to 225 pounds of fallen plant material per acre! This network of material also supported a significant population of arthropods, which were crucial parts of the overall ecosystem by providing pollination, herbivory, and serving as detritivores. One study of spruce-fir forests in the northeastern United States showed that birds are known to use the material as a nest lining, as it is lightweight but very sturdy. In this particular research, 85% of the nests (particularly of warblers and thrushes) examined utilized the material.
Fall is the season for leaf color changes on many plants, but we are often concerned when we see evergreen plants with brown leaves. Learn what is normal browning for evergreens and when to seek more help from UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
Every so often while I am enjoying a walk through the garden, I notice a growth pattern on a plant that is just not normal. One of the more interesting patterns I see is called fasciation. This is a distortion of plant tissue that often causes flattened, curved, or the thinning of plant tissues. I recently noticed this on the stem of a Coral Porterweed in the Escambia County Demonstration Garden. The leaves were a normal shape but several inches of the stem were flattened and curved.
The distorted stem tissue of a Coral porterweed. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
So what is causing this type of growth pattern?
The most common cause of fasciation is usually some type of genetic mutation in the growing points of the plant. The other possible causes could be a physical injury to new tissues, a bacterial infection, chemical injury, or even an insect injury. Fasciation will be random in its occurrence and many gardeners may never have it occur on a plant in their yard. I have seen it on both woody and herbaceous plants in my own yard and in the demonstration gardens.
If you see a plant exhibiting this distortion of growth, you don’t need to take any action. If the growth is unsightly to you, prune out the affected plant tissue. It is probably best that you not propagate material from an affected plant just to prevent any transfer of the distortion to a new plant if the cause is genetic or from a living organism.