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.
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.
October is the premier wildflower month in the Panhandle. Nighttime temperatures drop, days shorten, pollinators emerge, and many native plants explode into flower. Of all the native fall-flowering Panhandle wildflowers, maybe the most striking is currently in full bloom, the Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)!
Mistflower is a low growing, spreading native perennial (1-2’ in height) found in sunny, moist areas of meadows and near rivers, ponds, and creeks throughout much of the United States from New York to Florida and even west as far as Texas and Nebraska. This common native wildflower is conspicuously one of the few native plants in our area that has blue flowers, making Mistflower easy to spot in a sea of yellow, orange, purple, pink, and white wildflowers. The flowers appear as little puffs of purply-blue due to the lack of ray florets (think the outer yellow “petals” of sunflowers), possessing only disk florets (think the inner part of sunflower heads) with long blue, fuzzy-appearing stamens. Mistflower is attractive to more than just wildflower watchers as well, it’s a magnet for nectar-seeking butterflies as well; Eastern Swallowtails, Great Purple and Juniper Hairstreaks, and others are often found feeding on the flowers.
As lovely as Mistflower is in the wild, it’s probably best left for folks enjoy there, especially those who prefer an orderly yard. Mistflower will indeed grow great in moist areas of pollinator gardens and landscapes, requiring only ample sunlight and rainfall, but it is very aggressive. Its spreading nature via its rhizomatous root system and prolific seed production often lead to it becoming a weedy nuisance in more manicured landscapes. But, if chaos and fall bursts of blue erupting at random throughout your garden don’t bother you, by all means, seek out Mistflower for purchase through seed catalogs and local native nurseries. For more information on Mistflower and other fall-blooming native wildflowers, contact us at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension office! Happy Gardening.
Large swaths of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum spp.) in bloom throughout the Blackwater River floodplain in Milton, Florida. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Late summer is prime time for floating or canoeing down north Florida’s slow-moving, cold-water rivers. It is favorite summer tradition for our family, floating for hours in inner tubes and stopping to jump off rope swings.
If you drift down just about any north Florida river in the summer, you will likely notice large numbers of low-lying, thick green shrubs along the banks, loaded with tiny yellow flowers. These would be St. John’s wort. In our neck of the woods (or riverside), there are at least 28 species of Hypericum, with 9 of them endemic to the Panhandle. More devoted botanists can differentiate between all the species, but it takes years of study and field experience. All of them have woody stems with thin, evergreen, upright, opposite clusters of leaves, and small bright yellow flowers. Most prefer wet habitats—open marshes, streambanks, swamps, you name it—although 7 species are considered upland varieties. The most common species statewide is Marsh St. John’s Wort (Hypericum fasciculatum), which has softer-appearing leaves that remind me a lot of sand pine needles.
The bright yellow flowers of St. John’s Wort are noticeable throughout the summer in Panhandle wetlands. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Named for the feast of St. John the Baptist (celebrated in late June, and the plant blooms in summer) and the Old English term for herb (wyrt), St. John’s Wort has long been notable for its medicinal purposes. Research has shown the plant to be particularly effective for treating symptoms of menopause and moderate depression. However, serious drug interactions can occur if taken with prescription medications, so it is imperative to speak with a physician or pharmacist before using St. John’s Wort.
St. John’s Wort also makes a great home landscape plant, as it is highly adaptable to many soil types and sunlight levels.
7 year old Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata) on the edge of a wet weather pond in Calhoun County. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
Haunting alluvial river bottoms and creek beds across the Deep South, is a highly unusual oak species, Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata). Unlike nearly any other Oak and most sane people, Overcups occur deep in alluvial swamps and spend most of their lives with their feet wet. Though the species hides out along water’s edge in secluded swamps, it has nevertheless been discovered by the horticultural industry and is becoming one of the favorite species of landscape designers and nurserymen around the South. The reasons for Overcup’s rise are numerous, let’s dive into them.
First, much of the deep South, especially in the Coastal Plain, is dominated by poorly drained flatwoods soils cut through by river systems and dotted with cypress and blackgum ponds. These conditions call for landscape plants that can handle hot, humid air, excess rainfall, and even periodic inundation (standing water). It stands to reason our best tree options for these areas, Sycamore, Bald Cypress, Red Maple, and others, occur naturally in swamps that mimic these conditions. Overcup Oak is one of these hardy species. Overcup goes above and beyond being able to handle a squishy lawn, it is often found inundated for weeks at a time by more than 20’ of water during the spring floods our river systems experience.
The same Overcup Oak thriving under inundation conditions 2 weeks after a heavy rain. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
The species has even developed an interesting adaptation to allow populations to thrive in flooded seasons. Their acorns, preferred food of many waterfowl, are almost totally covered by a buoyant acorn cap, allowing seeds to float downstream until they hit dry land, thus ensuring the species survives and spreads. While it will not survive perpetual inundation like Cypress and Blackgum, if you have a periodically damp area in your lawn where other species struggle, Overcup will shine.
Overcup Oak is also an exceedingly attractive tree. In youth, the species is extremely uniform, with a straight, stout trunk and rounded “lollipop” canopy. This regular habit is maintained into adulthood, where it becomes a stately tree with a distinctly upturned branching habit, lending itself well to mowers and other traffic underneath without having to worry about hitting low-hanging branches. The large, lustrous green leaves are lyre-shaped if you use your imagination (hence the name, Quercus lyrata) and turn a not-unattractive yellowish brown in fall. Overcups especially shines in the winter, however, when the whitish gray, shaggy bark takes center stage. Overcup bark is very reminiscent of White Oak or Shagbark Hickory and is exceedingly pretty relative to other landscape trees that can be successfully grown here.
Overcup Oak leaves in August. Note the characteristic “lyre” shape. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
Finally, Overcup Oak is among the easiest to grow landscape trees. We have already discussed its ability to tolerate wet soils and our blazing heat and humidity, but Overcups can also tolerate periodic drought, partial shade, and nearly any soil pH. They are long-lived trees and have no known serious pest or disease problems. They transplant easily from standard nursery containers or dug from a field (if it’s a larger specimen), making establishment in the landscape an easy task. In the establishment phase, defined as the first year or two after transplanting, young, transplanted Overcups require only a weekly rain or irrigation event of around 1” (wetter areas may not require any supplemental irrigation) and bi-annual applications of a general purpose fertilizer, 10-10-10 or similar. After that, they are generally on their own without any help!
Typical shaggy bark on 7 year old Overcup Oak. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
If you’ve been looking for an attractive, low-maintenance tree for a pond bank or just generally wet area in your lawn or property, Overcup Oak might be your answer. For more information on Overcup Oak, other landscape trees and native plants, give your local UF/IFAS County Extension office a call!
North Florida vegetable gardeners have made it to summer and now the plants and gardeners are starting to give in to the heat and humidity. The squash has likely succumbed to squash vine borers, many of the tomato varieties are having trouble setting fruit, stink bugs are all over, and gardeners easily wilt by noon. This is a good time to use our oppressive heat to your advantage in the vegetable garden by solarizing the soil.
We have reached the peak of heat. Use it to your advantage in the garden. Source: National Weather Service.
Soil solarization is a method of pest control that creates a greenhouse to heat up the soil in an effort to drive away pests. Pests that can be reduced with soil solarization include weeds, various soil-borne fungal pathogens, and nematodes. Weed seeds can actually be killed by the increased temperatures, sometimes as high as 140 degrees Fahrenheit, while fungi and nematodes are merely driven deeper into the soil layer as they try to escape the heat. Although they are not killed, this can help vegetable gardeners as it may take these organisms 3-4 months to repopulate in high enough numbers to cause damage. Soil solarization can be considered another tool in your integrated pest management (IPM) toolbox, along with other cultural, physical, and chemical means of pest control.
A raised bed being solarized over the summer. Source: Evelyn Gonzalez, UF/IFAS Master Gardener Volunteer.
To properly execute soil solarization, the site should be in full sun and the existing vegetation removed, either by hand or with a tiller or other implement. Tilling can help loosen the soil surface and allow heat to penetrate deeper in the soil horizon. Before being covered with plastic, the area should receive rainfall or be irrigated, as the water will help conduct heat to greater depths. The next step is to cover the area with plastic. Note that this can also be done over raised beds! Clear plastic is best for maximum solar radiation penetration. Black plastic will heat up mostly on the surface and opaque plastic sheeting may not let enough light in to get temperatures high enough. The plastic should be slightly larger than the area covered, as the edges will need to be buried to create an air-tight seal. It’s recommended to leave the plastic in place for at least six to eight weeks, just in time to begin fall gardening preparations.
It’s important to monitor the site while it’s “cooking” to look for any holes that might appear. Small holes can be repaired with duct tape, while large holes or rips in the plastic may require starting over. Overlapping strips of plastic is not recommended since too much heat will be lost.
You may be wondering what happens to all of the good soil microbes. Well, unfortunately, they are also either killed or suppressed. Fortunately, researchers have found that they are able to repopulate quicker than the pest organisms, especially in soils with a good amount of organic matter.
Much more information on soil solarization can be found in these two documents:
Sundews, tiny carnivorous plants found in pitcher plant bogs, use an enzyme dissolve insect proteins. Native Americans recognized this property and used the plant for skin maladies. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
There are few words better than “pure delight” to describe the face of someone who sees and appreciates a sundew for the first time. Maybe it is their size—often no bigger around than a quarter—or the miniature pinwheel shape, but sundews could easily fit into a fable about garden gnomes or fairies in the woods. These tiny plants hide in plant sight–so small and flush to the ground that you likely won’t see them unless specifically looking for them. But, once you are looking in the right conditions, you will probably see them everywhere.
Sundews (Drosera spp.) are small carnivorous plants found in the same bogs as pitcher plants. They thrive in moist, mucky soil and full sun. They are also carnivorous for the same reasons pitcher plants are—their wet, acidic habitats possess few soil nutrients, so they use insects instead.
Sundews utilize a different method for trapping insects—their flat, radiating structure has wider lobes on the ends, which are covered with hairlike tentacles. These hairs secrete droplets of sticky sap visible at the tip of each hair. Small insects are attracted to the dewlike sap and get stuck. The hairs curl around the insect like a slow Venus flytrap, and natural enzymes to break down the bug.
A healthy sundew plant growing just above the water level at Boiling Creek in Santa Rosa County. Photo credit: Larry Burner, Florida Master Naturalist
There are almost 200 species of sundews, not all with the flat growth pattern. The threadleaf sundew has an upright structure, while others may grow in a spherical shape at the water’s edge. While paddling Boiling Creek on Eglin Air Force Base property a few years ago, our group saw dozens of sundews growing on the trunks of cypress and tupelo trees at eye-level from our kayaks. They were about 4-6” in diameter, much larger than the 1” ones we typically see in the bogs.
Tarkiln State Park, Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, or any place you find pitcher plants are a great place to find sundews. You may have to get on your knees to see them, and move the grasses aside. Bring a hand lens to magnify the delicate details of the droplets of sap perched at the tip of tiny hairs.
Even the famous naturalist Charles Darwin was enthralled with sundews, conducting experiments and writing volumes about them. In an 1860 letter to his geologist friend Charles Lyell, Darwin stated that, “at the present moment, I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world.” If you, too, are fascinated with carnivorous plants, check out these resources from UF IFAS Extension and the Botanical Society of America.