Most wildflower species produce flowers during a certain season, with some species blooming in the spring, others in the summer and a few blooming year round. In central Florida, we usually have a dry spring followed by a rainy summer. Ample summer rainfall coupled with Florida’s long growing season provides suitable conditions for a fall blooming season.
One of Florida’s most beautiful displays of fall wildflowers can be seen in the pinelands.
Sandhill is a Florida pineland ecosystem that has dry sandy soils and gentle rolling hills. An excellent example of sandhill habitat can be seen in the Croom tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest. In the Croom tract sandhills, stately longleaf pines provide dappled shade over a mostly sunny meadow of native grasses and wildflowers.
The State Forest land managers use carefully controlled prescribed fire to maintain the sandhill habitat because the ecosystem is fire dependent.
The lightning capital of the hemisphere, Florida’s sandhill habitat was shaped by thousands of years of historic lightning-ignited fires.
Historically, fires burned regularly through the dryer habitats and only occasionally entered wetter areas such as swamps or moist hardwood forests.
Many native Florida plants are adapted to survive fire, and many sandhill plants require periodic burning for their species survival. Seeds and roots can persist after fire and native grasses and wildflowers quickly regrow during summer’s rainy season.
Fire sweeps the forest floor clean of accumulated leaf litter, allowing seeds to reach soil needed for germination. Sandhill wildflowers and grasses bloom in response to a recent fire, and those flowers eventually ripen into seeds which become the next generation of plants. (Botanically speaking, grasses do produce flowers even if they are very small and not very showy.)
Prescribed burning is also used to keep the hardwood trees and woody scrub numbers in check. When fire is removed from sandhill habitat, the oaks and other woody species quickly take over and shade out the young pine seedlings, native grasses and wildflowers.
Prescribed burning is a science based management tool used to preserve the biologically diverse sandhill habitat where over 100 different native plant species provide habitat for many rare animals such as the indigo snake, red-cockaded woodbpecker and Sherman’s fox squirrel.
Some of the best viewing will be in conservation lands that utilize prescribed fire to maintain the native ecosystems.
Late September through November are usually good months to see Florida’s fall wildflowers on display.
Author: Colleen Werner, Biologist
Colleen Werner has been a Withlacoochee State Forest Biologist since 2001. She earned her B.S. in Environmental Botany From the University of South Florida.