A Spring Wildflower Extravaganza at Myakka State Forest in February



I was surprised during a recent visit to Myakka State Forest (Sarasota County, FL) in mid-February to find a veritable explosion of wildflowers. This is mostly a hydric and mesic pine flatwoods with wet savannahs which are burned on a three year cycle. It was formerly a cattle ranch which had improved and unimproved pastures and many small fresh water wetlands, adjacent to the tidal Myakka River. The past history of the site plus current management has led to the creation of a sparse pine canopy with mixed palmetto and grassy/herbaceous ground cover. This provides considerable habitat for wildflowers, many of which seem to be released by the frequent fires. One particular site is sometimes carpeted with an unusual pink spiderwort soon after fires. Some nearby flowers with similar pinkish or lavender coloration are procession flower, a milkwort, and rose rush, which has a very complex reproductive structure. Perhaps these gain some advantage in attracting pollinators by having somewhat similar coloration? Other common flowers at this site are bluish, white or yellow. Other common milkworts may be yellow and orange, not pinkish as is the procession flower. 

The most common bluish flowers in damp disturbed areas were toadflax, which in masses are beautiful; they serve as a host plant for buckeye butterfly caterpillars. I found one rather rare blue flower in the flatwoods, the skullcap, which is in the mint family as is the widespread blue pennyroyal that is so attractive to insects and humans. 

It is striking that so many flowers are yellow, even though they may not be closely related. For example common yellow flowers I saw were St. John's wort (with long yellow stamens in its own unique family), goldenaster and sneezeweed in the aster family, bachelor's button in the milkwort family, and the rock rose in its own family. Surely these diverse flowers are benefiting from attracting similar pollinators that recognize yellow as a place to find nectar. The success of the widespread asters which are often yellow may lead to mimicry by other flowers. 

There are also white flowers in the area such as white sabatia, nightshades, black root, paw paw and tread softly, a spurge. 

The visible colors of flowers that we see are of course not necessarily what insects see, since they may perceive ultraviolet and polarized light also. So the colors and forms of flowers that so entrance humans are not designed for our eyes, but for potential pollinators such as insects and birds. It is indeed a challenging and exciting task to observe some of your favorite flowers and determine what actually visits these flowers and obtains nectar and/or pollen rewards, and how effectively pollination is under different circumstances. Flowers can certainly be enjoyed on a number of levels from pure aesthetics to a very mechanistic evolutionary perspective. In my opinion, the more we know, the more fascinating the ecology of these remarkable reproductive structures that we call flowers becomes. 

Bill Dunson 
Englewood, FL, and Galax, VA