Springing from the charred ground at Garcon Point in Santa Rosa County are wetland jewels that have been restored by prescriptive fire. Pale pink ground orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants fill the wet prairie flatwoods as far as the eye can see. This nearly lost world of U.S. coastal bogs is now over 90 percent developed. In fact, Garcon Point has been called the “Serengeti of Carnivorous Plants” for its splendor. At least 13 endangered or threatened plant species grow there, including the imperiled Panhandle lily and four threatened orchid varieties.
Many began blooming just weeks after the Northwest Florida Water Management District set a prescribed burn by helicopter.
“Prescribed burns help us preserve, restore and manage fire-dependent and maintained habitats containing rare wetland species on over 206,000 acres purchased for public water resource protection,” says William O. “Bill” Cleckley, director of the state Division of Land Management and Acquisition. “Warm-season controlled burns will create a low-density woodland that produces an understory rich in species. This area supports an amazing 60 to 70 species of plants.
“We are conducting wet-prairie restoration research with Dr. Richard Snyder of the University of Florida to monitor habitat response after fire cycles,” Cleckley says. “We are also thinning planted pines, planting wiregrass plugs and directly seeding wet-prairie wiregrass and other species.”
To set aerial fires, Steve Brown, assistant lands manager for the Northwest Florida Water Management District’s Western Land Management Region, contracts with a helicopter service and uses a plastic sphere dispenser, a so-called “ping pong ball machine.”
“The ping pong balls are actually plastic balls filled with potassium promanganate,” he says. “The machine injects the balls with glycol as they are dropped from the helicopter. This creates a delayed thermal reaction, producing a flame that consumes the ball and ignites the ground fuels.
“With this method, we can control the density of the balls and intensity of the fire,” Brown says. “Spot fires flare up, run into each other and burn out. Helicopter burns allow the district to put a lot of fire on the ground in a short time.”
Aerial prescribed burns are especially recommended near urban areas, where smoke could disturb residents and motorists and present safety hazards. To minimize disturbances, fire crews take advantage of the right weather (a passing cold front, as well as adequate rainfall, humidity, temperature and cross winds) and vertical rises in atmosphere at midday. For added fire safety, ground crews conduct downwind test burns and begin firing baselines to consume fine tinder and reinforce fire breaks. When the downwind ground is adequately blackened, the ground crew sets fires upwind along burn-area flanks. The helicopter can then run strips perpendicular to the wind, from the downwind side up.
“Smoke management is top priority,” Brown says. “Careful planning involves assembling a team of experts, getting permission and approval from numerous agencies and calling off a burn if adverse weather arises. A burn day can take everything you’ve got.”
To walk through a well-managed wet prairie, such as the Northwest Florida Water Management District’s 3,235-acre Garcon Point Water Management Area, take Exit 22 off Interstate 10, turn south and drive about four miles. There, beside the 2.7-mile Garcon Point Trail, flowering ground orchids and white-top pitcher plants tremble in the breeze among ashes of a recent burn. Since the district took ownership, the preserve has undergone several seasons of prescribed burns to encourage sun-loving species once shaded out by fire exclusion and the resultant dense understory of shrubs and small trees.
“Many of the historic native wet-flatwood and wet-prairie species require open, sunlit wet meadows to thrive,” says district environmental scientist David Clayton. “So any controlled burn is a good burn. However, there is a critical date past which you don’t get flowering of some species.”
The Garcon Point Trail crosses a mostly flat plain where moisture changes gradually, creating varied wetland zones and allowing space for many species. Above and within the ground, water flows laterally above a clay layer or organic hardpan, which slows downward percolation of water and keeps the area moist.
“One square meter of herb bog contains the highest species richness of any such area yet inventoried,” according to “Priceless Florida: Natural Ecosystems and Native Species,” a book by Ellie Whitney, D. Bruce Means and Anne Rudloe. “Botanists travel to Florida from all over the country to see (pitcher plant prairies) in their season.”
Clayton kneels in the soot near a delicate pale grasspink orchid whose petals flutter like butterfly wings.
“Grasspinks exhibit deceptive pollination strategies,” he says. “Insects are attracted to the hair-like structures, which mimic flower anthers and attempt to gather pollen. But the weight of the bee causes the lip to fall, and bees land on the column of the flower where the pollen packets can attach to the bee. These are then deposited at just the right place to pollinate the next orchid flower.”
Nearby, a cluster of white top pitcher plants is rooted like strawberries on rhizomes (runners) that rise from loose charcoal. Dating to the dinosaur age, pitcher plants are a keystone species, attracting insects and even harboring predators. Flies, ants, grasshoppers and other small animals explore the flower-like leaves and nectar-like secretions.
Inside, hoods lined with downward pointing hairs cause insects to fall into the pitcher and drown. Over time, the animal is digested by a mixture of water and plant enzymes and absorbed by specialized cells. In this way, the pitcher plant has adapted a way to obtain nutrients even though soils are leached of nitrogen and phosphorus.
“Scientists have cut open a pitcher plant and counted dozens of partially digested bug carcasses,” Clayton says. “Pitcher plants hybridize easily,” he adds, pointing to several butter-hued pitcher plants, a cross between white top and yellow pitcher plants. Inside one of them, an opportunistic spider tends its web. Pine woods tree frogs also hide inside pitchers to snare a meal.
“This is high-quality wet flatwoods and wet prairie,” Clayton says. “These ecosystems are becoming rarer as development encroaches or are in decline from years of fire exclusion.”
As he leaves the trail for an upland bog known as the Carter tract, sparrows flit among mid-story trees, maintaining a preferred flight level. The Garcon Point tract has preserved important habitat for the increasingly rare Henslow’s sparrow, which migrates to marshes and pine woods, builds a cup nest on the ground and feeds on insects.
Beside the road, white top pitcher plants proliferate in roadside ditches, many smashed in the muddy tracks of all-terrain vehicles.
“That’s a loss for the people of Florida,” Clayton says. “Threatened and endangered plants do not receive the same attention and protection as listed animals. Yet it’s the diversity of plant species, including rare species, that often provides quality habitats for animals to thrive in.”
At the Carter tract, strange cylindrical flowers that look like miniature yellow drums grow in a circle around a central stem.
“Drumheads,” Clayton says. He easily identifies Rhexia lutea and R. alifanus – yellow and Savannah beauty – and Lachnocaulon – bog button. But it is the large, knee-high yellow pitcher plants that impress him most. Bronze flies flit around glistening leaf hoods designed to keep rainwater out so that trumpets don’t fill with too much water and fall over.
“High-quality wetlands are not as easy to find as they were years ago,” Clayton says.
In the Northwest Florida Water Management District’s Central Land Management Region, on the Econfina Creek Water Management Area, the district has also restored critical wetlands by harvesting planted pines, employing prescriptive burning and planting more than 8,000 acres of native longleaf pine-wiregrass habitat. The district also has terraced and seeded old logging roads and restored erosion around the Sand Hill Lakes, which seep into the Floridan Aquifer and recharge Econfina Creek springs. These low-nutrient ponds are critical habitat for the globally imperiled smoothbark St. John’s wort, quillwort yellow-eyed grass, thread-leaved sundew and Crystal Lake nailwort (an herb that grows roughly in the shape of a cross). Showy mountain laurel, Panhandle meadow beauty and flowering rosemary all are preserved on the Econfina Creek Water Management Area.
Also preserved are the Ashe’s magnolia, pyramid magnolia and silky camellia, all endangered species in Florida. The rarest of the Florida magnolias, Ashe’s magnolia is limited to six counties in the Panhandle.
“You very rarely see this in the wild,” Clayton says.
The small tree begins flowering early in its life cycle with large 10- to 12-inch blossoms. Creamy petals are purple-rimmed at the base, and flowers often appear in pairs.
“At the district, we are required to convert lesser-quality habitat to higher quality,” Cleckley, the Division of Land Management and Acquisition director, says. “Also, we hold and manage these lands in perpetuity and encourage public recreation and enjoyment that does not harm the resource.”