to their natural condition. Using GPS data and aerial photography dating as far back as 1941, Garden conservation staff have identified the areas of highest priority for focusing their efforts. Crews cut, chip and remove the overgrown titi. Fire is then carefully reintroduced to maintain the re-sprouting titi in its historic shrub form and, over repeated burns, slowly reduce the thick layer of organic material that has built up within the wetlands. This process will help restore the nutrient-poor sandy soil needed for these wetland plant communities to thrive. Removal of the thick titi overstory and the introduction of fire produces quick results where remnant populations of wetland plants remain. Strikingly, in a single season pitcher plants begin to send up pitchers and flowers, grasses begin to reappear, and orchids return in increasing numbers. Seeds collected from within the park and grown at the Garden will be reintroduced where local populations have vanished. In an age of unpredictable funding, the nearly decade-long support of the Gulf Environmental
WHY IT MATTERS
The Florida Panhandle is home to a globally rare phenomenon – coastal dune lakes that are an important habitat for a host of native plants and animals. These natural communities form some of the most species-rich and diverse wetland ecosystems found anywhere in the world. Pitcher plants, sundews and butterworts are among the many different carnivorous plants that can be found in these areas. Orchids abound as well; the White Fringed Orchid, Grass Pinks, Rose Pogonia, Rosebud Orchid and Ladies Tresses are some of the more prominent plants painting the area’s coastal parks in a brush of color. Yet, these ecologically valuable wetlands and bogs are vanishing. Decades of fire suppression – more than 80 years in some cases – have degraded these important habitats. Naturally occurring fires once kept shrubs like black titi (Cliftonia monophylla) in check and confined to areas where fire rarely reached, such as cypress domes and the edges of streams. In the absence of fire, shrubs have grown to the size of small trees, invading and shading out the open prairies and bogs, changing the balance of the ecosystems and degrading the quality of the water entering the coastal dune lakes, located near tourist-popular highway 30A. This shift in balance results in both reduced water quality and quantity entering the streams that feed the lakes and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. Data is being gathered to track the impact the project is having on the water system. 6 PlantIntel
A prairie at Deer Lake State Park undergoes prescribed burning.
Restoring wetlands to their natural condition helps create healthy ecosystems in which plants and animals can flourish. Benefit Fund is uniquely valuable. Taking an ecosystem back 80 years to restore its natural conditions is no small task. Doing so provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to track the resulting changes, lay down baseline research plots and begin to monitor the recovery of these natural communities. TOP: Coastal dune lakes present a unique ecosystem with their proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. ABOVE: In the absence of fire, shrubs like titi have grown to the size of small trees, invading bogs and affecting the ecosystem.
Fortunately, the Garden’s Conservation and Research team is leveraging its expertise in native species and habitats to restore these diminishing wetlands and pitcher plant bogs. In partnership with Florida State Parks through the Restoration of Florida’s Coastal Dune Lakes project, the Garden has secured funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund to reclaim and stabilize watersheds of the coastal dune lakes, such as those at Deer Lake State Park near Santa Rosa Beach. The project – the fund’s largest-scale restoration without use of herbicides or pesticides – focuses on restoring these degraded areas
Participating in the ongoing transformation of tangled thickets of overgrown vegetation into a healthy coastal ecosystem pulsing with native plants and animals is a remarkable and rewarding experience. JEFF TALBERT is the Garden’s Project Coordinator for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Coastal Dune Lake Restoration Project. CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: A green lynx spider rests on Barbara’s buttons in a park restoration area; Talbert examines a white fringed orchid; pine lily is a native of Florida; spoonleaf sundews display brilliant color.
PlantIntel: Science in Action | Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2019-20