Putnam: Blooms of rare orchids, other flowers show prescribed burns in Florida State forests improve habitats for wildlife

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A grouping of rare orchids and other flowers blooms bright in Blackwater River State Forest this year. The brilliant colors are proof of a healthy forest aided by a robust prescribed burning program through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Florida Forest Service. 

The forest service’s statewide land management program has also brought a resurgence of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker in Blackwater, once down to a dozen pair and now standing at almost 100 pair. 

“Our forestry management programs, especially prescribed burns, bring our state forests back into good health,” said Florida State Forester Jim Karels. “The burns are a crucial part of our statewide endangered plant conservation program, one of the longest running such programs in the country.” 

The blooms in Blackwater now include Pot-of-Gold and Catesby’s lilies, White Top Pitcher Plants, and several species of rare orchids, including four Yellow Fringeless Orchids (Platanthera integra) blooming together, more than has ever been seen in the state forest since the program began. Conservation efforts will ensure these plants continue to bloom on state forest lands for many years to come. 

Prescribed burning helps manage the health of forest lands, control pests and disease, and improve wildlife habitat and control hardwood encroachment in sensitive areas such as pitcher plant bogs or red-cockaded woodpecker clusters. It also contributes to the restoration and maintenance of biological communities and reduces the hazard of wildfire. 

Since 1991, Florida has worked with state universities, researchers and other nonprofits to support about 10 endangered plant conservation projects each year. Other than prescribed burns on managed lands, projects include removing exotic and invasive species, inventory of state forest lands for rare plants, and collection and propagation of plants. The program has protected more than 100 species of endangered plants on more than 150 public lands. 

The program’s successes include:

·       Florida Golden Aster (Chrysopsis floridana) – This plant’s populations have been greatly increased in its native range with help from botanical gardens that propagate and reintroduce this plant to its historical locations. The use of population surveys and mapping has contributed to its resurgence, and prescribed burns have helped the species reach and surpass its recovery goals. It is now in the process of being downgraded from an endangered plant species.
·       Key Tree-Cactus (Pilosocereus robinii) – The tall, multi-stemmed cactus was once found in many of the Florida Keys, especially Key West, but was decimated by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and now is found in only the most remote locations. A combination of state, federal and private efforts have successfully propagated this plant, mapped its locations and researched its genetic and life history to better understand its needs.
·       Florida Ziziphus (Ziziphus celata) – This drylands tree or shrub was once thought to be extinct, but statewide intense surveys discovered the plant again. These have been managed and maintained in a long-running effort conducted by the Archbold Biological Station in Lake Wales. Initial, unsuccessful propagation of this plant required cutting-edge genetic research, which identified individual plants that have the potential to cross-pollinate with other individuals. This has led to the production of thousands of new individuals, many of which have been reintroduced back into the wild and are managed with prescribed fire.
·       Harper’s Beauty (Harperocallis flava) – This flower grows in Liberty and Bay counties, mostly within the Apalachicola National Forest in pitcher plant bogs and wet prairies. This plant requires prescribed burning to maintain an open, sunny habitat. Intense research into its life history has helped biologists better determine how this plant lives and its needs for management. Recent prescribed burning by the national forest has benefitted this species, aided by increased mapping efforts of all documented populations.
·       Godfrey’s Butterwort (Pinguicula ionantha) – This rare, carnivorous plant grows in pitcher plant bogs in Florida Panhandle counties near the Apalachicola Delta. It needs prescribed fire to maintain an open, sunny wet prairie habitat and grows with other carnivorous plants that are abundant here. In Tate’s Hell State Forest, an aggressive prescribed burning regimen has created a great, expanding population that explodes in numbers after each prescribed fire.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.