We drove from Rochester, NY to northeast Florida in three days, arriving on Aug. 8, and the next day started on an intensive series of genus searches that will take about two months. This post covers our first 30 days, during which time we conducted 55 searches, 34 of which were successful (64%, a good result). In addition, we found 10 genera serendipitously (while not actively looking for them), so in total we added 44 genera. For calibration, at the beginning of the year we had seen 80% of the 2108 or so native genera of vascular plants in North America north of Mexico. In round numbers, this spring we increased that by about a percent, and so far in Florida we’ve added about two percent more. Ninety percent would be a very satisfying lifetime achievement, but we are running out of concentration areas where significant numbers of genera can be sought at a given time.
Camping and doing field work have been challenging, as expected. Days are in the 90s with frequent afternoon thunderstorms. Nights only drop into the high 70s, with the relative humidity typically being between 90% and 100% by dawn. We absolutely could not do this trip camping without the air conditioner we finally had installed last winter. It runs every day from when we arrive in camp until we take down the camper in the morning. Another key piece of gear is an electric cooler, which we use to pre-cool all our drinks and melted ice blocks overnight, before they are loaded into the fridge in the morning. This prevents the fridge temp from spiking, and possibly compromising our limited selection of food.
We’ve reduced our target steps for each day from our usual 10,000 (4 miles) to 7,000 because of the heat and humidity. We need frequent breaks to recover during the day, mostly provided by air-conditioned drives. Sometimes we eat lunch sitting in the truck with the a/c running, something I would have considered unthinkable not long ago. I believe we have acclimated a little over the past month, but we still are finding it very hard going. However, we really wanted a chance to see some of the many plants in the region that flower or fruit primarily during the hottest months.
In addition to botanical searches, we’ve done some nice shelling on Captiva and Sanibel Islands; Caladesi Island; and Kice Island, located off Marco Island. Some of the favorite shells we’ve found have been Lacy Murex, Lightning Whelk, Lettered Olive and Banded Tulip. Caladesi Island was also excellent for photographing beach birds, including Red Knot, Sandwich Tern, and Wilson’s Plovers. We’ve seen Florida Tree Snails in a number of locations, with particularly strikingly colored examples in Big Cypress. Gopher Tortoises, which we have rarely seen in the past, are clearly more active in hot weather; we saw them in many locations along the Gulf Coast. This is considered a “keystone species” in sandy pinelands because so many other species depend on their extensive burrow systems.
One exciting series of plant searches has been for new orchid genera. We have been trying to see half or more of the native genera in each native family in the continental U.S. and Canada, and Orchidaceae presents a real challenge. There are about 62 native genera of orchids in this region, not counting four genera that occurred historically in south Florida but are now thought extirpated. Quite a few of these genera are small and contain only uncommon to rare species with very limited ranges in the U.S. Furthermore, there is little public information about orchid locations because they are so heavily poached by collectors. After finding Isotria this spring, we needed just three more orchid genera to reach 50%. In Clay County, we tracked down the first new genus, Platythelis, an inconspicuous plant that was challenging to find. We twice found Eulophia ecristata, a fairly rare orchid and another new genus, while we were looking for other things, in Hillsborough and Manatee Counties.
Wanting our “50% genus” to be something spectacular, we checked the website for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, where there is a large epiphytic Ghost Orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, high in a tree, which is visible from the boardwalk. We had seen Ghost Orchid before, but not in flower nor fruit, so we had not counted it (it has no leaves, but just photosynthetic roots that cling to tree bark, so there is not a lot to observe if it is not flowering or fruiting). The website indicated that the plant had a couple flowers left, but no new buds, as the end of the prime flowering period (late June to early August) drew to a close. We hustled over and viewed the orchid, over a hundred feet away, with our telescope at 65x, so it was like being less than two feet away. We were able to see three flowers and one bud, a total thrill!
Our last new orchid genus was Epidendrum, which we had seen a few times before but not in flower or fruit. We finally found one in Collier County, on the trunk of a large tree that had fallen over. With care we were able to climb up on the trunk and walk along it to the orchid, allowing us to observe the plant up close. It had flowered earlier in the summer but not set fruit; however, the inflorescence was still in good condition, allowing us to count the bracts (leaves that subtend flowers) and observe their spacing, confirming the identification as E. rigidum.
One of the most exciting searches of the whole year was for a very rare fern, Lomariopsis kunzeana, the only North American representative of its family. Ever since starting our project to see every family, I have regarded this one as being among the five most likely to prevent us from reaching our goal, and as time has gone on, it has risen to the top spot on that list. But this year I saw a reference to its occurrence on public land where we had not yet tried for this species, so we headed over there with great anticipation.
This and some other rare subtropical ferns in South Florida have a particular affinity for solution holes in the limestone bedrock. These holes are created by rainwater (made slightly acidic by absorbing carbon dioxide) dissolving the limestone, in the same way that caverns and karst topography are formed. Solution holes can range widely in size; we have seen them from a foot across and deep, to twenty feet across, or ten feet deep. They can form microhabitats that are slightly cooler and moister than their surroundings, with lesser temperature and humidity variation. At this site we found some pretty good-sized solution holes and were independently exploring the periphery of one when I glanced into a cleft and had a heart-stopping moment as I gazed upon an absolutely stunning colony of Lomaropsis! I had to contain myself to give Eileen a chance to find it herself; we always do this because it is so exciting to experience personally the thrill of discovery. About five minutes later she did, and together we looked on the ferns in amazement!
One last search story. One of the genera we had not seen was Hippomane, the famous Manchineel, sometimes billed as the world’s most dangerous tree. Its milky sap contains a number of poisons; explorer Ponce de Leon was killed by an arrow tip coated in its sap. People who have stood under trees during rain storms have been temporarily blinded as well as breaking out in painful blisters. Cars parked under them in rainstorms have supposedly had their paint damaged. It is our understanding that in Florida, for safety, areas are closed and/or plants removed when there is any chance of the public coming in contact with the species, making it rather hard to find. So we took a boat tour in the Everglades, from which the plants are sometimes pointed out by the naturalist guide. This indeed happened, but two different species were both identified as Manchineel! One was seen well, and I was confident it was not Manchineel; the other was seen only briefly, without the boat slowing down, but it looked plausible to me. Once the tour was over, we talked about the alternatives, and I proposed taking a picnic lunch and canoeing the same route to straighten things out. What could go wrong?
Well, it was sweltering hot, and very humid, with virtually no shade along the route. The mosquitoes were ravenous, and once we’d been gone a while a thunderstorm overtook us. It rained so hard we had to land and dump 5+ gallons of water from the canoe. This placed us under trees in the rain, not the time and place to be if any of the trees were Manchineel. Soaked, we continued canoeing, and soon located what I believed to be the real thing. Without touching the plants, Eileen used a branch to break off a twig, fish it out of the water, and prop it up on a mangrove branch for macro photography, not an easy task from a canoe. But there, at the junction of the petiole (leafstalk) and leaf blade, was a tiny disk-shaped gland, confirming the identification! In total, we located five trees or small clusters thereof. We ended up paddling 6.5 miles, and eating our lunch out in a bay, to escape the mosquitoes. From there, we were chased back the whole way by another thunderstorm but made it without being inundated again. It was a hard trip, but a very gratifying result!