Plant Pathology Department
Mimeographed Series No. 58-4
THE PRESENT STATUS OF FLORIDA NATIVE PLANTS
by Erdman West
Botanist, Florida Agricultural Experiment Station
The plant life of Florida is abundant and varied. This fact has been
stated and proved many times over. The insular climate with abundant rain-
fall favors vigorous plant growth. The westward extension partly under
continental influence and the southern extension into the subtropical zone
combine to favor wide variety in our flora in spite of the lack of much
variation in altitude. The flora of Florida includes about 3500 native
seed plants and well over 100 kinds of ferns.
Statistically some of these many plants can be expected to be interest-
ing for various reasons. For instance, pines are important economically.
Much of the wealth of Florida is derived from the vast stands of slash and
longleaf pines. Naval stores, lumber, paper pulp, cellulose and the products
of destructive distillation are responsible for millions of dollars of
income to a large segment of our population.
There are other native plants that are economically important. The
unique tupelo honey industry of the Apalachicola River area depends on some
of our native tupelo or black gum trees. Some of the native grasses such
as carpet furnish pasture for thousands of head of cattle. Some of the
hardwood trees like sweet or red gum and hard maple furnish thousands of
feet of hardwood lumber for a variety of purposes. Tons of deer tongue
leaves are harvested and shipped to tobacco centers for flavoring various
tobacco products. Gathering and curing Spanish moss has helped to tide
many low-income families over critical periods. These are but a few of
the economic values of native plants. None of these plants are in danger
of extinction. They do not seem to be in need of conservation.
The scenery of Florida lacks outstanding topographic variation, consist-
ing for the most part of relatively flat land, numerous lakes and a very
extensive coast line on the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. What it
lacks in topographic features, it makes up in plant life variety. Tourists
from other parts of the United States are impressed by the tropical aspect
of our vegetation. This is emphasized by the palm forests, extensive
stands of the State tree, Sabal palmetto, so common in many parts of the
state. The majestic royal palms of the southern part of Florida are even
more impressive, although far less extensive. The first view of these
gray columns topped by the green boot and a large plume of dark green
leaves 75 to 100 feet in the air is a never-to-be forgotten sight.
Among other outstanding floristic features that interest visitors we
may mention a number of characteristic plants. There are miles of sand
dunes along the Atlantic coast covered with dense stands of saw palmetto
varying from green to gray, depending on the amount of wax on the leaves.
In the Big Scrub east of Ocala are thousands of acres of the graceful
sand pine, a monotonous but fascinating feature of the landscape in this
area. At the southern extension of the peninsula there are large areas
of the stilt-rooted mangroves that appear to be walking out to sea. Just
west of the town of Interlacheh, there is a large patch of sand heath
commonly called rose-mary in Florida. This low shrub resembles a juniper
so closely in appearance that only the botanically trained person can tell
the difference. It is interesting too because it has never been successfully
transplanted. This list of interesting features might be continued at
There are in Florida a number of interesting endemic plants that grow
nowhere else. Many of these are rare or scarce and can be found only
with the aid of the botanical guide. One of these is Chapman's rhododendron,
named for Florida's botanist Dr. A. W. Chapman of Apalachicola. There are
a few colonies of this attractive shrub near the Apalachicola River and one
isolated station in Bradford County. Like many other Ericaceous plants,
it is particular about its habitat and very susceptible to changing condi-
Near the city of Sebring there is a very small colony of the rare
Florida cyrilla. Although there are many acres of its larger, common
relatives in Northern areas, any drastic change in the vicinity of the
Florida cyrilla would eliminate this species forever.
Bartram's ixia is one of Florida's most beautiful and famous spring
wild flowers. Bartram in his "Travels" brought it to the attention of
botanists and described its beauty for the rest of us. In his day, there
were "fields of caerulean blue" but that was more than 100 years ago. Now
only courageous early risers can be guided to the small colonies for the
flowers have faded by 9 o'clock in the morning.
The closely related Nemastylis floridana grows in the vicinity of the
St. Johns River from Indian River City to Melbourne. It is almost as
fugacious but blooms in the fall after 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Few
people even botanists, know of its existence.
There are many other native Florida wildflowers known only from
localized colonies in a few areas in the state. Some of the species in
this category are certain pitcher-plants, stenandrium, litsea, misanteca,
some of the bladderworts and butterworts and the native pink waterlily.
In other cases, northern plants reach their southern limits as isolated
colonies in Florida. Among these are trailing arbutus, may apple, hepatica,
bloodroot and ginseng.
Such is the present status of many interesting Florida plants; but
what of their future? It does not seem likely that many plants have been
lost completely from the depredations of wild flower lovers and pickers.
This danger may increase with future increases in the density of population
in our state but there are other dangers that create more apprehensions.
Forest fires have been important in the past and will continue to be. With
the increased interest and activity in forest fire prevention and control,
this danger to our wild flowers should gradually diminish.
It seems likely that the increasing use of relatively wild areas for
agriculture and forestry is a serious threat to some or many of our
interesting plants. With the phenomenal growth of the cattle industry,
there came a great need for large grazing areas. Thousands of acres of
flatwoods and other types of vegetation have been and are being cleared,
scarified and planted to imported grasses. In such areas all but the most
persistent kinds of native plants are being eradicated.
The activities of the large pulpwood and lumber companies are creating
new conditions. As long as they were content to interplant current
forested areas with seedling trees, there was little real change in the
native vegetation of those areas that were being reforested. The latest
endeavors, however, involve completely clearing thousands of acres of
relatively useless tree species and planting these areas solid with pine
These two kinds of operations are changing the flora, almost completely,
over wide areas. As far as the economy of Florida is concerned these are
praiseworthy efforts. As far as our native flora is concerned, they are
catastrophic developments and there is little or nothing that can be done
In Florida there are a number of State Parks, a National Park, a few
conservation areas and some National Forests. The native vegetation in these
areas is fairly well protected from eradication. In view of the
activities of the cattle industry, the new methods of reforestation and
the expansion of real estate developments around our cities, these
protected areas may be the last refuges of some of our most interesting
indigenous plant species. Possibly in this prophecy may be found a guide-
post for our future course of activity. Should we not work for more
State Parks or conserved areas? Not small areas, for these are hard
to administer and protect, but larger areas, carefully selected to
contain several kinds of vegetation, especially rare or interesting
species, areas large enough to merit attention and protection should be