It's easy to view Florida through one of two modes. There’s postcard Florida:
Sandy beaches. Old people. Palm trees. Manatees. South Beach. Disney.
Then there’s wacky headline Florida. Man throws alligator through Wendy’s drive-thru window. Scammers sell golden tickets to heaven. Pythons invade the Everglades. These absurd stories are just part of daily life in America’s southernmost peninsula.
With these two modes of approaching Florida, it can be hard for those of us who live in the rest of the world to take the place seriously. Like the rest of the American southeast, it's neglected in contemporary dialogue about planting design - especially in the trendy naturalistic circles.
Five years ago, I visited Florida for the first time. My parents had booked a house on St. George Island, a barrier island off the coast near Apalachicola. They stuffed all twelve of us in a van and we rattled down to the island. During that week in Franklin County, I was captivated by the plants, the landscape, the aesthetics, and the cultural narratives of this place. I ended up choosing Apalachicola as one of the sites for exploration in my masters project and did deep research into the ecology, history, and literature of this place.
The Apalachicola River basin is one of the unique and threatened landscapes of the southeast. Steep bluffs and ravines have created microclimates which enabled plants which usually wouldn’t persist this far south to flourish. The Apalachicola River and its surrounds form one of six biological “hot spots” in the United States. The area has the highest diversity of reptiles and amphibians of any region in the US. Many of our most beloved southern landscape plants have primary populations in this region.
Rhododendron austrinum. Magnolia ashei. Stokesia laevis.
Beyond ecological richness, the Apalachicola Basin is thick with layers of narrative culture. Like the rest of the southeast, landscape is fraught with overlapping stories of appropriation and reclamation. The porous land is affected by conditions arising both upstream (consider the contemporary Supreme Court case of the ongoing battle between Alabama, Georgia and Florida over water) and out to sea (Hurricane of 1863). For decades in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the swamps surrounding the Apalachicola River were populated by First Nations people whose property in the north had been stolen by white settlers. Throughout the early 1800s, Maroons (African-Americans who had escaped from enslavement) established settlements throughout the area - particularly in the area currently commemorated as Fort Gadsden. For a more detailed history of the area, consult Kevin McCarthy’s excellent history of the area, Apalachicola Bay.
But, at the end of the day, the plants and the landscape are the aspects of this place that truly capture my imagination. So, when my parents announced that they’d decided to return to St. George, I was ready to head down the Georgia backroads and return to the coast.
Last time that I visited, I’d known nothing about the place and simply explored the most obvious destinations. This time, I was determined to experience more of the region’s unique flora. My first expedition was in search of a pitcher plant meadow. I’d seen a few Sarracenia on the way south, but nothing particularly dramatic. So I determined to drive the backroads until I found a significant population.
The first hour didn’t turn up much. I had my little brother, Izzy, in the car. We tried to get to the Kendrick Dwarf Cypress Boardwalk, but the road was flooded in too many locations to get access. Instead we witnessed wonderful patches of both white-flowered fragrant waterlily (Nymphaea odorata) and yellow-flowered waterlily look-alike Spatterdock (Nuphar luteum).
We were also amazed by the incredible pink daisies of Sabatia bartramii (above). Unfortunately its preferred growth location out into the water made it highly difficult to photograph.
After driving too many lumber roads with only a few glimpses of straggling colonies of pitcher plants, we came upon a location deep in the woods where open pine forest lightened out into a giant meadow. Even fifty feet away, we could see that the meadow beyond was chock full of chartreuse and burgundy trumpets. My words give out on me - this Sarracenia meadow was truly one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve seen.
After a day exploring Tate’s Hell and the Apalachicola National Forest, we decided to focus more time on the landscapes of St. George Island itself. We were staying in the western third of the island, on a private development designated as The Plantation. One of the trades that I’d read about on the island was the extraction of turpentine from pine trees on the island. The process for extracting turpentine seems similar to the process used for tapping maple trees for syrup in the northeast - bark would be stripped from the tree, then a metal channel installed to direct the running sap down into a bucket. Carolyn Finney writes about the history of turpentine harvesting in Black Faces, White Spaces (Finney 2014, pg 119-120). She notes that turpentine was often harvested by black Americans who’d been press-ganged into hard service in remote landscapes, a situation close to enslavement, long after slavery had been legally abolished. The racial history of turpentine harvesting on St. George itself is unclear. However, Jim Mott has prepared a tour of pine trees that show physical evidence of turpentine tapping on St. George Island. My mother and I walked this tour. It was incredible to see the physical evidence of human industry on the island more than 80 years after turpentine harvesting ceased.
The eastern third of St. George Island is designated as a the Dr. Julian G. Bruce State Park. The vegetation here is less dense than on the western part of the island. There are dramatic sand-dunes rising through the middle of the island - you could almost call them bluffs - covered with scrub pines. Taller pines rise on the bay side of the dunes, fading through scrubby underbrush to sawgrass marshes and the calm waters of the bay. On the southern, gulf-facing side, sea oats (Uniola paniculata) and railroad vine (Ipomea pes-caprae) anchor the sands, creating a landscape palette typical of the gulf coast all the way down to the Keys.
I sent a few photos of our Franklin County adventures to my auntie. “Those photos aren’t what most people think of when thinking of Florida”, she replied. Perhaps there’s more to Florida than the postcard image or the weird headline. I hope it doesn’t take me another five years to return.