by Lilly Anderson-Messec
I saw a peacock in the pines. What had begun as an exasperating morning shifted at the sight of this exquisite bird and the remainder of the day unfurled into one of the most magical experiences that would alter the course of my life.
It began several years ago with some friends sharing their excitement of having found a secret spot off Highway 65 that was filled with carnivorous pitcher plants and dwarf cypress trees. I was already a native plant lover and always up for an adventure, so I jotted down their directions and recruited my friend, Bonnie, to join me for a Sunday trip to find this spot. This was before I had a smart phone and I hadn’t done much exploring of areas outside of Tallahassee, so of course I took circuitous route that had us driving all morning. Our confidence was waning when we finally found the small dirt road.
As we drove in, were greeted by a male peacock-in the middle of the Apalachicola National Forest. I was speechless, peacocks do not live here and I have never seen one before or since. I was compelled to hop out of the car and approach the bird as he fanned his feathers in an epic display. It was completely surreal and set the tone for the remainder of the day. We watched aghast, as he disappeared into the trees and continued on our way down the road. The area had been recently burned and we immediately spotted thickets of bright, chartreuse pitchers rising up on the edges of the blackened forest where it met the dwarf cypress swamp. I had never seen such a sight. The lemon-lime pitchers rose up to my waist and had a bright scarlet blush just below their hoods. Having only read about these plants in books or seen a few sorry plants in pots, I was unprepared for how magnificent they are in their natural setting.
Many of us are unaware that we are nestled in one of the richest areas of biodiversity in North America. Our Panhandle is a truly unique place with a multitude of diverse ecosystems that are home to many species of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. The Panhandle is, in fact, a hotspot for carnivorous plants and home to the most number of species and the largest population of total plants in North America.
We have more species of Sarracenia, also known as pitcher plants, than anywhere else in the world. There are so many that, as I quickly learned, you do not have to know a secret spot or even look that hard for them. They line the roadsides of Highway 65 near Sumatra and are easy to spot once you know what they look like.
My friend Eleanor Dietrich has been working with the Florida Wildflower Foundation and Department of Transportation to regulate the roadside mowing schedule so we can enjoy these beauties. I regularly spend my Sundays driving down to Sumatra with friends or alone to see them at their different stages of growth. Their stunning, pendulous blooms appear first in early spring followed by the pitchers, which are their leaves, in summer and more in fall. There are several species, and even color variations within species that are extraordinary.
That entire afternoon had an otherworldly feel to it, an experience that has blossomed into an adoration for the Apalachicola National Forest and the plants that inhabit its wet prairies and pine flatwoods. I especially fell in love with the many species of carnivorous plants including pitcher plants, butterworts, sundews and venus fly-traps. They are easy to find and experiencing them in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience, which I wholeheartedly recommend.