Deer Lichen

The Importance of Scrub Communities in Central Florida

What enters your mind when you see the glistening white sand and thorny plants of Florida’s scrub land?  Do you see sandy, worthless land useful only for development?  Or, are you aware that “most of the rare endemic vegetation of Florida is associated with scrubs scattered along the central ridges of the Florida peninsula”?

In order to truly appreciate the ecological importance of the scrub environment, we must first understand the scrub itself.  According to the University of Florida IFAS publication FOR305, “Common Woody Plants of Florida Scrub Ecosystems”, Florida’s scrub ecosystems are characterized by deep, well-drained, nutrient-poor, sandy soils and areas of open, bare sand dominated by xeromorphic plants (i.e. plants that have adapted specialized traits to help withstand very dry conditions).  Almost all scrub soils are entisols consisting of quartz sand.

The Florida Forest Stewardship describes scrub or sand pine environments as being dominated by evergreen oaks such as sand live oak, myrtle oak, Chapman’s oak, as well as Florida rosemary, with or without a pine canopy.  These precious parcels are considered rare and endangered, as Florida loses large areas of scrub land to development every year.

Palafoxia

Palafoxia. Photo credit: Debra Howell, UF/IFAS Extension Master Gardener

The scrub is also teeming with many beautiful plant and animal species.  You may encounter colorful blooming plants such as lupine, dayflower, partridge pea, Palafoxia and blazing star Liatris.  Other interesting plants include deer moss lichen, sand pine, saw palmetto, tar flower and rusty Lyonia.  While the glistening white sand of the scrub appears quite sterile to the casual glance, this ecosystem is filled with trees and blooming plants.

Blazing Star Flower

Blazing Star. Photo credit: Debra Howell, UF/IFAS Extension Master Gardener

The star of the scrub environment is blazing star Liatris.  It belongs to the Asteraceae family of asters and sports purple spikes of flowers from September through October.  This species is often confined to scrub environments.  This plant has a bulb at the base for the storage of water and nutrients in their arid environment.

A blue-hued beauty is the dayflower, which is a relative of the spiderwort and wandering Jew.  These striking plants open in the morning, but begin to close up by about mid-afternoon, hence the name dayflower.  They stand out in stark contrast to the scrub sand.  Dayflower bears sky-blue flowers, one inch in size and bloom nearly all year round.

A supine beauty of the scrub environment is the morning glory Florida Bonamia or scrub morning glory.  The flowers are blue with white throats and are more delicate and smaller than its cousin the railroad vine.  These plants are less prevalent in coastal areas than the railroad vine, but occur in sandy, scrub environments and dry pinelands.  Present throughout Florida, scrub morning glory is beneficial in erosion prevention as it forms mats which anchor the soil.  The flowers are white and tubular, and they occur spring through fall.

Silver-Leafed Aster

Silver-Leafed Aster. Photo credit: Debra Howell, UF/IFAS Extension Master Gardener

The partridge pea is an interesting member of the Fabaceae family and a native of Florida.  Once called Cassia, the plant is now known as a type of Senna.  It is also called prairie Senna or golden Cassia.  This unique plant bears bright yellow blossoms which are somewhat asymmetrical, as the petals are of varying sizes, with the largest petal at the bottom of the bloom.  These beautiful flowers are used for nectar by the large, impressive yellow and black bumblebee.  They also collect pollen and are thought to pollinate the plant itself.  The pollen is used as a provision for the offspring of the hive.

Another scrub plant with a unique appearance is Palafoxia.  Palafoxia is a native herb named for Jose Palafox, a Spanish general during the time of Napoleon.  Palafoxia is also visited by bumblebees which go from cluster to cluster, causing heavy fruiting of the plants.  The white or pink fringed flowers appeal to other insects as well, such as wasps, which are also excellent pollinators.  You will also find Palafoxia throughout Mexico and the western states.

One of my favorite plants is the lupine.  The most commonly seen lupine is Lupinus diffusus.  Like the partridge pea, lupines are members of the Fabaceae family of peas.  Lupines, in general, have been used for years as a fodder for fish and cattle as alternative sources of protein.  There are 150 species of lupines, and they have been found to be appropriate to agricultural production in the United Kingdom.  Lupine are known to be nitrogen fixing grain legumes that produce seeds with high protein and high energy components.  This began as early as 1928 and led to the culture of sweet varieties effective for livestock feed.  They are now used in America, in Australia, in Victoria and New South Wales, and of course, the United Kingdom.

Scrub Lupine

Scrub Lupine. Photo credit: Debra Howell, UF/IFAS Extension Master Gardener

The success of lupines in the scrub environment may be attributed to the presence of mycorrhizae, which is a root fungus assisting the plants to exist in the sterile sands of the scrub.  Our local lupines come in two types: Lupinus diffusus (sky-blue lupine) and the very rare Lupinus aridorum (scrub lupine).  The difference is habitat.  Sky-blue occurs on sandhills and sand pine scrub, whereas the scrub lupine occurs on white sand scrubs.  Another type, lady lupine, is evident in North Florida.  All types of local lupines will not survive transplantation.

Another plant which is extremely important in the scrub environment is Serenoa repens or saw palmetto. The berries of this plant are a staple food item for birds, raccoons, deer, black bear and other mammals in the scrub.  The term “repens” indicates that their stems recline on the ground.  They are important as fuel necessary for a successful controlled burn.  Controlled burns are necessary in the woodland environment.  Professional foresters set intentional, well-planned fires, also known as hazards reduction, to reduce fuel buildup, thereby decreasing the likelihood of more serious and dangerous fires.  Wildfires burning in areas where prescribed burns have occurred are easier to control and cause far less damage than areas with an overburden of combustible fuels.

Sky Blue Lupine

Sky Blue Lupine. Photo credit: Debra Howell, UF/IFAS Extension Master Gardener

Many protected animals, like the sand skink and gopher tortoise, thrive on sandhills and scrub environs.  The gopher tortoise is called an “umbrella” species because it may harbor up to 200 other animals in its burrow.  This is essential during times of planned burns or those ignited by lightning.

You are strongly encouraged to investigate our invaluable scrub systems.  They are just as important, even more so, as the other forest elements in Florida.  Central Florida examples are: Lakeland Highlands Scrub, Crooked Lake Sandhill, Hickory Lake Scrub, Highlands Hammock Scrub and Bok Tower Sandhill.  These are a few of the scrubs which are essential elements of our Florida environment and are well worth checking out.

This blog post was written by Master Gardener Debra Howell under supervision of the Master Gardener Coordinator and Residential Horticulture Agent Anne Yasalonis.

If you have questions regarding your landscape or becoming a Florida Master Gardener, you may call your local UF/IFAS Extension Service for help to find the answer.  You can reach the UF/IFAS Extension Polk County Plant Clinic at 863-519-1041 or online at http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk.   The Plant Clinic is open Monday – Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

The Florida Master Gardener Program is a volunteer-driven program that benefits UF/IFAS Extension and the citizens of Florida.  The program extends the vision of the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, all the while protecting and sustaining natural resources and environmental systems, enhancing the development of human resources, and improving the quality of human life through the development of knowledge in agricultural, human and natural resources and making that knowledge accessible.

An Equal Opportunity Institution.

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