Railroad Vine Is Established On Tropical Beaches

No matter the common name used, this native Morning Glory species is a colorful addition to beaches in Wakulla County like Mashes Sands.

By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director

Until relatively recently, traveling any distance was an arduous and difficult process. The problems compounded if there was a large baggage load.

Initially, there were two obvious options. A cart or wagon pulled, hopefully, by a beast of burden as the first choice and a boat or ship was the second option for going from a departure site to a far-flung destination.

With all the complications and uncertainty it is no wonder people often spend their lives close to home. However, for the privileged another form of moving passengers, baggage and cargo has long existed.

Railroads, in various forms, have existed for more than two millennia.  Initially they were primitive ruts in stone, with the system evolving to wooden planks and then to iron rails.

Like the St. Marks rail line which was once located on Wakulla County’s eastern side, many railways delivered cargo to ships for movement to distant and foreign ports. In St. Mark’s case it was initially cotton headed to England during the ante bellum period.

The sinuous and winding tracks leading to the salt water and distant opportunities have a counterpart in the native plants of the area. Ipomoea pes-caprae, also known as the Railroad Vine and the Beach Morning Glory, among others, stands in noticeable contrast to the shoreline environment with its colorful blooms in summer.

This perennial plant is commonly found in beach environments from Georgia south along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to Texas and through Mexico. It is frequently encountered throughout peninsular Florida in the sugar-texture sand dunes.

With its adaptability in coastal habitats, it has become established worldwide on many tropical beaches both north and south of the equator. The railroad vine’s seed float, and there germination is unaffected by exposure to seawater.

Time and tides have taken this specie’s seeds to some very isolated beaches across the globe where it colonizes quickly in the warm temperatures. However, the plant does not tolerate prolonged frost conditions and frigid weather.

It gets its common names from its unusual but distinctive traits.  Beach Morning Glory is derived from its blooms which open in the early morning and it is usually found in beach regions. The flowers are produced daily in the summer and fall.

The pink to purple funnel-shaped flowers of this morning glory are generally two and a half to three inches wide. Leaf blades are two lobed with a clef apex which resembles a goat’s track and the source of another common name, Goat’s Foot. They can reach six inches in length.

The term Railroad Vine comes from the 100 foot plus straight vines with the equally spaced leaves. They crisscross open areas, appearing much like a map of rail lines.

While not a major source of nectar or pollen, they are still attractive to pollinators which will visit while they are open. Their major environmental contribution is as a stabilizer of the sandy terrain once they become established.

Small round seedpods containing four velvety, dark brown seeds appear on the plant after its flowers wilt. A high rate of germination assures the plant’s continued presence.

The seed or “seabeans” are sometime found washed up on the shore. By whatever name it is called, this Morning Glory species has made a long trip to establish a colorful presence.

To learn more about the Morning Glory species in Wakulla County, visit the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension website at http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco or call 850-926-3931.