By Doug Alderson
April 2, 2023–There are moments in the outdoors when everything is near perfect. The weather. The company. The plant life and scenery. Such was the case when Apalachicola Riverkeeper hosted a volunteer appreciation outing, a short botanical hike at Torreya State Park. Our guide was Lilly Anderson-Messec, Director of North Florida Programs for the Florida Native Plant Society. These hikes are not meant for distance, but for learning.
We had only walked a few feet from the Gregory Mansion parking lot when we learned a new word—epicormic. A huge tulip poplar was sprouting hundreds of small shoots from the trunk. The stress of Hurricane Michael stripping the tree of most of its leaves and branches had likely prompted this epicormic response.
Lilly stopped beside a small, near bare torreya tree in front of the Gregory Mansion. She explained how a fungal blight (Fusarium torreyae) has been knocking back torreya trees before they reach maturity and that the trees we see today are sprouting up from the roots. “We don’t know how many times they will keep sprouting from the roots,” she said. “Their numbers have been steadily declining.”
Lilly explained that the torreya tree, considered by many to be the most endangered conifer in the world, may someday go extinct in the Apalachicola bluffs and ravines, its only native range. However, the species is being bred in captivity at the Atlanta Botanical Center and elsewhere where research about the fungus is taking place. Lilly emphasized that planting torreyas outside of their native range is not the solution. “Each torreya tree, even those sold in nurseries, carries the fungus and the fungus can spread to other conifer species.”
Less sobering were the many plants we found thriving along the trail just below the Gregory Mansion. This steep riverside forest is lush and, unlike other areas of the park, numerous old-growth trees escaped the brunt of Hurricane Michael in 2018. Giant hickories, sweetgum, tulip poplar and other trees loomed over an understory of needle palm, river cane, wax myrtle, oakleaf hydrangea, grasses and wildflowers. There were bright yellow butterweeds, blue day flowers, bright red coral bean, and other plants Lilly singled out. One was the carrion-flower, a type of smilax, that smells, well, like carrion or dog poop, obviously to attract flies. Beauty isn’t always aromatic to humans!
Some species, such as large-leafed wild comfrey, had just finished blooming. Bright green river oats, a broad-leafed grass species also called inland sea oats, were popping up everywhere and we examined the dried seed stalks from the previous year that resembled oats. “They make a pleasant rustling sound in the wind,” said Lilly.
The plants tickling my legs along the trail were black needle grass. Then there was slime mold, a name right out of a 1950s horror flick. Only this was red-orange clusters of tiny single celled organisms on a moss-covered log. This variety was commonly called salmon eggs because they resemble tiny round roe. Slime molds such as this assist with decomposition.
On our way back to the Gregory Mansion, we met naturalist Sam Jaffe of New Hampshire, founder of a non-profit known as The Caterpillar Lab. He was studying eastern caterpillars for a field guide and showed how he collected them from a bushy cedar tree with a square piece of material with a stick frame that resembled an upside down kite. “If you look into this tree,” he said, “you probably won’t see any caterpillars. So, I put this catch device below a branch and shake it and see what caterpillars may fall into it.” He did so and soon pointed out a tiny creature he identified as a juniper-twig geometer, a type of inch worm that would turn into a moth. It reminded me of dip netting as a child and finding creatures not normally seen.
So, hikes through the Apalachicola bluffs and ravines aren’t always about pushing those leg muscles and appreciating broad river views and golden creeks. They are also about plants, slime molds and caterpillars and making a dozen stops in a quarter mile.
Doug Alderson prefers a kayak to a desk, hugs trees and friends, and loves observing alligators, manatees and other wildlife in their natural environment. Most of his published books focus on the dynamic and quirky nature of his home state of Florida. Doug has volunteered at Apalachicola Riverkeeper for over a decade. He helped cook and serve lunch at the volunteer appreciation picnic that followed the hike.