It’s pitcher plant season in Northwest Florida, which means I wish we were still there. Less than two weeks ago, while we were on the Panhandle Trace Hike, I was on a mission to point out pitcher plants to my friends Gail and Sally, who live south of the pitcher plant zone in Florida and didn’t know what they looked like. Linda had hiked the Trace before and seen beautiful pitcher plants, but didn’t know exactly where to look for them. John saw his first ones with me here in Central Florida, and I was looking forward to pointing out the much showier varieties that grow west of Tallahassee.
We started the Panhandle Trace with an admonition from Peggy, our hike leader: look for pitcher plants in the first half mile! I looked, and I looked, and everyone looked, but none of us saw them. In Santa Rosa County, there are several distinct places I’ve seen pitcher plants growing:
- Along the edges of small bogs, which are easy to pick out when you’re hiking, thanks to the bog bridges;
- On swales in the landscape within the pine forests, where water seeps downhill through pine needles;
- On the edges of streams (and on islands in the streams) that run through the pine forests to lowland areas.
Those are the places I looked. As we hiked the Florida Trail south day after day, I kept coming up disappointed. What few pitcher plants we saw were faded, browned stalks of last year’s growth, nothing new and fresh. April is their blooming season, and when the new pitchers grow. Peggy told us “you’re too early.” But another gal in our group, Suzanne, showed us photos of a swale filled with blooming pitcher plants somewhere in Blackwater River State Forest. “It’s my secret place,” she said, but then gave us directions. Unfortunately, we didn’t write them down, and our memories made sure they were too vague to follow.
On our hike through the Hutton Unit of Blackwater River State Forest, I was on high alert for pitcher plants. I’d been told many years ago that the trail was routed past a nice stand of them, and knowing that the trail has been rerouted several times since, was concerned they wouldn’t be around anymore or would be duds again, too. Linda, John, Ruth, and I took off northbound into Hutton while our other friends hiked southbound from Red Rocks. I searched and searched to no avail, at one point sending John down a side trail to see if it led to the bog. While waiting for him to come back, I found the bounteous bog, in the other direction.
It was brimming with young growth AND blooms, fine examples of Sarracenia leucophylla – both white-topped and crimson pitcher plants – sweeping down a seepage slope. We probably spent twenty minutes roaming around it, oohing and ahhing. “That’s the most I’ve ever seen,” said John. As we met each of our friends coming in the opposite direction, we stopped and told them where to find the bog. Not a one of them could find it, and it was ten feet off the trail, if that.
That bounty whetted our appetites for more. Willing to put more miles on our weary feet in pursuit of pitcher plants, Linda and I headed to one of my favorite places to find them, Clear Creek Nature Trail at Whiting NAS in Milton. You spend 2/3 of the hike getting to and from the creek, but the bounty of pitcher plants you’ll find there makes the walk worthwhile. I’d visited before in early morning and late evening and had trouble with photography due to the fact that the creek is in a deep valley. This time, we were there in early afternoon, and the light was too strong. Still, we tried. The valley looks like it needs a prescribed burn badly, as it is getting choked out with shrubs that hide the copious amount of pitcher plants found here.
As we left, we got a call from Sally and Gail. After walking right past the bog in the Hutton Unit without seeing it, they had a tip from Blackwater Ray that they could find pitcher plants at Bear Lake. En route to meet them, we tried to find Suzanne’s secret spot, with no success on where to look for it. At Bear Lake – admission fee required – the promised pitcher plants weren’t where they’d been described, and the entire slope of pine forest on the western shore had just been burned in a prescribed burn. Perhaps within the week. We trudged through ash and soot trying to find the pitcher plants. I eventually found them along the lakeshore, but they’d been fried to a crisp by the heat. Very disappointing. We turned around rather than risk getting caught on the 4-mile loop at sunset.
On the next day’s hike, at Yellow River Ravines, John and I didn’t want to keep up the pace of the frontrunners in our group and so we walked a more relaxed stride, taking time for photography. We were the only ones to notice the pink flagging to an overlook along Burnt Grocery Creek, and there at my feet: last year’s pitcher plants, all shriveled up. Then I saw a stand of them on an island across the stream, white-topped pitcher plants a good three feet tall. When we caught up to our friends, John told them they missed the “five foot tall” pitcher plants … “Males have to exaggerate!” he said.
After nearly 7 miles on the Florida Trail, we tumbled into Linda’s car for one final pitcher plant excursion, to a place I knew wouldn’t disappoint: Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park. Sitting on a peninsula between two bays, this sweep of pine forest plays host to thousands of pitcher plants. Just pulling up into the parking area, we encountered hundreds of them along the ditches along the roadside, and easily spent an hour roaming and photographing within this small space.
We wrapped our expedition with a visit to Garcon Point Preserve. I’d encountered pitcher plants on the north-south trail before, and led our weary crew to where I knew I could find them. Unfortunately, it looked like drought had taken its toll. They were no longer as showy as they’d been in the past, half-buried in tall grasses and shrubs, and could probably use a prescribed burn to rejuvenate the area. We rambled farther north on the trail than I had before, and found more clumps of pitcher plants in now-predictable spots, but no bounty as I’d enjoyed in past years.
The next morning, John and I had to leave, but the gals managed to find more pitcher plants – this time Sarracenia rosea, the Gulf purple pitcher plant, a beautiful plant that I’ve not yet encountered in Florida – along a bog on the Florida Trail in Eglin Air Force Base.
Mid-April is prime time for these showy carnivores in Florida’s Panhandle, as that’s when the blooms are best. Get out there and try your own pitcher plant expedition!