Within weeks of moving to Sanford a decade ago, I saw the sweep of golden along the north rim of Lake Jesup while crossing the lake on SR 417 and marveled.
It didn’t take long to learn from friends that sunflower season along the St. Johns varied from year to year.
The quality and quantity of the blooms are dependent on summer rains and the depth of the shallows along the river basin, and that happened to be a banner year.
It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered swamp sunflowers in Florida. Two years before, when I spent October in Big Cypress, they dotted the landscape in Collier County.
Roadside, they were evident in clumps and clusters around Immokalee. On foot, in Corkscrew Strand and CREW.
They flourished along the lower Fisheating Creek floodplain and other lowlands near Moore Haven.
After John and I returned from the Appalachian Trail and settled in Sanford together, we went in search of the sunflowers as soon as they showed up roadside.
We found public access points within scattered tracts of Lake Jesup Conservation Area, with Lake Jesup Wilderness providing the showiest display.
Since then, we’ve been on the road almost every fall. It’s our time to explore the rest of the country, to enjoy autumn color and crispness creeping southward.
Last year was our first in Florida in many years. Hopeful, we went to the St. Johns in early October, but the display just wasn’t that compelling.
Last week, while hiking near home, I spotted a small smattering of sunflowers in a local marsh. That got me to thinking. What would the St. Johns look like?
As it turned out, spectacular. Using SR 46 as the backbone to our exploration, we sought out the river floodplain wherever a trail would lead us into it.
Soggy feet, yes, but sunflowers over our heads. Well worth the wet shoes. Starting with Seminole Ranch Conservation Area, we worked our way west.
While the flowers looked nice where the Little-Big Econ feeds the St. Johns, at Lake Harney Wilderness, they turned out to be duds.
We had better luck at Mullet Lake Park, a little-known Geneva waterfront with showy displays near the airboat ramp.
At the mouth of Lake Jesup, a stellar display adjoins the southwest side of the SR 46 bridge.
Where SR 415 crosses the St. Johns, cyclists and motorists can take in the sweep of golden yellow across the marshy shallows upriver.
Lake Jesup did not disappoint. More wet feet meant more showy blooms.
This phenomenon doesn’t last long. Plan your own sweep along the St. Johns over the next week or so, and enjoy the ephemeral beauty of fall in Florida.
Places where we’ve successfully spotted showy sunflowers along the St. Johns
Seminole Ranch Snake Creek Levee
At the north end of Seminole Ranch Conservation Area, this 1.4-mile round-trip leads to an observation tower with an extensive panorama across Loughman Lake and Salt Lake.
Lake Monroe Conservation Area
With marshes brimming with swamp sunflowers and old-growth forests along natural ridges, Lake Monroe Conservation Area protects the St. Johns River north shore at Osteen
Lake Jesup Conservation Area
Protecting large swaths of marshy shoreline, the Lake Jesup Conservation Area filters runoff from surrounding suburbia while providing places to hike along Lake Jesup
Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats
For the broadest panorama along the south shore of Lake Jesup, follow this mile-long loop through lush oak hammocks and open prairies in a rural corner of Sanford
Lake Jesup Cameron Tract
On a mile-long loop in grassy prairies along Lake Jesup, enjoy palm-framed panoramas of the open prairies along the lakeshore
Lake Jesup Wilderness
In this wilderness area along the shores of Lake Jesup, plunge right in for a hike through a parade of wetland wildflowers in the St. Johns River floodplain