Darryl N. Searcy

Wildflowers of the Escambia

Except for the photography, leg work, man-hours spent among bugs, ticks, spiders and all manner of crawling things, this cannot be considered an original work. Far more learned people have studied these native plants, photographed them, described them in highly technical terms and placed them in family, tribe and clan groups. My work would be minuscule by comparison. However, to my knowledge no one has concentrated solely on the Escambia region of Florida and Alabama to photograph and catalog plants residing in a defined area such as this. I have done this with the hope of bringing to you a collection of the native plant treasures available in our community, or if you will, just outside your door.

The Escambia region has the distinction of being the most prolific area for wild-
flowers in the state of Alabama. Indeed, Florida is teeming with varied growth from the peninsula to Escambia Bay. The very word Florida means "abundant flower." The region is without rival in variety but second in the nation for extinct plant species and the number of plants on the endangered, threatened and rare species list. Hawaii is first.

This picture guide to our native plants should be treated as that, as it is not intended to be the last word on the subject. The intent is merely to bring some tiny bits of beauty to you and hopefully identify a few where you might have wondered on occasion just what is that little flower.

Many of the photographs you will see were brought out of archives that date some 20 years back; tarnished snapshots, distorted negatives and faded transparencies but records were kept and specimen were submitted to various universities to voucher the flowering plants photographed and to fill a vacancy in herbariums that heretofore had scant knowledge of the Escambia.

Of the more than 4,200 herbs, shrubs and trees that grow and bloom in the Escambia Bay and Conecuh River wetlands and lower watershed, two-thirds of them are found in the two counties that harvest the most beautiful part of the river; Escambia Alabama and the adjoining Escambia Florida. However, they are not seen in vast fields or meadows as one might find in Texas or Maryland but are single entities or, at best, stand in small colonies. So, to see them one must walk through the woodlands or explore dense swamps, wetland bogs and meadows. Look and then let the magic begin in the most unexpected places.

Many of our native plants are on the Department of Conservation list of threatened species. Two are on the Federal list of endangered species. Yet, most are not rare, but rarely seen by the public because of their preferred habitat. There is much in our area that is said not to grow here, but even the learned scholars of our time can be found wrong. Mind you, this is not intended to prove right or wrong or make an argument with these authorities - it is merely to show and share some of the treasures within our reach; some of which you have already transplanted to your garden and allowed to escape again to fields and meadows. Certainly that is the case with so many of our lilies, sunflowers and domestic shrubs.

It would be difficult to tell you what has been the most important find. However, it is certainly no problem for me to bring to mind the most exciting. Let us consider for example a Spreading Pogonia Orchid, a Northern Pitcher Plant or the Mexican Prickly Poppy.

Their territory is being constantly invaded by people, animals and imported migrant plants. Many species have found themselves making a valiant stand in the face of complete extinction. If they are to be saved, it must be through the combined and direct intervention of ordinary citizens who abide by the laws put in place for the purpose to preserve our heritage plants. We must learn how to appreciate and protect them. Thus, the sole purpose of this work is to give the lovers of our natural inheritance in plain, non-technical language some knowledge of wildflowers which will help in that endeavor. Through the benefit of color photographs I hope to help you recognize and accurately identify these wonderful gifts from God.

There can be nothing more exciting than a brisk walk through a clear cut; smell the sweet scent of pine, and out of nowhere pops the most gorgeous specimen you have seen of a wildflower that all good scientists would say should not be here. Such was the case the morning I stumbled onto a brilliant flower cluster of Everlasting Pea. Every indication is that this large member of the bean family grows only along the Atlantic coastline. But there it stood in radiant majesty in the early morning dew begging to be seen and photographed. It was thriving, healthy and happy on our coastal landscape, and in a flood zone at that. I notified my contacts at Livingston University and stated my intention of taking cuttings for propagation rather than wait for mature seeds. Indeed, the decision was prudent because within days the area was ravaged and uprooted to make way for an underground pipeline. The Everlasting Pea was lost as a possible new addition to the wildflower family of the Escambia. I am happy to report that my cuttings took root and have gained new strength over the five years it has been in a protected environment. Specimens and seeds have been sent throughout the state for further propagation. I relate this story to illustrate how fragile is the balance and why we must be ever diligent to preserve these wonderful gifts.

Many changes have taken place in our south Alabama hills in the last 35 years. The groves of great trees, under whose branches the wonderful people of the woods lived and thrived, have been cut for lumber and in their place is a maze of young growth of pine not yet old enough to shade and shelter the woodland flowers, but large enough to choke out the flowers of the open fields. Even the people have changed. Formerly the farms were occupied by hard working people who struggled so industriously to wrest a living from the land that they had scant time to enjoy the beauties of the woods. Many of them are now turned to pine forests or occupied by folks from the cities; good folks all, but still folks who take so much pride in the ownership of land in the country that they nail up No Tresspassing signs on every corner.

And then the roads -- they are better; much better than we used to have, but this very fact has had disastrous results for many of our wildflowers. Even from distant cities the automobiles speed friends and relatives to the country homes and when they leave the car may be laden with masses of flowering shrubs and trees and our roadsides become so much poorer for it. I would not for an instant deny these people the right to enjoy and love our wildflowers and blooming shrubs, but the sad part is that the loveliest wildflowers are being depleted in the most accessible areas.

So what are we going to do about it? Well, some of us have spent a great many years thinking over the problem and laws have been passed to prevent the picking and harvesting of roadside plants, but the passing of laws do no good because with the permission of the landowner anyone may gather wildflowers under the protection of the Constitution. Posting the land may preserve some plants but they are then enjoyed by fewer people.

I believe that all humans need close association with nature's gifts so it seems to me that the only satisfactory answer is to show folks how they look and perhaps even how to use them best in a wildflower plot or butterfly garden. The Escambia region is precisely the right place to do that.

Of the composite family and the various sunflower tribes we can be proud that our area is host to most varieties known in the country. No other region can say that. So come with me now and let us take a field trip. As you view these images I hope you will recall times past when our fields and meadows were at their best. Relax and enjoy the galleries that a lot of good people have put together; enjoy what I think will be a colorful trip down memory lane, or a new awakening to our natural bounty.

The basic finds which I report here will, for the most part, hold good but there is still much to learn and the margin of error is wide. Mistakes are inevitable; failures are certain but if in failing we find the reason for the failure the work will have been worthwhile.

Some very good and learned people have given generously of their time and talent helping with expertise in numerous ways; technical assistance, identification, and offering tidbits of lore. These people are to be applauded for their unselfish giving. They are recognized now with deepest gratitude: Mrs. Ann Biggs-Williams, Mr. Mike West, Dr. Steven Timme, Mrs. Pat McArthur, Mrs. Caroline Dean and Dr. Alvin Diamond.

Thank you for joining me in this project.

Darryl N. Searcy
455 Hartwood Church Lane
Range, Alabama 36473

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