You may have heard of pet and wildlife rescues that find new homes for animals and help them get better, but did you know there are also rescue groups for plants? Volunteers, conservation groups, and state and federal organisations work together to save native plants by rehoming them. This means moving them from a property that is going to be built on to a protected and managed land, like the St. Johns River Water Management District’s restoration and conservation area at Lake Apopka.
This restoration site is a sandhill, which is a type of habitat. It is a small area that is different from other marshlands nearby. Based on old aerial photos from the 1960s, this area was probably a citrus grove. Today, it has become a haven for plants and animals that have adapted to the sandhill ecotype, such as gopher tortoises and sand skinks.
Sandhills have been around for a very long time in Lake County and central Florida. It’s a piece of the Lake Wales Ridge, an old sand dune that runs north to south for 150 miles through the middle of Florida. When most of what is now Florida was underwater two million years ago, the Lake Wales Ridge was a chain of islands with plants on them. Native scrub and sandhill plants and animals still live on islands in a sea of homes and farms.
Some of these plants are one-of-a-kind. On a high, dry patch of sand, life can be hard, and some species have come up with strange ways to make sure their genes make it to the next season. They bloom below the ground. These underground flowers don’t have any colour or smell, and they can pollinate themselves. It’s back up for their more usual flower that grows above ground. Native plants that can handle heat, like prickly pear cactus, yucca, and wiregrass, were planted along with these rescued plants.
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Rosi Mulholland is a dedicated volunteer with the Florida Native Plant Society who saves plants. She is one of many people working to protect this ecosystem. She looks around Lake County for plants to save. “There were a few sites the size of a postage stamp that were never turned into citrus, so they still had their original ground cover from thousands of years ago,” she says.
But Florida’s population growth is putting more pressure on private landowners to cut down trees and plants and build houses and subdivisions in their place. Sandhill habitat is one of the first places to be developed because it is high and dry.
So, when the Florida Native Plant Society asked the District for places to put plants that needed new homes, Mulholland helped. She used to work for the District as part of the team that took care of the land around Lake Apopka, so it made sense that the property was on a sandhill. She helped make the first partnerships that led to plantings.
Ben Gugliotti, who is the Land Manager, and Brian Silverman, who is a Land Management Specialist, are the people who work there now. They are in charge of expanding the site and planting acres of native plants. “The acreages are the foundation of restoration; they are the ice cream,” says Mulholland. “Endangered and threatened plants are the cherry on top.”
Mulholland and others find the “sprinkles” and dig them up with other native plants that are more common. These “sprinkles” aren’t usually used in restoration projects because they can’t be grown in nurseries. They have found new homes for 120 different species, including 23 that can only be found in Florida. Nine species are endangered.
“All of these plants work together to make the ecosystem better as a whole. “Reindeer moss, for example, helps control the temperature of the soil and is important for making a home for the native sand skinks that live on the site of restoration,” says Silverman.
In total, the area being fixed up is about 11 acres and growing. The area is taken care of so that these plants can grow well. Gugliotti says, “We get rid of the invasive plants and use controlled burns to mimic the fire cycle that helps the native plant community and ecosystem work.” “By doing this, we’re helping seedlings grow and the restoration site to grow on its own,” he says.
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