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Park's wild beauty is born of fire

WEKIWA SPRINGS STATE PARK — When burning the woods becomes an ecological ritual, as it has at Wekiwa Springs State Park, the repeated blazes set off floral fireworks each fall.

Controlled fires beget wildflowers.

The rolling hills a mile west of the springs will erupt with paintbrush, blazing stars, goldenrod, buckwheat and many other flowers for the next few weeks and possibly through the end of November.

One native plant is so reliable in its autumnal display that it's called "summer farewell" and covers acres of hillside with white blossoms that are wiggly with masses of nectar and bumblebees. Adding color to the scene are sulphurs and swallowtails — butterflies.

The state park's wildflowers thrive in a rare landscape called sandhill. The dominant plants of the hills of sand are longleaf pines that live for hundreds of years. The co-dominant plant is wire grass, which has stems 3 feet tall and looks from a distance a bit like wheat.

A biologist has counted 86 species of plants per acre in the park's sandhill.

Biologists at the park, a short drive north of Orlando, say they can't stress too much that healthy sandhill is a result of regular burns. Big blooms of wildflowers are a sign of healthy sandhill.

Suppressing fires invites scrub oaks, saw palmettos and other pines to move in and turn the forest into an impenetrable blockade for wildlife and sunlight. And sandhill wildflowers won't come out for less than a lot of sunlight.

The price for more than a decade of regular controlled burning of Wekiwa Springs State Park sandhill has been sweat, heat exhaustion and worry that flying ash will drift south and sprinkle down on the subdivisions crowded against the park's boundaries.

Crews light fires at least every two years and sometimes two years in a row. The longleaf pines, with thick bark and needles high overhead, aren't bothered by the flames. Wire grass burns to its roots but sends out green shoots days later. The black ash of a burn is mostly gone in a few months.

That's what a controlled burned does, while a bad wildfire leaves scars visible for years.

In the sandhill of the park, the landscape is open, with 200-yard sight lines and forest floor showing bare sand that sucks up rain the instant it falls.

At home in sandhill are multicolored fox squirrels, indigo snakes and redheaded woodpeckers. There are gopher tortoises that tunnel 25 feet underground, burrowing wolf spiders and Florida deep-digger scarab beetles. Osceola turkeys turn up frequently, and black bears occasionally.

More than 90 percent of Florida's sandhill is gone, denuded for subdivisions like those next to Wekiwa Springs. But the few hundred acres of sandhill in the park have been nurtured back into prime condition and were chosen this year by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory as one of seven sandhill preserves in Florida that are probably a lot like nature's original landscape.

Those seven examples are what forest crews and biologists should refer to when restoring degraded specimens elsewhere.

The burst of Wekiwa wildflowers each fall is Central Florida's version of the turning leaves of the Appalachians. But the displays are, in truth, more subtle than the mountain leaves, and not as appealing through a windshield as they are during a hike through waist-high wire grass.

Park's wild beauty is born of fire 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 9:54pm]
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