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Fires clear way for beauty in Withlacoochee State Forest

These may be called Florida False Sunflowers, but their bounty is real as they reach up amid towering pines near the Tucker Hill Trailhead in the Withlacoochee State Forest, east of Brooksville. This perennial can grow up to about 5 feet tall.

RON THOMPSON | Times

These may be called Florida False Sunflowers, but their bounty is real as they reach up amid towering pines near the Tucker Hill Trailhead in the Withlacoochee State Forest, east of Brooksville. This perennial can grow up to about 5 feet tall.

The broad view was nice, going on magnificent: tall, straight pines growing from the rippled, sun-drenched green blanket of the forest floor.

But Colleen Werner, a biologist with the state Division of Forestry, redirected my eyes.

"In the sandhills, you have to look down and notice the details,'' she said.

By details, she meant flowers.

This is the start of the fall wildflower season in Florida, and the displays in the Withlacoochee State Forest have been restored — along with the population of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers — by a decade of regular controlled burns.

I could be a booster, and tell you that the nearly 100,000 acres of sandhill habitat in the Withlacoochee is one of the most under appreciated natural treasures in the region, and the only one I know of that keeps looking better rather than worse.

Or, I could just say it's pretty out there, and now's the perfect time to have a look.

That's especially true if you have a guide such as Werner, who started our walk in the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee on Tuesday morning by warning me about her rusty plant identification skills and her dislike of being quoted.

"I'm actually a shy person,'' she said — and then talked authoritatively for 90 minutes about every shrub, bean and tuft of grass I asked her about.

"That's a partridge pea,'' she said, answering my first and most obvious question. Since fires cleared away the medium-sized oaks, these knee-high, plants with fern-like leaves and yellow flowers have spread across much of the forest floor.

Their dangling seed pods are "a very rich wildlife food'' that has helped boost the forest's sagging population of bobwhite quail, she said.

"In the 1950s, Croom was known for its quail, and they're coming back with the reintroduction of fire.''

It's good news for many animal species that a large number of the resurgent flowers are varieties of bean, including the sand ticktrefoil, with reddish-purple blooms and flat seed pods that stick to socks, jeans and animal fur for delivery around the forest.

"It has a wonderful seed-dispersal mechanism,'' she said.

Viewing wildflowers is easier than bird-watching because "they hold still,'' she said. It's harder because many of the most rewarding sights are tiny — so tiny that Werner recommends carrying a magnifying glass along with a flower guidebook.

With her around (an unfair advantage, I know), reading glasses were enough to transform my impression of the purple fluff growing from the grass-like stalk of slender gayfeather.

This fuzz turned out to be clusters of minute, finely formed five-petaled flowers, each with, as Werner said, "a beautiful, long stamen.''

Neither this species nor most others we saw would grow without fire, Werner said.

The fire burns away the rotting leaves to expose the bare, mineral-rich soil these plants prefer; heat and even smoke trigger their sprouting.

And, because fire's most important role is in clearing away hardwood shade, it was no surprise that the densest collection of wildflowers grew in a wide opening in the forest canopy.

Werner pointed out two white blooms, wild buckwheat and a perfectly named fall wildflower, the summer farewell.

The coastal-plain honeycomb-head, on the other hand, has one of the drabbest names, but one of the most eye-catching blooms — big, bright yellow and daisy-shaped.

Like a Hernando High cheering section, the forest seemed to require a splash of purple for every one of yellow, and this was provided by the Florida paintbrush, which resembles a cluster of clover supported by a central stalk.

Standing in the middle of all these flowers, in the patch of sunshine, you could see why Werner says that managing the forest, especially introducing fire, is "like taking care of a garden. God's garden.''

And here, you didn't have to squint to appreciate the view.

"Listen to the wind blowing through the pines. Really pleasant,'' she said, looking up for a change. "That's another thing. It's just a nice time for a walk.''

Fires clear way for beauty in Withlacoochee State Forest 10/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 17, 2008 5:10pm]
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