Beautiful Butterworts, by Paul Miller
What do you do if you’re a plant growing in soil that doesn’t provide enough nourishment? Well, how about eating insects? Kissimmee Prairie Preserve has several species of plants that actually eat insects: sundews, bladderworts, butterworts, and one species of pitcher plant. Here we discuss the winter/spring blooming butterworts.
Butterworts, or ‘Pings’ (an abbreviation of the scientific genus Pinguicula), are members of an insectivorous plant family called the Lentibulariaceae which includes the bladderworts. It is the most species rich family of carnivorous plants on Earth. By definition, carnivorous plants make their living digesting the protein provided by insects that they capture.
The butterworts that occur in the Preserve are perennial and spend much of their life cycle as a ‘basal rosette’— a cluster of leaves that remain flat on the ground. The upper surface of the leaves have minute hairs topped with glands (best seen with a dissecting microscope) that exude a sticky substance. Small insects such as gnats become stuck to the surface of the leaves and are chemically digested providing nutrients to the plant. The basal rosettes of butterworts remain relatively inconspicuous in the prairie. They spend most of their life cycle eating bugs, quietly hidden from view by grasses and other plants that reach to the sky until it is time to flower.
The Yellow-flowered Butterwort is much more common in the Preserve and folks on a Prairie Buggy tour should keep their eyes on the sides of the trail during these months to catch a glimpse. The Blueflower Butterwort is less common and likely has a more specific habitat requirement. Who knows why the Blueflower is so picky? Perhaps a curious mind will be inspired to investigate the habitat and figure that out.
Guest author, Paul Miller started working at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve in 2002 on the endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. In 2004 he became the Preserve's full time biologist. Since then, he has been casually studying the diversity of prairie plants when he isn’t sitting at his desk frantically trying to stay ahead of paperwork.
Fire On The Prairie, by Jen Benson-Hughes Nighttime Prairie Wildfire, ©Jen Benson-Hughes
Most lightning strike wildfires occur during the transition season—the time of year after the winter freeze and before the rainy season when dead vegetation is cured and the soil is dry. Most thunderstorms in Florida are generated by convection, the result of instability in the atmosphere. Our area of Florida receives 8-16 flashes per kilometer per year! Lightning strike wildfires may be extinguished by the next thunderstorm cell, but in the past when left to their own devices, wildfires could continue to burn for days or weeks (maybe months). This rarely happens today due to roads, canals, and human activity. Controlled burning (prescribed fire) is a safer, cheaper way to restore and maintain an ecosystem than allowing wildfires. Controlled burns are simply fires that are thoughtfully planned with proper preparation on the ground, and skillfully executed by trained professionals to produce the desired effects for the land. Wildfire has the potential to do extreme damage if the wrong conditions exist, such as severe drought and high winds.
About 1/8 mile into the trail you will come to a small stream. After crossing, take a moment to scan the prairie on the left. Depending on time of year, the landscape may be painted with bushy yellow golden rod, tall stalks of purple blazing star, nodding pink meadow beauties or the silvery leaves and creamy white flowers of the pawpaw plant.
As you walk along the stream, look for deer. While deer may be seen throughout the park, I have seen an eight-point buck and several herds of does from this spot. In spring, you may even be rewarded with the sight of a doe with a spotted fawn.
Turn your eyes closer to the ground to see the multitude of wildflowers in the prairie. From delicate Lady's tresses orchids, to blue-eyed and yellow-eyed grasses, to a colorful pallet of sunflowers and asters, many flowers can be seen from the trail. You may also see many butterflies, including a variety of swallowtails, skippers and hairstreaks.
The next hammock is filled primarily with tall palms. The ground, which receives little light, is mostly bare except for the litter of dead palm fronds. Look straight up into the palms to admire their height and stature.
At the trail's mid-point is a primitive campground with a few picnic tables and a covered pavilion. This is a great place to stop and eat a snack or lunch. From there, you will head north. For the next 3/4 of a mile the prairie will be on your right and a strand of trees along a natural slough will be on your left. This is another place to look for deer.
When you reach Military Trail you are 2/3s through your hike. You will head east, back toward the campground. This part is over shell road, and can be very hot, so make sure you ration water to have enough. Military Trail is a good place to spot snakes sunning in the road. Most snakes in Florida are harmless, but the prairie is also home to Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, so be cautious.
The real beauty of this part of the trail is the landscape: Note the contrasting colors and textures of the landscape: The points of the fan-shaped Palmetto leaves, the sweep of the wiregrasses, the silvery soft leaves of the pawpaw and the shiny green dwarf oaks. As the park literature suggests: Enjoy the prairie by looking into it, not at it.
Where fire has triggered flowering, wiregrass and lopsided Indiangrass will “tower” over the palmettos and impart a look reminiscent of wheat fields. As autumn progresses you will see the fluffy seeds of the groundsel bush and the broomsedge grasses mature and take to the air on the breeze as the first cold fronts move through.
But there is much more to this display. Many of these plants are annuals that grow through the summer, flower, and die, leaving seeds behind to brush next year’s pastels over the landscape. The plants have captured sunlight and stored it in tissues, pollen, and fruits that either feed migratory songbirds or the insects that the birds eat to replace energy spent flying south.
One of those more "commonplace" birds that is often seen in the summer flying gracefully over the Preserve is the beautiful and elegant Swallow-tailed Kite. And while they always provide a thrill, there is another kite seldom seen in Florida—the White-tailed Kite—a spectacular raptor known to nest in the Preserve. A very lucky summer visitor might spot one hovering while hunting above prairie, or even perched on a snag.
This time I will cover only one skipper - Palmetto Skipper. We consider this skipper the iconic prairie skipper. Its presence signals prime undisturbed habitat. Habitat that harbors Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is perfect for Palmetto Skipper too. This medium-large bright orange skipper with its bright orange head literally shouts “You thought skippers were all small and brown. Well, you were wrong. Come look at me!” It is named Palmetto Skipper because females use Saw Palmetto Serenoa repens as host plants. Just because you have palmettos though it doesn’t mean you will have Palmetto Skippers. They are absent from much of Florida but can be abundant at the prairie in good years. Flight time is February through October with the largest numbers seen in summer and fall. If you type ‘Palmetto Skipper‘ into your search engine there are numerous photos listed that were taken at KPPSP.
Random thoughts on and pictures of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve.
unless otherwise noted
(Blog images may often be viewed larger by clicking on them)
Florida Brown Snake
Florida Grasshopper Sparrow
Prairie Loop Trail