Keeping Up with Conservation: Sandhill Restoration

The rapid reemergence of native species is an incredible site to behold in the following days and weeks after
fire. Florida’s native species, both flora and fauna, have adapted to survive and thrive in fire-prone habitats. For instance, gopher tortoises construct underground burrows that protect them and hundreds of other species during fire events. Some perennial plant species have underground reserves stored in root tissue that support their reemergence after fire, and others are prolific seeders that reemerge from a persistent seed bank following fire.

In August, a prescribed fire took place at a sandhill restoration site near the Gardens with support from the Duke Energy Foundation and the Florida Forest Service. Within just 60 days after the burn, many native plant species at the site sent up new shoots and many flowered, providing nectar and pollen for pollinators. Some of the native sandhill perennials that have reemerged from underground reserves include: Palafoxia integrifolia, Phoebanthus grandiflorus, and a bright green grass which is the dominant groundcover of this habitat, Aristida stricta.

The Rare Plant Conservation Program has been working to improve the habitat at this site to benefit a rare Florida endemic and federally endangered wildflower, Warea amplexifolia. A wild population of W. amplexifolia inhabits this site and is dependent on frequent fire to maintain areas of bare sand for seeds to germinate. This species is one of those that creates a persistent seed bank. Although seedlings that emerge in the winter are killed during prescribed fires performed in the spring and summer months, a boom in seedling recruitment is expected each year following a prescribed fire. Populations of W. amplexifolia are known to have annual fluctuations of plant numbers, with populations surging in the years following fire, which then wane with time-since fire.

Although fires are often viewed as catastrophic and undesirable events, prescribed fire is a necessary tool land managers utilize to maintain healthy ecosystems that support native species and to prevent wildfires. In the absence of periodic fire, habitat quality degrades and the vigor and number of native species declines. This is particularly important in the conservation of listed species. Many of Florida’s threatened and endangered species require periodic fire to maintain suitable habitat, such as areas of bare sand, for their populations to persist.