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Yellow cone-shaped plants grow in tall grass field
Information icon Trumpet pitcher plants. Photo courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Pitcher plant prairies pop in the Panhandle

The U.S Fish and Wildlife’s Coastal Program is partnering with Florida State Parks and the Atlanta Botanical Garden to let the sun again shine on rare seepage slope and wetland pitcher plant prairies.

Over the past nine years, more than 1,500 acres of wetland communities along the Florida Panhandle have benefitted from the habitat restoration work. These native herbaceous wetland communities are inhabited by carnivorous bog plants, orchids, and other rare and at-risk plants that provide habitat for the endangered reticulated flatwoods salamander.

As development increased, and wildfires decreased, forests out-shaded, out-competed, and outlasted the rare, sun-worshipping bog plants. Tall, dense, closed-canopy stands of woody vegetation proliferated, tipping the balance from herbaceous understory with scattered shrubs to a formidable fortress of trees, primarily titi. Titi is an invasive native shrub that thrives without fire and, eventually, blocks out pond habitats critical for salamanders.

Impenetrable titi forests can also alter the surface and subsurface hydrology of the coastal dune lake watershed. They diminish natural submarine groundwater discharge into the Gulf of Mexico while increasing transpiration. These critically-imperiled lakes are unique, found only in Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, and Walton County, Florida. Here, 15 named coastal dune lakes intermittently connect to the Gulf through “outfalls” along 26 miles of coastline.

Man and woman in greenhouse full of green and red plants. Tall green shoots rise from three black pots in foreground
Ron Determann of Atlanta Botanical Garden shows Service biologist Cindy Bohn some of the rare plants propagated at ABG for transplanting in Florida. Photo by Melody Ray-Culp, USFWS

The partners have identified and prioritized polygons of wall-to-wall titi, and mechanically removed them. This is followed by secondary removal of re-sprouting titi; frequent prescribed fires; and then letting nature do its job. The woody biomass is chipped and moved off-site to further accelerate restoration and soil recovery. Carnivorous plants thrive in nutrient-poor soils because they digest bugs while other plants get their nutrients from the soil.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden does the rare plant propagation for re-introduction. In August 2016, wildlife cameras captured a sphinx moth pollinating a white fringed orchid at a transplant site.

Black and white nightvision photo from a gam camera of a fuzzy moth approaching a white fringed orchid
A moth pollinates an orchid at a Florida state park. Photo courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Gardens and Florida State Parks

This partnership has leveraged more than $7 million through the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, greatly expanding ongoing restoration work at coastal state parks.

Wetland restoration of this nature and magnitude is not a cookie-cutter process. There are no intact seepage slope reference sites left. And there are no restoration how-to manuals. Until now.

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