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Tall, yellow cylindrical plants growing on wet ground
Information icon Trumpet pitcher plants. Photo © Atlanta Botanical Garden, used with permission.

Seeps and springs and pitcher plants

Service works with partners to restore Florida Panhandle habitat

Long ago, before Florida’s Panhandle was ditched, drained, paved and primed for development, there existed a rich tapestry of bogs, dunes, lakes and forests alongside the Gulf of Mexico. Bulldozers all but wiped out the rare coastal habitat.

Pockets, though, remain. Pockets of pitcher plants and pine lilies; of seepage slopes and wet prairies; of wiregrass and sedges; and of butterflies and bees.

Bright red flower petals emerge from a green stalk
Pine lily. Photo © Atlanta Botanical Garden, used with permission.

It is now the job of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Florida State Parks to stitch these disparate, biodiverse communities back together. They’ve focused their collective attention on Deer Lake State Park in South Walton County and plan to return the nearly 2,000-acre preserve to its long-lost splendor. In March, for example, 3,000 trumpet pitcher plants, lilies, butterworts and purple pitcher plants were planted.

A map of the Florida Panhandle highlighting Topsail Hill Preserve, Grayton Beach and Deer Lake State Parks.
Restoration sites in state parks along the Florida Panhandle. Map by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

“The park service has a mission to restore Deer Lake to its pre-settlement, pre-European condition,” said Jeff Talbert who’s managing the project for the botanical garden. “Our goal, ideally, is to restore an open wetland with herbaceous plants that mimic the habitat as it originally stood.”

Grayton Beach and Topsail Hill Preserve, just up Florida’s ever-popular Highway 30A from Deer Lake, are the other state parks targeted by the conservation groups. All three contain a distinct ecological treasure: coastal dune lakes. The freshwater lakes are rare and only found along the Gulf Coast. Their water comes from seeps or springs in upland pine forests that flow into creeks that fill the lakes. Their banks are lined with Southern magnolias, scrub oaks, golden asters, woody goldenrods and, once upon a time, rare and at-risk plants like sundews, white-fringed orchids, grass pinks and ladies tresses. Wildfires, a natural and healthy antidote to the suffocating spread of weeds and invasives plants, kept the unique coastal habitat intact.

A shimmering lake surrounded by marsh grass and pine trees
A coastal dune lake. Photo by Melody Ray-Culp, USFWS.

Yet fire, deemed too dangerous or too smokey in a growing Panhandle, was all but outlawed starting about 80 years ago. Titi, or leatherwood, trees filled the fire-free breach and crowded out the lovely plants below. The biologically rich, sandy wetland prairies disappeared. Their resurgence began about a decade ago.

Since 2011, the Service has funneled a quarter-million dollars to Florida’s parks department to get rid of titi and restore habitat at Deer Lake, Grayton Beach and Topsail Hill. The agency’s coastal program also awarded the botanical garden $37,000 to pluck pitcher plant seeds, and others, from the parks, grow them in Atlanta and replant them in Deer Lake.

In 2017, the real money kicked in. The early restoration work at Deer Lake was leveraged to tap Deepwater Horizon oil spill money — more than $8 million — via the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. The trick was to show the watery link between the imperiled Gulf and the coastal dune lakes.

“One really cool thing was how our partners highlighted the important connection between water quantity and water quality and how the water is cleansed while flowing downhill through the seepage slopes into the Gulf,” said Melody Ray-Culp, the Service’s coastal program coordinator in the Panhandle. “There’s a beautiful connection between the dune lake watershed and the Gulf.”

The goal is to return 840 acres at Deer Lake to its pristine, pre-development condition. Then it’s on to Grayton Beach and, finally, Topsail Hill. Repeated, controlled burns to keep the titi down are critical.

Bright yellow flowers and leafy green vegetation emerge from sandy dunes
Deer Lake State Park. Photo by Melody Ray-Culp, USFWS.

“The main metric for success is the ability to get [prescribed] fire onto the landscape,” Ray-Culp said.

The botanical garden, which works across the Southeast and the Caribbean, will soon undertake a Service-financed survey of the three parks in search of additional threatened or endangered plants.

“We recognize that these lands, especially the wetlands, are very important in the Southeast and that a lot of their plant species are rare,” said Talbert. “So we want to protect them and help bring them back.”


Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist, (404) 679-4028

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