Rescue plants find a forever home at Lake Apopka North Shore

Feb. 2, 2023

District staff and volunteers planting shrubs

District staff and volunteers from the Florida Native Plant Society recently rescued rare native plants from an area to be developed, giving the plants a new home in a protected area of the District’s Lake Apopka North Shore.

You’ve probably heard of pet and wildlife rescues that rehome and rehabilitate animals, but did you know there are also rescue groups for plants? Partnerships of volunteers, conservation groups, and state and federal organizations work together to save native plants by rehoming them — moving them up from a property destined for development to protected and managed land, like the St. Johns River Water Management District’s restoration and conservation area at Lake Apopka.

This restoration site is a type of habitat known as sandhill — it’s a small area, unique section among more typical marshlands. Based on historic aerial imagery from the 1960s, this section was probably a citrus grove, but today it’s become an increasingly vegetated haven for plants and animals adapted to the sandhill ecotype, including gopher tortoises and sand skinks.

The sandhill habitat type in Lake County and central Florida are millions of years old. It’s part of the Lake Wales Ridge, a section of ancient sand dune that runs for 150 miles north-south through central Florida. Two million years ago, when most of modern-day Florida was underwater, the Lake Wales Ridge was a chain of islands, complete with plants. Today, islands of native scrub and sandhill plants and animals persist in a sea of homes and agriculture.

Some of these plants are unique. Conditions can be harsh on a high and dry patch of sand and several species have adapted a surprising way to make sure genetic material makes it to the next season. They flower underground. These subterranean flowers are colorless and scentless and self-pollinated. It’s backup for their more typical aboveground flower. These plants were among the rescues planted alongside heat-adapted natives like prickly pear cactus, yucca and wiregrass.

District staff looking onto a field

District staff and volunteers coordinate prior to a day of planting rescued plants.

Rosi Mulholland planting grass

Rosi Mulholland, a volunteer and former District employee, suggested the District’s Lake Apopka North Shore as a new home for endangered plants based on her knowledge of working at the property.

Plant rescuer Rosi Mulholland is one of the many dedicated volunteers with the Florida Native Plant Society working to protect this ecosystem. She searches for plants to rescue around Lake County. “There were a number of postage stamp-sized sites that were never converted to citrus, so they had their intact groundcover from millennia,” she explains.

But Florida’s booming population growth adds pressure for private landowners to replace trees and plants with homes and subdivisions. Sandhill habitat — because it’s high and dry — is one of the first places to be developed.

So, when the Florida Native Plant Society approached the District looking for locations to rehome plants,  Mulholland responded.  She previously worked at the District as part of the land management team at Lake Apopka, so the sandhill site on the property made sense. She helped form the partnerships that led to the first plantings. The current staff, Land Manager Ben Gugliotti and Land Management Specialist Brian Silverman, carry on the restoration efforts, expanding the site and planting acres of native plants. “The acreages are the basis of restoration; that’s the ice cream,” Mulholland explains. “Threatened and endangered plants are the sprinkles on the ice cream.”

Mulholland and others track down the “sprinkles” and dig them up alongside other more common natives, not usually available for restoration projects because they can’t be grown in nurseries. In total, they’ve rehomed 120 different species, 23 of which are only found in Florida. Nine species are endangered.

“Together, these plants help improve the ecosystem as a whole. Reindeer moss, for example, helps regulate soil temperature and is important in creating habitat for the native sand skinks that live on the restoration site,” explains Silverman.

All in all, the restoration site covers roughly 11 acres and is growing. The area is maintained so these native plants can thrive. “We control the invasive plants and use prescribed burns to replicate the fire cycle that supports the native plant community and ecosystem function,” Gugliotti says. “In doing so, we’re supporting seedling recruitment and the natural expansion of the restoration site,” he says.

To explore the sandhill ecotype, visit a District land near you. Examples of the sandhill community on District land can be found at:

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