Thursday, November 21, 2013

THEY are the Champions

Although it was not a national champ,
this bald cypress (nicknamed "The
Senator") was the largest native tree
in FL until it was destroyed in 2012. It
stood 118' tall, measured 425" in
circumference, and its crown spread
over an average of 57'.
by Laurie Sheldon

In the Beginning
American Forests magazine has maintained a list of the biggest trees of each species in America since 1940. It began as the "American Big Trees Report," was re-titled the "Social Register of Big Trees" in 1961, and in 1978 it became the "National Register of Big Trees" - a publication in which more than 750 champions are crowned each year. To see the most current edition, click here. The Big Tree Program is active throughout the U.S., and its message has been the same for over 70 years: regardless of size, all trees are champions of the environment. Its goal is to preserve and promote the iconic stature of our country's living monarchs (its remarkable trees) and to educate people about the key role that trees and forests play in sustaining a healthy environment.

The Makings of a Champion
To be eligible for the National Register of Big Trees, a tree must be recognized as native or non-invasive naturalized in the United States. Hybrids and minor varieties are excluded. Based on sources including the USDA Plants Database and the Integrated Taxonomic Information System, the 870+ species and varieties of trees on this list have met eligibility requirements.

Local Contenders
Florida has the most national champions of any state. Its largest is a Ficus citrifolia (shortleaf fig/wild banyan) in Monroe County which measures 444 inches in circumference, stands 48 feet tall, and carries a crown spread of 76 feet. In addition to contributing to the National Register, the Florida Forest Service keeps a state register, the Florida Champion Tree Register, which documents the largest trees of each species within the state.

This Ficus citrifolia has been the national reigning champion since 1987.
Discovering a Winner
Take a look at the list of 100+ native tree species in Florida that don't have designated champions. If you've seen one of these species and it
1) has an erect, woody main trunk with a circumference larger than 9.5 inches (about 3 inches across) at 4.5 feet above the average ground level (see the measurement diagrams at the foot of this article for details about where to measure if the specimen is leaning, on a slope, etc.),
2) is more than 13 feet tall, and
3) has a definite crown of branches or fronds
then I strongly encourage you to nominate it! The process involved is detailed in this pdf document. The online nomination form is available here, and a printable/mail in version can be downloaded here.  Please note that if the tree is located on private property, and you plan on mailing in your nomination, you must also have the property owner fill out this form.
For Further Reading
An article about Mark Torok, a state forester who has measured and verified more than 220 Florida champions and 130 national contenders.
Requiem for the Senator, about the loss of that invaluable bald cypress.

Measurement Diagrams
A. Typical measurement location   B. Measurement location when tree is forked at 4.5 feet
C. Measurement location of tree growing on a sloped site   D. Measurement location of a leaning tree

Friday, November 15, 2013

Life in the Slow Lane: A Profile of the Gopher Tortoise

By Laurie Sheldon

Gopher tortoise entering burrow; photo by Gary Foster.
Joseph Butler, a U.N.F. Biology Professor and herpetologist, was a guest speaker at one of  the Ixia chapter's recent meetings. He hoped to study snakes when he moved to Florida, but found that they were hard to pin down, so to speak. He turned his attention to Gopher Tortoises, which proved to be a much more reliable subject to study, as they live long lives (50 years +) and there are over 400 burrows on campus.The gopher tortoise is federally protected as a threatened species except in Florida, where it is listed as a Species of Special Concern by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) are native reptiles that can be found throughout the southeastern U.S.. They prefer sandhill communities, which are typified by longleaf pines and turkey oaks growing in loose, sandy soil. Much of the longleaf pine in Florida has been replaced with slash pine, which grows significantly faster; the unfortunate byproduct has been a loss of 80% of the gopher tortoise's habitat. As these reptiles are primarily herbivorous, they depend on fire to open up the canopy and let in sunlight for understory plants to grow. Fun fact: gopher tortoises do not eat during winter.

Gopher tortoises copulating; photo by Stephen LeQuier.
Their thick claws and strong forelimbs are excellent tools when it comes to digging their burrows to live in, which can be 30' long and 18' deep. Not only do their burrows provide them with temperature control and some degree of protection from predators, but they are also used as shelter for over 300 other species of animals. As such, gopher tortoises are considered to be a "keystone species". The area around the burrow opening is called the apron. It is the happening place for gopher tortoises, as that is where courtship, mating, combat, and egg laying occurs. It is presumed that they choose a location based on the availability of vegetation nearby. Each gopher tortoise has its own burrow. Not all burrows are active. Tracks are usually a giveaway that someone's home. When there are no tracks in sight, a simple way to tell if a burrow is active is to place a stick in front of it (if a tortoise is living there, it will move the stick).

Concave male plastron above. Flat
female plastron below. Photo from .
Males and females are about the same size (11" long). The top portion of their shell is called a carapace, and the lower portion is a plastron. The way to tell them apart is to turn them over. The males have a concave plastron, which enables them to copulate. Gopher tortoises don't reach sexual maturity until they are 12-15 years old, so it's critical to the future of the species for them to be protected until they are old! They mate during spring and typically lay 4-7 eggs sometime between the second week in May and June. Eggs take 70 days to incubate; accordingly, hatching occurs sometime in August or September. Because their shells remain soft for 7-8 years, they are easy prey for hawks, etc.

Tortoise hatching from its hard egg;
photo by Mike Simmons
To monitor the tortoises on campus, Dr. Butler and his team would dig a hole and place a bucket in it just in front of the apron. When the tortoise fell into the bucket, they would measure and weigh it, then set it on its merry way. Tortoise babies are difficult to find. They use their umbilicus for food during the first year of their lives, so they have little reason to wander. As such, it is easier to study them from the egg stage, let them hatch, then equip them with radio-telemetry to keep tabs on them. Where most reptile eggs are leathery, gopher tortoise eggs are hard, and will make a clicking sound when tapped. Dr. Butler attempted to find eggs by listening for that click while probing the ground with a construction-type flag. The problem with this method: rocks also click when tapped... and back to the drawing board he went.

Have you seen a gopher tortoise or a tortoise burrow before? Here's a story by Peg Lindsay about her up-close and personal encounter with the species:

Wildflower gardens have a totally different “look” to them. They’re usually not showy, manicured nor neat. Mine is no exception. My husband and I had intended to trim back the dead stems and apply leaf mulch in the fall, but we noticed Goldfinches perching on the dead stalks snacking from the seed-heads, and Cardinals, Mockingbirds and Palm Warblers scratching through the leaf litter for their dinner. We decided to let it be, through the winter. It was . . . um . . . unattractive. At least it wasn't in the FRONT yard.

When the weather warmed up, new sprouts began to poke through the sand, and all danger of another freeze had past, we decided it was finally time to clean up the mess. That's when we noticed a Gopher Tortoise hole right smack in the middle of our garden. It was about 8 inches wide by about 5 inches high – definitely sized for a youngster. We proudly showed it to anyone who wandered by.

Young gopher tortoise photo by Melody Hendrix.

Both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law, so we had to manage our garden while protecting the hole. I was nervous about disturbing it, so I spoke to a friend of mine who has several of these critters in her yard. She said that I can go ahead and plant and weed around the burrow. She also told me that they are opportunistic eaters - although they are primarily vegetarian and will eat just about any plant which grows in Florida, they also snack on insects and other tiny creatures. The variety of native grasses and wildflowers in our garden may have been what attracted the tortoise to begin with!

Additional information:
FWC on Florida’s Gopher Tortoise
For young readers:
The Gopher Tortoise – A Life History
At Home with the Gopher Tortoise: The Story of a Keystone Species

Friday, November 8, 2013

F.N.P.S. Board Retreat #2, August 2013

By Laurie Sheldon

The Bristol Strategy Group's diagram of F.N.P.S. at a
point where changes need to be made in order to insure
the  organization's future growth.
On August 11, 2013, the F.N.P.S. Board of Directors, along with Rebecca Staton-Reinstein and Ellen Bristol of the Bristol Strategy Group, attended a two day retreat at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. A typical B.O.D. meeting was held first thing Saturday morning. After that, we were all subject to Rebecca and Ellen's poking and prodding. These two women were hired to help F.N.P.S. actualize its potential. It was the second Strategic Planning Event they were facilitators for. I was not at the first one (held in February 2013), but Ginny Stibolt was, and she wrote the following blog about it: 2013 FNPS Board Retreat. They felt that, given the way that the organization currently operates, it has maxed out on its potential for expansion and development. Further, they suggested that the only way for us to continue to function and grow would be to make some significant changes to our current system of governance, and soon... otherwise we were headed for a short walk off an even shorter plank. Yikes!

F.N.P.S. baby photo
Backing Up
Don't freak out if none of this makes any sense to you. I probably should have started this piece more chronologically to explain what's going on. Rewind to the year Reagan was elected, gas cost $1.20/gallon, people everywhere were asking "who shot J.R.?" and the Florida Native Plant Society was born. It was 1980. At the time, there were 20 Board Members and 150 members. Today, there are over 3,000 members and something like 60 Board Members. Although the Board has grown in size and brain power, let's just say that, as in many other things, bigger isn't always better. Currently, the Board of Directors consists of an Executive Committee (EXCOMM) and Representatives from each of the organization's 37 chapters. It has become evident that the Chapter Reps (and their respecitve chapters) are not really benefitting from attending Board Meetings, which are largely focused on EXCOMM business. When push comes to shove, what the Representatives really need is to learn about other chapters' successes and failures regarding everything from events (like plant sales) to field trips, and speakers, and to subsequently share that wisdom at their own chapter meetings.

Check out the video above (from Cool Hand Luke) for a statement about the fundamental problem that the F.N.P.S. faces.

Moving Forward
Let's not go here, okay?!
We've targeted communication as our achilles heel. Great. Now what? If we look at this issue as a byproduct of how the organization is structured, perhaps it would be wise to check out how other states' Native Plant Societies are set up - particularly those states in which communication among chapters is not problematic. A bit of research reveals that California's Native Plant Society (the largest in the country in terms of finance and membership) is the ONLY one that isn't operating under the same model we are. They have a streamlined Board of Directors and a separate Council of Chapters for their Chapter Reps. There are two seats on the Board for Council Representatives, which serve as liaisons between the two bodies. That setup is working for them, and if it's good enough for the left coast, then gosh darnit it's good enough for us!

What's that? You are going out of your gourd because we can't just breach our own bylaws? Just sit down and breathe. First of all, if it wasn't legal to change things up a bit, no organization would ever evolve into something bigger and better than its former self... and as scientists, you DO believe in evolution, right? So here's a little Darwin for ya' - natural selection dictates that the species that roll with the punches and make positive changes to their traits (reflecting their changing environments) are going to be the species that stick around and multiply, right? So let's not allow F.N.P.S. to go the way of the 8-track! Current bylaws can be circumnavigated by restructuring "ad hoc" (that's like "beta version" for you tech geeks out there). Once we figure out what works, then we'll adjust the bylaws accordingly. Makes sense, right?

Defining the Council of Chapters
With the Council idea in mind, we got into the business of specifics: purpose, goals, etc. Everyone in attendance was put into a group of about 8 people to do this. Each group brainstormed up a list, then pared down their lists by voting. Eventually all of the groups' pared down lists were combined, and the room voted all together. I think it's fair to say that it was not the most fun thing ever, but we got 'er done. Here's what we came up with...

Gene Kelly, Shirley Denton, and Anne Cox review their group's list.

Council Purpose
Align communication and coordination from Chapter to Chapter, B.O.D. to Chapter, and Chapter to B.O.D.

Operational Goals
Rebecca and Ellen combine all of the groups' lists before
a room-wide vote.
Identify issues at local and regional levels (procatively or responsively) as related to the F.N.P.S. mission.
Prioritize issues and develop action plans.

Aspirational Goals
Expand Society's reach to policy makers.

Qualifications for Council Members on the B.O.D.
Member is active and in good standing.
Member has demonstrated leadership and responsibility in own chapter.
Member is willing to commit time and money.
Member is passionate about F.N.P.S. and its mission.
Member has organizational skills.
Member has communication skills and is tech-literate.
Member is knowledgeable about F.N.P.S..

Kitching Trail Map (L); Anne Cox with Asimina reticulata (R)

Before heading out to fill our bellies, Anne Cox lead us on a  hike through Kitching Creek Nature Trail, which winds through flatwoods along a tributary of the Loxahatchee River. The canopy was largely slash pine, with wiregrass, gallberry, saw palmetto, and wax myrtle in the understory. It was a terrific way to unwind after a day full of list-making.

Day 2
We continued to flesh out details regarding the organization's restructuring on the second day of the retreat. First we determined what the revamped EXCOMM would look like, including a little shuffling around of the current Director positions.

The rough outline of changes to F.N.P.S. Governance that I presented to my own (Ixia) Chapter

Then we listed two sets of "initiatives":

Organizational Initiatives
Governance and Board development
Fund development
Marketing and outreach (including communication to members, recruitment, and bringing in funds)

Aspirational Initiatives
Support land management and review of landuse planning
Educational programs
Habitat restoration

After that, we got back into groups of 8 to determine what the best way to select Board members to lead the implementation of those "initiatives." We started with a "Clarity Decision Map" (which, oddly enough, I felt was very confusing), then came up with various constraints and assumptions (below, L) and success factors and solutions (below, R) as per the map.

Last, but not least, we worked out what the future scheduling of the Council of Chapters and B.O.D. might look like.

Council of Chapters
Julie Becker stepped up and took on the responsibility of bringing the Council of Chapters to life (like Dr. Frankenstein, but much more attractive, positive and not scary)! Go Julie! It was proposed that the Council would hold monthly meetings for one year - primarily electronic (via phone, skype, etc). She planned to organize the first Council meeting/orientation prior to December 15, 2013.

Board of Directors
Board meetings were suggested to be held monthly for approximately one year (also primarily electronic) and to last about 90 minutes to 2 hours. Three live meetings would take place: (1) at the conference, (2) an annual planning weekend, and (3) one other (to be determined). Content of meetings would revolve around strategic planning of the following "initiatives":

I.  Organizational/Operational Initiatives
      A. Annual calendar (what happens, when it happens, who is responsible)
      B. Governance and Board development
      C. Finance, marketing, and fund development
II. Aspirational Initiatives (comparing goal progress and play... what happened or didn't, etc.)
      A. Support of land management
      B. Educational programs
      C. Habitat restoration

Summing it Up
It was a very productive and exhausting weekend. Hopefully, the ideas discussed will come to fruition. If nothing else, know that your current Chapter Reps (now Council Members), Executive Committee Members, and Members-at-Large are doing everything they can to make F.N.P.S. a fabulous organization, and one who you can be proud to be a part of. Go team!
Photos and graphics by Laurie Sheldon
Video c/o YouTube

Friday, November 1, 2013

Florida Native Plant Communities

Do you know Florida's native plant communities?

Have you ever wondered what the heck a scrubby flatwoods is or what the difference is between a slough and a wet prairie?

Well, wonder no more! The FNPS website includes a Native Plant Communities page with all of Florida's complex ecosystems explained and illustrated by photos.

The communities are organized into 13 broad categories: Xeric Uplands, Dry Mesic Uplands, Mesic Uplands, Wet Flatlands, Seepage Wetlands, Moving Water Wetlands, Floodplain Wetlands, Basin Wetlands, Rocklands, Coastal Uplands, Coastal Wetlands, Flowing Water Systems, and Lakes & Ponds. There are two or more specific communities under each broad category. Isn't Florida amazing?

Why is it important to be familiar with all this?

Whether you are just planting natives in your yard or working on a true restoration project, it's important to know what is likely to have been there 500 years ago.  Knowing Florida's native plant communities or ecosystems and the plants that grow there will help you to choose the best plants for your projects.

A sample of Florida's Native Plant Communities

Under the broad category of Moving Water Wetlands, this is the description for "Swale."

Under the broad category of Moving Water Wetlands, this is the description for "Slough."

Under the broad category of Flowing Water Systems, this is the description for "Blackwater Stream."

Under the broad category of Lakes and Ponds, this is the description for "Acidic Low Nutrient Lakes."
The FNPS website has many valuable resources for native plant enthusiasts, but the page on Florida's native plant communities is one of the most important.  Thanks to founding FNPS member Shirley Denton for her insight and photographs of Florida's ecosystems.

Written and posted by Ginny Stibolt.

Update: Several people wrote to ask for references on these communities.  Here is the initial list, which will be posted on the next version of the FNPS website:


The majority of these references were written by members of the Florida Native Plant Society!. Thanks to all of them for their contributions to native plant ecology in Florida.
Austin, Daniel F.; Jones, Julie L.; and Bennett, Bradley C.. 1986 (Summer). The Fakahatchee Strand. 6, #2:3-6.
Batista, W.B., and W.J. Platt. 1997. An old-growth definition for southern mixed hardwood forests. General Technical Report SRS-9. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Southern Research Station, Asheville, North Carolina.
Bradley, K., and G. Gann. 1999. The pine rockland forests of southern Florida. The Palmetto 19:12-19.
Clewell, A.F. 1986. Natural setting and vegetation of the Florida Panhandle - An account of the environments and plant communities of northern Florida west of the Suwannee River. Report No. COESAM/PDEI-86/001. United States Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District, Alabama.
Daubenmire, R. 1990. The Magnolia grandiflora-Quercus virginiana forest of Florida. American Midland Naturalist 123:331-347.
Delcourt, H.R., and P.A. Delcourt. 1977. Presettlement magnolia-beech climax of the Gulf Coastal Plain: quantitative evidence from the Apalachicola River Bluffs, North-Central Florida. Ecology 58:1085-1093.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection. 1992. Soil and Water Relationships of Florida's Ecological Communities
Duever, L.C. 1986. Florida's Natural Communities: Overwash Plains and Coastal Berms. The Palmetto 6:10-11.
Duever, Linda. 1984 (February). Florida's Natural Communities: Seepage Communities. The Palmetto 4, #1:1-2, 10-11.
Duever, Linda. 1988 (Summer). Florida's Natural Communities: Mesic Hammock. The Palmetto 8, #2:4-5.
Duever, Linda. 1983 (November). Florida's Natural Communities: Coastal Dunes. The Palmetto 3, #4:4-5.
Duever, Linda. 1985-86 (Winter). Florida's Natural Communities: Coastal Mounds. The Palmetto 5, #4:15.
Duever, Linda. 1985 (Spring). Florida's Natural Communities: Cypress Swamps. The Palmetto 5, #1:4-5.
Duever, Linda. 1984-85 (Winter). Florida's Natural Communities: Flatwoods. The Palmetto 4, #4:6.
Duever, Linda. 1984 (September). Florida's Natural Communities: Floodplains. The Palmetto 4, #3:8-10.
Duever, Linda. 1983 (August). Florida's Natural Communities: Inland Sand Ridges. The Palmetto 3, #3:1-3, 10.
Duever, Linda. 1984 (April). Florida's Natural Communities: Rocklands. The Palmetto 4, #2:8-11.
Duever, Linda. 1987 (Summer-Fall). Florida's Natural Communities: Wet Prairies. The Palmetto 7, #2:6-7.
Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI). 2010. Guide to the natural communities of Florida: 2010 edition. Florida Natural Areas Inventory, Tallahassee, FL.
Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI) and Florida Department of Natural Resources. 1990. Guide to the natural communities of Florida: 2010 edition. Florida Natural Areas Inventory, Tallahassee, FL.
Gann, G.D., K.A. Bradley, and S.W. Woodmansee. 2009. Floristic Inventory of South Florida Database. Institute for Regional Conservation.
Guerin, D.N. 1993. Oak dome clonal structure and fire ecology in a Florida longleaf pine dominated community. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 120:107-114.
Laessle, A.M. 1958. The origin and successional relationship of sandhill vegetation and sand-pine scrub. Ecological Monographs 28:361-387.
Loope, L.L., D.W. Black, S. Black, and G.N. Avery. 1979. Distribution and abundance of flora in limestone rockland pine forests of southeastern Florida. South Florida Research Center, Everglades National Park, Homestead, Florida.
Myers, R.L. and J.J. Ewel (eds.). 1990. Ecosystems of Florida University of Central Florida Press: Orlando.
Outcalt, K.W. 1997. An old-growth definition for tropical and subtropical forests in Florida. General Technical Report SRS-013. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Southern Research Station, Asheville, North Carolina.
Peet, R.K., and D.J. Allard. 1993. Longleaf pine vegetation of the southern Atlantic and eastern Gulf Coast regions: a preliminary classification. Pages 45-82 in S.M. Hermann, editor. The Longleaf Pine Ecosystem: Ecology, Restoration and Management. Proceedings of the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference, No. 23. Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, Florida.
Schiffer, Donna M. Hydrology of central Florida lakes : a Primer. U.S. Geological SurveyCircular 1137.
Simons, R.W. 1990. Terrestrial and freshwater habitats. Pages 99-157 in S.H. Wolfe, editor. An ecological characterization of the Florida Springs Coast: Pithlachascotee to Waccasassa Rivers. Biological Report 90(21). United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, DC.
USDA Soil Conservation Service. 198_. 26 Ecological Communities of Florida.
Whitney, E.N., D. B. Means, A. Rudloe. 2004. Priceless Florida: Natural Ecosystems and Native Species. Pineapple Press.