Wildflower viewing in south Alabama
STORY AND PHOTOS BY ALFRED SCHOTZ
To the wildflower enthusiast, some of the most cherished memories will be those of springtime travels across south Alabama. The season comes early, with the earliest flowers making their debut by mid-January, often appearing alongside lingering blossoms of the previous autumn.
Those willing to endure occasional frosty temperatures and take to the trails early will be rewarded with an endless sequel of color, experiencing some of the finest wildflower displays to be found in the Southeast.
The landscape of south Alabama is one of subtle beauty marked by myriad dark-water streams and cypress-lined sloughs laced among rolling hills of open pine. Widely scattered but well hidden from the casual observer are the region’s most exceptional environments, a mosaic of seepage wetlands and bogs that shelter some of the world’s most intriguing and bizarre forms of plant life.
The coastal plain of Alabama and neighboring states has the noble distinction of harboring the greatest diversity and largest concentration of carnivorous plants found on the planet. Carnivorous plants in all their forms and color have the ability to lure, entrap, and digest insects and other small animals as a source of nourishment, supplementing their diets with essential nutrients to promote growth and reproduction.
In fact, these plants are highly dependent on a diet of flies, butterflies, mosquitos, and other insects to maintain a good standard of living, for the soils in which they grow are nutrient poor, benefiting from the dietary supplements provided by consuming small animals.
Four types are known to Alabama, each with its own specialized apparatus for capturing insects:
Pitcher-plants with their pitcher-shaped leaves are the most striking of the group, in which insects are bribed to a perilous footing along the rim of the pitcher trap by copious amounts of nectar. To unwary insects, this zone is especially treacherous, for the surface is covered with slick waxy deposits causing them to loose balance and tumble into the pitcher depths. The fate of the hapless insect lies await at the bottom, perishing in a water-like digestive liquid that gradually extracts nutrients from the insect’s corpse.
Smaller, but equally impressive are the butterworts, whose leaves secrete a gooey buttery glaze on the upper surface that enables the plants to ensnare midges, gnats, and a host of other insects.
Sundews are often small, rather unassuming plants, and to the untrained eye, can be easily overlooked. Like butterworts, the leaves have glands that produce a sticky liquid, appearing as drops of dew, entangling insects and secreting enzymes to digest them.
Lastly, the bladderworts have the smallest traps of the state’s insect-eating plants, and because they lie hidden beneath the surface of the water or embedded in the ground, are seldom noticed. The bladder-like traps, resembling that of a tiny broad bean, are perhaps the most sophisticated of the “plant eat insect world” where water fleas, mosquito larvae, and other minute insects are faced with a precarious existence upon triggering a series of small sensitive hairs, suddenly forcing them through a trap door with no hope to escape.
Through the forces of nature and a long-standing commitment to conservation, south Alabama is blessed with a remarkable array of botanical treasures awaiting discovery in many of the region’s parks and preserves. From the examples provided here, the budding novice to the seasoned observer will be witness to some of the most spectacular wildflower viewing the South has to offer.
When visiting the sites featured in this article, it is important to avoid stepping off the trail to prevent damaging the plant life and refrain from picking flowers for others to observe and enjoy.
Spring comes with unexpected and drastic changes in the weather, and so be certain to dress accordingly and watchful of the skies. And to capture those special moments for a lifetime of memories, a camera will be invaluable.
South Alabama wildflower trails
Kurt G. Wintermeyer Nature Trail – Weeks Bay Reserve
How to get there: Trail is accessed from a parking area on the east side County Road 17 by driving north one quarter mile from US Highway 98, just east of the Fish River and roughly 8 miles west of State Route 59 in Foley.
Trail condition: Trail is a well maintained boardwalk and easy to follow.
Best time to visit: April – May. Recognized as onzzzze of the finest sites in Alabama and along the Gulf Coast to observe carnivorous plants, wild orchids, and striking displays of other wildflowers throughout the year. Spring is particularly attractive as pitcher-plants (carnivorous plants) and early-season orchids are at peak flowering.
Haines Island Nature Trail Complex
How to get there: Haines Island Park is on the east side of the Alabama River, roughly 17 miles northwest of Monroeville. The park can be reached by driving 2.8 miles on County Road 17 from State Route 41 in Franklin, then turning right on County Road 49 (unpaved) and continuing roughly 1.5 miles to the parking area. Three trails offer easy wildflower viewing, with the Bigleaf Magnolia and Upper Ironwood trails providing the best displays.
Trail condition: Trails are maintained and easy to follow. Trail difficulty is easy, with some light uphill walking along the Upper Ironwood Trail.
Best time to visit: Mid-March – late April. Showy displays of phlox, anemones, rain lilies, and other wildflowers can be observed from late March to early April along the Bigleaf Magnolia Trail. The Upper Ironwood Trail has striking pageants of azaleas, dogwoods, mountain laurel, and various magnolias, often reaching their greatest splendor during the last three weeks of April.
Chattahoochee State Park Trail Complex
How to get there: Chattahoochee State Park is located off State Route 95, roughly 25 miles southeast of Dothan.
Trail condition: Trails are well maintained and easy to follow. Trails are level and occasionally become muddy following heavy rainfall.
Best time to visit: Late March – late April. The park is noted for dogwood, azaleas, and fringetree, with some of the nicest displays found along the Horseshoe, Dogwood, and K.O. Smith Trails.
George W. Folkerts Bog Trail – Ruth McClellan Abronski Splinter Hill Bog Preserve
How to get there: The preserve is roughly 40 miles north of Mobile, easily accessed off Interstate 65. From Exit 45 on Interstate 65 (Exit for Perdido & Rabun) travel west on County Road 47 approximately 2 miles to the trailhead parking area located on the left (south) side of the road.
Trail condition: Trail is well maintained and easy to follow. Portions can become wet and muddy after heavy rainfall.
Best time to visit: April – May. Spectacular displays of carnivorous plants (pitcher-plants, butterworts, sundews), and a showcase of other wildflowers make their annual debut.
Alfred Schotz is a botanist with the Auburn University Museum of Natural History.