The more you know about Florida’s native wildflowers, the more you’ll enjoy your trip and understand what you see on the roadsides. Read how Floridians – then and now – recognize the importance of native flora and its natural beauty.
On Palm Sunday in 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon sighted the land he dubbed La Florida — “land of flowers” — in honor of Spain’s Easter celebration. The abundant wildflowers he almost certainly would have seen may have also influenced the name choice.
Florida’s indigenous people and settlers utilized native wildflowers for a variety of things, from medicine and food to aesthetics. They recognized wildflowers’ places in nature’s hierarchy and their importance in the plant and animal kingdoms. This history is depicted in Florida’s state seal.
However, Florida’s modern history has erased much of the landscape in which wildflowers once grew.
For decades, many Florida garden clubs have kept wildflowers front and center on community roadsides. Their efforts predate those of Lady Bird Johnson, who championed the federal Highway Beautification Act adopted in 1965.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Transportation began its roadside wildflower planting program when it unknowingly planted grass sod containing red clover in the early 1960s, and complimentary calls and letters flooded in. FDOT’s plantings were only somewhat successful, because little was known about growing wildflowers. Clearly, research was needed, but funding for it was required.
To solve the problem, FDOT and the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs created the State Wildflower license tag, which went on sale in 2000. The Florida Wildflower Foundation was created in 2002 to receive and disperse the $15 donation made with each tag sale.
Thanks to State Wildflower tag owners, more than $3 million has been raised for research, planting and education projects statewide. Projects have included propagation and seed studies; schoolyard and community wildflower gardens; literature and brochures; videos and more. Visit our Planting and Research pages to learn more.
Some like it hot
Almost all Florida ecosystems have a history that includes occasional fires set by natural forces like lightning. Even swamps may burn up to the edges of water. Fire reduces organic matter accumulation and prevents succession by shrubs and trees. That “sweeps” nature’s floor, making it a better habitat for wildflowers.
Although plant vegetation may burn, seeds and roots survive. Pineland grasses and flowers respond to spring and summer fires with rapid vegetative growth and increased flowering.
Fire increases nutrient cycling rates, raises soil pH and stimulates nitrogen fixation. Some wildflowers and grasses even are dependent on heat and smoke from fires to break seed dormancy and begin a new life cycle.
Plants and animals have evolved together in Florida to form unique and distinct ecosystems. Plants form the first level of the food chain for herbivores, such as deer, rabbits, squirrels and mice. Some birds eat flower seeds, and others feast on the insects that visit wildflowers. But it’s not all about who’s eating who. Insects use wildflowers as food and nectar sources. These plants also serve as shelter, platforms for eggs, and places to overwinter.
- The Florida Museum of Natural History’s searchable database of butterflies and wildflowers www.flmnh.ufl.edu/wildflower
- USF Atlas of Florida’s Vascular Plants www.florida.plantatlas.usf.edu
- Florida Native Plant Society www.fnps.org
- Florida Association of Native Nurseries
- Wildflower Seed and Plant Growers Association, Inc. www.floridawildflowers.com