The typical vegetation in Florida is very different to what we knew as kids growing up in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and to what we now have in Illinois, in mid-Western USA. So, we are always interested when we go on walks in central Florida to discover what grows naturally here.
Exploring around the Orlando area—at Blue Spring State Park, or in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, in the local Econ River Wilderness Area, or at the Harry P Leu Gardens in the city suburbs—two features of the vegetation stand out for us and seem to epitomize the landscape here: the Spanish moss that is draped from almost every tree, like unkempt grey beards or tangled hair, but in a most charming way; and the Saw Palmettos, with their bright-green, fan-shaped leaves, that can glisten almost luminously in the sunshine.
Florida has many varieties of palms, which are tropical evergreen trees and shrubs. Extremely common is the Saw Palmetto, also known as Silver Saw Palmetto or Scrub Palm. It is native to Florida but grows all over southeastern USA.
Commonly found in pine flatwoods, saw palmettos grow in dense thickets, usually creeping low against the ground. Each clump in the thicket has about 20-25 large fan-shaped leaves that are 1-3 feet wide and 3-6 feet tall and have saw-like spines along the edges. Small white flowers are followed by fruits, which become black as they ripen and are eaten by many kinds of wildlife. The berries are also used for medicinal purposes, especially helping to treat some prostate and urinary problems.
Spanish Moss is a flowering plant that grows on larger trees, commonly the Southern Live Oak or Bald Cypress, throughout the southeastern USA. But it has also spread to Argentina, Hawaii, and Australia, among others. An interesting thing about Spanish moss is that it’s not a moss at all. It’s a member of the bromeliad or pineapple family—yes, pineapple!—, and is an epiphyte, or air plant. It uses trees only for support, getting its nourishment from air, sun and rain. It starts out as a small clump that does, in fact, look like a small pineapple plant, and on our last walk our mission was to find examples of the tiny budding plants.
The grey stems are covered with scaly, grey-green leaves, and the small greenish flowers are rarely seen. The distinctive grey-greenish tangle hangs from tree limbs, and even wires and poles, undulating in the wind. The seeds have tiny parachutes that carry them from tree to tree and sometimes the moss can get so thick that it creates a canopy between trees or poles.
The other interesting thing about Spanish moss is that it is not from Spain. There are many stories about Spanish moss—about the supposed origin of the name, what it is used for, and why it has ‘spooky’ connections. A very nice site to visit is here: