Gopher tortoise

In the wild: Threatened gopher tortoise lives among wildflowers

by Rebecca Eagen

In her National Wildlife article, “America’s Forgotten Forest,” Doreen Cubie calls the longleaf pine community “among the richest ecosystems in North America” with “as many as 50 different species of wildflowers, shrubs, grasses and ferns…in…a single square meter.” Aptly, her piece ends with a close-up of a gopher tortoise, king of his high pine world.

While the threatened tortoise is famous for bunking 400 animals at various turns and times of year in his burrow, his boon to native plant survival is also real. Hearing biologists and land managers in our gopher tortoise advisory group and hosting torts on my own land, I’m convinced that the oral health, beauty and variety in our pinelands tie to whether Gopherus polyphemus lives or dies.

It all hinges on management. Overzealous shrubs, hardwoods and wiregrass must be curbed if proper conditions are to persist that invite wild ower bounty and healthy tortoise pods.

Gopher Tortoise Council representative Boyd Blihovde says burn intervals of every three years are necessary to nurture plant abundance and diversity in sandhill systems. The burns squelch oak overgrowth and induce forage grasses to bloom, which helps fox squirrels, quail, deer, butter ies, birds, tortoises and wildflowers.

Gopher tortoise
Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) by Rebecca Eagan

It’s hard to count the wildflowers possible in a sandhill community. On my five acres in Columbia County, I’ve seen blue asters, fringe trees, pink mints, butterfly weed and sandhill coneflowers that a week earlier or later I would have missed. My list rotates not just seasonally but with rain or drought and how often I mow or hack overgrowth from gopher tortoise burrow aprons. One year, an abandoned den had been choked from the sun by oak saplings, so I chopped those away. By next visit, a tortoise had moved in and a spray of innocence flanked the doorway.

One spring, clearing away dry dog fennel made sedge and mint ourish. And, irksome though sumac and sand live oak are, when my ground-level sawing allows fragrant Eryngium or queen’s delight to peek through, it lightens the toil.

Fire is ideal to keep areas open, but it is impractical in subdivided ranchettes, so clippers, loppers, saws, mowers and gloves help groom mini-savannas for tortoises and ower seeds. Palafoxias a friend gave me may join in — and more butterfly weed. But even the inconspicuous holds purpose in life’s web. When you lift back bracken fern to find dainty globes of sensitive briar, you exult in small things. Watching a grazing tortoise savor dayflower you know that even this creeping “weed” has its place.

In her gardening book, Green Thoughts, Elsa Perenyi’ writes: “Wildflowers are never vulgar.” I agree. Who needs dahlias or peonies when you can have butterfly peas? Silk grass. Blazing Star. That skyblue lupine down the lane could zap seeds to my cul-de-sac lot and form azure torches next spring. Mayhaw and Chickasaw plum draw “winged dryads” like bees and moths and drop fruit to feed my tortoises for months. Narrow-leafed pawpaws mean zebra swallowtails won’t perish — and they give my gopher tortoises a tasty dessert. Life rocks.

Rebecca Eagan is a conservationist and gopher tortoise aficionado who lives in Winter Park.