Deer Prairie Creek Preserve: An Outstanding Epiphyte Site in Sarasota County

Deer Prairie Creek Preserve

An Outstanding Epiphyte Site in Sarasota County

By: Bruce K. Holst, Director of Plant Collections

 Sarasotans can be proud of the work that their government has accomplished in purchasing environmentally-sensitive lands to be set aside as preserves. One of the largest of these turns out to be a haven for epiphytes — those plants that grow upon other plants, such as many orchids, bromeliads, and ferns. Deer Prairie Creek Preserve has perhaps the greatest abundance and diversity of epiphytes in central-western Florida, including two species not previously documented for Sarasota County in the Florida Plant Atlas maintained at the University of South Florida.

            Selby Botanical Gardens has been involved in the initial land-management phase of select preserves for several years by conducting botanical inventories, which provide crucial information for the proper management of the lands. We were thrilled this year when Deer Prairie Creek Preserve was chosen as one of the sites to be surveyed, as it contains a wide variety of habitats, from dry prairie to hydric hammock. Plus, it protects nearly six miles of Myakka River shoreline and connects to the even larger T. Mabry Carlton, Jr., Memorial Reserve. The Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) lists Deer Prairie Creek Preserve at 10,128 acres; approximately 6,400 acres are accessible to the public. The land was purchased primarily to protect the Myakka River floodplain and the water quality of the region and is jointly owned and managed by Sarasota County and SWFWMD. Funding for the purchase was provided through Sarasota County’s Environmentally-Sensitive Lands Protection Program and the state’s Florida Forever Program.

            Our survey work at Deer Prairie Creek Preserve entails conducting 16 miles of transect through six of the dozen or so preserve habitats. While some of the habitats have virtually no epiphytes (dry prairie, for example, may host only one or two species of epiphyte since it is largely treeless), we found the hydric hammock and prairie hammock habitats to be extremely abundant and diverse in epiphytes. There, towering live oaks and elms support such an abundance of epiphytes that many of the branches appear from a distance to be “furry.” Closer examination reveals that the fur is masses of southern needle leaf (Tillandsia setacea) and resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides). Sprinkled in and around these masses are large and abundant clusters of the Florida butterfly orchid (Encyclia tampensis), golden polypody (Phlebodium aureum), shoestring fern (Vittaria lineata), scarlet air plant (Tillandsia fasciculata), and the giant air plant (Tillandsia utriculata). In the wetter, more open areas of the hammock, whiskfern (Psilotum nudum) can be found at the bases of pop ash (Fraxinus caroliniana) trees. A facultative epiphyte (that is, an epiphyte equally at home on the ground or attached to a tree) found in the same area is the false nettle, or bog hemp (Boehmeria cylindrica).

            We were especially thrilled to find a large and healthy population of Bartram’s air plant (Tillandsia bartramii), which is at the southernmost limit for this species. Bartram’s air plant is similar to the southern needle leaf but has all-gray foliage (versus mostly greenish) and a pink, stout, and mostly-straight flower stalk (versus greenish, slender, and arching). Also seen in the hydric hammock is the long strap fern (Campyloneurum phyllitidis), a common species in south Florida swamps but infrequently observed this far north and not previously documented for Sarasota County. More common Florida epiphytes, such as Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and ballmoss (Tillandsia recurvata), abound in many of the habitats throughout the park.

            Visit the Sarasota County Natural Resources Department website for more information about the Preserve, or call them at (941) 861-6230. For help with Florida epiphyte identification, visit the Research page of the Selby website ( and click on Plant Identification > Florida Native Plants > Common Epiphytes of Florida. Other areas to see abundant epiphytes are Myakka River State Park, Highlands Hammock State Park, Hillsborough River State Park, and Corkscrew Swamp Preserve. The number one epiphyte site in Florida is the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve (but be prepared to wade through some water to see the best sites).

            We appreciate the help of the Sarasota County Natural Resources Department, Southwest Florida Water Management District, and volunteers Nancy Edmondson, Elizabeth Gandy, and Rosalind Rowe. Your Selby Gardens membership helps support these important research and conservation projects. Thank you.