by Emily Ruff
Some 450 miles long and kept humid by the ocean on either side, the state of Florida supports plant species from temperate to tropical, coastal to wetland to upland. Boasting a melting pot of exotic plants naturalized from far away, this region also features an impressive array of native medicinal species. The climate variations of Florida support rare habitats of tropical and subtropical plants found nowhere else in North America.
For this reason, when one wanders into a bookstore and picks up an average book on herbal medicine, many of the temperate herbs featured within the pages will only survive in Florida in a controlled garden. Conversely, few of these herb books cover the vast array of tropical medicinal plants found in the Sunshine State, which weave together a rich tapestry of culture, heritage, and tradition from across the globe.
Practicing bioregional herbalism in Florida is a trailblazing craft. Many temperate plants such as mullein (Verbascum thapsus), pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa), lobelia (Lobelia inflata), and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) have tropical cousins with similar, if distinct, medicinal actions to their temperate counterparts. Much of our apothecary is a cobbling together of various cultures; a veritable melting pot of materia medica with herbs ranging in origin from the Caribbean to South America to Asia.
Resourceful herbalists can find granny healers in the nooks and crannies of immigrant sections of towns in Florida to share personal experience about these plants, but many rely on tropical ethnobotanical books from the likes of James Duke and Julia Morton to gain an introduction to these medicinal plants. We also take cues from the plants themselves, which even in their relative anonymity will often call to us from backyard gardens and nature trails, begging us to grab our botanical key, confirm an accurate identification, and begin to dig to discover any historical evidence of medicinal use. Even still, many herbalists – myself included – go so far as to travel to other countries to learn the traditions of these species from an unbroken lineage and begin to lay a foundation for a new bioregional practice in the sunny south, rooted in the rich history from where these plants come.
Only two of the United Plant Savers “At-Risk” herbs – Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria) and sundew (Drosera spp.) – occur in Florida. (Eight others can also be found – but only at our northernmost border with Georgia.) Partridgeberry and pleurisy root from the UpS “To-Watch” List also make their way down to Florida, but none reach past subtropical zones.
This isn’t to say that Florida doesn’t hold many ethnobotanical gems in need of our conservation efforts. In fact, over fifty plants on Florida’s official state Endangered Species list have historical medicinal uses, many within tropical cultures of the Caribbean Islands or Central America. A majority of these species are found within tropical zones of South Florida, and about half occur in the endangered pine rocklands habitat.
Pine rocklands is a biome of moist tropical and subtropical broadleaf forests atop limestone substrate that occurs in southern Florida, the Florida Keys, and the Bahamas. The unique combination of limestone ridge and ocean breeze creates a habitat that supports diverse plant life. The pineland forests, interwoven with hardwood hammocks, once covered 185,000 acres of south Florida’s Miami area. Thanks to the rampant development of this region for urban and suburban settlement, only about 20,000 acres remain, and much of what remains is largely within the protective border of the Everglades National Park. Over 225 types of native plants occur in the pine rocklands ecosystem, and more than 20% of the plant species are found nowhere else in the world.
This sensitive habitat came under even greater threat from development last summer, as the University of Miami has sold 80 acres of pine rocklands to a developer to launch a multi-use complex including a Walmart, apartment complex, and various retail establishments. A few months later, an additional 60 acres of this threatened biome was sold to a developer to build a theme park called “Miami Wilds.”
Thankfully, US Department of Fish & Wildlife has stalled development plans, pending proper surveys of the area for endangered flora and fauna, but the pressure of cancerous rates of urban sprawl continue to threaten this rare ecosystem. Florida herbalists are currently cataloging the medicinal uses of some of these rare species, in hopes that by lifting up their medicinal virtues, we can lend to the voice of support and protect this exquisite habitat and its unique medicinal herbs.
Tropical Medicinal Plants with Florida Endangered Status
Adiantum spp. – Maidenhair fern
Alvaradoa amorphoides – Alvaradoa
Canella winterana – Wild cinnamon
Cyrtopodium punctatum – Cowhorn orchid
Guajacum sanctum – Lignum vitae
Polygala smalli – Tiny polygala
Pseudophoenix sargentii - Sargent’s cherry palm
Spiranthes spp. – Ladies’ tresses
Stachys tenuifolia – Narrow-leaved betony
Thelypteris spp. – Creeping star fern
Torreya taxifolia – Florida torreya
Vanilla spp. – Vanilla orchid