For the second time in six months, I visited Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarian Reserve (GTM) in Ponte Vedra, Florida. The northern beach area pictured below contains the highest dunes in Florida along with dozens of other unique and delicate communities that are home to 580 plant species - 8 of which are protected.
Most of what comprises this area is categorized as beach dunes, which are barren, xeric, well-drained soils. Much of the sand it comprised of shell fragments, which makes the sand of GTM so soft and unique. When I visited over the summer, loggerhead sea turtle nests were blockaded off for protection.
Beach dune communities are categorized as being wind deposited mixed with wave-formed beach upland that is predominately populated with pioneer species, particularly the above-mentioned sea oats (Uniola paniculata). Beach dunes are of course in close proximity to the ocean so its plant communities must be highly tolerant of salt much like sea oats.
Another highly salt-tolerant species had me reminiscing back to my days in North Dakota's prairie cordgrass fields. This prairie cordgrass relative saltmeadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) is another indicator species of the beach dune community - again, another salt tolerant species.
Further, another salt tolerant graminoid - saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) was not hard to spot throughout the reserve and the keys. I saw this species in North Dakota - saltgrass is also tolerant to alkali conditions. A good fodder for cattle, saltgrass is cultivated using saline irrigation systems in some areas of the country.
Traveling into the grassy barren lands of the beach dunes, you will quickly notice two cacti species - the most plentiful being cockspur pricklypear (Opuntia pusilla). You may find this one painfully by accident like I did. Unlike other cacti species, the thorns of cockspur prickly pear are barbed and can be embedded in the skin - trust me, I know :). In addition, the segments can easily detatch as a means of dissemination. This species, like other Opuntia spp., suffers from the infestation of the invasive cactus moth (Cactoblastis cactorum).
The other cactus species you will find is the nobel erect pricklypear (Opuntia stricta). Both species are relatives of Ohio's only cactus species, eastern pricklypear (Opuntia humifusa). This species has become a serious problem in other countries and has prompted the release of the aforementioned cacti moth, which has hurt this plant in its native distribution.
Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella) can be seen throughout the beach dune community as well. This species is widespread but different from the northern species (G. aristata) I encountered in most prairies throughout North Dakota. Like its relative, G. pulchella is highly drought tolerant and prefers well-drained soil. G. pulchella differs morphologically by being more red than yellow, unlike its northern relative.
Tread softly or "finger rot" (Cnidoscolus stimulosus) is a nasty little poisonous plant of the Euphorbiaceae family. It is not a true nettle but its hairs can cause a severe rash to some. This little plant prefers well drained soils and is often found in coastal dune habitat throughout the south.
Much like the cacti, this thistle stuck out like a sore thumb among the beach dune plants. I've never seen such a robust thistle than this horrible thistle (Cirsium horridulum). Look at all those spines! It's no wonder why this species is named the way it is.
Guana Tolomato Matanzas will continue to keep me coming back for its soft wave-tumbled shell beaches, luch biodiversity, and vast continuum of blue-green water colors. Not to mention, this section of beach never fails to line my pockets with shark teeth. This is one of the prettiest areas I've ever been to - another hidden gem of Florida.