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The "Pitcher" Perfect Hike: Discovering Florida’s Carnivorous Plants

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

While full-time RVing in Perdido Key, near Pensacola, Florida, I read about a beautiful state park close by that has four species of endangered carnivorous plants. I’ve always been fascinated by them, so we decided to take a hike through Tarkiln-Bayou Preserve State Park to find these rare and endangered plants and get some fresh air and sunshine. The park is also home to around 100 other rare plants and animals such as alligator snapping turtles, gopher tortoises, bobcats, deer, opossums, raccoons, and birds.

Interesting fact: Tarkiln-Bayou state park gets its name from the tar kilns that were used in the 1800’s to process the sap that came from the southern yellow pines in the area. Pine pitch was an important resource at that time for medicines, soaps, and for use on boats.

You can have a picnic at the small pavilion before you hike, and outhouse-style restrooms are available near the parking lot. Fishing is also allowed in the park if you have a license. There are two hiking trails to choose from: the half-mile Tarkiln-Bayou trail, or the 6.5 mile Perdido Bay trail, which takes you all the way to the Bayshore beaches. The park is open everyday from 8:00 a.m. to sunset. It’s a $3 entrance fee for cars, and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists.

It’s a dog-friendly state park, so we were able to bring our little Havanese, Zorro, who loved exploring (sniffing and marking) the trails with us.

This is a 4,920 acre state park with a shorter trail through pine forest and palmettos that leads to a boardwalk from which you can see a wet bog/prairie area with hundreds of pitcher plants.

The most prevalent carnivorous plant in the wet prairie during our visit was the rare, white-topped pitcher plant, which is found only on the Gulf coast between the Appalachicola and Mississippi rivers.

We visited in the golden hour before sunset, so the tubal flowers of the pitcher plants were lit up by the sun and some of them seemed to glow.

We watched flies landing on them and walking down the tube to their deaths. You could see dark spots lower down in the tubes where the plants were digesting the flies.

Tarkiln-Bayou is home to four species of endangered pitcher plants: white-topped, parrot, purple, and red. The white-topped is most commonly seen in the park. The rapid development in the area and fragmentation of forests has led to the pitcher plants being placed on the endangered species list. Because the soil there is low in nutrients, the pitcher plants have adapted to this by becoming carnivorous and using modified leaves called “pitchers” to catch their insect prey.

The tubes are deadly to insects: They are attracted by the color of the red veins, the sweet, fragrant scent of the nectar, and a sticky secretion that is irresistible to insects on the lip of the plant. They fall into a digestive fluid at the bottom of the tube, where they decompose and the plant absorbs the nutrients. Pitcher plants have a showy red, umbrella-like flower that attracts bees to pollinate them.

Pitcher plants and many other plant species in the park are fire-dependent and will not thrive without frequent fires, so the park does prescribed burns from time to time to ensure a healthy environment for the plants and trees. You can see the evidence of previous burns on many of the trees as you hike.

After you reach the pitcher plant bog, the boardwalk leads out to a lovely vista over a bayou that connects to the bay. Dolphins are sometimes spotted in the bayou.

If you’re feeling more energetic and adventurous, you can take a much longer hike to Perdido bay, but you may need wading boots. When we visited, the trail was underwater up past our ankles. Since we had our dog, we opted not to take this path.

The pine forest was incredibly tranquil and quiet. No road noise, and very few people. Most visitors we encountered had brought their dogs for a peaceful walk. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but we did encounter some pretty woodpeckers, songbirds, and some frogs and toads enjoying the rain puddles.

Tiny oak toads hopped along the trail, and my daughter was delighted to see a large spotted leopard frog leaping from puddle to puddle. We stopped to take a photo of it, as we don’t see this species of frog very often.

Even with the puddles, we didn’t have any issues in June with mosquitoes, but we did encounter some biting deer flies that made their presence known!

The golden light of sunset filtering through the pines made this hike so lovely, as it seemed the pine grove was aglow.

The sound of the wind in the pines was very calming, and the smell of fresh pine needles was fragrant after the rain. The bird song in the pines was so soothing as we walked along enjoying all the wildflowers.

Tarkiln-Bayou Preserve State Park is a wonderful escape from the busy beaches and bustling city of Pensacola. If you need a peaceful nature retreat while visiting Pensacola or Perdido Key, put this lovely state park on your nature activity list. Happy hiking!

Copyright @ 2023 Love Wild Nature, Lorien Villucci Nature Photography


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