Living Color

By staff October 1, 2005

When ill-starred adventurer Ponce de Leon trudged ashore in 1513 to claim a tropical paradise for God and Spain, he christened the land that lay before him "Pascua Florida"-feast of flowers.

Landfall was on the east coast, just above the Indian River. We can only guess which flowers he found there. But whatever they were, they would surely have been plentiful even though it was Easter, since wildflowers bloom year-round on the Florida peninsula.

Even if Ponce had thoroughly documented what he found, it might still be misleading. In the 16th century, many wildflowers were referred to by their common names, which varied from region to region. It fell to Carolus Linnaeus, over two centuries later, to sort plants and animals into manageable classifications and assign them scientific names in Latin.

Having tidied up both botany and zoology, Linnaeus couldn't resist classifying his fellow naturalists. Last on his list was "the botanophil," defined as "the sort of naturalist much given to exclamation." In other words, the amateur. It was the botanophil, I suspect, who christened the meadow beauty, the morning glory, and the blazing star, Florida wildflowers that grow more lovely the more closely they're scrutinized.

The common names of many Florida wildflowers are problematic, if not downright puzzling. Some, like floating bladderwort, are amenable to interpretation. "Bladder" refers to the air sacs that keep the little carnivorous plant afloat, while "wort" is from the old English wyrt, meaning root.

But what about toadflax? This member of the snapdragon family, with delicate lavender flowers on long, slender stalks, in no way resembles a toad. Someone a long, long time ago must have hated that flower.

But names don't have to make sense. All they really have to do is provide a context, a launch pad for learning more. If they happen to be memorable, and stick to your mind like beggar's lice to a pant leg, so much the better.

This is a small selection from a dazzling variety of flowering plants found in public parks, roadsides and backyards throughout Southwest Florida. It's not a comprehensive guide, just crumbs from a lavish banquet, a pascua florida of epic proportions. One request: Look, don't pick! Save these flowers for the birds, the bees and the next botanophil.

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