South Georgia roadside yields rare wildflower blooms

On the second day of a two-day Georgia Botanical Society field trip in and around the Okefenokee Swamp last weekend, our leader, Rich Reaves, had us in the field by 7 a.m.

Actually, the “field” was a wide, moist, grassy stretch of roadside along a highway near Folkston, deep in South Georgia. Growing there was one of Georgia’s strangest and rarest wildflowers — the dainty, glistening white, night-blooming wild petunia (Ruellia noctiflora).

Rich and his wife Anita already had scouted the roadsides and knew where to find the petunia and other wildflowers that we saw during our “roadside botany” expedition.

The night-blooming petunia, which grows in wet savannahs of Georgia’s coastal plains, produces a single 3-inch-wide flower that opens shortly after sunset and blooms one night only. During that short time, hawk moths sip the flower’s rich nectar and thereby pollinate the plant.

Rich said the blooms still would be open a couple of hours after daybreak, hence the need for an early start. But, by mid-morning, something strange would happen — the flowers would quickly shrivel and fall off their stalks.

Indeed, as we watched under a blazing hot sun the stalks of some of the petunias toppled over and their blooms fell off within a matter of minutes.

The petunia was the rarest plant we saw last weekend, having been “rediscovered” in 2011 after not being seen in Georgia since 1963.

Overall, stretches of highway roadsides (including U.S. 1, 23, 82 and 301 and Ga. 177 and 121) in the vicinity of the Okefenokee and the towns of Folkston, Nahunta and Waycross can be virtual wildflower gardens this time of year.

Our long list of wild roadside blooms also included the deep pink Bartram’s rose gentian; snowy orchid; few-flowered milkweed; large-flowered marsh pink; meadow beauty (several species); and slim-leaf Barbara’s buttons, whose flower head has a stunning, swirling pattern that reminds me of a hurricane spinning over the ocean.

In the sky: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be first-quarter Wednesday. Mercury is low in the east just before dawn. Venus shines brightly in the western sky just after dark and sets about two hours later. Jupiter, the second brightest planet in the sky, is low in the west just after dark and sets a few hours later. It will appear near the moon Saturday and Sunday nights. Saturn is in the southeast just after dark.

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