Admiration of northeast Florida is usually over its wonderful beaches and the majestic St Johns River, but for me it’s our area’s unique wildflowers. One in particular is a rare and beautiful iris, the Bartram’s Ixia, Calydorea caelestina. Named after famous explorer and botanist William Bartram, who in the spring of 1774 was the first European botanist to discover this enchanting iris. In his popular book, Bartram’s Travels, he describes his first experience discovering the incredible flower in mass bloom, “Behold the azure fields of cerulean Ixea!” a phenomena that occurs due to this flower’s natural relationship with wildfire on the Florida landscape and its propensity to bloom in breathtaking displays after these fires have cleared the land.
After William Bartram published his findings, botanists searched unsuccessfully for Bartram’s ixia. It wasn’t located again until 1931 when John Kunkel Small, an early botanical explorer who specialized in documenting Florida’s ecosystems and plants, proved it still existed.
Since then, out of the 60 or more reported Bartram’s ixia populations, most have not been seen recently and only a few are found in conservation areas. Making this iris vulnerable to extinction throughout its range. Fortunately, recent sightings in south Duval and Clay counties are all in conservation areas well managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District.
Bartram’s ixia is found in one of Florida’s most widespread natural communities called pine flatwoods, which are characterized by an open canopy of LongLeaf pine and a low understory layer of grasses and herbs. These ecosystems have some of the highest plant and animal diversity in the southeastern United States due to seasonal fires, which clear out the faster growing shrubs and trees that would shade out the understory. Making Florida a global biodiversity hotspot.
Where it Blooms
Bartram’s ixia is notoriously hard to find. When not in bloom it’s in a “grass leaf” stage and blends in well with surrounding wire grasses and other vegetation. By fall the Bartram’s ixia will go dormant and can wait for many years for fire to clear out vegetation. The best time to find it in flower is from mid April to June and following 1 to 2 months after prescribed fire. If you’re not keen on waking early and braving the steamy summer dew you’ll most likely miss it in bloom. It’s an early riser. Flowers start to open at dawn and are withering away from the summer heat by around 10 a.m.
Bartram’s ixia is endemic to northeast Florida, which means it is not found anywhere else in the world. It’s also a state listed endangered plant species. If you’re lucky enough to find this rare gem, consider its history and role in the ecosystem. Having reverence for our native flora and fauna will have a lasting impact for future generations to come.
The mission of the Florida Native Plant Society is to promote the preservation, conservation, and restoration of the native plants and native plant communities of Florida. The Ixia Chapter serves the northeast Florida counties of Clay, Duval and Nassau. Their chapter is named for this lovely wildflower in the Iris family that is endemic to northeastern Florida.