Mention of the Suwannee River evokes the homesick strains of Stephen Foster's classic tune. Rising in southeastern Georgia's Okefenokee swamp, the Suwannee River winds 35 miles southwest to the Florida border, and continues coursing another 230 miles past the seven Sunshine State counties to the Gulf of Mexico. Several rare and striking flower species witness its journey from their bank-side habitats, according to the Suwannee River Water Management District.
Atamasco lily (Zephyranthes atamasca) is a colonizing perennial standing from 8 to 15 inches high. Growing from a bulb, it has a single, leafless stem above dense, glossy green leaves. Between March and June, a funnel-shaped, white--or occasionally pink--3- to 4-inch flower tops the stem, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Thriving in the wet, shady riverside woods, flood-tolerant Atamasco lily flowers best with humus-rich, acidic (pH below 6.8) soil and up to two hours of direct sun per day.
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) brightens the Suwannee’s woodland banks with its brilliant red spikes of showy spring-to-fall blooms. This bellflower family perennial has upright, 1- to 6-foot stems with lance-shaped, deep green leaves. From May to October, notes the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, hummingbirds flock to its fragrant, tubular flowers. Although consuming large quantities of the plant is toxic, Native Americans once used its roots and leaves in medicinal teas. Cardinal flower demands a moist or wet location but tolerates both sun and shade. It's happiest in loamy, humus-rich soil.
Green Fly Orchid
Growing on magnolia, live oak and other wetland trees along the Suwannee, green fly orchid (Epidendrum magnoliae var. magnoliae) may be hard to spot. It frequently grows in the shelter of Resurrection fern, another epiphytic (taking nutrients and moisture from the air and rain) plant. It has glossy green, lance-shaped leaves. Its long-stemmed clusters of tiny, greenish-gray gnat-like flowers bloom from January to August, states the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Not all the Suwannee River Water Management District's flowering plants are welcome. Classified as an invasive weed, water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipes) is native to South America. A quickly spreading, free-floating plant, it forms dense mats that quickly cover ponds' surfaces, choking out native vegetation and clogging waterways. Each plant stands 6 to 9 inches high and up to 18 inches wide. Water hyacinth plants in calm, sunny water have upright spikes of lavender flowers from June to September. This tender perennial doesn't die back in Florida's mild winters, advises the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.