AVON PARK - The inaugural Pygmy Fringe Tree Wildflower Festival was held March 13-15 at four locations in Highlands and Polk counties: South Florida State College, Bok Tower Gardens, Archbold Biological Station and Tiger Creek Preserve.
The festival celebrating the rare and unique wildflowers indigenous to the Lake Wales Ridge included nature walks, live music, a plant sale, a student art contest and an art exhibit at South Florida State College Museum of Florida Art and Culture.
"Inspiration for the festival is the Pygmy Fringe Tree, which is highly endangered and only grows in a few counties in Florida in very limited stands. It is rare, it is incredibly beautiful, and it's right across the street," said Mollie Doctrow, MOFAC's curator and director of the wildflower festival.
The Pygmy Fringe is a small tree or endemic shrub that only grows to six feet in height. It has clusters of small, delicate, white flowers that have a sweet smell.
With the rare Pygmy Fringe Tree at the height of its three to four week blooming season, guided walks along the Wildflower Wayside Shrine Trail, located just off College Drive at SFSC, were offered every half-hour during the event's free kick-off on March 13.
The half-mile trail, which is sugar sand and hard-packed dirt, has six cypress wood shrine boxes that were created by Doctrow to honor and identify the endangered plant species located on the college's property. The boxes, designed in the fashion of Indian shrine boxes, open to reveal botanical drawings, plant information and guest signature books.
Three additional shrine boxes can be found at the continuation of the Wildflower Wayside Shrine Trail at Archbold Biological Station, located at 123 Main Drive in Venus.
"We really wanted to celebrate the wildflowers on the Lake Wales Ridges, to celebrate the beauty of this area," Doctrow said.
She described the Lake Wales Ridge as a scrubland containing approximately 40 species of endangered and threatened plants and animals. The 150 mile stretch of mid-state highlands has elevations that reach up to 300 feet above sea level and usually receive about 50 inches of annual rainfall.
"We just recently got a sponsorship from the Florida Wildflower Foundation, a $500 grant to help with the festival," Doctrow said. Other event sponsors included the Champion for Children Foundation, Anne and Charles Reynolds, Lorida Ignition and the Florida Native Plant Society.
Live country folk music was provided for the festival's opening day by Back Porch Revival, while the SFSC Art Club sold refreshments, and Robbins Nursery held a plant sale with a percentage of sales going to MOFAC.
One of the highlights of the festival was the exhibit at the college museum titled "Wild and Places Between," featuring the vividly colored landscapes of Dennis Aufiery as well as art and photographs by other area artists. The exhibit runs through May 2.
"The Wildflower Student Art Contest and Exhibition" offered artwork related to the festival's theme that was submitted by students from participating schools throughout Highlands County. The exhibit will be on display in buildings A and B at SFSC until May 2.
"This (festival) happened because of the collaboration of the other people who agreed to do guided-walks at their sites," Doctrow said. "We have coordinated these walks at different sites so people can have a guide, so they can get out and see what's blooming."
On March 14, Bok Tower Gardens land stewart, Katrina Noland, shared information on native Florida flora as she guided 60 participants along the Gardens' Preserve Trail. She said the event was "well received."
"It is all about the wildflowers for us," said Brian Ososky, Bok Tower's director of marketing and public relations. "We had great weather. More people came out than we expected."
Participants in the Bok Tower's wildflower walk were required to pay the gate entrance fee of $12 for adults and $3 for children 5 to 12 years old.
Archbold Biological Station held a trail walk at their preserve beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 15. About 30 people attended the one hour and forty five minute hike led by plant ecologist Stacy Smith.
"For us, this fits well into our calendar of public events; we do two or three events each month during the season," said Dustin Angell, Archbold's education coordinator. "We don't have the Pygmy Fringe in our landscape here. Even though we are only 35 miles from the college and both have scrub, you have different flowers in both locations."
Guided trail walks were also available on March 15 in Lake Wales at the Tiger Creek Preserve - Saddle Blanket Scrub, which is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy.
"We did this as a test, a trial run. It seems that people came and really liked it," Doctrow said.