Picture vast glorious fields of yellow sunflowers stretching on and on.
Kansas? The Dakotas? No, Florida.
The blossoms of the southeastern sunflower, which grows only in Florida and Georgia, is a sure sign of fall in Florida, and in some places, field after field blazes with yellow each fall.
But if you want to gaze on the golden fields of southeastern sunflower, you can’t put it off, because the flowers stay in bloom for just two or three weeks.
A good place to see southeastern sunflowers is a relatively new and little-known preserve near Immokalee called Pepper Ranch Preserve.
Pepper Preserve’s sunflowers are truly something to see, according to Alexandra Sulecki, coordinator of the Conservation Collier Program.”There are fields and fields of them,” she said. “It’s just a stunning display.”
To see the sunflowers, you can drive through the preserve and stop along the way to take photos and see the flowers up close. (At this time of year the trails are too wet and the preserve doesn’t open for hiking until early November.)
The preserve is open two Friday, Saturday and Sunday weekends for sunflower-viewing in 2018 — Sept. 28-30 and Oct. 5-7.
The native southeastern sunflower is an annual herb with the scientific name Helianthus agrestis. Dozens of the small daisy-like flowers blossom on a branched plant that can grow 9 feet tall and can spread to cover open marshes, particularly following a fire.
They’re quite common in Florida, so be on the lookout for them on roadsides throughout Florida in coming weeks.
When you visit Pepper Ranch Preserve, you will be exploring a historic slice of Old Florida. The ranch was founded by Frank Jefferson Pepper, who was born in Cherry Creek, Nevada, in 1880, to a ranching family. (His father knew Jesse James and Wyatt Earp among other colorful frontier characters.)
The Peppers farmed and ranched the land, eventually selling oil rights to sections where there are still active oil wells. The land was acquired by Collier County in 2009 because of its critical role in the environment, which includes prime habitat for endangered species, including the Florida panther, as well as pristine cypress swamps and marshes.
A hunting lodge built by the Peppers in the 1950s serves as the visitor center for the preserve, which is open only on weekends from October through May (excluding holidays and weekends when hunting is offered.)
Once the preserve opens, there are several miles of hiking trails, including a boardwalk and overlook at Tafford Lake. Mountain biking and tent camping is also available on weekends when the park is open.
Pepper Ranch Preserve
- Admission to the preserve is free. Visitors must check in at the visitors’ center to receive a daily permit and gate entrance code that will allow them to drive the scenic ranch road. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the sunflower weekends.
- Directions to Pepper Ranch Preserve, 6315 Pepper Road: From Immokalee, take SR 29/Main Street north to Lake Trafford Road. Turn left and travel 2.9 miles to Pepper Road. Turn right and travel 0.9 miles to Pepper Ranch Preserve. Entrance is on the left.
- Details about visiting the park.
- If you visit Pepper Ranch Preserve, be sure to walk out to the overlook at Lake Trafford, a surprisingly large (1500 acres) lake that is a popular fishing spot. The overlook is just beyond the visitor center.
- A map of Pepper Ranch Preserve with trails indicated. (All trails are muddy/underwater in early fall.)
Other places to see Florida’s wild sunflowers
- Lake Jessup Conservation Area near Orlando and Sanford. Here’s a photographer’s description of finding this spot.
- Naples’ Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Quite near Pepper Ranch Preserve, this Audubon preserve also has fields of sunflowers. A small display is viewable from the boardwalk, but there are larger fields that are not accessible.