Stacy, Queen of Thorns

Imagine a species so rare and endangered that the person who named it thought it was extinct. What if you were one of the scientists chosen to save it from extinction? For the last ten years, that’s been the story for Stacy Smith, one of Archbold Biological Station’s plant ecologists. Last month she brought me along to see some science in action.

January 12, 2016 – Stacy and her two assistants invite me to tag along as they set out for their annual survey of a Florida ziziphus (Ziziphus celata) site. As a plant ecologist at Archbold Biological Station, Stacy studies and protects rare species threatened with extinction due to loss of habitat and other problems. Like the Florida ziziphus, most of the plants she works with are only found in one part of Florida, the sandy scrub lands of the Lake Wales Ridge. I already know that Florida ziziphus is a thorny shrub with small leaves, but I have never seen one in the wild and I’m not sure what to expect. After driving north through the towns of Lake Placid, Sebring, Avon Park, and Frostproof, we arrive at a small cattle ranch in Lake Wales, FL. There, on the edge of a cattle pasture, the owners built a protective fence around a small patch of land full of Florida ziziphus. Here the ranchers are protecting one of only fifteen Florida ziziphus populations ever found in the wild. These populations have somehow survived. They have beaten the odds. Stacy, the team, and I all know that these surviving populations are more precious than any gold or money, for they are the last of an entire species. Stacy’s crew gets to work surveying the population, a task that will take a few hours.


Stacy Smith records data on the endangered Florida ziziphus. At eight months pregnant, she is still leading her team for a morning of field work.



Archbold Biological Station biologists gather data on the endangered Florida ziziphus.

Gloves and protective clothes are a must when working with ziziphus. The plants may need the scientist’s help, but the sharp thorns don’t make it easy. The team must get in close to count stems. The ziziphus population looks impressive, with what appears to be hundreds of healthy plants all around us, some as tall as a person. Many of them are even flowering. If their flowers mature into healthy fruits with healthy seeds, it could mean a future for the species! Maybe Florida black bears will find and eat the tasty fruit, and spread the seeds as they travel.

Unfortunately, Stacy informs me that all the Florida ziziphus at the ranch are too closely related to each other to pollinate and make fruit. In fact, this whole population may actually be just one plant, which spread itself by sending underground stems that popped up here and there. If this entire patch did grow from a single seed, how long ago did that happen?  Fifty years? One hundred? A thousand? No one knows. And how long has it been waiting for a partner plant to pollinate with? Again, we don’t know. But the good news is – and it is very good news – that Stacy and other scientists are working together to play matchmaker for the Florida ziziphus.


The endangered Florida ziziphus has small leaves and many thorns.


The flower of an endangered Florida ziziphus.


The flowers of the Florida ziziphus are very small.  Seen here next to a quarter.

Almost all of the wild populations of Florida ziziphus are unable to produce fruit and seeds. The main problem is that today’s survivors are just too far away from each other.  So, how do scientists play matchmaker? They bring the plants together. Scientists are trying this using three different methods: 1) Breeding them in captivity to provide offspring for the wild, 2) Bringing plants to locations with existing populations so they can mix with each other, and 3) Planting in new locations to create new populations. So far, scientists have created a Florida ziziphus nursery at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, enhanced four wild populations, and started six entirely new wild populations! In all, they have planted over 1,ooo new Florida ziziphus in the wild.


Stacy smith moves in close to gather data on Florida ziziphus.  A Gopher Tortoise burrow can be seen in the bottom right.

Right now, Archbold Biological Station has an additional one hundred healthy potted Florida ziziphus ready and waiting for Stacy to plant this summer. It takes time to save a species, and the work is far from finished, but the future is looking brighter than ever thanks to Archbold’s researchers and the other scientists and landowners who believe in the Florida ziziphus.

A final thought to consider. What gifts will the Florida ziziphus bring to us and our wild places if we can save them?  What would our world lose if it were gone? In other parts of the world, where other species of ziziphus grow, their fruits provide food for people and some ziziphus are even honored as a special plant by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Here in Florida, our ziziphus is still mostly a mystery. What does it mean to you?


Plant Ecologist Stacy Smith poses with a potted Florida ziziphus, on of the rarest plants in the USA.

Photography and text by Dustin Angell, Education Coordinator at Archbold Biological Station

Further Reading:

Read more about Archbold Biological Station’s Plant Ecology Program here.

Stacy’s ziziphus mentor, Carl Weekly started Archbold Biological Station’s work on Florida ziziphus. Check out a great article he wrote about Florida ziziphus here.

Read more about Bok Tower Garden’s Rare Plant Conservation Program here.

Read about the long history of people and ziziphus here.