Friday, October 15, 2021

Sunflower Power at Pepper Ranch

Photos by Maria Lamb | Calusa Garden Club members visit the
Pepper Ranch spectacular sunflower display.
From left: Lindy Kowalczyk, Sue Oldershaw, Barbara Messner, Liz Papagiannis and Kathy McNabb.

Each year, during the first week of October, Pepper Ranch is blanketed with the spectacular yellow and gold colors of the Southeastern Sunflower (Helianthus agrestis). This rare wildflower variety can grow up to six feet tall and may have up to 15 flower heads per stalk. Also known as the prairie sunflower, the Southeastern Sunflower grows best in wet pinelands and flooded grasslands throughout Florida and Georgia. The blooms at Pepper Ranch vary from year to year due to variables like rain, water levels, mowing and grazing. Even with a smaller bloom for the October 2019 season, the mass of sunflowers brightened the wild open vistas of the surrounding ranchlands.

All sunflowers come from the genus Helianthushelio, meaning sun and anthos, meaning flower. The species at Pepper Ranch are mostly wild and naturally occurring.

When Conservation Collier acquired Pepper Ranch in 2009, it was overgrown with invasive, exotic vegetation. The county removed and treated the exotic plants throughout the preserve in an ongoing effort to restore and protect existing habitat.

Conservation Collier was created in 2002 out of a stakeholder-driven campaign by the Conservancy, other environmental groups and concerned citizens. They identified a need for more urban and other greenspaces throughout Collier County. In 2002, voters approved a ballot referendum, and again in 2006, to tax themselves .25 mil in ad valorem collections for funding the acquisition and management of conservation lands.

In 2009, Collier County acquired the 2,512 acres at Pepper Ranch Preserve near Immokalee and Lake Trafford. The citizens of Collier County are now the proud owners of Pepper Ranch.

History: The Pepper Ranch Preserve is located in northeastern Collier County, west of the town of Immokalee. It provides an historical window into the lifestyle of a Florida ranching family in the early part of the twentieth century.

Most of the ranch as it exists today was transformed by Frank Pepper and his family. The land was farmed by tenants, growing peppers, corn, melons and more. Hunting was a favorite pastime, with quail the primary target.

Oil exploration and extraction began in 1987. Oil rights for two quarter-sections remain privately owned and active extraction operations are ongoing. The remainder of the oil, gas and mineral rights are now held by Collier County and today produces about 200 barrels of oil per day.

About 600 acres of pasture at the Preserve is still a working ranch, and cattle grazing helps control the invasive exotic plants.

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