The dune plant community.

Canaveral National Seashore is a utopia for botanists. Over 1,000 species of plants have been recorded in the park and surrounding area. Because of its location along the "frost line", Canaveral contains a unique combination of temperate and subtropical plants. Several temperate species extend no farther south than Canaveral National Seashore, while a number of subtropical species occur no farther north. Signs of this unusual mixture include the hammocks, which contain an overstory dominated by temperate species and an understory comprised of subtropical plants. Another sign is the significant shift in vegetation along the edge of the lagoon from salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), which predominates in coastal areas north of the park, to mangrove species which predominant to the south.

Primary plant communities include coastal dune featuring sea oats (Uniola paniculata), beach grass (Panicum amarum), railroad vine (Ipomea pes-caprae) and other herbs; coastal strand lying behind the dune, dominated by a dense growth of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera), myrsine (Myrsine guianensis) and a variety of other shrubs; oak scrub including several live oak species (Quercus myrtifolia, Q. chapmanii, Q. geminata), fetterbush (Lyonia spp) and blueberry (Vaccinium myrsinites); slash pine flatwoods with a slash pine (Pinus elliottii) overstory and live oak, saw palmetto and fetterbush understory; hardwood and palm hammocks, dominated by live oak (Quercus virginiana) or cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto) overstory with other woody species such as nakedwood (Myrcianthes fragrans), red bay (Persea borbonia), hackberry (Celtis laevigata) scattered throughout, mangrove swamps featuring white (Lagunicularia racemosa), black (Avicennia germinans), and red (Rhizophora mangle) mangroves plus buttonwood (Conocarpus erecta) and salt marsh dominated by glasswort (Salicornia spp), saltwort (Batis maritima), saltgrass (Disticilus spicata) and black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus).

In the early 1970's a botanical survey of Turtle Mound, an archeological site located in the north end of the park, revealed that the mound was the northernmost location for eight species of subtropical plants. These included torchwood (Amyris elemifera), marine vine/sorrel vine (Cissus trifoliata), night blooming cereus (Cereus eriophorus), inkwood (Exothea paniculata), scorpion-tail (Heliotropum angiospermum), mastic (Mastichodendron foetidissimum), lancewood (Nectandra coriacea) and (Schoepfia chrysophylliodes). A follow up study twenty years later showed that several of these species vanished due to multiple freezes in the 1980's.

Sand Dunes
A Prickly Pear Cactus on the back side of the dune.

Sand Dunes

Dunes are the backbone of a barrier island, providing stability in a constantly shifting environment. While some beaches have several parallel dune ridges, Canaveral National Seashore only has one. This dune intercepts the wave action, wind abrasion, and salt spray, sheltering the plant communities which lie inland and protecting the mainland from flooding and erosion. The dune also provides valuable habitat for a number of protected species, including the southeastern beach mouse, eastern indigo snake, and gopher tortoise (More can be learned about these unique species under Animals/Mammals and Reptiles).

Canaveral's dune tends to be steep on the ocean side and gradually sloped on the landward side. Plants growing on the dune play a critical role in anchoring the sand. Canaveral is very fortunate in this aspect. Botanists rave about the dense growth of plants, particularly on the landward or back side of the dune. Common species growing on the front part of the dune include railroad vine (Ipomoea pes-caprae), seaside bean (Canavalia rosea), beach morning glory (Ipomoea imperati), beach elder (Iva imbricata) and sea oats (Uniola paniculata). Sea oats plays a particularly vital role in anchoring the dune. Adapted to the dynamic environment, it is actually stimulated to grow when buried in sand and sends an extensive network of roots deep into the sand. Because of this, it is illegal to pick sea oats in Florida. Common plants along the backside of the dune include sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera), prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) and saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Sea grape is very distinctive because of the large, oval, leathery leaves and, in season, by the large clusters of grape-like fruits, which make excellent jelly. Dune plant communities are very fragile. Repeatedly walking across a dune can damage the vegetation and open the way for accelerated erosion. To protect the dune from foot traffic by over one million visitors a year, the park has constructed boardwalks from its 18 parking areas to the beach. The park is known for its boardwalks; managers from other beaches visit to examine their design. The park has also taken several steps to restore overwashed and eroded dune areas, including installation of dune fencing to catch blowing sand and planting native vegetation to anchor accumulating sand.

Last updated: December 12, 2017

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