You can find this rare flower only in South Florida. Here’s where

You can find this rare flower only in South Florida.  Here’s where

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There is an endangered species of flower that has only been growing in the bushes of South Florida for about a century.

The rare four-petaled pawpaw in Martin County and Palm Beach County has never grown in abundance, but there are now about 22% fewer four-petaled pawpaws than there were 14 years ago in 2009.

The plant was listed as federally endangered in 1986, and there are now 1,400 four-petaled pawpaw plants left in the wild.

A 1988 survey found that about 900 papaya plants were threatened with extinction in 16 natural areas throughout the Palm Beaches and Martin County. Conservation efforts brought that number to 1,800 plants in 21 different locations between Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast in 2009. Since then, an estimated 400 plants have been lost to real estate development.

Here’s what the four-petal papaya flower is, when it blooms and where you can find it.

Conservation experts explain: The last four-petaled papaya plants are in South Florida and they need help to survive

Are four-petaled papaya fruits edible?

The fruit produced by the four-petal pawpaw flower is a favorite snack for gopher tortoises and small mammals, such as mice. But you may not want to eat it after you smell it. Some say it can smell slightly like root beer, but more often than not it smells like rotting bananas.

The four-petaled pawpaw grows on shrubs with upright, woody stems that remain bare in winter and produce bright green leaves in spring. The shrubs can reach 10 feet tall and are a member of the custard apple family.

The four-petaled flowers have a cream outer color and a deep red center, which distinguishes them from the flowers of other pawpaw plants. Ladybugs are the largest contributors to pollinating this rare flower, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service, and the plant is also known to host zebra swallowtail butterflies.

The fruit that follows the flowering of the four-petaled pawpaw, called monocarpal, often has an unpleasant, rotten smell and looks like small berries. A single papaya flower can produce up to eight monocarpals.

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Where is the home of the four-petaled papaya bird?

The four-petaled pawpaw has only been recorded in sand pine scrub growing along ancient sand dune ridges in Palm Beach County and Martin County. The flowering season begins from approximately February through summer and peaks from May through June.

In Palm Beach County, you can see the four-petaled pawpaw in bloom along one of two protected hiking trails in the Juno Dunes Natural Area in Juno Beach. Pawpaws can be found on Juno Dunes West Road.

Just an 18-minute drive north will bring you to another papaya-populated place in Martin County. Jonathan Dickinson State Park includes about 100 four-petaled pawpaw plants across 10,500 acres.

Why is the four-petaled papaya considered endangered?

Other than the fact that the plant is picky when it comes to habitat, there are three main reasons why the four-petaled pawpaw bush and its flowers are in danger.

  1. real estate development: A large portion of the few four-petaled papaya plants were already growing on private land developed in the past few decades. Only plants found in natural and protected areas have the best chance of survival.
  2. Lack of habitat protection: In parallel with the first reason, the existence of the four-petaled pawpaw is threatened by the lack of protection of its habitat. Aside from growing in the wild on the dune ridges of Juno Beach and Jonathan Dickinson State Park, conservation efforts for the four-petal pawpaw continue at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, Florida. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. Bok Tower Gardens hosts a live population of four-petal pawpaws, and the Cincinnati Botanical Garden conducts propagation research using tissue cultures from the plant.
  3. Fire is not enough: Oddly enough, this plant not only survives harsh conditions like forest fires, but needs them to thrive. Lack of controlled burning could threaten the four-petal papaya population. The plant has adapted to burning and grows best when there is no tree canopy casting too much shade from above. Its strong, deep root allows it to survive and thrive in the presence of fire. Four-petaled papaya shrubs actually produce more fruit and flowers after controlled burns.

What can we do to save plants? how can I help

Ongoing conservation efforts are working to protect the future of this endangered plant, including breeding efforts at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and a demographic study being conducted on more than 150 four-petaled shrubs at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

You can actually sponsor a rare plant, like the four-petaled papaya, by donating to the Plant Conservation Center and identifying a plant that will help.

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