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Ceratiola ericoides, known as Florida rosemary, sandhill rosemary and sand heath, is an evergreen shrub that grows on dunes, infertile sandy dry areas and scrub along the southeastern coast of the United States. It is native to open, exposed areas from North Carolina south through Florida, and to the gulf coast west to Mississippi. It is common in its range, although it is protected in Georgia, where it is listed by the state as threatened. Its habitat, however, is fragile and declining.
Named after European rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Florida rosemary superficially resembles this well-known cooking herb. However, the two are not closely related. While European rosemary is in the mint family (Laminaceae), Florida rosemary is in the heath family (Ericaceae). Especially during hot periods, Florida rosemary gives off a distinctive, honey-like fragrance, but the plant is not edible.
Florida rosemary commonly occurs together with sand pine and/or species of oak. It grows in areas too harsh for many other species. Its needle-like leaves help reduce water loss, and shallow roots take advantage of surface water from brief rain showers and condensation. It grows as a highly branched shrub up to 2 meters (6 feet) in height, dome-shaped to withstand wind and blowing sand. Florida rosemary is dioecious, which means individual plants produce either female or male flowers, not both. The tiny flowers bloom in spring, summer and fall as a cluster along the branches at the leaf axils (where the leaves attach to the branch). Wind transfers the pollen from male flowers (which are red-brown in color) to the light yellow flowers on the female plants. In the fall, pollinated female flowers produce a fleshy, light yellow drupe berry about 3 mm in diameter, which contains two seeds.
The roots, shoots and leaf litter of Florida rosemary plants release an “allelochemical” called ceratolin into the ground. Ceratolin inhibits the germination of surrounding seeds. Suppressing nearby plant growth (called allelopathy) ensures that the Florida rosemary shrub does not compete with other plants that might overgrow or shade it. Thus sandy gaps in the vegetation surround each plant. Florida rosemary shrubs can live up more than 50 years, and are only mature and able to produce seed after 10 years. Like many plants in the sandpine scrub habitat, Florida rosemary is adapted to regenerate after forest fires, which occur on a regular, patchy basis. The shrubs themselves die after burning. In the ground below, the dormant seeds are stimulated by fire or disturbance to replace them. Seeds can survive 2-8 years underground before germinating.
Florida rosemary provides nesting habitat and cover for a variety of birds, including the endangered Florida scrub jay, northern cardinal, grey catbird, yellow-rumped warbler, common yellowthroat, and mourning dove. Birds feed on the fruit and disperse the seeds. Harvester ants and mice also eat the seeds. In central Florida, the Florida rosemary habitat is important for the endangered Florida Sand Skink. It is sometimes available from nurseries for xeriscaping (landscaping with the goal of eliminating the need for watering) and for wildlife benefits.
(Chafin 2007; Floridata 2015; Hunter and Menges 2002; Johnson 1982; Menges 2014; Snyder 2015)