At the still-moist edge of a depression marsh drying down after a long rainy season, Hammer stooped over a plant perhaps six inches tall with purple petals. The small butterwort seemed rather unremarkable until Hammer explained the meaning of its Latin name, Pinguicula pumila. The first word means “fat” as in the meaty kind, describing the greasy coating on the leaves of this carnivorous plant, a secretion that traps, then digests, insects.
Another dainty lavender-hued flower, the Glades Lobelia, sprouted only a few paces away. It was another kind of killer, producing a toxic narcotic sap that has medicinal uses but also can cause convulsions and even heart failure, Hammer said.
“Some of what is out here is edible,” Hammer said. “Some of it will drop you dead.”
Hammer, who managed the Castellow Hammock Nature Center in the Redland in South Miami-Dade for more than 30 years, is a walking botany book, but he delights more in telling the often colorful histories of seemingly obscure little plants. Some have curious common names, which can vary from region to region, such as tread-softly, fuzzywuzzy airplant, showy rattlebox or man-in-the-ground.
But the real pleasure of thumbing through Hammer’s guide is the way he unravels the mysteries of supposedly dry scientific names. Take the Jamaica Caper, for instance, Capparis cynophallophara. The Latin translates to “like a dog’s phallus.” It makes some sense when you see the flower, but still.
“Some of them are kind of funny,” said Hammer. “You think these are old stodgy botanists but they’ve got some subtle little things they can throw out there to freak people out.”
Still, even with Hammer as a tour guide, wildflower-watching is a not-for-everybody pursuit that will likely never bump bird-watching aside in popularity.
Some Everglades wildflowers — such as the white waterlily, which produce blooms as big as softballs that stand out in the marsh — are easy eye-catchers. But it can be difficult to pick out many wildflowers against a backdrop that overwhelms, Hammer joked, with “all the shades of green and brown.”
Most of the winter blooms in the pine woods are no bigger than a quarter, typically nestled in few and far between niches. They won’t wow most visitors, at least not compared to the sight of a gator lolling in the sun.
The Everglades also tends to hide many of its rarest and most attractive offerings in places most sane people simply do no want to go. Photographing a night-blooming cactus, for instance, Hammer had to crawl into mangroves in the dead of summer.
“I used to tell people I had to throw a rock through the mosquitoes to take the picture,’’ Hammer said.
For Hammer, who at 68 still regularly takes long solo canoe trips through the Everglades, the challenges make the rewards all the better. The key is knowing when and where to look, but even for experts, some things like the Fakahatchee burmania can remain elusive. Two years ago, a colleague photographed the yellow bloom, only a few inches high, under a palmetto frond and kindly sent him the GPS coordinates. Hammer has returned during the same periods four times since but has struck out.
He’ll be back, he said. It took him five years to find one wildflower deep in a swamp.
“It’s a pretty good rush when you finally find something you’ve been looking for,” he said. “You want to look around and yell, “Hey, look at this!’ but then you realize the nearest person is 10 miles away.’’