By Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.
October 7, 2021
I often write about short road trips emanating from my home on Amelia Island and often these involve staying a night or two away in some rural area of Florida or Georgia. But if you want to see great rural areas you don’t need to go any further than our own hinterlands.
One recent day, after seeing Facebook reports on the blooming roadside flowers in the western part of Nassau County I decided to take a mini-road trip to see them. I headed north on highway 17, then west on county road 108 and on to Hilliard and beyond. It didn’t take long on 108 to start seeing wildflowers. Here and there tall spikes of goldenrod and daisy-like yellow swamp sunflowers were highlighted by beautiful purple flowers that I couldn’t identify, but enjoyed seeing. And soon the tall flower stalks of purple Liatris flowers will hit the scene too adding even more contrasting colors.
In other places the road edges were dominated by Spanish needle plants, these gangly looking “weeds” that are early colonizers of disturbed land and reward us with lots of Gulf fritillary butterflies that rival monarchs with their orange, black and white coloration. This year our road edges seem to be covered in these plants with their small white flowers with yellow centers and their accompanying butterflies. Spanish needle is the third most reliable source of nectar for native insects. And it turns out that both the leaves and flowers are edible and are purported to have a myriad of medicinal uses that you can find out about in simple Google searches. My own garden is often overrun with these plants, but since I want to attract butterflies and bees, I keep some around. And now that I’ve Googled them I know I can even eat the ones I weed out, if I so dare.
I continued my drive through the town of Hilliard and on to Highway 121 that parallels the St. Marys River at the western edge of Nassau County, where I headed south, passing the location of Connor’s Amazing Acres, which is open for visitors now on weekends in October. If you have children and want a healthy way to spend some time outdoors, this place is for you. For a somewhat hefty admission price (around $20) there is a lot to entertain the family, with wagon and pony rides, a corn maze, friendly farm animals and more. Check out their website (https://connerscornmaze.com/) for more information but do it quickly before their October Fall Farm Days close for the season. And, hey, you might want to pair this visit with one to the Northeast Florida Fair that is held out in West Nassau County from October 14 to 24.
On my drive this day I couldn’t go this far without crossing over to the Georgia side at St. George and heading north again to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge just south of Folkston, another great place to visit this time of year, with its own shows of wildflowers and less noxious insects then in the hotter previous months. The five mile long loop driving road here is a great place to look for alligators, birds, and scenic vistas of pine trees and swampland. This time I didn’t see any gators, but the scenery was uplifting as always.
Coming home again I cut across Georgia on highway 40 to Kingsland to make a stop M & A’s Seafood Market, a new favorite place of mine ever since I discovered that they will steam and clean fresh blue crabs for me to take home for dinner. And, with the cooked crabs in my cooler I headed south on highway 17 to head home again.
But alas, by this time I was hungry for something right now and the perfect place beckoned me: Steffen’s Restaurant right on 17 just south of Kingsland. I’ve passed this place many times but this is the first time I’ve stopped to check it out. And luck thing I was starving. This place is a throwback to simpler times, decorated in “old diner” style and full of friendly local people enjoying each other’s company. Their food is home style southern cuisine, made to order, and served in massive amounts. My country-fried steak was big enough for two meals, and the fried green tomatoes and collard greens were excellent. I ended up bringing home the sausage gravy from the steak, and four fresh biscuits, along with some of the meat and most of the tomatoes, providing a wonderful hearty breakfast for Bucko and I the next morning.
I hope this has gotten you interested in our close-to-home sights in our area. There’s a lot to do here, if you just do it!
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. email@example.com