By Jim Bishop.
In previous articles I've reminisced about our 1960's home landscape in Plantation, Florida. This month I'll discuss some of the native landscape of South Florida.
The biggest publicly accessible landscape in Florida is also the largest subtropical wilderness in the US: Everglades National Park. At 2400 square miles it still only protects about 1/5 of the original Everglades. The Everglades are a natural freshwater drainage system flowing south form Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico and covering much of south Florida. The most dominant plant, which also gave the Everglades its pseudonym “River of Grass”, is sawgrass, Cladium jamaicense. Though technically sedge, sawgrass grows to 3 feet tall in slow moving or standing fresh water. Sedges have edges, grasses have stems; and the edges of sawgrass are armed with very fine saw teeth that will easily cut you.
Most people think of south Florida as endless white sand beaches. However, the metropolitan areas of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale also are adjacent to the Everglades just to the east. Many of the plants and animals associated with the Everglades were also found in undeveloped areas near our neighborhood. There were palmettos, pines, and peat fields nearby. In an extended drought one summer, the peat caught fire and burned for days. Alligators and catfish lived in the nearby canal and there were many snakes, lizards, frogs, burrowing owls and other birds just a few blocks from our house.
On cub scouts trips and on weekends, we’d visit nearby Seminole villages and alligator wrestling venues, and took fishing trips into the mangrove swamps.
In the early 60’s a TV show called "The Everglades" gave the impression of the Everglades as an exotic and dangerous place. The show featured airboats chasing criminals and the theme song popularized the phrase and song, “Movin', ever movin' through the Everglades". My brothers and I begged our parents to let us go on an airboat ride. An airboat is a flat-bottomed boat with an airplane propeller mounted on the back. While the airplane engine allows the boat to travel quickly in very shallow water and helps ease the oppressive humidity, in reality it wasn't nearly as much fun as we imagined. The propeller and engine are so loud and pull so much air that we could not get beyond the fear of being sucked into the blades. Add to that the bug-laden air, the constant spray of muddy, murky water, and being just inches above a swamp filled with sawgrass and reptiles and it was just too much for a nine year old cubcub scout to truly appreciate the experience. Today due to the environmental damage to plants and animals, airboats are banned in much of the Everglades, though there are still commercial trips just outside the park.
One year we took a longer trip inside the Everglades National Park and stayed at the Flamingo Lodge. (The Flamingo Lodge was damaged beyond repair in 2005 by hurricanes Katrina and Wilma and no longer exists.) This introduced us to the much more subtle and natural side of the everglades and provided a much deeper appreciation of swamp ecology. We saw raccoons, alligators, large snakes and bird estuaries in the mangroves. On a ranger-led tour, we learned about the anhinga bird that fishes in the water but lacks waterproof feathers. It climbs into the trees and outstretches its wings to dry in the sun.
On elevated walkways we visited tropical hardwood “hammocks”. Hammocks are tree islands and the only dry land in the park and home to many unique plants and animals. There are 1000s of them rising out of the swamp with live oaks (Quercus virginiana), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), short-leaf fig (Ficus citrifolia) , wild-tamarind, West Indian mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), and many other tree species. The mid-story plants form an impenetrable understory perfect for sheltering larger animals. Trees are draped with Spanish-moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and other epiphytes. These hammocks are small ecosystems teeming with life and an amazing amount of diversity.
For the last 100 years the Everglades have been under severe stress due to invasive plant and animal species and encroachment by adjacent communities and their need for fresh water. As California gardeners we would recognize many of the invasive plants species; Melaleuca quinquenervia, Schinus terebinthifolius (Brazillian Pepper), Chhornia crassipes (water hyacinth), Pistia stratiotes (water lettuce), Cupaniopsis anacardioides (Carrotwood). Our short visit left me with a better understanding and appreciation of natural ecologies and how important they are to preserve and protect.
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Jim Bishop has been a member of SDHS since the first meeting in 1994 and became SDHS president in 2011.