The southern middle third of Florida is wonderful for nature study. My friend Chuck hiked with me every day of my visit, showing me some of these nature trails. Lakes we visited were Lake Arbuckle, Verona Lake and Lake Godwin. All of these were near the tiny town of Frostproof.
The Lake Wales Ridge State Forest has four tracts. We visited the Walk in the Water Tract and Arbuckle Tract. This ridge property reminds me of our own Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy's Beach Ridge Site in Westfield. They were both isolated because of vast amounts of water millions of years ago. All of Florida was submerged in water except for the beach dunes that became one ridge, running north and south.
The plants and animals that were isolated on that island still exist today. Twenty-four plants and 19 animals are considered to be the most rare and endangered in the continental United States. Of those, I saw the scrub jay hopping along beside us in the shrubs.
Armadillo holes are everywhere in Florida.
Photo by Ann Beebe
The Highlands Hammock State Park is just west of Sebring. In 1935, folks were afraid that this hammock was going to be turned into farmland. After a successful campaign, it was created to be the first of four state parks in Florida.
Another park is Sun 'n Lakes Preserve. Its path wanders through an old-growth bald cypress swamp. Cabbage palmettos, ferns, bromeliads, and other epiphytes are plentiful. One tree, more than 36 feet around, might be the largest oak in Florida.
Alligators were seen in any small amount of water big enough to keep them cool. This park is also home to the gopher tortoise, bobcat and endangered Florida panther. There are only 54 panthers left in the United States. Only 24 of them are in Florida, after cars brought their population down from 30 this year.
The vegetation in this area includes saw grass. Really, it's a sedge, with angular edges - not grass with round parts. No matter what the name, it's dangerous. The edges are serrated and can really hurt bare legs. If you take a boat ride down there, don't grab this plant to steady yourself. The problem is, it can be very difficult to get around it, because it's everywhere in the wetlands.
Cabbage palm is very common. It gets its name from its terminal bud that is eaten raw or cooked. The Seminole Indians of Florida used it for their homes, baskets and making bread. Today, the fronds are shipped all over the world for Christians to use on Palm Sunday. Birds and animals eat the fruit that tastes like prunes to us. This plant also produces fine threads like fishing line that are used by birds in their nests.
In our area, folks have bromeliads, or air plants, as house plants. In Florida, there are 16 native varieties in the wild. Instead of obtaining their food through roots, their leaves do the job. The host plants are not harmed. Ten of the bromeliads are endangered because of the loss of habitat and the Mexican bromeliad weevil.
Hernando de Soto brought pigs from Europe to Florida in 1539. Advocates of the pigs point out their intelligence and adaptability. They are an important food for panthers. Transmitting disease to humans is a myth. Critics argue that they do a lot of damage digging up roots for food. Fruit farmers are especially distressed by the damage they do. There are always two sides of an issue.
Most armadillos live in South America, but there is one in the United States. I didn't see any, but I saw the holes they dig for insects on a lot of trails. They are the only mammals that wear a permanent shell. The three-banded species, in Florida, is the only one that can completely hide in that shell.
If you're a birder, you'll love these parks. I'll write about the birds in another article.