Hidden treasures await in what may seem unlikeliest of places across the state
On a balmy Florida day, I am walking a railroad track in Bradenton, looking for wildflowers. My car mechanic is just a few blocks away, so while waiting for the work to be completed, I check out the area.
I am a regular along this stretch of line off Old Route 301. Just a few trains come through each day, but I keep a sharp eye out, stay well away from the rails and carry my trusty “hiking stick.” When I commented to a trainman how bent the rails were, he shrugged, “Miracles happen every day!”
This is a good place to find native plants with bees and other pollinators because the edges are mowed infrequently. There is just enough disturbance to encourage new growth but usually not enough to wipe out everything. Once I was exhilarated to find a rare ladies tresses orchid. I knelt to get a close-up of this small miracle.
How horrified my mother would have been to see her daughter wearing a man’s long-sleeved shirt and scruffy jeans, kneeling alongside a railroad track to photograph “weeds.” Her idea of an outing was to make the rounds of fashionable shops in downtown Philadelphia, impeccably dressed, including alligator bag and shoes. In the 1950s, alligators were for wearing. No alligators here, I assure her.
When railroads along the East Coast were new, thousands of Northerners traveled south in winter to luxuriate in the warmth or take the healing waters in Florida’s springs. There was a lot to see from a railway car window. That is how New York Botanical Garden curator John Kunkel Small discovered a huge swath of Louisiana wild Iris growing in a swamp. He transported some in the handcar that the railroad had put at his disposal.
The iris was just one of the thousands of new species Small, collected, many of which he found in Florida.
J.K. Small (1869-1938) was an idol for Florida-born botanist John Beckner (1936-2011). During the last three years of his life, John and I drove the peninsula in search of native plants. We rode down back roads on the way to what he always thought would be the discovery of a new species. He insisted on stopping near railroad crossings to see if there was anything of interest down the tracks. I would pull over to photograph a rare wildflower, as a graffiti-laden freight train rumbled past.
With habitats disappearing and native plants becoming rarer, collecting was a thing of the past.
These days, botanical exploration is a morality play about what we have done and what we are doing to this precious planet. The “disappeared” cry out to me in urban areas after the bulldozers and builders have done their work. But once in a while I will find “Florida natives” making a brave show in an industrial park or along a roadside among McDonald’s wrappers, Styrofoam cups and plastic water bottles.
During “Irma,” I stayed with Martina and John Linnehan, founders of the Sustainable Living Center near Gainesville. Martina, another Florida native, explored the countryside in north Florida. She would reminisce about how she and her siblings would tumble down the ravine at the Devil’s Millhopper to look at the ferns and other vegetation growing along the banks of a stream far below. (With that area a state park, land managers would be horrified, but Martina assures me they were just looking, not picking.)
Occasionally, I would get the Linnehans out on a field trip. Once, passing through Brooker on our way to a park, a huge swath of blue spiderwort along the edge of the road stopped us in our tracks. Here was nature right at hand. So we spent the next few hours walking dirt roads. Martina admired the venerable old oaks, planted years ago by settlers. John was delighted by the prickly poppies growing in a field.
We ran into Maggie, who had lived there since 1982, and on her advice, crossed the railroad tracks and ended up at the Santa Fe River. On one side was a large expanse of woods, likely old fields reverted to forest. Cypress trees with innumerable knees were growing along the banks of the river. We took it all in with amazement and then brought out folding chairs and had a picnic.
John passed away a few years ago; now in her 80s, Martina still advocates for the planet. The University of Florida library has created an oral history of their work in Florida.
The railroad continues to play a role in my “Green Pilgrimage” through Florida. On Route 17 near Punta Gorda, I often stop into Prairie/Shell Creek Preserve to photograph wildflowers —some of them rare — in the scrub, flatwoods and wetlands habitats.
Once I was at a Charlotte County Planning Commission meeting, when the sale of part of this magnificent remnant of old Florida was under consideration for “development.” Maps were brought out, lines drawn along “natural “ demarcations; in this instance, the railroad was a factor, as its tracks bisect the park.
It looked like a done deal, but then a land manager stepped up to point out that this place was not only representative of Florida history but also crucial habitat for Florida scrub jays and other species threatened with extinction.
He won the day.
How will the “morality play” end? That is ours to determine.
Fran Palmeri is author of Florida Lost and Found; Nature in the Changing Landscape, available on Amazon. Her new book, A Bouquet of Days, will be published in the spring of 2022.