One of my favorite natural areas in the Southwest Florida region is Myakka State Forest, since it is almost 8,600 acres of relatively undisturbed habitats. In the future, it is likely to become the “Central Park” of this area, as all other open land seems destined to be built up and paved over.
The Forest offers a tiny glimpse into what this area was like hundreds of years ago. One small accessible part is the Gordon Smith Trail (GST) loop. “Accessible” comes with a disclaimer, since the area is wet in many years, including this rather wet winter. So there are a few places where you must wade in shallow water. This is no big deal for a “swamp rat” such as myself, but a surprisingly big deal for many visitors. I say, strap on your sandals and wade in!
The circular wetland on the GST is a wonderful example of a natural Southwest Florida pond: Shallow with a very slight deepening towards the middle, which has a willow head. There are five concentric rings of vegetation which differ in their abilities to tolerate the gradually increasing hydroperiod. Note how there is a zone of yellow bitterweed flowers. The water is virtually distilled water, reflecting the very low levels of nutrients in the soil and the purity of the surficial aquifer in this area.
You may notice that many of the pines on the far side of the wetland are brown, due to a fire set on the eastern side of the GST loop on Feb. 9 (about 3 weeks before these pictures were taken). One of the consequences of a burn is that the growth and flowering of certain plants is stimulated. This seems to be an evolutionary adaptation for some herbaceous plants to maximize access to sunlight and very scarce nutrients and minimize competition.
Our group encountered three interesting flowers in bloom — pine hyacinth, zephyr lily and grass pink orchid — that are rarely seen without fire. Indeed, I have never previously seen the lily and the orchid in the forest at all. So the death of many young and even some adult pine trees and periodic suppression of some species such as wax myrtle by fire is counterbalanced in some sense by the stimulation of others that depend on fire for their very existence.
We found many other flowers that were blooming on the un-burned sides of the GST and were thus not immediately dependent on fire for stimulation of flowering. One example is this paw paw shrub. Others were various milkworts such as procession flower, and carnivorous yellow butterworts and sundews.
Several butterflies were seen, the most striking a tiny but beautiful little metalmark. It feeds on yellow thistle as a caterpillar. Its banded antennae are unusual, as is its habit of holding them together. We also saw a queen butterfly, one of the monarch relatives that also feeds on milkweeds as a caterpillar. Other unrelated mimics are the viceroy (caterpillar feeds on willows) and the Gulf fritillary (caterpillar feeds on passionvines).
Sandhill cranes were sending out their impressive and thrilling calls from nearby wetlands where they will be breeding in shallow water with floating mats of vegetation.
Throw caution to the winds, prepare to get your feet wet and enjoy a visit to yesteryear when Florida was wet and nature was wild. Myakka State Forest is a beautiful piece of this forgotten land.