Tag Archives: Florida flora

Big Cypress: Snakes, Swamps, and Staying the Night

a mall purple flower in the swamp at Big Cypress
Big Cypress is vast, but the beauty can be smaller than your pinky fingernail.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

At the start of this year, I said I wanted to take more Florida road trips in 2024. This worked out well, because for my birthday, El Cap arranged a swamp walk and two-night stay in Big Cypress. Specially, at Clyde Butcher’s place, where they not only offer swamp walks, but bungalows where you can stay.

A few weeks ago, we set out, cutting across Florida on US 41 (one of my favorite stretches), arriving later than we’d hoped. If you’ve driven across US 41 from Naples to Miami (or the other way around), you’ve passed Clyde Butcher’s gallery. It’s a relatively small outpost in a relatively vast expanse of swamp, and while I’ve often stopped to drool over his gorgeous black-and-white, better-than-anything-Ansel-Adams-ever-did landscapes, I had no idea that, right behind this gallery was a hidden place to stay in the middle of the swamp.

The Bungalows at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery

A screened porch looking out Into Big Cypress Swamp
This is as civilized as it gets here, and that’s OK with me.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

But here we were, at one of three available places to stay inside Big Cypress at Clyde Butcher’s property. (They have two bungalows and a two-bedroom cottage for public lodging.) As the sun set and we lugged our stuff into the bungalow, the twilight gave way to black skies that reminded me we were utterly and completely in the wilderness.

Our bungalow was a one-bedroom mobile home, and it had everything we needed: full kitchen, screened porch (because, well, mosquitoes), comfortable furniture, and, in essence, all the comforts of home.

Except, of course, we weren’t at home. We were in the swamp.

The Swamp

As excited as I was to spend a couple of nights in Big Cypress, I also had a significant amount of fear about the swamp walk. My last swamp walk in Big Cypress, led by a National Park Service ranger, did not go as planned. I came way too close for comfort with a juvenile cottonmouth — as in, I was about to put my foot down on it when the ranger stopped me. I appreciated that ranger immensely in that moment, but honestly, only for that moment, because after a spell it became apparent he couldn’t find his way out of the swamp.

Our two-hour hike lasted about an hour longer than it should have, and ended with us trudging through neck-deep water in a canal to get back to the road. For those of you who drive US 41 in this area and, as I do, play “count the gators in the canal”, well, I think that gives you a sense of why this was not the ideal exit.

a dry cypress swamp with greenery on the ground. It's almost completely hidden, but at the lower left there's a juvenile cottonmouth moccasin.
While it looks like one of those Magic Eye pictures from the ’90s, there is, indeed, a juvenile cottonmouth moccasin in this photo.
Photo by an incredibly shaken Cathy Salustri

But this was different. It was the middle of winter and would be super-dry, right?

Turns out Florida’s having a pretty wet winter.

The Swamp Walk at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery

Our guide, Scott, told us the swamp walk would take us through waist-high water.  I asked about snakes and explained I’d had a less-than-favorable experience on my last swamp walk. He assured me that the snakes don’t love to hang out in the water, and as long as we paid attention near the banks, we should be fine.

I didn’t sleep much that night. The next morning, I walked around the edge of one paved road that circled the inside of the compound. Leggy birds picked through the swamp in the middle of the road; sunlight and dew illuminated the bromeliads and spider webs in the trees. A smaller gator basked in the sun on the banks near the cottage.

a female gator on the banks of a swamp in Big Cypress
You know the saying: “If mama gator ain’t happy…”
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Right. Scott told me she kept to herself and didn’t present a problem. She’d raised a clutch of hatchlings, and all but one — Crouton — had left the area. He mused that perhaps Crouton would one day be the bull gator who took the place of the gator he called Loose Screw, or Snaggle Tooth.

I didn’t think too much about that except to take him at his word, because we were about to step off the road and into the swamp. Despite my fear — which at this point was growing — I wanted to do this. You can’t write about Florida from the paved road, I reminded myself. 

And so we waded into the wilderness.

For the next two hours, it was wild and glorious and mesmerizing. Scott pointed out tiny plants, their medicinal uses, and what purpose they serve. He showed us fish-eating spiders and talked about how he had to work to keep invasive plants out of the area. We saw cypress and pop ash and more plants than I’ll ever hope to remember. My hiking shoes lost their soles halfway through the walk, and I was so mesmerized I didn’t realize it until I went to take them off after the walk (fortunately, we’d seen two soles floating and Scott grabbed them up to throw them out, so we didn’t add any trash to the swamp.)

Somewhere during the walk, I forgot to be afraid. I forgot that, but I remembered why I am most myself when I am out in the wild, be it on water or in a swamp or near a beach. When we left the next day, I was already thinking about the next adventure.

Which is as it should be.

If You Go: Big Cypress Swamp Walks and Lodging

Clyde Butcher no longer leads the tours, but they’re amazing. I highly suggest it for anyone who wants to explore the Everglades on a visceral level.

Swamp Eco-Tour at Clyde Butcher Gallery 52388 East Tamiami Trail, Ochopee. $125. Reservations required.  239-695-2428; explorebigcypress.com.

Lodging at Clyde Butcher Gallery 52388 East Tamiami Trail, Ochopee. Bungalows start at $425/night; cottage starts at $550. Each have a two-night minimum.  239-695-2428; explorebigcypress.com.

a man in a woman standing in waist-deep water in a swamp.
10/10, highly recommend.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

Oh, and About Loose Screw/Snaggletooth at Big Cypress

I should mention that Loose Screw (aka Snaggletooth) is something of a unique alligator — as far as we know. Scott explained Loose Screw kept the area free from other gators. I didn’t ask how. But Scott lives there, has lived there for more than a decade, and, when he showed me this video he’d taken of the Loose Screw, I could see why other gators might not want to infringe on his territory.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Scott Randolph (@randolph.333)

Yeah.

But that’s what’s amazing about this gator: That’s a hand-held camera, and it’s not the only video of the gator approaching Scott. He told us the gator seems to find him when he’s working in the swamp. He doesn’t feed the gator, doesn’t touch the gator, but the gator, nonetheless, finds him. Sometimes he stretches out and suns himself next to Scott as he works. Other times he finds him and leaves.

Contact Cathy Salustri

You can reach me at cathysalustri@gmail.com, on Instagram (@cathysalustri) or Facebook (@salustricathy), or Twitter (@cathysalustri). You can also subscribe to my monthly (well, monthly-ish) newsletter, The Florida Spectacular.

Hurricane Michael, the Torreya tree, and the loss of a species

The storm had some unintended — and devastating — consequences for a small but mighty endangered tree.

“There is unrest in the forest; there is trouble with the trees …” —“The Trees,” Neil Peart, Rush, 1978

“The Trees,” Neil Peart, Rush, 1978

Last year, I rescued a waffle plant from certain death. A collection of withered purple leaves stared up at me from rock-hard soil. Chalk it up to perimenopause, my handling stress in peculiar ways, a vein of a special kind of crazy running through my family, but I started to cry right there in the Walmart garden center. Even when the discount for “mostly dead plant” was only 10 percent, I still needed it.

“I couldn’t leave it there; no one else would buy it and it would just get thrown away,” I explained through sheepish tears to my husband, who has comforted me when a bird ate Dixie, our resident crab spider, and had learned that every insect in our Gulfport home gets a chance at a humane rescue and relocation.

“Did it press its nose against the window and wag its tail?” he asked.

I have a soft spot for underdog plants and animals. I’ve written before about my 17-year love affair with an Australian pine on the 7-Mile Bridge and how Fred — that’s his name, Fred — fared after Hurricane Irma. (Spoiler alert: He made it.)

Not every tree gets so lucky.

In my book Backroads of Paradise, I wrote about the torreya (rhymes with Gloria), a diminutive conifer listed as one of the most endangered on the planet. Half of the remaining torreya tree population exists within the confines of Torreya State Park north of Bristol. I wrote that the tree lived “one wildfire away from extinction.” I believed wildfire posed the largest threat to the tree’s existence. So did the park manager and conservationists.

Then Hurricane Michael happened.

The endangered torreya tree at the Gregory House at Torreya State Park north of Bristol. [cathy salustri]

At the onset, Michael looked like most tropical disturbances do in the late summer days the rest of the country calls autumn. Floridians know the drill, whether it comes from the local forecaster or an alert from the National Hurricane Center.

And Michael started just like that, but he wasn’t the same. He had sucked in what remained of Tropical Storm Kirk, with a center that formed and fell apart, formed and fell apart, then finally held. He bullied ahead, gaining steam and sucking in air and water until on Oct. 10 Michael came ashore at Tyndall Air Force Base roughly 70 miles southwest of Torreya State Park. He unleashed all that air and water on Mexico Beach first, drowning three people and pummeling the town’s 1,700 buildings, damaging all but 100 and destroying more than 800 before taking his wrath inland.

Hurricanes should weaken as they move over land. Michael didn’t weaken enough. He was the Biff Tannen of hurricanes; instead of punching Florida once, he kept hitting. Meteorologists clocked the tormentor’s winds at 161 miles per hour; by the time he made it to Torreya — closer to Georgia than Mexico Beach — they had barely slowed. No one inland expected the brunt of Michael’s wrath; six months after his torture, homes near Torreya still have blue tarps.

“Heavy, 155 mile per hour winds that far inland?” said Torreya State Park’s manager Jason Vickery. “Unheard of.”

Michael stomped through the park, toppling the tallest trees. The Gregory House, an 1850s house Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” moved across Apalachicola and hoisted up the ravine to its current location surveying the river, resisted Michael’s brutality.

Many of the torreya trees could not.

Torreya taxiflora — also called the Florida Nutmeg, stinking cedar or gopherwood — stands, on a good day, 10 feet tall. It’s endemic to Liberty, Jackson and Gadsden counties in Florida and Decatur in Georgia. It grows mostly on the steep slopes of ravines of the Apalachicola River ecosystem.

B.E. (Before EuroAmericans), the torreya numbered 650,000. Shortly after the earliest settlers near Rock Bluff discovered the tiny, cheerful conifer in the 1830s, locals started cutting them down for fence posts, shingles and Christmas trees. By the mid-20th century, the minikin showed signs of failing.

The first harbinger? Blight caused by fungus. Scientists tried to treat it, but trees kept dying. In all, 12 different fungi assault the torreya, and in 2010, scientists discovered a new, deadly one: Fusarium torreyae, a strange canker-type fungi. Coupled with climate change, development and the construction of Lake Seminole as a result of the Woodruff Dam, the lilliputian tree battled the odds daily, pushing back against a world that didn’t seem to want it.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared Torreya taxiflora endangered in 1984, a scholarly article in Bartonia detailed the remaining trees: 20 by the Gregory House, two in Columbus, Ga., a dozen at Tallahassee’s Maclay Gardens. The writers estimated perhaps 100 wild torreyas remained.

And so conservationists created a plan to save the species. And as you might expect, it gave lots of consideration to wildfire.

It made no provisions for hurricane-force winds.

Unlike other pines, torreyas aren’t fire-dependent. They are, however, canopy-dependent. Those big trees that tower over them? Necessary for the smaller tree’s survival. This is no Rush song; in this forest, the trees work together.

Michael broke that relationship. The blustery brute didn’t rip out torreya; he took a far more devious path. He pushed over larger trees and they killed the torreya, crushing the scraggly trees that, a shadow of their pre-mid-century selves, had nevertheless survived.

In the early part of this millennium, you would have heard the phrase “global warming” used to explain the species’ decline. That’s when a new group, the Torreya Guardians, started assisted migration, moving seedlings north. Trees planted in cooler climates do better. Instead of twigs with a few needles, these northern trees flourish, their full branches making it understandable why 19th century Floridians envisioned them as Christmas trees.

The endangered Torreya tree at Torreya State Park north of Bristol. [cathy salustri]

But assisted migration comes with no small amount of controversy. No one knows what torreyas will do in a new environment. Will they be the next kudzu? The conifer counterpart to the melaleuca? And most importantly, trees in cooler climes still contract Fusarium torreyae. The fungus could spread to other imperiled trees.

It’s almost a moot argument and a heart-shattering reality of climate change. Yes, the warming temperatures in the North Florida ravines stunt the growth of Torreya taxiflora, but at least it grows well out of reach of any perceived sea level rise, right? Even Michael didn’t dump floodwaters on the stunted pine trees.

Michael did much worse.

“Their whole habitat has changed,” Vickery said. “Eighty to 90 percent of the canopy is on the ground.” After the storm passed and rangers could make their way back to the park, they surveyed 288 trees. Eighteen percent of the trees that existed pre-Michael are dead or missing. Thirty-five trees died as a direct result of Hurricane Michael; 75 were directly impacted. “It was a catastrophic, unprecedented event,” Vickery said. “It was not foreseeable.”

And that’s the rub: Torreya taxiflora was already listed as “critically endangered” before Michael. Rangers have propped up some not-quite-dead trees as best they can, hoping they’ll survive. But even if they do? There’s no canopy to protect them; it’s deadfall, and with so much of it on the ground, wildfire is an issue. The remaining trees could vanish in an instant, stamped out like the flame at the end of a match.

The trees survived EuroAmericans, but barely. Now, life as they know it has changed once again.

Leigh Brooks helped found Torreya Keepers, a nonprofit that works with landowners to preserve the torreya’s genetic lines. She believes more torreyas may exist than we believe, but also said that estimates about how much time they have left are optimistic.

Torreya Keepers would like to find torreyas on private property.

“If a landowner thinks they might have torreyas, we’ll go out and document them,” Brooks said. Finding torreyas outside the park could make or break the species. Everyone wants to find a “buxom” tree, one with full branches and a thick trunk.

“For every one we find, we feel like champions. That’s potential genetics to add to the gene bank for the tree,” she said.

If the Keepers can get cuttings, they’ll send them to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, where Emily Coffey, vice president of conservation and research, and her team want to grow healthy torreyas and see them flourish in the wild. Coffey’s team roots the cuttings the Keepers send. They have 542 cuttings total and each helps preserve genetic diversity.

The plan, said Torreya State Park biologist Mark Ludlow, is to safeguard the tree from extinction. The hope is to one day reintroduce that nursery stock back onto the slope forest of the ravine. The hope, too, is that the tree can reproduce on its own — something it isn’t doing now.

Thanks to Fusarium torreyae, few trees reproduce on their own. Coffey said of the trees remaining in the wild, perhaps 15 produce cones. And these cones can make new trees, but not enough to sustain the population, making the tree functionally, reproductively extinct.

“They don’t get to reproductive size,” Ludlow said. The trees used to have trunks 12 to 15 inches in diameter, but today’s torreyas have trunks no bigger than a broomstick. That’s because the only trees growing are resprouting root stock.

Ludlow has never seen a torreya with a 12-inch trunk.

“They’re like California condors — an intensive care patient,” he said.

“Even the bigger ones,” Brooks said. “When we go back, they don’t look vigorous.”

A 22-foot-tall torreya did survive the storm, but that height isn’t the norm anymore.

“We get excited even to see a tree that’s 5 or 6 feet tall, but bushy,” Brooks says. “If the needles look good we get excited, even if it’s a runt.”

On Oct. 9, Torreya State Park had an estimated 420 trees. On Oct. 11, it had no more than 385, although Coffey suspects the real number falls closer to 370. Michael’s cruelty struck at the end of a 200-year struggle. Some estimate the torreya will go extinct in the wild by 2069; Brooks disagrees. She believes the tree that has charmed more than one biologist has less than a decade left on Earth.

Why is saving the tree important?

“Individual species matter,” Coffey said. “Biodiversity allows us to be resilient, adaptive and resourceful.”

Maybe we’re watching a dinosaur in its final days. After all, that Fusarium torreyae isn’t a nonnative fungus; it’s brand new. And it’s not like the long-leaf pine’s decimation, which impacted gopher tortoise and red-cockaded woodpeckers. If torreya trees disappeared tomorrow, as far as we know, it wouldn’t adversely affect other creatures.

Therein lies the rub: As far as we know. Once, the tree played a vital role in the Apalachicola River Basin, but no one knows how the tree supported — and may still help — the ecosystem.

Maybe the torreya has no place in this world, or maybe it does and we just don’t know what that purpose is yet. As Coffey said, “once you lose a species, you cannot go backwards.”

I glanced over at the waffle plant, new leaves stretching toward the eastern sun. It was trapped in a pot; it will never propagate. No animals needed this plant, no forests depended on it. It made no difference to anything else on the planet.

But it made a difference to me.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6 print edition of the Tampa Bay Times. Read the original here.

After Irma: Searching for the living tree (part eight in a series)

She was a sapling then, barely a branch tucked into a loose piece of concrete. I don’t know how she got there, but I can imagine she sprang from the leavings of one of the millions of birds that either fly over or roost on this disconnected, decaying span of Overseas Railroad, paralleled by the newer, misnomered Seven Mile Bridge

If you can remember all the way back to part one of this series, you may recall I told you that as 30-year-old-me reclaimed her life, post-marriage, one of the first things I did was travel to the Florida Keys. That was the first time I saw her, and I saw myself in the way the sapling clung to that rubble, feeling alone and weak, making my way in a world I never imagined.

Every year since, I’ve looked for her on my trips south. Every year since, she’s grown stronger and bigger and more at home in her odd surroundings. Every year since, without my realizing it, seeing her has become as much of a ritual as my over-the-Card-Sound-bridge beer. Each time, she comes into a view in the distance, greeting me like an old friend as I drive south over the new Seven Mile, as slow as I dare, as if to soak in as much of her as I can. Her branches seem to wave at me, a thousand green needle-like leaves waving “hello, old friend!” reminding me how great, beautiful things come from the discarded leavings of others.

“Do you want to take a picture of your tree?” El Cap asks me as we start over the bridge, and I feel a pit in my stomach. Did she make it through Irma? The state park system has systematically removed Australian pines from its properties, citing shallow root systems that don’t stay in the ground during heavy winds. What are the chances a spindly little tree, rooted in a bridge from over 100 years ago, withstood the storm?

At Pigeon Key, my heart sinks. The small outcropping of buildings, halfway between the two Keys, have suffered the wrath of Irma. Pigeon Key is closed; the ramp leading down from the bridge to the island, not serviceable. The buildings are not… well, they’re not in the right place, exactly — they seem lower than they should be, as if they’ve been blown off their supports. If buildings couldn’t take it, I wonder, as I steel myself, what chance does a lone, displaced, unwanted tree stand? Updated Mar. 2: Pigeon Key is actually open, according to an update from Newman PR, the agency representing fla-keys.com. “Visitors can still visit via a ferry from behind Faro Blanco in Marathon,” Ashley Serrate with Newman PR says.

As I turn my attention from the key back to the bridge paralleling our own, I see a bit of green in the distance, growing larger as we get closer. Sure enough, there she is, taller and more beautiful than ever. The Old Seven Mile has clearly seen better days, but this lone rebel of a tree? She’s spectacular

This shouldn’t have surprised me; they Keys’ soil is nothing but dimpled limestone, so it didn’t take much for a persistent sapling to wend its roots into the pockmarked concrete.

I cheer for her — and for all the scraps of flora that not only survived, seemed to thrive through Irma. And I’m reminded again that, while man exists on the whim of nature, nature exists in spite of man. For a tree with origins in Asia, its descendants carried far from their homeland, then blown or carried onto an isolated stretch of decrepit bridge, to survive all that?  Well, if that can happen, why wouldn’t  this tree make it through a hurricane? After all, as Dr. Ian Malcolm pointed out in the first Jurassic Park, life finds a way.

In 2003, for my first encounter with her, I was driving solo, and back then, digital cameras weren’t exactly awesome, so although I took a (blurry) photo, I deleted it years ago. Similarly, I don’t have many pictures of myself from that time. I wish I had both, not only so I could see how the two of us have grown stronger, but also how, 15 years ago, no one would have believed either of us could make it this far.

Update: Newman PR also reached out to let us know the tree has a name. His name is Fred.

Six months after Hurricane Irma ravaged the Florida Keys in 2017, Cathy Salustri explored the chain of islands to see what damage remained. This piece originally appeared at Creative Loafing. Read the next in the series here, or, if you haven’t yet, go back and start at the beginning.