With Easter just two weekends away, tourism season is rapidly winding down, as are the free Lee County Parks & Recreation Nature Walks on and around Fort Myers Beach. While several wrapped up in March, a few continue through April, including “Exploring Ethnobotany” in Matanzas Pass Preserve (MPP) Wednesdays through April 24 from 9:30 to 11 a.m.
On an unseasonably cool but brilliantly clear recent Wednesday, volunteer “Exploring Ethnobotany” leader Mick Curtis welcomed a small group to MPP, saying “we will discover the relationship between people and plants in Matanzas Pass Preserve over the passage of time, as this was crucial to the survival of our earliest people, like the Calusa Indians over 2,000 years ago. They were big, strong, mean, and had no stores, so everything they needed to live, eat, use for medicine, and even shelter was right here!” Curtis, with a Botanical degree from Duke University who teaches the Florida Master Naturalist Program, employed a down-to-earth conversational style with simple-to-understand verbiage.
He pointed out two similar trees right at the MPP entrance: The Cabbage Palm and Saw Palmetto. “The Cabbage palm is also called the Sabal palm and is Florida’s state tree. Its unusual protruding bark, known as ‘boots,’ rolls up and out from the trunk. Cowboys hung their wet boots from these to dry or broke them off for shoehorns. Native peoples intertwined its fibers, with just 12 strands strong enough to hold up to 20 pounds, as well as using them for baskets, to attach thatchings to dwellings, or for fishing nets. The Saw palmetto looks a lot like the Sabal palm, but its leaves have sharp little teeth, just like a saw, so that is how it gets its name. The Saw palmetto grows a fruit that people convert into an extract to alleviate the swelling of the prostrate that is still in vogue today, bringing an estimated $70 million to the Florida economy.”
We came across a Wild Coffee plant that produces berries similar to coffee beans, Mick said, “but you do not drink them like coffee, as they do not taste very good! A better alternative are Sea grapes that are full of berries, but these are excellent for jellies and jams. When Sea grape leaves fall off, they turn hard and red, so Floridians would put a stamp on them and mail them to their northern family and friends as ‘Florida Valentines!’ Its wood is extremely hard and excellent for furniture.” Interspersed with these are Nickerbeans, with Mick explaining that “people use the beans to treat high blood pressure and other ailments They are very buoyant, so once they fall off, they can float in water for months before finding a new home on which they can grow.”
The group soon encountered Buttonwood and Mangrove trees that grow in the salt or brackish water environment. “Buttonwoods can tolerate saltwater but do not love it,” Mick offered, “but mangroves thrive in it, as they act like a filtration system, carrying up the freshwater while expelling the salt. Here in MPP we have three mangrove varieties – red, black and white – and the cool part is that genetically they have absolutely no relationship to each other than their ability to survive in a saltwater environment!” Mick pointed out the hundreds of minnows in the water, noting that “they were introduced in MPP to get rid of all the mosquitos and it didn’t work! Mosquitos may not seem bad now, but good luck in the Summer!” He noted that “everything that grows in MPP is a subtropical plant, because our area never experiences a freeze; this is different from areas just 100 or so miles to our north. You also do not see many animals, as there is not much freshwater in MPP, and they need that for their survival, so they mostly inhabit other environments and just visit here.”
We strolled off the boardwalk, deeper into the Preserve, and see a “Cat’s Claw,” “because that is exactly what it looks like,” laughed Mick, “including thorns that feel like claws! It has a beautiful and sweet fruit, with its root bark used herbally for a variety of ailments as well as a dietary supplement.” There are oaks covered in Spanish moss: “The oaks produce more minerals than they need, while the Spanish moss does not have roots, so they feed off the extra material made by the oaks. Henry Ford initially used Spanish moss for his car cushions, until chiggers began to live inside them and bit people – this became the first automotive recall! Ferns live on the oaks as well, and often look dead, but as soon as we receive rain, they turn a beautiful green, hence why we call them ‘Resurrection Ferns!’”
Mick showed us a Strangler fig wrapping itself around a Cabbage palm, saying that many figs have their own variety of wasp for pollination, an amazing symbiotic relationship. The Strangler fig will eventually kill the Cabbage palm, but it will take many years to do so.
MPP is at 199 Bay Road, with free but limited parking, at the end of the same sidestreet as the Fort Myers Beach Public Library. In observance of its 40th anniversary, the Friends of Matanzas Pass Preserve hosts a “40th Anniversary Dedication Celebration” on Saturday, April 6, at 10 a.m. Sheena Brook, the talented singer/songwriter who represented Fort Myers Beach so well on “The Voice,” provides the musical entertainment, along with guided tours, food, and vendors.
More Nature Walks
“Exploring Ethnobotany” is at MPP each Wednesday through April 24 from 9:30 to 11 a.m. “Life in The Mangroves” is Thursdays through April 25 from 9:30 to 11 a.m., where you discover the diverse plants and animals in this mangrove preserve. Both are free, you do not need reservations, bring cameras and shoes that can get dirty, and dress appropriately, as April mornings can still be cool. As participants leave the boardwalk for a significant portion of the programs, they are not ADA-accessible.
In addition to these walks, Lee County Parks & Recreation hosts the Bowditch Point Park nature program, at the very northern tip of Fort Myers Beach, at 50 Estero Boulevard. The free nature walks are Fridays through April 26 from 9 to 10:30 a.m. No reservations necessary and parking $2-per-hour. It also offers the free San Carlos Bay – Bunche Beach Preserve nature walk each Wednesday through April 24 at 18201 John Morris Road, across from Fort Myers Beach, from 9 to 10:30 a.m. No reservations necessary, parking $2-per-hour. For details call 239-432-2154 or see www.leeparks.org.
Lovers Key State Park at 8700 Estero Boulevard hosts year-round nature walks and programs free with park admission Fridays and select days at 10 a.m. For programs and reservations, call 239-463-4588 or see www.floridastateparks.org/loverskey. The free “Guided Beach Walk” at Newton Park at 4650 Estero Boulevard is every Tuesday year-round at 9 a.m. No reservations necessary; for details call 239-765-0865 or see www.moundhouse.org. Discover a different side of Fort Myers Beach on these nature walks and programs!