Agriculture’s Eradication of the Mythical Pond Apple Forest, Lake Okeechobee, SLR/IRL

Photo of pond apples in Big Cypress, a shared flicker photo by Mac
Photo of pond apples in Big Cypress, a shared Flicker photo by Mac Stone, 2014.
Pond apple also known as custard apple--this is the custard apple forest as depicted by artist Julia Kelly in the River Kidz second edition workbook, 2015.
Pond apple is also known as custard apple–this is the custard apple forest as depicted by artist Julia Kelly in the River Kidz second edition workbook, 2015.

In Florida, the pond apple is also known by many locals as the “custard apple,”(

The mythical pond apple forest….Imagine, for a mile or two back from the water’s edge the trees grew, and like God’s magic sieve, their colossal roots strained the water of Lake Okeechobee before it inched its way south through the river of grass to the Everglades. Over thousands of years, the lake’s muck built up inside, around, and under, their gigantic roots, a forest grew, until one day the farmer came, the engineer came, the “white man” came, and took it all.

“We are chosen!” they said. “We are chosen to have dominion over the earth! Strip it! Cut it! Burn it! Tear it out! Expose the muck, the precious muck, and let us build an empire. Let us lift ourselves from poverty, feed ourselves, and become rich!”

Pond apple
Pond apple public photo.
Pond apple blossom. Photo by Lisa Jefferson, 2015.
Pond apple blossom. Photo by Lisa Jefferson, Stuart, Florida, 2015.
Pond apple blossom opening, photo Chuck McCartney.
Pond apple blossom opening, photo Chuck McCartney.

And many of today’s generations have become rich from this soil.

The story of the explosion of agriculture, and the sugar industry below the great lake known as “big waters,” or “Okeechobee,” as the Seminole people called it, is a not a tale for the weak. It is the story of the nature of man, and his destruction of the environment of which he is part. It is the story of “success,” and the difficult  journey of a culture to define what “success” really means.

Lawrence E.  Will, in his book, “Swamp to Sugar Bowl,” writes in his cracker style in 1968:

“That part of the woods along the south shore and half way up the eastern side, was a dense forest of tropical custard apple trees. For a mile to two miles back from the water’s edge they grew, and on all the islands as well. About 33,000 acres of solid custard apple tress there were, and that’s a heap of woods.”

33,000 acres of custard apple trees destroyed. Gone. Forever.

Today, the Everglades Agricultural Area is 700,000 square miles south of the lake. It produces sugar and vegetables.  The growth of the area is the reason why the overflow waters of Lake Okeechobee are directed thorough the northern estuaries killing local economies, rivers, and wildlife. Thus the story of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.

Once during a conversation with Mr Tom MacVicar, a respected engineer who works with the agricultural and sugar industry, I was told that Lake Okeechobee used to be about “30% bigger.” At the time, I wondered what he was talking about, but over the years through reading and study I have come to understand.

Let me explain. In the late 1800s when the early farmers planted their crops they would do so in winter when Lake Okeechobee’s waters had “receded back” as it was the “dry season.”  This would be after the back-breaking work in some areas of tearing out the pond apple trees in order to get to the rich muck, “black gold,” that lies underneath. Over the years the edge of the southern shore of the lake was pushed back and then the “smaller” lake was entirely diked. This is one reason why the lake can’t hold its historical water level. Through Florida and Congress, the history of the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corp of Engineers is linked to this history of pushing back the lake and building the agricultural empire, although now their mission includes environmental restoration.


I think it would be fitting to replant some pond apple trees each year until one day, perhaps, we can regain part of the soul of that lake that was ripped out at the roots.

Old military map from 1846 shows how the fingers of water south of Lake Okeechobee that are no longer there today as the lake is diked.
Old military map from 1846 shows the fingers of water south of Lake Okeechobee that are no longer there today as the lake is diked. This would have been one area where the pond apple grew.


EAA below Lake Okeechobee. (Public map.)
EAA below Lake Okeechobee. (Public map.)
Today's black gold south of Lake Okeechobee. (Photo JTL, 2014)
Today’s black gold south of Lake Okeechobee. (Photo JTL, 2014)
Photo from Swamp to Suagrland, showing pond apple with moon vines around Lake O. (Lawrence E Will)
Photo from Swamp to Sugarland, showing pond apple with moon vines around Lake O. Lawrence E Will, 1968.
Close up of small pond apple on Torry Island, by Lawrence E Will.
Close up of small pond apple on Torry Island, by Belle Glade , by Lawrence E Will, 1968.
Florida Memory Project, photo by John Kunkel Small 1869-1938.
Florida Memory Project, pond apples in a creek of the  Lake Okeechobee area photo by John Kunkel Small 1869-1938.


History of EAA: (

Nature for Your Neighborhood, A Program of the Institute for Regional Conservation: (

Mr Tom MacVicar: (

ACOE Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee:

30 thoughts on “Agriculture’s Eradication of the Mythical Pond Apple Forest, Lake Okeechobee, SLR/IRL

  1. Very interesting post! Take another look at Lake Apopka history sometimes. Lots of similarities…always enjoy taking trips with you thru your blog.

  2. Some really good stuff, Jacqui. And yes the :Lake Apopka scandal is directly related to this eutrophication (nutrient overloads) practice as is coming from the EAA. This poisoning of the St. Lucie and other places is an intentional destruction, and the pols know it. Don’t blame the Corps and District as if they are the decision makers. They aren’t.

  3. Hello Jacqui,

    Thank you as it hit home for me. I have mature and am growing new Pond (alligator) apple trees on my property. I love native Florida plants and trees.

    I appreciate all that you do and post. Work in LA but live in Stuart. Have a great day,


    John J. Murphy, M.D. Southwestern Research, Inc. 436 N. Roxbury Dr. #222 Beverly Hills, CA. 90210 Office 424-284-3171 Fax 310-288-8375

    1. Dear John, So nice to hear from you today. Thank you for your message. How cool you are growing a pond apple AKA “alligator tree.” You must live near water. So you have started returning “the heart!” —I lived in LA when I was young. Quite a city.

  4. Hmm, I am in the midst of native plants class and was set to seek out Pond Apples in our area.
    Great post, so mortifying to witness the lengths people will go to for money.

  5. love your articles..just leaves such a sickened ..sad..feeling in the heart to imagine what Florida would look like if man left it alone

  6. Thank you Facebook IRL comments:
    Darby Munroe, Lisa Jefferson, Harvey Eubank and 11 others like this.

    Julie Williams Great writing Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
    10 hrs · Unlike · 3

    Lisa Jefferson 12:52pm Apr 15
    I have 4 in my back yard,which is somewhere between wet & dry depending on how much rain we get.They are young trees-only about 35 year old-look nothing like the beauties in your picture.They are deciduous,losing their leaves gradually bottom to top.Sometime in March the leaves come back-then the blooms.The buds are very tight & I think they may open at night,because I would always find the petals on the ground in the morning.I wanted a picture of the bloom because of the colors.Finally,last year,I found one that hadn’t dropped yet.It is a shame these beautiful trees were destroyed….like so much of Florida’s native beauty.

    Rickard Gasiewicz Their canopies were so thick, the Indians would walk for miles ON TOP of the canopy.
    7 hrs · Unlike · 4

    Janeen Mason Thank you for posting this flower photo, Lisa . I’ve never seen a pond apple blossom.
    3 hrs · Like · 1

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Lisa Jefferson based on janeen’s comment I am just seeing your photo. I read this link in some format usually that apparently collapses the photos. The photo of the inside of the pond apple is remarkably beautiful. Now everything makes sense. Thank you.
    1 hr · Like · 1

    Lisa Jefferson The petals are amazing thick,too-about 1/8″.It was actually 2 years before I found one starting to open,so I kind of helped it along.Otherwise it would have been all in pieces the next morning.I wonder what if anything pollinates them-maybe a night moth…
    46 mins · Edited · Like

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch So glad you got the inside of the flower. I will try to learn what pollinates it. Something must.
    The trees are otherworldly looking. I will share your photo and credit you. …See More

    Cal Lathrop 11:40am Apr 15
    …and don’t forget the shopping malls… You know, the BIG ones. 󾮠󾮠
    Original Post

  7. The part that says the growth of the agriculture is why waters of Lake O.are directed through the northern estuaries KILLING LOCAL ESTUARIES .rivers and wildlife is false. A scientific community that says 10 ppm phosphorus is to much is killing the estuaries . I think this is all about seizeing the farmers land to build water treatment storage to sell water contaminated with aluminium sulfate to the city of Miami. Shellfish not only take nitrogen out of the water to make nitric acid to build their shells they put phosphorus into the water in the process.Put calcium sand in the runffs and you will see. Thank you for reading and those who care about our lagoon

  8. When I was in diapers my dad had me in the boat fishing. I have to appoligize that my computer skills are not good enogh to show vidios of all the things I am seeing. Our shore is black in places with oily sand. It seems calcium removes the oily sand and causes it to wash ashore. Phosphorus limits life in aquadic systems.Shrimp here are making their run for the ocean. Sea turtles are waiting for them. We have so much life in our lagoon I am going to start thinking about adding oxygen with sand to stop fish kills when water gets hot.

  9. Jacqui, thanks for your writings and teachings. I appreciate the effort put into your work. I could only imagine seeing those old world forests of pond apple. Would have been cool to see.

    In Patrick Smith’s book “A Land Remembered’ there is parts that talk of the forest. Cool stuff.

  10. Wow, what great passion expressed to give the real story of this scary destruction. I have heard the word podrida as the way to say what has happened. Thank you for your work and expression of this great land as it needs to reclaim itself with our effort. I pass this blog to other water groups and I hope to meet with you on how to help more. . Ed

    On Wed, Apr 15, 2015 at 10:35 AM, Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch wrote:

    > Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch posted: ” In Florida the pond apple is also > known by many locals as the “custard apple:”( > > The mythical pond apple forest….Imagine, for a mile or two back from the > water’s edge th”

  11. Maby there is one thing in this world we can agree on—balance between amount of phosphorus and the oxygen that is produced by waves churning acid in shells. The one thing that makes me feel our lagoon is dead is the phosphorus no longer glows at night.100 years ago all our lagoon shores was nothing but waves churning shells. This produced unlimited amounts of oxygen which means unlimited amounts of phosphorus could provide an environment that could sustain fish the likes that none of us have ever seen.

  12. I know I’m late in the game in this article but I read this with my mouth open the whole time. This was absolutely incredible to read including the comments. Brent Im finding your knowledge so interesting and Jackie, my company is competing for “The Barley Prize” to remove phosphorus from the glades, have you heard of this? Your insight is wonderful and I look forward to reading so much more of your work, and being in touch!
    We also recently have been joining the discussion on the Indian River Lagoon as well. This stuff just makes it that much more exciting.

  13. Good story. Just one thing I disagree with: why the unnecessary racist stuff about the “white man”? As a non Florida resident I don’t know that I bare anymore responsibility due to my race than a native American with a huge carbon print in a reservation mcmansion, or even one of the many poor workers of Hispanic, black and possibly even native American ethnicity who are employed by that agriculture. It’s also worth remembering that the mass extinctions caused by early native American hunting methods are hardly a justification for racial vituperation about the loss of the American horse, camel, mastodon, glyptodont, giant sloth, etc etc.

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