The wildflower I would like to remember in “all its glory” this Easter is the moonflower whose sweet fragrance used to fill Lake Okeechobee’s shores.
David Troxtell of the Marie Selby Botanical Garden in Sarasota writes:
“Not too long ago, Florida’s giant Lake Okeechobee would fill with rainwater and flood its southern banks every year during the wet season. The water’s slow journey through the Everglades’ 100-mile long “river of grass” and out to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico would take months.
At the very beginning of this journey would have been a floodplain covered in a massive pond apple forest, completely blanketed in moonvine. Pond apple is a native tree which grows in regularly flooded areas, and is a preferred host for the moonvine. It has also become a rare sight in the state outside of the Everglades due to development, mostly agriculture.
What is exciting is that there is a resurgence of interest in reestablishing the pond apple also known as the custard apple which would inadvertently include the moonflower. The Art Marshall Foundation worked on such, but many were destroyed in the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005. Sarah Brown, a local South Florida photographer, has a show presently at the Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades. Many of her photographs feature the few remaining custard apple trees and moonvines. Zachariah Cosner, a student at University of Miami, is writing a book on the subject and I will be featuring his work more in the coming months.
So on this sacred Easter, remember, there is hope of recovering some of Florida’s wildflowers for which we are named. May we once again be Florida, “land of flowers.”
Since I began my Glades “Road Trip” Series, I have read three books by Lake Okeechobee historian, Laurence E. Will: Okeechobee Hurricane, Swamp to Sugar Bowl, and A Cracker History of Okeechobee.
These books hold amazing stories of the Glades; if Mr. Will hadn’t written, there would be very few first-hand accounts of farming that became a Florida mega-industry just over the first half century of the 1900s. Today, I will transcribe some of his most interesting descriptions of Lake Okeechobee, the magical landscape that was transformed into today’s contoversial Everglades Agricultural Area, for none other than its MUCK.
Close up of small pond apple on Torry Island, by Lawrence E Will.
Florida Memory Project, photo by John Kunkel Small 1869-1938.
Photo from Swamp to Suagrland, showing pond apple with moon vines around Lake O. (Lawrence E Will)
When I was on my recent tour with former mayor of Pahokee, J.P. Sasser, I learned the nick-name for Pahokee is “The Muck,” named so for the “black gold” soil that accumulated over thousands of years under the roots of a custard apple forest that rimmed the lake. (Kind of like fresh water mangroves today in the Indian River Lagoon.)
When one drives deeper into the Glades, one finds similar nick-names or “muck mottos,” that have to do with the muck. For instance, Belle Glade’s motto is “Her Soil is Her Fortune;” Clewiston’s is “America’s Sweetest Town,” and South Bay’s refers to its highways, “Crossroads of South Florida,” named so for its intersection of two major roads, East-West State Road 80, and North-South, U.S. Highway 27, roads that get one into the muck, or out of it….
Will first experienced the Lake in the early 1900s as a boy when his father was developing Okeelanta, located about four miles below today’s South Bay. Okeelanta, today a mill location for the Fanjul holdings, was located not in an apple custard forest, but rather in the miles of sawgrass lying south. Although the soil here is excellent, it is different, more peaty and not as “mucky.” Thus the most productive lands lie closer to the lake, deep in the MUCK.
Here is a moving account by Will about the land of muck in “Cracker History of Lake Okeechobee:
“Before the dredges crashed through the custard apple woods to start the first canals, the lake most always stayed high and clear, unbroken except for those islands Kreamer, Torry, and Observation. When I first saw the lake it was still wild. Excusing the trifling settlements at Utopia, Ritta, and Tantie, a score of fishing camps, and the openings to four unfinished canals, it’s swampy shores hadn’t changed since Zachary Taylor found the redskins or probably not since DeSoto anchored in Tampa Bay. It sill was just as the good Lord had fashioned it. The lake was lonely Mack, silent and mysterious as well. But I tell you boy, it was beautiful, and sort of inspiring too.”
Will was absolutely pro development, pro farming/agriculture, but he, like most of the old timers, recognized the tremendous awe-inspiring beauty of the place.
Most all the natural beauty the lakeside shoreline in Martin County, where the FPL Power Plant is today, and north to the town of Okeechobee has also been radically altered as well.
Excerpts by Lawrence E. Will:
“Dense forest ringed the lake around. Along its northern half water oak, maple, cypress, potash, rubber and palmetto trees crowded each other on the lakeshore ridge…the south shore and half way up the eastern side was something else… Here were custard apples, a solid belt of tropical trees, blanketed with a moonvine cover, which stood, two miles or more in width, without break or opening, from near Clewiston’s Sand Point, slap around to Port Mayaca. 32,000 acres of custard apple woods there were, the most of these trees, I wouldn’t doubt, on the whole blamed continent of America.”
“…Although the shores were for the most part black muck, low and flat, there were some fine sandy beaches too. Along the east side for eighteen miles lay beautiful East Beach…”
“Now if Zachary Taylor or Hamilton Disston could return to Okeechobee they would find that farmers have exterminated the custard apple woods. Highways, service stations, super markets and housing projects have replaced the cypress, rubber and maple trees along the ridge. A levee occupies the onetime shore and drainage has lowered by half a dozen feet the water’s elevation. Tractors cultivate the former seining grounds, and unless you as old–and no amount, as some of us, your never heard of town of Tantie, Utopia or Ritta. Civilization has re-made the lake and I’d be the last to say it isn’t better so, but the lakeshore’s one time natural beauty is long gone, and man, wasn’t that old lake a fascinating place.”
Well, to the land of Lake Okeechobee! For all she was, and for all she is. It’s enough to make one exclaim:”What The Muck?!!!”
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!”
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.