FLORIDA'S LANDSCAPES


The weird spring of South Florida

April 2016, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

When spring comes around, also the Web pages start blossoming with tulips, hyacinths and lilacs. First with photos of what will hopefully soon be seen in the gardens, and then with photos of all those small miracles that have just bloomed.

It is easy to perceive behind these images the joy of new-found colors, of the green growing again, of the sunshine promising long hours out of doors.

But it’s not like that here in the south of Florida. No – we don’t have all that. We have a long, a very long uninterrupted summer that lasts from the 1st of January until the 31st of December. Yes, sure, we’re those lucky ones without any cold, but have you ever tried eating the same dish day after day for weeks, months, even years? Try it. Some years ago, shortly after arriving in Italy, I was in love with spaghetti in clam sauce. I ate it every weekend – Friday evening in friends’ houses, Saturday in some restaurant, Sunday for lunch that I prepared myself. Like that, one weekend after another. Six months later I got food poisoning, followed by an allergy. To shellfish. All of them. I had to give up eating them for years.

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Cypress tree (Taxodium distichum)

Well, it’s the same thing with heavenly Florida – after a while you dream about rolling in the snow. If for no other reason – to appreciate even more afterwards being able to leap out of bed even in the middle of January without freezing to death.

But, to get back to the spring – here down south it’s not all that obvious and visible. A bit due to the intrinsic characteristics of the place and a bit the “fault” of one coming from up north to spend the winter here and wanting to find the gardens verdant, flourishing and if possible also blooming. This desire has led to an inordinate use of tropical vegetation, very different than what grows spontaneously in Florida. The majority of these plants remain green throughout the year and their seasonal changes are imperceptible and negligible.
Some of them however offer us an amazing spectacle. Between the end of March and the first week of April, the streets and gardens of southern Florida are endowed with a brilliant yellow brightness, as though fragments of sunshine had rained down on the towns. Tabebuia trees (Tabebuia caraiba) originating in South America have become so well acclimatized here that by now they form an inseparable part of the landscape and in spring, with their yellow clothing, they indicate the passage of the seasons. Somewhat less present, but surprising all the same, is the Pink Tabebuia (Tabebuia heterophylla), with its branches inundated with flowers before it sprouts its leaves. Such a pity that this spectacle lasts only a few days. Perhaps that is the reason why it is less popular than its yellow cousin.

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Yellow Tabebuia (Tabebuia caraiba)


But to be able to see a real “Floridian” spring change, one has to go out of town and make one’s way into where the Florida that once was still exists.

To the west of Miami starts what used to join the two coasts of southern Florida in the Twenties and which, regretfully, divided and compromised for ever the natural equilibrium of the Everglades – the Tamiami Trail. Two years ago, more or less in this period of the year, I started along it to look for the Big Cypress Preserve.

It seemed I would never get there and that the flat landscape of the Everglades would never end. But then at a certain point the marshes became a mass of thicker and thicker bushes and then, suddenly round a bend – the great surprise, a new world! A wall of trees, some of them bare, others already clad in a fresh iridescent green, with their broad feet immersed in the water and their tops dotted with the fiery red of tillanzias in bloom. It was all so unexpected and my surprise so great that, with my mouth gaping open in amazement, I had to pull up at the first widening of the road.

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Tillandsia spp.

Without the noise of the car, I was struck by another marvel of that place – the silence of the very early morning. At that hour the air was still and the only thing to be heard was an occasional bird call from the back of the green tangle of trees. Not even the alligator I could see swimming in the channel managed to make the slightest sound in the calm water. Along the channels on both sides of the Tamiami Trail I was able to glimpse an angler or two with their line.
There is nothing to prepare you for such a surprise, the spectacle of a Florida totally different and distant from the classic image of the towns, beaches and palm trees of the South Beach or Orlando.

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Cypress tree (Taxodium distichum)


Not even those who know the Everglades would be prepared for the intensity and the difference of the Cypress Preserve. The show continues along the Tamiami Trail for miles. A few miles after the center of the visits I made my way into the Kirby Storter Roadside Park. Along a wooden gangway zigzagging between the cypresses I reached a pond covered in little white flowers (Nymphoides cristata) that looked like Monet’s water lilies in miniature. In the midst of these – fish, turtles and alligators.

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Nymphoides cristata - I just discovered it's on the list of the most invasive plants in Florida

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Nymphoides cristata


One of those passing by spoke to me about the nearby Loop Road and I decided to explore that, too. It’s 20 miles long and you can drive along it. On its southern side it skirts the wildest and still natural part of the Everglades. Cellphones don’t work here and when the tourists have gone, it is hard to meet any humans, and so it’s best always to have some water and food with you. Just in case…

The cypress trees (Taxodium distichum), Pond Apples (Annona glabra), Wild Tamarinds (Lysiloma latisiliquum), Tillanzia (Tillandsia spp.) and Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) are seen along the road in infinite combinations, while in the water the blue Pickerel weeds (Pontederia cordata), the white Duck potatoes (Sagittaria lancifolia) and Alligator’s flag plants (Thalia geniculata) are constantly moved about by the alligators and a parade of birds large and small, white or gray, some with a regal bearing, others looking ridiculously odd.

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Cypress trees (Taxodium distichum)

I discovered that, armed with a bit more spirit of adventure you can go on foot into the Reserve (but better with a ranger) and discover other marvels of the spring – orchids. Not the ones we all know in the shops, but ones that grow spontaneously although, unfortunately, they risk disappearing.

The little Bearded Grass Pink (Calopogon barbatus) with their long, thin stems that are found in the tall grass, or the ones I suddenly found in front of me while I was busy trying to pull my feet out of the mud without losing my shoes - an enormous Cowhorn orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum) in full bloom. A real treat for the eyes and a rightful recompense for having wallowed for two hours in the mud, which came up over the knees.

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Bearded Grass Pink (Calopogon barbatus)


Spring in Florida is this. Without those eye-catching bulbs, without white and pink colored orchards, without wisteria, without the scent of lilac, and without any desire for the summer.

But it’s always spring, if you know where to look.

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Cowhorn orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum)

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Bearded Grass Pink (Calopogon barbatus)

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Boardwalk in the Big Cypress Preserve

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Cypress tree (Taxodium distichum)

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Cypress tree (Taxodium distichum)

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Cypress tree (Taxodium distichum)

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Cypress tree (Taxodium distychum)

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Pickerel weeds (Pontederia cordata)

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Tillandsia spp. and Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides)

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Blooming Tillandsia spp.

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Tillandsia spp.