Living History in Your Backyard
Native wildflower coral bean at Birdsong Nature Center, photo by Karen Rose
June 6, 2014
By Karen Rose
A good homeowner thinks of the yard as an extension of the house, clean and well-cared for, no leaf litter, a manicured carpet of grass, a few shrubs here and there kept pruned to the same size and shape as the living room furniture. This is how we are taught to think about our yards, its part of our culture. But the larger truth is so much more than that. Your front yard, your back yard, even the dirt in the crawlspace under your house, has a long history. It once was part of a vast wilderness.
When the conquistadors arrived, most of what is now the Southeastern United States was an extensive grassland with scattered longleaf pines, frequented by fire. Early European travelers talked about regularly seeing small fires burning through the woods. These fires weren’t necessarily all lightning-set, but these fires did burn for miles and miles until they came to a river or some other natural firebreak. In the places fires rarely burned; such as in swamps and in floodplains, hardwoods were more common. Only in the Southeast do you see a mature hardwood forest that is dominated by both the northern beech, and the southern magnolia.
When Desoto arrived in the Indian village of Anhaica in the winter of 1539, he found acres of cornfields. The Apalachee Indians no doubt chose to live here because of the rich agricultural soil and the clear spring-fed streams. They fled for their lives in 1704, and were replaced by the people we call Seminoles. In 1823 the Seminole were relocated and the City of Tallahassee was established. The virgin trees were cut after the Civil War. Fire suppression brought the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem to its knees, and second-growth hardwoods began to grow up everywhere that wasn’t actively being farmed or pastured. The city grew up and out into the woodlands, farmlands, and pastures, out into land that was once the hunting grounds of Native Americans, wolves, and panthers. Your piece of real estate, the land you live on, is part of this story.
It is possible to recreate, to a certain extent, what was lost, even on the small scale of a residential lot. Sometimes developers leave behind clues. Walk your neighborhood and pay attention to every tree you see. Do you see oaks and hickories, beeches and magnolias, a longleaf pine? These trees are remnants, survivors of plant communities that have now become diminished and fragmented. A plant community is an association of plants that grow together because of their tolerance of similar soil, water, and light conditions, as well as their tolerance of fire. Some common plant communities in our area would include longleaf pine/wiregrass, oak/hickory, beech/magnolia, bald cypress swamp, and hardwood hammock. Each plant community has its own dominant canopy trees, but also its own specific understory trees, shrubs, and groundcovers. Pay particular attention if you happen to have an empty lot in your neighborhood, as it’s the best place to look for surviving understory plants. In addition to its canopy trees, do any wildflowers grace its edges?
Other trees you might see can also give clues to your neighborhood’s more recent past. Loblolly pines with their prickly cones indicate farmland, and the age of the trees marks when the farm was abandoned. A large live oak with its branches almost touching the ground is likely a place where cattle once sheltered from the sun. In addition to trees, notice the topography. As the land slopes downward, this is where the creeks would have been (ditches now, or worse, covered drainage pipes), and the ground would have been covered with ferns and woodland wildflowers and hardwood trees.
Once you’ve determined the plant community you want to recreate, you can develop a plan. Educate yourself. Go to state parks and other natural areas that have a healthier version of the plant community you are trying to recreate, and learn to identify not only the canopy, but also the understory trees, shrubs, groundcovers, grasses, and wild annuals/perennials. If you are unsure on plant identification, take lots of photos. When you are ready, go to a local plant nursery with photos in hand, and talk with a knowledgeable staff person about native plants to replace and augment what might have been growing in your yard hundreds of years ago. You won’t bring back the wolves or panthers, but you might just create a bit of living history, right in your own backyard.
Karen Rose is a gardener-for-hire and a master gardener. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov