The Coastal Star

Secret Garden: Lantana Nature Preserve will be a showcase in native plant recovery

Although the parking lot and paths of the Lantana Nature Preserve are covered in palm fronds and leaf litter, the trees and shrubs appear to have taken Hurricane Irma’s abuse in stride. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley

    Soon after Hurricane Irma left us, I visited the Lantana Nature Preserve to see how it weathered the storm. I remembered how inviting it was last spring when I had visited this natural area with horticulturist Gene Joyner.
    But today I found the gates chained shut.
    Peeking through the wire fence, I could see that the wooden pavilion looked unharmed. However, a sea grape tree was down and there were plenty of brown leaves covering the paths.

Sea grape trees usually lose most of their large leaves after a storm.

    I remembered sitting under that pavilion with about 20 other people on a Saturday morning in April for Joyner’s annual preserve tour, which he’s offered for the past 15 years.
    It was then that he described this place as “a little hidden oasis.” But today with the paths hidden under brown debris, it’s hardly a safe and verdant haven.  
    In fact, Lantana Operations Director Linda Brien recently toured the damage and said, “You can hardly see the paths, there are so many leaves and fronds and things scattered across them. The dense vegetation definitely got pruned and thinned by the winds.”
    Too bad Mother Nature left her pruning refuse for someone else to pick up.
    But seeing this bit of land covered with debris is nothing new for Joyner, 70. He was just a kid fishing nearby when this 6½-acre piece was a town dump filled with rusting refrigerators, stoves and even abandoned cars.
    By the late 1990s, the town of Lantana decided to reclaim the land by clearing the debris and grading the terrain to mimic a coastal dune. Nonnative plants were removed and replaced with mangrove seedlings and coastal grasses. By 2002, 3,000 cubic yards of fill, 500 trees and 10,000 shrubs and groundcovers had been added. The preserve now resembled a coastal hammock that looked much like what you would have seen if you were among the original pioneers arriving in 1865.
    You would have seen that a little over 1,800 feet of walking trails traverse the native vegetation and wildlife. As you followed the coquina-stone paths, you’d have seen sabal palmettos or cabbage palms, Florida’s state tree.
    You’d also have seen gumbo limbo trees with their peeling rust-colored bark. They are commonly known as “tourist trees” because they are always red and peeling, said Joyner, who retired in 2007 after 35 years with Palm Beach County UF/IFAS Extension service.
    A thick canopy of sea grapes covered the land, and it’s their large saucer-sized leaves that now cover the paths post-Irma.

Jamaican Caper is a native plant with small leaves that keep their color and shape even after exposure to hurricane-force winds.

    As the preserve is brought back to its earlier condition, its butterfly garden will once again help swallowtails thrive. And the firebushes — a must for butterflies, bees and hummingbirds — will be showing off their orange-red flowers that bloom year-round.
    A small path branching off the main trail leads to the highest point in the preserve, which proves to be only a few feet above sea level. As nature heals itself after this major storm, the towering banyan tree at the top will once again offer shade and a place for visitors to enjoy the gentle side of nature.
    “Eventually we will reopen the preserve. I just can’t put a timetable on it right now,” Brien said. However, Town Manager Deborah Manzo said the property will be ready for the town’s annual Haunted Preserve celebration on Oct. 20.

Post-hurricane tips
    Find out the steps you need to take now to ensure the trees left after Hurricane Irma flourish in the days and years to come:
Assessing Damage and Restoring Trees After a Hurricane: monroe.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf/Hort/Assessing_Trees_After_Hurricane.pdf
Restoring Trees After a Hurricane: indian.ifas.ufl.edu/Emergency-Disasters/Restoring_Trees_ENH1054.pdf

    Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at debhartz@att.net.

If You Go
    The Lantana Nature Preserve, 440 E. Ocean Ave., Lantana (between The Carlisle senior living facility on East Ocean Avenue and the Intracoastal Waterway), is closed until further notice.  Get updates and information by calling customer service at 540-5000.
    Horticulturist Gene Joyner’s annual tour is usually held in April. He also hosts tours of his Unbelievable Acres Botanic Gardens (unbelievableacresbotanicgardens.org) in an unincorporated area west of West Palm Beach. But now he could use volunteers for storm cleanup. For more information about the tour and volunteering at his Unbelievable Acres, reach him at 242-1686.

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