By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
Tucked between I-95 and the Amtrak/Tri-Rail tracks sits the 24-acre Blazing Star Preserve in Boca Raton. Regardless of its diminutive size and rather noisy location, it’s a worthwhile place to discover Florida’s scrubland.
“It’s a wonder that we live in a city yet can still visit this wild looking habitat,” says Susan Elliott, environmental program coordinator for the Boca Raton Recreation Services Department.
To understand the scrub habitat, take a seat on one of the benches at the park’s entrance. Then close your eyes and think of the noise from I-95 as waves lapping the shore.
That should help you imagine what it was like here about 125,000 years ago, when the glaciers covering Florida had melted and water levels had risen so that where you are sitting was oceanfront.
“Although it’s now about 5 miles inland, the park still has hints of its waterfront past that are kind of fun to think about,” says Elliott, pointing out the trails fashioned from sugar sand that once was a beach.
The interglacial high water created standing islands where species of plants evolved that are found nowhere else on Earth.
Although this scrub area is no longer isolated, the endemic species you’ll find here include the Garber’s blazing star, the preserve’s namesake. Visit October through December and you’ll easily identify its bright lavender flowers supported on long stalks.
There’s also nodding pinweed and the pawpaw whose yellow fruits provide food for the resident gopher tortoises.
As you walk the 1-mile trail, you’ll notice the sparse canopy is created by sand pines standing like sculptures against the blue sky. With their zig-zaggy limbs and trunks, as well as short needles and small pine cones, they are often likened to bonsai trees.
You’ll also see proud-looking slash pines that stand tall and straight in the distance. Often used for lumber, these stately pines have longer needles and larger cones than the sand pines.
Beneath the pines, wild coffee as well as scrub oaks including myrtle, Chapman and sand live oaks grow shoulder high. Elliott easily identifies the sand live oak by its very tough leaves that curve under all around to help preserve water in this arid landscape.
On this visit, the Chapman oaks are swarming with fuzzy dark green caterpillars that one day will become oakworm moths. They use their bright red legs to closely grab onto the leaves and stems as they chew on the plants’ tender ends.
Saw palmettos also grow thickly along the trail. But be careful. Touch one and you’ll discover they are rightly named for the saw-like teeth along the stems or petioles of the fan-shaped fronds.
Today, the air is filled with a slightly sweet herbal scent emanating from the palmettos’ many tiny globe-like flowers. In fact, honey made from these delicate yellow flowers is prized for its taste.
Farther along the trail, the native hog plum with its nasty thorns is another plant to avoid.
Both these well-armored plants help keep animals from marauding through the scrub as they feed and protect smaller animals such as lizards and gopher tortoises from predators.
But today, these plants are being crowded out by invasives, both native and non-native, such as love vine, schefflera (umbrella tree), carrotwood and Brazilian pepper.
In the past, wildfires spread through here every 15 to 80 years, naturally removing the invasives without damaging the native plants and animals that had adapted to the blazes.
But in the city today, using fire is not an option.
As a result, you’ll find the yellow stems of the love vine covering the scrubby oaks. This parasitic vine not only shades the plant but also puts out claw-like haustoria that pierce and then suck water and nutrients from the host.
Today the invasives are controlled manually. And as their removal opens the scrub’s sandy floor to sunlight, the oaks, pines and other scrub plants are sprouting from seeds.
As we walk, Elliott not only points out the things that endanger the scrub but also its wonders.
There are scrub mint with its lavender flowers and needles instead of leaves; reindeer moss that indicates the habitat is healthy; and rusty lyonia, named for the color of the scales on the undersides of its leaves.
Now, consider the native prickly pear cactus festooned with lush yellow blooms at this time of year. It’s amazing that it thrives in tropical South Florida, because it is known as a desert plant. But that just proves how arid the scrub actually is.
When you stop to inspect the cactus, note the pads that are food for gopher tortoises. And you may see that some are covered not only with thorns but also a white powdery substance.
“Here’s my last trick,” says Elliott as she bends down to take a bit of the white substance in her fingers and rolls it until she finds a small dark object concealed within.
This is the cochineal bug. If you popped it, the bug would give off red carminic acid that helps deter other bugs from eating it. But man has discovered it also can be used as a carmine dye. In fact, it was used to color the cloth made into the red coats worn by British soldiers.
“These smaller urban scrub remnants of the prehistoric islands help preserve important species and a bit of natural history that’s fun to share,” says Elliott.
IF YOU GO:
What: Blazing Star Preserve
Where: 1751 W. Camino Real, Boca Raton
Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset
Etc.: No pets in the park or bicycles on trails. Sand trails are not handicap accessible. No comfort facilities. There is very good informational signage on a kiosk at the trailhead.
More information: 561-393-7810
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have suggestions of public places we might visit for future Secret Garden columns, please share them with us.