By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
Wandering along the newly rebuilt boardwalk at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, you can discover the beauty of the maritime coastal hammock preserved at this site.
Set atop the highest elevation on the barrier island, with beach and dunes to the east and wetlands to the west, this ancient hardwood forest used to run the length of Florida’s southeastern coast.
That’s until invasive plants and development destroyed much of it, says Gumbo Limbo Manager Leanne Welch.
Today, there are only three pieces of hammock preserved in Palm Beach County: this parcel (which measures about 15 acres), an 8.5-acre piece in Ocean Ridge and a segment in John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach.
Ancient man, like modern man, found these tree-covered and elevated areas to be particularly habitable. To prove it, our ancestors left shells, bones and broken pottery in refuse piles or middens. From the walkway, you can see their remains, which date back about 2,000 years.
The original Gumbo Limbo boardwalk, built in 1986, was a loop that included a 40-foot observation tower.
Bill Aseere was one of about 40 volunteers who spent about eight months building those original structures. He’d just moved here from California with a truck full of power tools, including an electric saw that ran on a generator. His job was to cut boards, handrail supports and railings that lined the pathway.
“It was hot with lots of mosquitoes and then it rained. That walkway was a buzzard to build,” says Aseere, 86, of Boca Raton.
In 2002, an extension was added to connect the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center to Red Reef Park West. But over the years, flooding from storms and high tides caused the boards to decay, making the path dangerous to navigate. It finally was closed in February 2015.
It took four years to remove and replace the original walkway in two phases before it finally reopened to the public in July.
“It’s lush and cool back here, even on the hottest day,” says Welch.
A stroll along the boardwalk becomes a nature lesson as signage provides Quick Response codes that can be read by cell phones to provide more information on what you see.
Technology aside, we turned off our phones and turned to Welch to help us understand what makes this mature hardwood forest special.
As we walk, she points out the tropical plants that are typical of this habitat — including gumbo limbos, cabbage palms, poisonwoods, pigeon plums, wild coffees, sea grapes, strangler figs, lancewoods and a mastic tree that was hit by lightning.
Now a snag, it is left for nesting birds, insects and other wildlife to use as habitat. Spotted skunks have been seen in the area, Welch says.
Paradise trees with their “beautiful red flowers” are just starting to reappear. “We had them everywhere but unfortunately they were taken out in the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005,” says Welch. Hurricanes Frances, Jeanne and Wilma impacted Palm Beach County in those years.
“Tons of birds,” such as three varieties of woodpeckers, have also returned since the construction finished, Welch says.
The area also has cardinals, warblers, thrashers, gnat-catchers, kingfishers and an occasional owl.
The woods are home to squirrels, raccoons, a family of foxes, mangrove crabs climbing the trees, box turtles with domed shells that can be closed for protection, orb weavers obstructing the path with their intricate webs, and some not-very-welcome iguanas.
On our visit we even saw tree snails. They had been collected almost to extinction for their colorfully striped shells. But today, they are back again.
“This is the perfect place to discover the beauty of Florida’s disappearing maritime hammock as well as the plants and animals it nurtures,” says Welch.
“Although we do remove plastics and other manmade debris brought into Gumbo Limbo on the tide, we practice hands-off maintenance — so we don’t pick up fallen palm fronds or broken branches. Our goal is to maintain the area as a habitat, not a park. We know everything in nature has value.”
— Leanne Welch, manager of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
If You Go
What: The reconstructed Gumbo Limbo Nature Center boardwalk
Where: 1801 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton
Hours: Open daily 7 a.m. to dusk
Parking: The 59 carefully patrolled free parking spaces at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center quickly fill up. Additional, metered parking is available at Red Reef Park West to the south along A1A. Residents with beach parking stickers can also park at Red Reef Park East.
Info: www.gumbolimbo.org or 561-544-8605
Admission: $5 donation requested per person
Tours: “A Walk in the Hammock” tours are offered on most Saturdays starting at 10 a.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. “Early Birding With Al” is offered the third Thursday of each month starting at 8 a.m.
Schedules can change, so be sure to consult Gumbo Limbo’s program calendar (www.gumbolimbo.org/Programs-and-Events) or call the center to confirm the tour you wish to attend. These tours begin on the front porch of the Nature Center. No registration is required.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at email@example.com.