By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
An armadillo lumbers across the path ahead of us. Low growing plants cling to the sandy soil. And a prickly pear cactus seems to reach with its spiny pads.
We could be in a desert far out West.
Instead, we are just off Interstate 95 in Boca Raton, visiting the Yamato Scrub Natural Area. On more than 200 acres the area showcases a variety of ecosystems, including pine flatwoods and restored marshland. But more than 60 percent of it is this desert-like scrubland.
“The scrub that you see here is unique to our state, found nowhere else on the planet,” says Lee Lietzke, the senior environmental analyst who oversees this natural area.
“It is the oldest ecosystem in Florida, dating back to prehistoric times,” adds Lietzke, who works for the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management.
If you wonder how this dry ecosystem ended up here, so close to the ocean, Lietzke can explain. Florida scrub owes its formation to eons of rising and falling sea levels that formed a dune ridge along the state’s eastern coast. When water levels rose, only the tops of the high and dry dunes were exposed.
These islands were then colonized by plants to form the scrub habitat that has more endemic species than any other, says Lietzke.
To see the Yamato Scrub for yourself, take a trail map available in the natural area’s parking lot. From there, follow the concrete path that is the Cicada Trail. Then continue on to the southern portion of the sandy Skyblue Lupine Trail.
As you walk, you will recognize the scrub by its sand live oaks as well as the sand pines, which have much shorter needles and smaller cones than the more familiar slash pines. You’ll feel plenty of sun on your face as you pass such low-growing scrub indicators as rusty lyonia with white bell-like flowers, flag paw paw with showy white flowers and aromatic scrub mint.
And if you are lucky, you may see a gopher tortoise or its burrow. Those underground tunnels are not only home to their makers but also can house over 350 other species, including the endangered Florida mouse and the indigo snake.
The concern for Lietzke and other land managers is that the lower plants in the scrub require plenty of sun and will cease to exist if the nearby oaks and pines are allowed to grow into a canopy. That too could endanger the grass-eating tortoises and other animals that need the plants to survive.
Before man, Mother Nature maintained the scrub with periodic wildfires that leveled almost everything in their paths. But to protect themselves, some trees adapted to fire.
For example, sand pines readily burn. But their closed cones open in the heat of a fire to expose a great many seeds that, after the fire dies out, sprout thick as “dog hair” to renew the population, explains Lietzke.
As man entered the picture, he too took advantage of those dry dune ridges to lay out roads, railroads, homes and businesses. Over the years, scrub was replaced by urban landscape and two-thirds of Florida’s original scrub disappeared.
Ideally, land managers such as Lietzke could use prescribed burns to maintain what scrub remains. But with so many businesses and homes nearby, smoke is a major concern.
In place of fire, repeated mowing or chopping does a good job of maintaining the scrub. The scrub is cut using a heavy piece of equipment and left to regenerate itself naturally so it’s there for you to enjoy.
“To a large extent, our natural areas are really the last places where you can come out and see actual habitat. Our goal is to maintain that habitat as close to its natural state as possible,” says Lietzke.
If You Go
What: Yamato Scrub Natural Area. No restrooms or drinking water are available at this site.
Where: 701 Clint Moore Road, Boca Raton
When: Open sunrise to sunset daily. Daytime and evening guided tours and other programs are available to help you enjoy and learn about scrub and other ecosystems in the area.
More info: Call 393-7810; go to discover.pbcgov.org/erm/NaturalAreas/Yamato- Scrub.aspx; or visit its Facebook page.
Native muhly grass is great for people who want a plant that doesn’t need a lot of water. We just put it in and let it grow. The rain keeps it alive to produce really pretty purple seed heads. I have some in my front yard. The grass naturally covers an area about 2 feet in diameter, but doesn’t seem to spread and become unmanageable.
— Lee Lietzke, senior environmental analyst, Palm Beach County Dept. of Environmental Resources Management
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.