(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 25, 2008)
I'm constantly amazed by how quickly plants grow in Florida's sunny climate. Even during periods of extended dryness as we're experiencing now, established plants hang in there. Some even prosper.
When we settled into our homestead 16 years ago, there were only five trees of any consequence -- two oaks and three pines -- on the entire 50 acres. The land was so open and expansive that we were able to cut hay from it for several seasons. I remember field mice and rats scurrying for cover as the haying machine churned its way through the fields. Meadowlarks were plentiful, and the yellow flowers of evening primrose bloomed daily at dusk.
We made the most of the treeless landscape, but our intention was always to pepper the property with trees. Right away we began planting -- first, bamboo to create privacy screens, and then slash and sand pines to develop future woods. Gazing now upon our lush forests and swaying stands of clumping bamboo, it's hard to believe there was really a time when I looked out on a landscape that was treeless and bare.
Although only two of the original trees on the property were mature oaks, the land is now shaded by more than 100 of these sturdy hardwoods. Not one was intentionally planted -- birds and squirrels did all the work. Thanks to them, acorns sprouted and grew into towering trees that are at least 40 feet tall and equally as broad. To look at them you'd think they were at least 50 years old, but despite their girth and verdant canopy, these trees are still babies. I can only imagine what they'll look like when a half-century does roll around.
In addition to oaks, we have other volunteers. There are large stands of wild persimmons, laurel cherries, wax myrtles, river birches, elderberries and willows. Willow trees are impermanent. At the first hint of a large windstorm, they inevitably blow over, bend or break. They may be brittle, but the humble willow is also tenacious. Broken limbs or bent boughs re-root with ease, spawning fast-growing suckers that stretch upward for light.
In the 16 years since we've been here, we have watched the land recede into itself during droughts and swell during spells of rain-saturated soil. Throughout it all, plants have adapted. Most trees survived these extreme seasonal fluctuations, but the few that died didn't go to waste. Birds and bugs bored holes in their trunks in search of food or shelter. Branches that fell to the ground turned into thickets -- safe spots in which small animals could hide. And whatever remnants of limb or trunk remained eventually decomposed with the aid of ants, beetles and other insects of the undergrowth. Thanks to those trees that didn't make it, the soil grew rich enough to support new life.
The land has changed from field to woods, and with that shift has come an exchange of species. Meadowlarks and primroses have all but disappeared, replaced by other birds, mammals and flowers.
Watching the land evolve is like being involved in a Darwinian moment. Nature's effortless ability to adapt and rebound is awesome and inspiring. Even today, as fires rage across the region, destroying landscapes and devouring buildings, one thing is certain -- nature will rebound. New plants will emerge from among the ashes, and before long, black scars will be hidden beneath a flush of green.
I'm glad to be living in such a resilient climate. Plants respond brilliantly to Florida's primal elements. What better time to add greenery to the landscape than in a time of flames, drought and barrenness? Plant some trees now and 16 years later you, too, might be living in the forest of your dreams.