Early Farming by Miami Shores Settlers

Let’s face it: if any one of us was plucked from our comfortable, air-conditioned existence and taken back in time 100 or so years, most of us would find it very difficult to survive life as a settler in the area we now call Miami Shores.  The only respite from the heat on hot days was under a shade tree, or in the relatively cool waters of Biscayne Bay.  Mosquitoes were often an inescapable torment and, with the Everglades and wet praireland nearby, venomous snakes like rattlers and cottonmouths were a constant threat.  Settlers fished, farmed and foraged for foods that we can easily find in any number of nearby stores.  

Read Carol Hoffman-Guzman’s fascinating history of early farming in the area, and imagine yourselves in the shoes — or bare feet — of the early pioneers.  

Vegetable and fruit farming has long been an essential aspect of life in the greater Miami Shores area, starting with the Seminole Indians and the later homesteaders in the mid-1800’s. Let’s take a look at the evolving history of gardens, farming and agriculture among the early Miami Shores settlers.

Various history books give hints about the settlers and their gardens. The earliest pioneers often survived on local plants, fish and game gathered from the surrounding environment, as did the prehistoric tribes such as the Calusa and later the Seminoles. Thelma Peters, in her book “Biscayne Country,” suggests that we should think of the Biscayne area as a wooded island surrounded by a grassy, wet prairieland. Many homesteaders soon realized that the wetlands were not decent for long-term homes or gardens, so they settled on the higher wooded area, called the Piney Woods. However, this area was primarily a rocky limestone ridge that didn’t offer much in the way of good soil. Additionally, the available plant life was rather thin – mostly scrub palmettoes, pines, and coontie plants, along with some native “weeds.”  In the photo below, you can easily see how sandy the soil was.

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Photo used with permission from Seth Bramson’s “Boulevard of Dreams“.  

Miami Shores settlers from North Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas were mostly poor people from the back country. Seth H. Bramson, in his book “Boulevard of Dreams” about the Biscayne area, states, “The first settlers were essentially subsistence farmers. . .” (see footnote 1). Their focus was on simply growing enough food to feed themselves, their families and occasional visitors. Initially the output was only minimal, with little or no surplus food for trade. These Southerners also knew which native plants were edible, including pokeweed, sorrel, dock and other greens that were good in stews and soups. Huckleberries, wild Muscadine grapes and elderberries also grew in season in some areas in Florida. 

Some early homesteaders brought with them plants from their prior gardens: tomatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, celery, eggplants, corn and peppers – some survived, some didn’t. New settlers also brought with them fruit plants and trees from their home states in the Southeast and Midwest. Such fruits included strawberries, oranges, limes, pears, peaches, and oaks with edible nuts. Local and tropical fruit trees were later adopted to their diet.  Despite the poor soil, Mrs. Sturtevant, an early settler, wrote in 1875:

‘We will persevere in our pleasant work and have the oranges, lemons, limes, tamarinds, figs, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, sappadillas, alligator pears, Jamaica apples, Japanese plums, sugar apples, guavas, papaws, and dates in readiness for our visitors.  Mammee apples and cocoanuts require more time: a few of the latter have attained considerable size and may be expected to fruit in three years, but there are plenty in bearing in our neighborhood’” (see footnote 2).

As Thelma Peters points out, Mr. Sturtevant used to take a handcart to the bay to gather seaweed which he used to mulch his plants (see footnote 3).  Given the fertility of their garden, he was clearly on to something by adding organic matter that enriched the soil and kept it moist.  

Early settlers gained some information about native plants from their Seminole neighbors, who occasionally canoed up the small waterways to visit and trade with the settlers. The Seminoles showed them how coontie roots could be safely processed to remove a neurotoxin to make starch. They also introduced other plants that were good for food and medicine, including the edible hearts of the local scrub palmettos and the small “Indian pumpkins” that grew in vines up into trees.  

Early settlers began to augment their diet of local fish and game by raising chickens, geese, pigs, and cows (mostly for milk). Branded pigs were allowed to run loose and occasionally they interbred with wild hogs brought previously to Florida by the Spanish.

Subsistence farming was indeed the initial emphasis, but “truck farming” for sales to neighbors, outsiders and stores became a later interest. This business eventually became commercialized by families and companies, which purchased acres of land, especially for pineapples, coonties and various fruits that tolerated the sandy soil and dry season. Florida arrowroot starch made from coontie roots was sold locally and at markets in other towns, and was eventually shipped to other parts of the country. Packinghouses also shipped pineapples and other produce through new nearby railroad depots. Common garden plants, including fruit trees, could eventually be purchased from stores in Key West and later in Lemon City – and then be shipped or transported into the Biscayne and Shores areas. Local sawmills opened to harvest the formerly ubiquitous Miami-Dade slash pine in response to a growing need for houses and farm buildings.

Photo used with permission from Seth Bramson’s “Boulevard of Dreams“.  Note the children’s bare feet.

Joe Blair, who arrived in the area in 1928 to escape cold winters up north, opened a business selling fertilizer and livestock feed to farmers in the area (see footnote 4).  Although tillers and livestock feed have long since been replaced by lawn mowers and leaf blowers, Joe Blair’s is still open on 79th Street.  Later, in 1949, Mercer’s Seed Company opened in downtown Miami Shores, and quickly became a favorite gathering place for residents of the Shores who were interested in growing fruit and vegetables, and in landscaping their property.

The Mercer Seed Company storefront on main street in Miami Shores. Photo courtesy of Brockway Memorial Library.

Over time, as a community develops and increases in size, various farming practices and customs change. While vegetable and fruit gardening has long been a component of living in Miami Shores, many of us today are almost completely cut off from the nature upon which the early settlers’ lives depended.  Our farming roots were further severed by changes to the landscape code that forbade the planting of vegetables in front yards, thereby depriving some residents of the ability to grow their own food.  One current case, in which a resident is suing the village of Miami Shores over this part of the landscape code, is under appeal, and oral arguments are scheduled for August 21, 2017 (see footnote 5).

Carol Hoffman-Guzman, PhD

Our village is certain to face many difficulties in the years ahead, with climate change and rising seas.  The early settlers can teach us valuable lessons about resiliency under difficult conditions.  Perhaps it is time to examine more closely the idea of coming full circle, and creating urban farms in the Shores.                                                                               Mary Benton, Founding Director, Bound by Beauty

 


1.  Seth Bramson, Boulevard of Dreams, A Pictorial History of El Portal, Biscayne Park, Miami Shores and North Miami (Charleston, SC: The History Press), 11.

2. Thelma Peters, Biscayne Country 1870-1926 (Miami, FL: Banyan Books, Inc. 1981), 12.

3. Peters, Biscayne Country, 12.

4. Erik Bojnansky, “Restoration Road: Once a seedy and dangerous thoroughfare, Miami’s 79th Street is looking up.” Biscayne Times, Vol. 16, Issue 6 (August 2017): 22-37.

5. In August 2016, a local judge found that, “the prohibition of vegetable gardens except in backyards is rationally related to Miami Shores’ legitimate interest in promoting and maintaining aesthetics,” and the Village’s decision to prohibit such plantings, therefore, “passes constitutional scrutiny.”  

Dr. Carol Hoffman-Guzman is a 30-year resident of Miami-Dade County, with a BA in anthropology from Cornell University and a PhD in sociology from FIU.  She currently resides in Miami Shores, where she has started researching the local history and plant life.  Carol’s interest lies in the common people who developed the area, as well as a community’s use and interaction with native and introduced plants from prehistoric to modern times.  She is also writing a book about the plants and people of the Lake Okeechobee area.  You can read her previous article for Bound by Beauty about the natural history of the area here.
Aspiring or published women writers can join Carol and friends at the Miami Shores Community Church for her Women Writers’ Group.  For more information you can contact Carol at carolmhoffman@bellsouth.net.

From Sod to Sanctuary: The Joyful Transformation of a Churchyard

Update on the pine rockland and butterfly garden plantings: one of Bound by Beauty’s members watched an Atala butterfly christen a newly planted coontie with her eggs several days ago; and two of us watched this morning as a Sleepy orange butterfly deposited her eggs on the Bahama senna!  It is a wonderful feeling to provide a safe sanctuary for pregnant female butterflies and their offspring!

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Bound by Beauty gathered together with friends, neighbors, members of the Miami Shores Community Church Garden Program, and AT&T Pioneers to install a pine rockland, marking the second phase of the transformation of a spacious, sod-covered rear churchyard into a community garden and sanctuary for butterflies and other pollinators, as well as endangered native plant species.

Pine rocklands are an incredibly rich, critically endangered habitat, containing numerous flora and fauna that are found nowhere else on earth.  Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden has a wonderful program designed to connect the few remaining fragments of pine rocklands, through plantings in urban gardens.  You can read more about the Connect to Protect Network here.  By joining this network, the Community Church school was given ten free pine rockland plants.  Additional plants and other supplies were purchased thanks to a donation from Meg Watson, Pastor at the Community Church.

We started by gazing in delight at a pair of mating Monarch butterflies in the previously planted butterfly garden, which you can read about here.

Monarchs mating on native blue porterweed, a pine rockland plant

We added some yellowtop plants to the butterfly garden, as well as a Chaya, or Mexican tree spinach cane, whose lovely white flowers will attract nearly all native species of butterflies to its nectar (you can read how humans benefit from this plant here).

Madeliene, Mike, and Melanie introducing the yellowtop plants into their new home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan is easing the largest pine out of its nursery pot, with Rolando, Mike and Melanie.

Others, meanwhile, started adding plants to the pine rockland.  We planted three Florida slash pines, a tree whose disappearance due to urbanization in South Florida has led to the near-extinction of the Flying squirrel and the Red-cockaded woodpecker.  

Helen and Susan planting a pine.
Susan standing on what is arguably the highest point in Miami Shores, while Adriana, Rolando, Helen, and Doug work on the pine rockland.
Helen and Rolando carefully position coral rocks donated for this project by members of the community.

 

In addition to the Florida slash pine, we planted coontie, the host plant for the Atala butterfly; wild lantana; pineland croton, the host plant of the critically endangered Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak and Florida leafwing butterflies; Chapman’s liatris, as well as sunshine mimosas  (the only species not associated with pine rocklands).  All of these species are drought-tolerant once established.

The pine rockland, finished off with leaf mulch donated by members of the community.

From sod:

Before the planting: the rear yard of the church was underutilized and covered in sod

To sanctuary:

A butterfly garden and pine rockland that are full of beauty and interest and life.

The pine rockland may be little, but its message is mighty: we must join together to save nature, which we depend on for our existence.  It was a joyful experience for everybody involved to take such positive steps toward healing nature and creating a sanctuary for butterflies, endangered plants, and humans.  Stop by and take a look!  And stay tuned as we find creative ways to expand Miami Shores’ first community garden.

 

Pine Rockland Planting and Community Garden Celebration at the Miami Shores Community Church

Mad dogs, Englishmen, and, apparently, members of Bound by Beauty are out in the midday sun.  You can see from our rosy cheeks and noses, not to mention the glistening sweat, that we worked hard today to prepare the bed for the planting of the pine rockland plants on Saturday.  Lucky for us, we love doing what we do!

Bound by Beauty members Helen Perry, Mary Benton, and Patty Doukas

So what did we do?  We removed the plastic tarp that was solarizing the bed, then started sculpting a pine rockland, using coral rocks donated by members of the community.  We just may have created the highest point in Miami Shores!

In the process of sculpting our pine rockland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, we took the plants donated by Fairchild Garden’s Protect to Connect Network and other generous folks, and placed them in a mockup of the garden to come.  We thought it looked pretty good!

Last, but not least, we took the potted plants to the shade, where they will await the moment when their roots can stretch out into the soil.  

 

Come join us on Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Miami Shores Community Church for the planting and a celebration of Miami Shores’ Community Garden.  Bring your lawn chairs and favorite beverages, and join your neighbors in the relative cool of a summer evening.  We look forward to seeing lots of friends and neighbors!  

Update on Miami Shores Community Garden

Bound by Beauty connected recently with Jennifer Possley and Peter Vrotsos, both of whom are involved in Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden’s Connect to Protect Network, which seeks to protect the critically endangered pine rockland habitats of South Florida.  We met them at Fairchild’s nursery on a day of threatening skies and downpours, to pick up Bound by Beauty’s five native pine rockland plants, which include host plants for butterflies, as well as plants that provide food for butterflies and other wildlife, and 10 pine rockland plants for the Miami Shores Community Church school’s community garden.  Read more about this very important effort to save pine rockland species, and learn how you can become a member of the network and receive your own native plants here.  We will be scheduling a planting at the school soon, so stay tuned!

Jennifer Possley of Fairchild Garden, flanked by Mary Benton and Helen Perry of Bound by Beauty. Not pictured, Peter Vrotsos
Fairchild Garden’s Connect to Protect yard sign.

 

 

 

 

Healing Nature, One Butterfly Habitat at a Time

Bound by Beauty teamed up with the AT&T Pioneers, the Girl Scouts of Troop 1305, members of the Miami Shores Community Church, and friends and neighbors in Miami Shores, to create a magical community butterfly habitat and the beginnings of a pine rockland, in an overlooked, grassy area of the church next to the school.

We began last Thursday, one of the hottest days of the year, by carving up the beds.  This might sound simple and straightforward, but St. Augustine grass has a tenacious grip on the earth, and is loathe to let go.  For those of us engaged in the fight against climate change, ripping out St. Augustine grass is a apt metaphor for the struggle to replace the unhealthy with the healthy, in order to heal our planet.  

The hard work of loosening the grip of St. Augustine grass

One after another, our weed wackers failed in their attempt to cut through the tough leaves and roots of the grass.  James Ard, a friend of nature who lives up the street, showed up in the nick of time with his powerful gas-powered edger, which one of the Pioneers employed to good purpose, while the rest of us used hoes and rakes to remove the remnants of the grass, which we piled up in another bed where the pine rockland habitat will be created.  We almost finished the job, but the extreme heat leading to tomato-red faces dictated our temporary withdrawal.

Building up the future pine rockland ridge with the remnants of St. Augustine grass.

Saturday, the day dawned bright and sunny, but a nice breeze off Biscayne Bay, along with lemonade and snacks provided by the Girl Scouts, provided some comfort to those who returned to finish the job.  After removing the last remnants of St. Augustine grass, the crew got to work smoothing out the butterfly meadow planting bed, while others got to work labeling each plant and wetting down the future pine rockland and covering it with a plastic tarp in order to solarize it over the next few weeks. The wet soil will conduct the heat of the sun and kill the grass and other weeds.  The Girl Scouts covered the ungainly plastic-wrapped pile with gaily colored butterflies, caterpillars, and a sign indicating its future use.

The future pine rockland habitat, which will be part of Fairchild’s Connect to Protect Network.
when solarizing is complete.

 

 

 

 

 

When the butterfly meadow bed was raked smooth, Bound by Beauty placed the potted plants in their assigned location, educating those gathered on the purpose of each plant, while the Pioneers and other volunteers began digging holes and adding some homemade compost.  

Placing the plants.

 

 

Then the leaves donated by numerous members of the community were added to the bed to the depth of a couple of inches, followed by one inch of natural eucalyptus mulch, to mollify those who don’t believe that leaves should be used as mulch ;-).

Leaf mulch from pesticide-free gardens enriches the soil and keeps it moist, and discourages weeds from growing.

The final task was to thoroughly water the new plants, and to place a temporary fencing around the meadow to ensure it survives recess!

The purpose of the fence is to protect the plants as they become established.

Here is a list of the plants that went into creating this butterfly meadow:

Nectar plants:

Lantana involucrata

Lantana depressa

Beach verbena

Havana skullcap

Beach creeper

Porterweed

Brazilian buttonflower

Coreopsis

Tropical sage

Host plants:

Fogfruit

Bahama senna

Tropical milkweed

Giant milkweed

Many thanks to Pastor Meg Watson and the Miami Shores Community Church, the AT&T Pioneers, the Girl Scouts of Troop 1305 (and their mothers!), James Ard (who schlepped the plants up from Homestead and lent us his powerful edger in the nick of time), and members of the community who donated their time, their labor, their leaves, and their rocks!  

To be continued……

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bound by Beauty at Miami Shores’ Unity Day Fair

Bound by Beauty had a wonderful time at the Unity Day Fair in Miami Shores. Our booth featured a Monarch tower bedecked with Monarch chrysalises, and we even watched a couple of caterpillars pupate, which is always a thrilling sight.  Jill Leslie captured the remarkable process with her cell phone.

Bound by Beauty also had on hand a Pollinator Pledge, which a number of fair goers signed to protect our precious pollinators from the widespread use of pesticides.  Those who signed got a butterfly named for them on our wall.

We offered a petition in support of a farmers’ market in Miami Shores, and another in support of a ban on pesticides in public spaces.  There was also a signup sheet for neighbors who are interested in participating in the creation of a community butterfly/healing garden at the Miami Shores Community Church.  Many thanks to all who signed!

Most of all, we enjoyed meeting our neighbors on a beautiful day in South Florida.  Thank you Jen, Susan, Wendy, Jill, Doug, Roly, Ed, Salomon, Mike, Pete for setting up an awesome booth and being part of this lovely and meaningful day.

 

 

Butterfly/Healing Community Garden Planned in Miami Shores

Bound by Beauty’s team is collaborating with Pastor Meg Watson and the Miami Shores Community Church to create a butterfly/healing garden that will be open to all members of the Miami Shores community, when school is not in session.  The conceptual design involves three main areas: a butterfly meadow; a pine rockland; and a forest retreat.  This will be a place for inspiration, healing, meditation, and prayer, while surrounded by the beauty of butterflies and a healthy natural environment.  During the school day, the children will have a chance to explore the many aspects of this natural learning environment.

The Three Garden Zones

 

The Gathering Spaces

 

The Butterfly Meadow

 

The Pine Rockland

Forest Retreat

 

Perimeters and Passages

 

How you can help

 

Learn more

Metamorphosis

A butterfly’s life is full of dangers, from hungry predators to freezing temperatures. This video captures the two most fraught moments in the metamorphosis of a Monarch. The musical score for Metamorphosis was composed and performed by Geoffrey Lee.

In the foreground, a brand new Monarch butterfly has just outgrown the shell of the chrysalis, and has to learn to use its new, much longer, legs to cling to the slippery husk. The abdomen, swollen with waste fluid built up during the process of transformation from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly, makes the job of holding on even more challenging. If the butterfly were to lose its tentative grasp on the chrysalis, it would fall and quite likely not survive, as the fluid in the abdomen would have no way to run down the channels in the butterfly’s wings to lengthen them without the assistance of gravity.

Behind the emerging butterfly, is a caterpillar that has begun pupating after weaving a silk pad to which it can cling. As the pupa emerges, it shimmies the skin, feelers, eyes, mouth, and feet of the caterpillar upwards. The emerging pupa has to replace that last caterpillar leg, which is clinging to the silk pad, with its own cremaster. If it doesn’t attach itself before the caterpillar leg is shed, the pupa will fall and not survive. The wriggling at the end, is the pupa frantically pushing the microscopic bristles in the cremaster as much as possible into the silk pad before the last remnants of the caterpillar are shed.

Watching the metamorphosis of a Monarch is transformative. Such magic and mystery, in a highly efficient and economical process of Nature. Many thanks to Geoff Lee for composing music befitting the magic.

 

You can help save a rare and threatened butterfly and endangered host plant

Atala butterfly on scorpion tail flower
Atala butterfly on scorpion tail flower

The beautiful Atala butterfly is a rare and threatened jewel of a butterfly species in South Florida and, if you have a garden, you can help make them a common sight once again.  Keep reading to learn the simple steps you need to take to help in this effort.

Nectar plants

To lure the adult butterflies, you will need to plant nectar plants. Atala butterflies prefer white nectar plants (you’ll find a partial list below in the postcard, and many more by scrolling down through this scholarly blog here.)

Host plant

With nectar plants squared away, all that’s left is the coontie, the endangered host plant where the female Atala butterfly deposits her eggs so the caterpillars can eat the leaves.  You can read more about its specifications here, and its interesting history, below.  Expert opinions vary on how many coontie you need to plant to have a sustainable population of Atalas, but I would recommend you start with a minimum of four plants that are approximately two feet tall, as coontie grow and regenerate slowly.

Atala caterpillars on coontie seed pod
Atala caterpillars on coontie seed pod

Where to find them

You can locate these plants by searching this database of native nurseries, or you can look closer to home, as Howard Tonkin of Urban Habitat recently opened a native plant nursery at Miami Ironside.  He sells coontie with caterpillars attached, but do be sure you will have enough extra coontie to ensure the caterpillars can eat their fill.  Howard can also steer you toward other nectar plants for the Atala butterfly which he sells Saturday mornings at the Upper Eastside Farmers’ Market at the American Legion Park.  Otherwise, take a photo of the postcard below, which you can keep on your smartphone to have handy whenever you happen to pass by a nursery.

A bit of history

Coontie is an ancient plant that survived the age of dinosaurs, but it almost proved to be no match for unthinking human beings.  The name “coontie” comes from a Seminole phrase meaning white bread or white root.  The Seminoles and other Native Americans in the area knew how to process the root to remove the neurotoxin, and early settlers followed their lead and began commercial production of the starchy residue which became known as Florida arrowroot.  In fact, Florida arrowroot was the Miami River’s biggest industry for a time.  However, the hurricane of 1926 put an end to the production of this starch when it wiped out the last arrowroot warehouse, and then the coontie itself was wiped out throughout the region because humans no longer found it useful.  Luckily, a small colony survived the thoughtless destruction of its habitat and host plant, and the Atala butterfly and its host plant are being brought back from the brink.  Please join us in this important and gratifying effort.

Atala butterfly nectar and host plants at-a-glance.
Atala butterfly nectar and host plants at-a-glance.