Roger Hammer is standing in a forest that used to be the bottom of the ocean, about 100,000 years ago.
The ground is pitted with holes, a limestone honeycomb cemented by bits of grain that look like fish eggs and nearly barren of soil. Yet, miraculously, life springs from the rock: slash pines, silver palms, tiny clumps of leafy plants splattered like paint across the rocks and a rainbow of wildflowers that manage to sprout from the bony floor. This plot near ZooMiami is a remnant of one of the world’s rarest forests: pine rockland.
It once covered 186,000 acres, colonizing an ancient ridge — the high ground snaking south from Miami under the Upper Keys and reappearing in Big Pine Key.
No more. Today, the place where Hammer, an author and former Miami-Dade County senior naturalist, has collected wildflowers for 40 years is down to about 3,700 acres outside Everglades National Park, splintered by development into shards scattered around the county’s south end.
You just never know what you might find.
Author and botanist Roger Hammer
“If you come out at different times of the year, it always changes,” said Hammer, who helped restore the 120 acres of pineland here in Larry and Penny Thompson Park after Hurricane Andrew, pine bark beetles and Burma reed nearly destroyed it. “You just never know what you might find.”
Including, to environmentalists dismay, a Walmart. Just north of the park, in what was the largest remaining tract of Miami’s pine rockland on an old blimp base, a Palm Beach County developer is moving closer to finalizing a shopping center anchored by the big-box store. The project will also include 900 apartments, a parking lot, possibly a school and replace the 90-acre forest with separate 24-acre and 20-acre preserves. It is the first major development on the globally imperiled forest since the county launched a land-buying program to save endangered habitat in 1990. The county now manages about 1,500 acres.
To build it, developer Peter Cummings and the University of Miami — which acquired the land at no cost after the base was decommissioned and in the 1990s objected to county efforts to preserve it — spent the past three years conducting environmental assessments. (The plan is now being reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and open to public comment.) They concluded that much of the pineland is overgrown and beyond salvage. Hammer disagrees.
“They’re easy to reclaim, but they’re using this false argument that it’s ruined and therefore we need a Walmart,” he said. “That’s bogus.”
That’s because Miami’s rockland plants are among the planet’s toughest, from the slash pines that evolved into their own subspecies of super-hard wood, the Dade County pine prized by old-time builders and known to botanists as var. densa, to the obscure tiny polygala, which stands a few inches high and lives for less than a year. They might not tolerate development, but they can survive South Florida’s withering heat, fire season and occasional drought, grow on rocks or take root in chalky soil that piled up in holes in the limestone but retained neither water nor nutrients. Before more powerful tractors came along in the 1940s, farmers struggling to coax crops on the land called it pothole farming.
Hammer, a survival instructor for the Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid,” said living amid the pinelands’ stinging nettles, that can cause throbbing pain for days, and poisonwoods would be hard, for man or beast.
“This habitat here would be a really tough way to go,” he said.
But what makes it harsh also makes it unique. Sandwiched between the coast and marshes, the pinelands grew in isolation, an evolution of apart-ness that produced a North American version of the Galapagos Islands, with 31 plants found no where else in the world.
“They’ve been around for a long time, but they’ve been in pockets with the ups and downs of sea level,” said Tom Lodge, author of “The Everglades Handbook.” “If we are to preserve that heritage for people to see and enjoy for the future, we’ve got to be extremely careful. Because it’s so small, you could easily extinguish some of the species that require the habitat.”
Although what’s left might just look like open land awaiting the next strip mall, and not like much of a forest to Northerners used to towering canopies, pinelands have dramatic beauty. It’s just small-scale.Up close, it’s a determined beauty, and the reason why environmentalists have fought so long and so hard to save it.
High on Hammer’s list are wildflowers, plants with hairy stems and spiky leaves and beautiful bell-shaped flowers. One day this week, it took him about “10 seconds” to find the tiny heart-shaped leaves of one of the forest’s rarest plants, the deltoid spurge (spurges were once used as laxatives because of the bitter milky sap they produce) that now inhabit the Earth only on pine rockland between Sunset Driver and Southwest 264th Street.
“There’s cactus and coontie that dates back to the age of the dinosaurs,” he said. “It’s a pretty harsh environment but really one of the most floristically rich habitats we have.”
As he walked around Thompson park, Hammer pointed out flowers that shined like jewels against a gray-green canvas: the pineland poinsettia, another spurge and the tougher-looking cousin of the crimson holiday plant; the lavender flower of the oakleaf fleabane, which early settlers stuffed in mattresses to keep away fleas; and the bright yellow trumpet of a groundcherry, which grows berry-sized tomatoes wrapped in papery husks.
The forest is probably best known for as the source of hard-as-rock slash pine, marketed by lumberyards as Dade pine to distinguish its unique strength and which, along with the quarried oolite floor, helped build many early homes in South Florida.
“Still today you have to drill a hole with a drill. You can’t pound a nail in it,” Hammer said.
The forest also grew to perfectly reflect the environment in inhabited. From the beetles to the butterflies to the bats, each filled a niche in a very tight web. Miami tiger beetles, which can now only be found on pineland around the old base, controlled the ant population. Butterflies pollinated flowers. Bats ate bugs. Seasonal fires thinned the pine and kept live oaks and other taller trees from growing too big, which allowed the plants to grow on the rocky floor.
The forest survived as long as nature took its course and the floor remained intact.
1,500 acresThe amount of remaining pine rockland maintained by Miami-Dade County
When Hurricane Andrew plowed across Larry and Penny Thompson Park, it snapped some trees and left others bent “like fishing poles,” Hammer said. The rockland pine store much of their resin in their roots, which keep pine-boring beetles at bay. But with the winds wrenching the trees from their shallow purchase, the trees lost their best defense. Ips pine bark beetles killed what was left and invasive Burma weed — an Asian grass that escaped a Coconut Grove test garden decades ago to become one of the biggest threats to pinelands — quickly took over.
To save it, Hammer and work crews attacked the towering grass with metal-bladed weed whackers, then knocked out new sprouts with herbicide. In other overgrown tracts around the county, they used chainsaws to thin the hardwoods first, then set fires to restore the seed banks.
“If you cut all that down and burn it, those seeds sprout right away,” he said.
The key is keeping the ancient ocean floor intact. Once the rock is covered with fill and paved over for parking lots or buildings, it’s gone forever.
“There’s probably more plants per acre in this type of habitat than there are in most habitats in Florida,” Hammer said. “To say this is all screwed up and this is no good and get rid of it, it’s so bogus. This cost a lot of money. Don’t get me wrong. It’s thousands of dollars of acres because you’ve got people out here working every day. …But there’s just these little parcels here and there that make up what’s left.”
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story contained incorrect information in a photo caption. The Deering partridge pea was named for philanthropist Charles Deering.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
If you go
Many of the pine rocklands around Miami-Dade County are open to the public. Among the biggest are:
▪ Larry and Penny Thompson Park, 12451 SW 184th St., Miami
▪ Navy Wells Preserve, 35751 SW 199th Ave., Homestead
▪ Tamiami Pinelands Preserve, Southwest 124th Avenue and 128th Street
▪ Camp Matecumbe and Boystown Pineland County Park, Southwest 120 Street and Lindgreen Road