What is a gardener to do when the temperature drops and the snow rises? Hop on a plane to Florida, of course!
By Chris Cohan
What is a gardener to do when the temperature drops and the snow rises? Hop on a plane to Florida, of course! I booked a direct flight from Westchester to warm, sunny, and flower-filled south Florida. The snow was falling as I arrived at the terminal before dawn. My plan was to be on the beach before noon. I scanned the departures board, my flight was delayed. By the time I made my way to check-in, my flight was cancelled.
The winter gods were unhappy that I was defecting south. I grabbed the next flight out. It went to Washington, a long layover in an airport with lousy coffee. I arrived too late for the beach. In fact, by the time I got to my destination, it was raining. The rain did not stop for two days, and was followed by a third day that was a study in gray.
I stayed in an old Florida home without AC. Everything was limp. The incessant rain was driving me mad, like the Bette Davis character in “The Letter.” Instead of seeking out revenge, I hunkered down and planned a trip to avoid malls, asphalt, plastic, and highways.
The gods were definitely teaching me a lesson. I looked upward, apologized, repented, and groveled for forgiveness. They become bored playing with me and allowed the clouds to part. The sun performed its part flawlessly the rest of my trip.
First stop was Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Located north of Lake Okeechobee, it is vast, isolated, and only allows limited visitors. The park is 54,000 acres of native plants and grasses and home to the endangered grasshopper sparrow. Visit in the cool of early morning when birds are active. The prairie is punctuated by clumps of live oaks that provide a welcome respite from the unforgiving sun. They are festooned with Spanish moss hanging low enough to compete with ZZ Top beards.
The following day I went kayaking along the Loxahatchee River. Only a few miles inland from Jupiter Island is a world forgotten by time and development. The Loxahatchee earned the title of being Florida’s first federally designated “Wild and Scenic” river.
The river makes its way to the Intercoastal Waterway through the 11,000-acre pre-development Jonathan Dickinson State Park. In Seminole, Loxahatchee means “turtle.” And I saw many — large, small, solitary, and in groups —sunning themselves. The river is a miasma of water bodies informally connected. Alligators slid lazily into the water and one trailed me for a while. Not too long as I paddled fast.
Once I regained my composure, I let the current take me. All was quiet except for the sound of unseen birds filled the trees. Alone, my imagination ran wild with visions of being in a prehistoric setting while only minutes from too many malls.
One alligator trailed me for a while. Not too long as I paddled fast.
Morikami Museum and Gardens is 200 acres of well-manicured Japanese landscape replete with bonsai, waterfalls, streams, Zen, and other style gardens framed by traditional structures including a museum and restaurant. No passport is required to visit one of the best Japanese gardens outside of Kyoto. In reality, you are in Boca Raton backcountry on land that was once a Japanese farming colony.
Websites to visit if you’re planning a trip in advance:
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park: floridastateparks.org/kissimmeeprairie
Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refugee Center: Hobesoundnaturecenter.com
McKee Botanical Garden: www.mckeegarden.org
Morikami Museum and Gardens: morikami.org
Blowing Rocks Preserve: nature.org/blowingcks
Carlin Beach Park: pbcgov.com/parks/locations/carlin.htm
McKee Botanical Garden is a tropical jungle garden, lush, serene, and on the National Register of Historic Places. Home to the largest wooden table made of a single plank of mahogany. Real, impressive, and a little corny. After wandering the grounds, take a quick ride to Vero Beach. Visit old neighborhoods of gracious homes that were laid out to preserve massive live oaks. The trees are heavy with Spanish moss that shade and cool homes the old-fashioned way.
About an hour south of Vero is Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge Center. Small but home to three different habitats — coastal hammock, estuary beach, and sand pine scrub, one of Florida’s most endangered plant communities. Few visit and it can be toured under two hours.
Just down A1A on Jupiter Island is Blowing Rocks Preserve. Storm winds blow through rock holes shooting water up in the air and providing a wild natural spectacle. Native plants frame the beach and the water is crystal-clear turquoise.
After all this ‘natural’ Florida, I had to work on my tan before returning to raw Rye. Carlin Beach Park is one mile south of Jupiter Island. It is free, has a big parking lot, clean bathrooms, and a good restaurant serving breakfast and lunch. The beach is long, sparsely populated away from the lifeguard stations. Many shiny shells can be found. I placed a few in my pocket as souvenirs.
Mellowed by the sea breezes and sunshine, I believed I was ready to face the cold, barren canvas of home. Little did I know the winter gods were not done with me: My flight was delayed. A large person overfilled the aisle seat and controlled the armrest. A few rows back were parents who thought it okay to let their child disrupt the entire flight.
My thin patina of mellowness wore off quickly. Off the plane, I clutched the seashells, smiled, then pulled down my hat and zipped up my ski jacket. I stepped out of the terminal and was welcomed by an arctic blast.