James Phillips Photography


Bleak Beauty

I was out hiking the scrub when the storm broke. I’d seen it coming, but misjudged its trajectory, assuming it would pass to the north. Now, suddenly, it was almost overhead, a grumbling slate-grey behemoth gliding on a curtain of rain, with a bellyfull of lightning and a real bad attitude.

Cold winds whipped the saw palmettoes, and whooshed through the sand pines. As the first big raindrops pocked the sand, and lightning licked the treeline, I jogged back to the car. If not for the lightning I would’ve stayed put; the scrub is never lovelier than during, or just after, a rain.

“Scrub” -it may seem like a weird name for an ecosystem, but having spent more than a little time there, I can’t think of one more apt. Webster’s defines scrub as “a tract of stunted trees or shrubs.” But it’s a verb as well as a noun, and also means “to rub vigorously… to remove dirt, etc., by such action.” In a scrub habitat, the sun, wind and rain play dynamic roles, and drastic fluctuations of temperature and humidity are the norm. You might conclude that the scrub was named for what‘s done to it by the elements, day in and day out, year after year.

Much of the time, the scrub’s like a desert, bleak and inhospitable. The sandy, barren ground resembles sugar, and squeaks under your feet. To the scientist, the sand’s depth, color and uniformity help to reveal the scrub’s age. Florida’s most ancient and extensive scrubs lie near the center of the state, on the Lake Wales Ridge and in the Ocala National Forest. There, scrub vegetation grows on a layer of white sand 25 feet thick or more. In other, younger scrubs, like those in Oscar Scherer State Park and Myakka, the layer is much thinner.

During the 1930s, with the founding of Archbold Biological Station in the sleepy Florida town of Lake Placid, the scientific study of the scrub began in earnest, and what was previously regarded as just another weird, worthless Florida habitat was revealed to be unique. About half of the 75 plant species that inhabit the scrub are endemic, surviving only within the narrow confines of that particular ecosystem. The scrub is also home to a number of endemic animals, including the Florida scrub jay, the Florida mouse, the sand skink, and at least 45 insects and spiders. The per centage of endemic species is so high, in fact, that scientists refer to the older scrubs as “Florida’s Galapagos.” But unlike the Galapagos, endangered scrub habitat is afforded little protection from development. During the last 100 years, over 85 per cent of Florida’s once-vast scrub lands have been lost to citrus growers and subdivisions. Only isolated fragments remain.

To tell whether or not you’re looking at a scrub, you have to look at what’s living there, what plants are dominant. The trees (or “overstory”) are often sand pines, scrub hickory, and evergreen oaks. The bushy “understory” is comprised of tough, drought-resistant saw palmetto, rusty lyonia, and Florida rosemary, a strange round shrub with tiny brown flowers, and needles like a Christmas tree. The ground is bare, or littered with pale green clumps of reindeer moss. Contrary to Webster, not all scrub trees are “stunted.” Sand pines grow to a height of 60 feet or more. Slash pines, common to a transitional type of scrub called “scrubby flatwoods”, are even taller. The scrub-dwelling oaks, however, are relatively small. Their size depends in part on what scientists call the scrub’s “fire regime” -that is, how often it burns.

Fire is important to the scrub; on average it burns every 20 to 100 years -which is surprisingly infrequent, considering how dry it is. Most scrub fires begin when lightning ignites an adjacent habitat, one that burns more readily, like a pine flatwood. Once the scrub catches fire, however, it burns hot, particularly if it hasn’t burned in a long while and there’s a lot of fuel lying around. An intense scrub fire will eradicate the trees but spare the smaller bushes, which regenerate from their roots after burning to the ground.

Fire is important to scrub jays, as well. The jays only inhabit scrubs with small trees; if a scrub doesn’t burn often enough, the trees in it will grow too tall for the jays to see predatory hawks, and they’ll relocate. Ineviteably, if Florida’s scrublands continue to disappear, the little birds will have nowhere to relocate to.

As the weather cleared, I took a look around. There were few puddles; the sand drained too quickly. But beneath the scrub oaks, fallen leaves held the rainwater in little cups. Gradually, the scrub came back to life. A gopher tortoise ambled across the road. Fatbodied argiopes, “Zigzag spiders”, repaired their complex webs. A raccoon emerged from a tangle of saw palmetto, blinked and waddled off into the underbrush. And there was this phenomenon, which still puzzles me: from out of nowhere hopped hundreds of tiny frogs, juvenile oak toads, perhaps -I couldn’t be sure. How they came to be there, a mile from the nearest pond, was a real brainteaser. Yet there they were, leaping about like so many little Baryshnikovs, determined, apparently, to get underfoot as often as possible.

An hour earlier, while running for the car, it had occurred to me that the scrub might be the perfect place to hunt for fulgurites, those little tubes of fused sand formed by lightning when it hits the ground. I spent the rest of the afternoon looking for them, but I didn’t find any.