It's the time of year when many home-owners plan to gussy up their yards, but Tom Cuba, an authority on ecosystems, has a message for them: "Load your brain before you load your shopping cart."
Hired by the city of Dunedin to control invasive species in Hammock Park, Cuba says people could save themselves work, time and money — and give Mother Nature a hand — if they did their homework first.
Join the Friends of Hammock Park as they offer a tree primer Saturday during their annual Spring Fling. You'll learn about the large variety of tree and plant life that makes up the unique biome, how to make informed planting choices, and gain insight into lots of little things. Like fungus, for instance.
"The little white and green spots on bark of a tree (lichen) are okay. Don't worry. They are their own small ecosystems," Cuba said.
The free, two-hour guided walk, led by Cuba and city arborist Art Finn, begins at 10 a.m. near the entrance to Dunedin's Hammock Park. Water will be provided and ice cream served after the event.
The 90-acre Hammock Park, an ancient woodland in the middle of Dunedin, is a prime example of a coastal forest typical of this area prior to development. With five miles of walking trails, you may just spot rabbits, raccoons, osprey, great horned owls, great herons, ibises, coyotes, eagles or roseate spoonbills.
The forest contains a host of desirable trees, some of which are rare or underutilized in landscapes.
Finn likes the pignut hickory.
"These are one of the great trees in Hammock Park," he said. "They are a hardwood and get to be about 100 feet tall. They're wind resistant. They have beautiful fall color (yellow leaves) in January." The tree bears a pear-shaped nut prized by wildlife.
He points out an old, tall, southern red cedar tree, a juniper with soft emerald-green foliage that provides dense shelter for wildlife.
"The larger ones were logged out in the 1930s; they made pencils out of them,'' he said. "But these are a good thing to buy. Birds nest in the tree, eat the fruit and the cones are used in the production of gin."
Cuba plucks a partially-ripened mulberry from a tree. It's similar to a blackberry — and delicious.
A coffee-colored Cuban anole scuttles up a tree, bringing up the topic of exotic invasion.
"The Cubans out-compete the native green anoles and now the greens are rare in Florida," Cuba said.
The same is happening to native vegetation. Air potato vines, fast-growing plants with heart-shaped leaves and potatolike bulbs, are one of Florida's most invasive species. Thanks to the efforts of Cuba, the Friends of Hammock Park and other volunteers, the vines have been significantly reduced in the park.
Other threats loom as well: date palms, Boston fern, Caesar weed and camphor trees. Camphor trees are rapidly displacing native trees because of their fast growth rate and ability to produce copious amounts of seed, which is then spread by birds.
"About one-third of the tree canopy in Dunedin is camphor," Finn said. "If something happens to them, if they get a disease, we're in trouble."
Cuba warns people not to be tempted to buy and plant vegetation that grows and spreads rapidly, such Mexican petunia, a plant readily available at most garden centers.
"People love them for their purple flowers that bloom every day, but before you know it they have taken over your yard. People need to learn to be more patient with their landscape."
He recommends people seek out nurseries that sell native vegetation.
As for trees, don't always think big. Homeowners should take into consideration where a tree will be planted, if it will grow into power lines or too close to a house as it matures, and what kind of benefit it provides for wildlife.
"It's nice to have big trees," said Cuba, "everybody wants them. But a huge part of our ecosystem is supported by small trees and shrubs. That's why golf courses are not nature parks."