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BENEATH A CANOPY, FLORIDA NATURAL

From the mangroves of Fort De Soto Park, to the overhanging oaks of Philippe Park, to the pine flatwoods of the Brooker Creek Preserve, Pinellas County is blessed with a variety of trees and vegetation.

One small park, Dunedin's Hammock Park, is a unique oasis in Pinellas' urban sprawl. The 75 acres of oak, maple, hickory, bay, camphor, cedar, pine, palms and sour orange trees are a haven for hikers and dog walkers.

Terry Powell, 58, a Dunedin city employee, has been guiding tours through Hammock Park for 13 years. On a recent morning, after a dunker of a rainstorm, the clouds cleared enough for him to lead a small group.

An osprey watched from its perch on a tall light pole in adjoining Highlander Park as Powell and his hikers headed for the forest's edge. Al and Joanne Sandrock of Dunedin, 81 and 78 respectively, clasped hands.

"Am I walking too fast?" Powell asked as the group turned onto Palm Trail, one of several marked footpaths that wind through the park.

If you haven't been to Hammock Park, you have missed one of the best natural experiences in Pinellas. Venture into this little-known slice of Old Florida and you well may have the trails to yourself. Houses, strip centers, office buildings -- they all disappear, blotted out by the vine draped hardwood forest.

In summer, the hammock's canopy protects walkers from the heat of the sun. The thick stands of trees and shrubs also soften the wind.

Dunedin's hammock was first mapped in 1846 as part of the U.S. Government's Township Survey, according to the late A.C. Cline, a retired forester and research historian for the Dunedin Historical Society, who wrote a booklet titled The Hammock.

Cline figured the forest is several hundred years old. While much of sandy Pinellas favored pines, this lower and wetter hammock favored hardwoods such as oak and hickory.

The City of Dunedin bought the hammock and 10 acres around it in 1965.

On Powell's recent guided tour, he stopped his group beside some sour orange trees. The ones in the hammock, Powell suspects, sprouted from seeds of oranges transported there from surrounding groves. A program coordinator at Dunedin's Nature Center in Highlander Park, Powell even teaches a class on making sour orange pie.

"They are all sour," he said. "Some more than others."

His group then ambled along further, looking up at the arms of a spreading oak, its limbs covered on top with feathery, green resurrection ferns.

"Yesterday, it was dried up and brown," Powell said of the ferns, but the overnight rains had transformed them to a vibrant green.

Powell moved on to a small bay tree and picked up some of its leaves.

"These are a distant cousin of the bay you put in your lasagna," he said.

He pointed out a shrub-like tree called Carolina cherry laurel. Leafcutter bees had cut circles out of the leaves to line their nests.

A wild coffee plant grew on the edge of the path, and yes, you can make coffee with it, Powell said. "I've had several people tell me you would have to be really desperate for a cup of coffee," he added.

The ground was too soggy to walk down Fern Trail, which has ferns, some maples and large bay trees. On Palm Trail, the group looked for wildlife.

The usually industrious ants were still underground avoiding the weather. But a gopher tortoise could be seen clearing away sand that had washed into its burrow.

On both sides of the trail, Powell pointed out other trees, shrubs and evidence of wildlife. There was a wild tangerine tree, non-native invasives such as chinaberry trees, air potato and Brazilian pepper. In a sand scrub area, there were sand pines, cactus and saw palmetto.

On the way back, the group stopped at Florida's state tree, the sabal palm. Hundreds of palms are in the hammock, but foresters tend to laugh if you call them trees.

"Palms are more closely related to grass and bamboo than they are to woody trees like oaks and maples," said Pinellas County Extension horticulturist Andy Wilson.

One of Powell's final stops was a bowl-shaped indentation in the ground. It was all that remained of a big palm.

"There are lots of interesting things back here," Powell said. Elaine Hatch of Dunedin agreed.

"We could stay here till tomorrow, couldn't we?" she said.

IF YOU GO

The main entrance to Hammock Park is at the northern end of San Mateo Drive, just a block east of the Pinellas Trail. The park is open daily. You also can enter from Harvard Avenue, off Michigan Avenue. Call the Dunedin Nature Center for information about tours and programs at (727) 298-3271.

75

acres in the hammock

5

miles of nature trails in the hammock

3

picnic shelters in the hammock

200

trees planted in the hammock by the Bay Bouquet Garden Club

1846

year the hammock was first mapped as part of the U.S. government's Township Survey

1965

year the city of Dunedin bought the hammock

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