Category Archives: Plants & Fungi

Kayaking Pennekamp: Bring Snorkel Gear… but Beware the Brazilian Pepper

Kayaking Pennekamp: Bring Snorkel Gear… but Beware the Brazilian Pepper

No visit to the Upper Keys is complete without stopping in at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is known as the ‘first undersea park in the U.S.’ This unique distinction is also a good reason to bring along a mask and snorkel – or rent some there. There are several ways to enjoy the underwater scenery, and the one(s) you choose all depend on your idea of fun. The offshore reefs are a major attraction to visitors, especially near Dry Rocks where you can swim past the iconic Christ of the Abyss statue. Pennekamp has its own dive shop, and you can purchase a seat on a boat and either snorkel or dive one of the nearby reefs.

If you’d rather stay dry, never fear – there’s an option for you as well. You can buy a ticket for the park’s large glass bottom boat and watch the tropical fish and sea fans wave to you from under your feet.

Snorkeling near Largo SoundAnd if you want to go off on your own adventure, there are choices here as well. Rent a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddle board, and you can explore the mangrove waterways that border Largo Sound. While that may sound a little daunting – it’s not really. You get a waterproof map and instructions on which paths to take (and which to avoid, such as the boat channels and the ones that take you out to sea)!

On a recent visit to John Pennekamp State Park, my husband and I chose to kayak the mangrove-lined creeks. We piled our gear bag in the middle of the double kayak, got some last-minute advice on how to jump off a kayak without flipping the whole contraption, and made off for Largo Sound. Our gear bag had all the essentials: snorkel gear (including fins), an underwater camera, a towel, water, a water shirt (rash guard), sunscreen, sunglasses, and chips and salsa. If the whole bag fell in, everything was salvageable except the chips.

A lobster hides under a rock at Pennekamp ParkI wouldn’t say it’s easy to jump off a kayak without flipping it, but somehow we managed to do that and snorkel right off our boat. In the green waters closest to John Pennekamp State Park, you’re not going to see the spectacular sites of the Pennekamp reefs (which are located between 3 and 8 miles offshore). You won’t find brain coral or the same variety of sea life here. However, especially in the deeper, broader waterways like Stingray Creek, you can still be rewarded with some captivating sights. For instance, we found ledges with a slew of lobster taking refuge underneath. (These are the smart ones; they’re protected within the state park, although that doesn’t guarantee they won’t still end up in a pot). We also saw fish and crabs and collected a few shells.

There are some caveats to seeing Pennekamp this way. Kayaking is easy; but we did see one couple flip their boat, and if you’re snorkeling, be sure to tie up to a tree or have a partner paddle nearby. The current in some places is swifter than you would think, and you need to be a confident swimmer. (Of course, you’ll get a life jacket, but a life jacket won’t keep you from floating off into a channel if you can’t swim well).

Kayaking the mangrove waterways of Pennekamp Park with James JaneskoAlso, be sure to pay close attention to the waterproof map, and ignore assurances from your partner that it APPEARS as if Spider Creek connects to Deception Creek. Note the name: DECEPTION CREEK. Also, if you do end up paddling (or, in our case, advancing via tree branches) down an extremely narrow path that doesn’t really look like a path, it’s a good idea to go back the way you came as soon as possible (this may mean pushing yourself out backward). This might seem like a grand adventure until you get home and realize that some of those mangrove trees that were passing over your arms and legs were actually likely riddled with the invasive Brazilian Pepper plant (lesser-known than its famous cousins, poison ivy and poison oak). While contact dermatitis won’t kill you, I know you can probably think of better things to do than have a corticosteroid shot into your backside. I know I can.

All in all, this Keys excursion really was a grand adventure. Given the choice of a shot in the backside and kayaking Pennekamp or sitting at home on my couch, I’d take the shot any day.

The Tree with a Taste for Salt

The Tree with a Taste for Salt

If you’ve ever been on a Florida beach, you may have seen strange cigar-shaped or lima bean-shaped pods floating in the water or lying on the sand. Although they may look alien, they’re actually the seeds of our native mangrove trees, looking to take root in some prime, beachfront real estate.FloatingBeans

The mangrove tree is one of the more unique and important plants in Florida. We have three main varieties: the red, black, and white mangrove. What’s immediately unusual about the mangrove is that it grows in (or near) saltwater or salt marsh. That’s because Florida mangroves either exclude or excrete salt depending on the species. The black mangrove excretes salt, and you can actually find salt crystals on its leaves.

Some mangrove seeds, like the ones from the black mangrove, above, begin sprouting while still attached to the parent plant. These ‘propagules’ fall off into the water, waiting to arrive at a shallow spot where they can take root. Sometimes you’ll see them attempting to take root on a crowded beach – not a good idea!

MangroveRootsThe roots of mangroves are also unique. The NOAA describes them as “a dense tangle of prop roots that make the tree appear to be standing on stilts above the water.” That probably describes the red mangrove best – it’s also the species that tolerates salt the best, living closest to the shoreline. The roots of all types of mangroves – whether above ground or in shallow water – allow them to take in oxygen in low-oxygen marshes and estuaries. The long, leggy roots also help the trees withstand wind and waves, which in turn protects the shorelines they inhabit.

Jim Janesko holds a fiddler crab in his handAlthough I identify mangroves with Florida, there are reportedly about 80 species of mangroves in tropical or subtropical areas all over the world. Everywhere you find them – Australia, the Americas, Asia, and Africa – mangrove forests protect shorelines from erosion and maintain habitats for many species of animals, like this fiddler crab at right, living in a mangrove forest next to Ponce Inlet.


Florida’s Deadliest Fungus

Florida’s Deadliest Fungus

Recently, I went on a mushroom hunt with a retired Miami medical examiner.

Dr. Jay S. Barnhart, who worked with metropolitan Dade County, is pretty much an expert on fungi.

There are many kinds of explorers in the world, and mushroom hunters are a rather niche branch. If you think a medical examiner-turned-mushroom-hunting-hobbyist is odd – well, think about what mushrooms are. They’re decomposers. Yeah. There’s that. They break down compounds in the soil into its most basic elements to be used by plants and other organisms.

Dr. Barnhart led his mushroom expedition along a trail in Brevard Country’s Enchanted Forest Sanctuary, as part of a workshop series put on by the Florida Wildflower Foundation. Before setting off to find a selection of fungi, Dr. Barnhart first gave us a short lesson on the basic features of mushrooms.

varnished_mushroomcroppedFor example, some mushrooms have gills on their undersides, just like the generic white mushrooms you find at the store. Others are called polypores, and they have tiny pores on the undersides of their caps that can be seen through a microscope or magnifying glass.

Because there are so many undiscovered mushrooms, and because many mushrooms look alike, it’s actually difficult to properly identify them, says Dr. Barnhart. Mushroom hobbyists and mycologists identify mushrooms in several different ways: color, smell, location, physical structure, the color of their milk (yes, apparently mushrooms produce colored milk), and the color of their spore prints – which are made by leaving the caps on white and black paper (or sometimes plastic or glass) for several hours until the spores fall off, leaving a colored print.

Another, inadvisable, method is through taste. Why is this inadvisable? Because not only do some mushrooms taste bad, many of them are also poisonous. And – unless you are a mycologist with years of experience and a lot of bravado – you really don’t want to risk death over a wild mushroom. According to, mycologists who do use this method are advised never to swallow (sort of like gargling with Listerine, only with much worse repercussions).

Dr. Barnhart likes to say, “All mushrooms are edible – some only once.”

He passed around several examples of both benign and poisonous mushrooms – all of which looked pretty similar.


One of the most deadly mushrooms is the amanita (there are hundreds of variations, many of which are the most toxic in the world). Here in Florida, we have the white amanita – and yes, it is deadly, says Dr. Barnhart.

The funny thing about the amanita and other poisonous mushrooms is that you can touch them and nothing will happen to you, says Dr. Barnhart. The mushrooms only kill you if you swallow them and they get in your gastrointestinal tract. The amanita’s “cyclic peptide” trashes both your kidneys and your liver, he says.

tree_mushrooms_croppedAfter our little fungi class, we went tromping off through the woods looking for interesting mushrooms for Dr. Barnhart to ID – and especially searching for the elusive white amanita.

We found gilled and polypore versions, turkey tails that only grow on wood, earth stars that actually grow in sand, and hexagonal mushrooms and puff balls. Of course all of these have unpronounceable Latin names too.

Finally, when we were almost to the end of our hike, we found one more, lone white mushroom just popping up from the path.

“We found another one! What’s this one?” someone in our group asked.

Dr. Barnhart, the former medical examiner, examined it. It was white with a partial “veil” covering its gills and a “volva” or cup at its base. It looked like your average lawn mushroom.

It was an amanita.

What a find! We were all excited. One of the ‘hunters’ held it in his hand for photos. Dr. Barnhart reminded us it was perfectly safe to touch them…  just not to ingest them.


I thought of contingencies.  “What if you touched it and then stuck your finger in your eye?” I asked. “How badly do you want to die?” he joked. “No, it has to get into your G.I. tract,” he assured me. Still, I declined to hold it my hand. “No, I’m good.”

“So this would be a good choice if you wanted to poison someone,” a lady in our group bantered. “It would be hard to trace…”

“Do you have any ID with you?” Dr. Barnhart asked.

Living in Florida? Dr. Barnhart is interested in your mushroom finds! Contact him at for details on how to send descriptions, photos, and spore prints or your local fungi.

Photo credits: Christine Janesko

Spanish Moss: Stuff (and Stuffing) of Legend


When I was a kid, we lived out in the country, and one of my favorite things to do was roam around the woods next to our house. One of my earliest memories is looking up at the big live oak trees draped with Spanish moss.

To Floridians (and people who live in other parts of the Southeastern U.S.), oak trees swathed in Spanish moss is a familiar sight. Some people might think the wispy gray plant is ugly or scary, but to me, it looks like “home.”


You might not think much of Spanish moss, but its properties and history are pretty interesting.

The plant (yes, it is a plant) itself is misunderstood. Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is not actually a moss. It’s an epiphyte, or an “air plant,” which collects water and nutrients from rainfall and the air (which is why you’ll find it in areas of high humidity). Check out this magnified photo of a fragment of Spanish moss, courtesy of Dr. John H. Lienhard, which shows a scaly exterior “hide” that protects and holds water within.


Some people also believe Spanish moss is a parasite and that it is harming its “host tree.” But Spanish moss is not a parasite and does not feed off the tree – although it can occasionally harm a tree if it blocks enough of the light to its leaves. And here’s a weird fact: Spanish moss is actually a relative of the pineapple.

Spanish Moss in History

Even though we see it as a passive, hanging plant, Spanish moss played an important role as a textile in early civilizations from Florida to Texas. Historical documents show that American Indians all over the Southeast, including the Timucua of Florida, wove the fibers into yarn for clothing. It was also incorporated as a binding agent for dwellings, used as bedding in infant cradles, woven into mats and blankets, and made into shawls, belts, skirts, dolls, and even tea!

And both Indians and early settlers used it as kindling and stuffing for pillows and mattresses.

It’s also reported that Henry Ford used it early on as stuffing for Model T automobile seats, and it was used as filler for furniture and saddles.

SpanishMoss1Spanish Moss as an Ecosystem

In case you want to try “wearing” some Spanish moss yourself, be aware that Spanish moss that is found close to the ground is likely to house chiggers. Chiggers are a type of mite that makes you itch! And according to one researcher, Regina L. Suriel, the plant is also “a microhabitat for various organisms, including rat snakes, different species of bats, and one species of jumping spider.”

So unless you’re prepared to boil or cure the plant like the Indians did, just appreciate it as a natural part of the Southeastern landscape with a long history.

Photo credits: Dr. John H. Lienhard, Christine Janesko


Carocci, M. (2010). Clad with the ‘Hair of Trees’: A History of Native American Spanish Moss Textile Industries. Textile History, 41(1), 3-27. doi:10.1179/174329510×12670196126485

Suriel, R. L. (2010). Spanish Moss: Not Just Hanging in There. Science Activities, 47(4), 133-140. doi:10.1080/00368121003739398