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The Natural Thing To Do

Caring For a Living Museum

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor

The park is in Zone 10, which is a special small area of tropical weather and hot temperatures, with the predominant soil being rocks. This specialized habitat occurs naturally, and that presents many challenges in plant choices and best management practices.

The Deering Estate at Cutler is one of the most unique parks in south Florida. An environmental, archaeological, historical and architectural preserve, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The park's offshore island of Chicken Key, a restored bird rookery, can be visited via scheduled Canoe Tours. But taking care of such a diverse area is a challenge.

The 440-acre property encompasses a globally endangered pine rockland habitat, which is among the largest blocks of this ecosystem remaining in the United States. In addition there are coastal tropical hardwood hammocks, mangrove forests, salt marshes, a coastal dune island and the submerged resources of Biscayne Bay. Alicie Warren-Bradley is the Natural Resources Manager and Andres Calix is the Historic Grounds Maintenance Coordinator of the park.

Some of the invasive plants are historic specimens and must be maintained as historic elements, which makes it especially difficult. They must also try to control the weeds on the lawn, and during the rainy season they use Round-up.

The total staff consists of just five full time people with no seasonal or part time workers. There are occasional volunteer projects, however--four volunteer clean-ups each year help with grounds maintenance and sometimes Eagle Scouts have projects to take care of very specific aspects of the park.

Their groundskeeping machines include three Toro Groundsmasters, one Dixie Chopper, one tractor, one bush hog, and six weed eaters. In addition to Andres' crew, there is also a natural areas management crew of 10-20 people.

They have a Toro irrigation system that has a timer for the lawn areas, but there are no moisture sensors. Even though it's a tropical area, during the dry season they have to water with a tank truck.

This group focuses not so much on the estate grounds but on the remainder of the natural preserve.

The county does have a special tree crew. In the past five years arboriculture has become very important to the Miami Dade Parks Department as a whole. Prior to that very few members of the crews were arborists. The tree crews go all around the county. Deering has on site staff, but the tree crew is very important because they have bucket truck, which is especially necessary for the large Royal palms that grow from 60 to 90 feet.

The work in the natural areas occasionally requires the use of Round-up and removal of exotic vegetation to preserve the original ecology.

Many Habitats to Keep Natural

The park is very diverse. There are 444 acres total, with tropical hardwood hammocks that are rarely found outside Central America and the Caribbean. The pine rockland habitat is unfortunately locally imperiled. In addition, there are coastal forests on Biscayne Bay as well as coastal mangrove or salt marsh.

Rare and native plants thrive here, including orchids, bromeliads, ferns and more than 40 species of trees, including huge live oaks, gumbo limbos and pigeon plums. A variety of wildlife such as grey foxes, spotted skunks, squirrels, bobcats and birds inhabit the area. These habitats give way to a fringe of coastal communities that slope gently into the Bay. Mangroves, salt marshes and the offshore island of Chicken Key occupy 130 acres of the Estate and are accessible by canoe tours.

Alicie Warren-Bradley is a biologist by training, and her view is that from the ecological standpoint these habitats are very beneficial for humans. But aesthetically, many people don't care for the look of these kinds of plants. The grounds are beautiful, but they are now trying to use a lot more native plants to introduce people to this kind of rocky environment.

They use a lot of mulch rather than turf, and try to xeriscape where possible. But they are also incorporating into the landscape plan flowering trees that act as butterfly attractants.

There are also many large trees such as black olive, ficus, mastics etc., and those have to be properly maintained to avoid accidents and keep the trees healthy. The county sends tree crews that have bucket trucks to help with arbor care.

A Living Museum

In one sense, the park is a kind of museum because they're trying to introduce to the public a kind of natural landscape they have never seen--even though it's a much more natural one in terms of the area.

Local Plants

Bromeliads not only grow on the ground, they also grow in the trees where branches are a good source of nutrients and there is less competition for sunlight.

A great deal of maintenance is required on the butterfly areas, where milkweed has been planted to attract them.

Because of the increased number of hurricanes and wind storms, chunks of invasive cereus nightblooming cactus are being blown around into tree tops. Half the trees have these parasitic plants growing on them, causing extensive damage.

Over 115 acres of coastal tropical hardwood hammocks and 150 acres of globally endangered pine rockland forests are among the largest of these ecosystems remaining in the continental United States.

In addition to their regular work on the grounds, there are special events as well. Approximately 2000 people come per month. Also, school groups have field trips in addition to regular tourists and visitors. On a daily basis, they expect to see about 43 children, 15 young people from Americorps, as well as 50 to 100 regular guests. The activities are quite varied and the estate is now also a popular place for film sets.

Although they do use some chemicals, they try to keep it to a minimum because the site is an environmental reserve to begin with. They want to be on the cutting edge and minimize their chemical use. Andres' staff has to do more chemical applications on the grounds of the main estate because of the number of exotic and invasive plants. However, they have a lot of children coming and going so chemicals are a major concern.

They have a large seven-acre area that is maintained as a lawn on Biscayne Bay, and they have to mow every week, since everything grows so fast. They are constantly working on the lawn and that puts a cramp on everything else.

Delicate Archaeological Areas

Many of the archeological areas remained accessible to the general public during the restoration after Hurricane Andrew in l992, but large areas of the park were shut down for eight years. A complete renovation and restoration was done during that time. Because they also had so much infrastructure to rebuild, there was a lot of monitoring that had to take place. Many archeologists were on site during those years, and much of the grounds have been combed over by now. However, most of the heavily significant sites aren't in those areas. "We got the blessing of the county Historical Preservation Society to do what needs to be done for maintaining plants and trees in the archeological areas and those areas have already been checked over," said Alice Warren-Bradley. "That helps us a lot because we don't have to worry about every rock that gets turned over."

Surprisingly enough, Katrina didn't hit them that hard, but Wilma did tremendous damage. Wilma was different from Andrew, which came in from the east coast. Both Katrina and Wilma came in from the west coast, and there was no storm surge. It was primarily a wind and rain event. With Katrina the damage was not that significant, but Wilma took out 98 percent of the canopy. Natural areas had to be closed off for two weeks due to overhead hazards.

Between 100 and 150 landscape grade trees were knocked down during Wilma. Those need to be braced and righted. Many were also severely "hatracked", and significant canopy damage occurred in over 98 percent of the park's acreage.

Wild Life Areas

Work on the special bird preserve is done by both crews. The park offers bird and butterfly hikes once each month at least. Specific areas are known as bird "hotspots". The crews shift their maintenance schedules to accommodate the hikes.

Local Wildlife

Spotted skunks are small, no larger than squirrels, and nocturnal. They are known for pulling the hair of people who are sleeping out of doors.

The grey fox is the only relative of the dog family that can climb trees.

Dina Yellow, or Eurema dina, is another rare butterfly that makes a temporary home in the park because there are limited host plants for them outside of south Florida.

One good thing about the increase in hurricanes is that storms of that magnitude take out the canopy, and the butterflies really respond. "We'll have a tremendous butterflies population this year," says Alice. In addition to planting the butterfly attractant, milkweed, rare swallowtails use the bitterbush as food and a place to lay their eggs. Dina Yellow, or Eurema dina, is another rare butterfly that makes a temporary home in the park because there are limited host plants for them outside of south Florida.

Between 100 and 150 landscape grade trees were knocked down during Wilma. Those need to be braced and righted. Many were also severely "hatracked", and significant canopy damage occurred in over 98 percent of the park's acreage.

The Biggest Challenges

"We are very, very busy in the rainy season," says Andres Calix. "However, even though it's a tropical environment, during the dry season we have to use a water tank to spray outlying areas." A 300-gallon tank is mounted on a trailer pulled by the truck. This is their method for half a year, or roughly five months. That's why they prefer natives.

As far as insect pests are concerned, chinch bugs are the biggest issue for the lawn. There are lots of wading birds, however, and the Ibis likes them a lot.

They occasionally use malathion, but the county has an entymologist who consults with them regarding any ongoing problems and tries to find the best solution that is environmentally friendly and people safe. They generally recommend a spot treatment--in a pretty small area. "It's a balancing act," says Bradley. "Trying to maintain what the public expects to see and balancing that with remembering what the land was originally purchased for--to protect and preserve our history and what's left of our natural environment."

The latest issue they're facing is a large problem with an invasive called the cereus nightblooming cactus, Hylocereus, which is originally from Mexico or the Caribbean. It is a slow moving exotic that's been there for 20 years. It's difficult to remove anything growing above eight feet, however. Because the cactus attaches itself to the tree, it makes it much easier to blow the tree down. They're trying to remove as many of them as they can. They're easy to spot since they look like a bunch of snakes, and their spines are short, so if you're wearing thin leather gloves, you won't get stuck.

The park hopes to serve as a good example by preserving the environment, finding ways to make this balancing act work, finding a middle ground, having the proper tools to get the job done, while at the same time not harming the environment, The state is pretty active also in their dissemination of little critters for Integrated Pest management. They regularly release insect preditors that help them minimize their problems.

The estate has had a problem with red fire ants who, in addition to nasty bites, love electrical equipment such as scanners and fax machines. White flies were released as part of a university study looking at all the different possible ways of controlling the invasion of exotic fire ants. They are also in the process of investigating a species of wasp that lays its eggs on the ants and their larvae use the ant's body as food.

Between 100 and 150 landscape grade trees were knocked down during Wilma. Those need to be braced and righted. Many were also severely "hatracked", and significant canopy damage occurred in over 98 percent of the park's acreage.

"Adopt a Natural Area"

Groups can adopt a particular natural area and several home owner's associations have adopted the hammocks. The staff of Deering follows the work that has to be done. They also host two events per year where people can come out and have their choice of which "workdays" they'd like to attend.

They review the natural areas and determine what needs to be done most, however, there are lots of things volunteers can't do such as use chain saws.

The staff works closely with the National Hurricane Center. There is an exhibit on site that charts hurricane and tropical storm activity over the last 100 years. Hurricanes have been especially active during the last few decades.

Industrialist Charles Deering bought the Richmond property in 1913 and remodeled it into his private winter residence. Charles was the son of the founder of Deering Harvesting Machine Company and International Harvester. The Deering Estate was purchased by the State of Florida and Miami-Dade County in 1985 and is managed by the Miami-Dade Park & Recreation Department.


The Estate is part of the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, a formation of oolitic limestone, which has been high above sea level for the last 100,000 years. Large animals, such as the now extinct mammoth, once roamed the area, as well as dog-sized horses, tapirs, jaguars, peccaries, sloths and bison--their bones and teeth uncovered from a fossil pit on the property. Human remains found at the site have been carbon dated to 10,000 years ago, suggesting that the Paleo-Indians, the earliest known people of North America, inhabited the area. The Tequesta Indians lived on the site from about 2000 years ago to the late 1700s.


The Deering Estate at Cutler is not only unique in natural beauty; it also includes historical buildings dating from 1896 to 1922, important archaeological sites that date human presence on this land to 10,000 years ago and animals back 100,000 years, and a Native American burial mound dating from around the year 1600.

Charles Deering began construction of the Deering Estate's keyhole shaped Boat Basin in 1916 and completed it in 1918. The Boat Basin was built directly on an axis with the Richmond Cottage, as a focal point for the arrival of his yacht, the "Barbee," schooners bringing construction materials, and other vessels. In 1922, Deering built a large "Stone House" to serve as a winter home and repository for his fine paintings, tapestries and furnishings. The Stone House was designed in the Mediterranean Revival style evocative of the medieval architecture of castles Deering owned in Spain.

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December 8, 2019, 7:58 am PDT

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