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Leaf of the Day: The Toothache Tree and Tarpon Sponges

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Saturday, 19 July 2008

Leaf of the Day: The Toothache Tree and Tarpon Sponges

On Friday evening we stayed at Tarpon Springs. All you have to do is forget for a moment the busy traffic on highway 19, hammering relentlessly up and down, to and from Tampa to the Panhandle. If you can do that you barely need to suspend your disbelief at all to imagine you are on a small Greek island inlet. Tourist shops and small restaurants line Dodecanese Avenue, bouzouki is your background music and elderly Greek men sit together and chat as the sun goes down. The shops are full of sponges and souvenirs and fishing boats and trip boats line the quay. When a friend suggested we go to Tarpon I really had no idea it would be so Greek! We only stayed overnight enough time to have some excellent fish and meet a young man the Sawgrass Tiki bar, who still dives for sponges with his uncle.

It's a small, still dangerous, but profitable business having recovered from the "red tide" blight of 1946. (the red tide still seems to be a bit of a problem here) There is an informative website here about the Florida sponge industry.

images from interesting old Florida post card's page here

Saturday, and we are heading north to Cedar Key, but stopping on the way at Homosassa for a really good breakfast at the very friendly Bear's Pa Cafe, a wander round the remains of the old Sugar mill and to learn something about the scalloping season which had started at the beginning of July. The river inlet was teeming with boats big and small and families old and young all going out to the Gulf to gather scallops.

Continuing up to Crystal Springs, we stopped at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park which houses the remains of a very important pre-Columbian, Native American site with burial mounds, a temple platform, and 4 ancient stele.

The six-mound complex is one of the longest continuously occupied sites in Florida. For 1,600 years the site served as an imposing ceremonial center for Native Americans. People traveled to the complex from great distances to bury their dead and conduct trade. It is estimated that as many as 7,500 Native Americans may have visited the complex every year.

Should you visit and bump into Michael, one of the park rangers, he will bring the whole place alive for you, showing you how to see the figure in the carved stele and to my great delight taking us "off path" to see some native plants and trees I didn't know. I now do know what poison ivy looks like and what its horrible effects can be, I understand more about the old uses for wax myrtle, the water locust, and the needle palm. He also identified this for me,

The huge lubber grasshopper. Big, bright and tasting disgusting due to some toxic froth they produce, they meander about, safe in the knowledge that their colours alone are enough to warn off most predators. " even those big old alligators spit 'em out" said Michael. He also introduced me to what he calls the squirrel proof Toothache Tree. It's the Prickly Ash, the Tickle Tongue Tree, or Hercules Club. The leaves and berries have a lemony fragrance and the bark and leaves contain alkaloids which cause numbness of the mouth, teeth and tongue if chewed so allegedly relieving toothache. It has large spine-tipped pyramid shaped projections,on the trunk, (yet another spiny plant) which turn slightly downwards so discouraging even the most valiant squirrel. It was a pretty tree I thought. I was sorry I could not get a leaf to draw as they were all too high for all of us.

Michael has also brewed and "quite enjoyed" the yaupon holly drink. My respect for him grew by the minute. I have to admit I am now very curious to try it myself, so the next time I find myself flagging and low on energy I am going to reach for a couple of yaupon leaves instead of a coffee... but then look where curiosity got the cat..

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