Monday, April 6, 2009

Trees and Butterflies, A Day at Sheridan Oak Forest

Trees and Butterflies of Sheridan Oak Forest
John Williams Park
Hollywood, Florida
Well, it's happened, the weather has turned. It's hot.

I walked outside Thursday morning and felt the sticky and still feeling - the humid feeling that comes with South Florida - the feeling you get when you get off the plane from somewhere cool. It's not as bad as it will be in August by any means, but it's a change, nonetheless. We are supposed to get another front of coolness soon, but right now it is hot and hard to get used to.

Florida wouldn't be what it is without the heat, the rain, the thunder and lightning, and the dry seasons. We wouldn't have the Everglades or the lovely aqua-blue water of the Atlantic, or the hardwood hammocks and sandy scrub lands. It is a unique place and I'm so happy I have the chance to explore all of it's uniqueness with my nature classes. I'm amazed every week at how many wild and natural and beautiful places we have seen.

Our most recent visit was to a shady and tranquil park known as Sheridan Oak Forest, or John Williams Park, in Hollywood -

The park is located just west of 441 on Sheridan Street. It is instantly cooler when you enter the park due to the great amount of Oak trees that cover the ground. There is a fenced in dog park, a playground, and picnic pavilions.

Behind the park-proper is a more wild, overgrown part of the hammock that is closed off to the public. I was hoping to gain access to it - it has a trail with interpretive signage and is much more "natural" than the park area. However, the city of Hollywood is in the middle of finding a new nature guide for the area, they don't allow the public to enter alone. I'm hoping in the near future I can work it out with the city to gain access.

The oaks in the park provided the perfect back-drop for our class about trees and butterflies. The hammock is known to attract Atala butterflies, the very rare, once thought to be extinct butterfly.
(Please enjoy these photos brought to us by Wikipedia).
The Atala lays it's eggs on the Coontie plant, a plant that is very rare and was, too, thought to be extinct not too long ago.
The Atala caterpillars eat the plant's leaves.

The Coontie ( ) was a food staple for the native peoples here in South Florida, they ground the cycad into flour - after removing the toxins. It was nearly wiped out with development, along with the butterfly. But, Mother Nature has shown how durable she can be and the butterfly and the plant are still here and are growing in numbers. Check out my friend Sandy's blog about the Atala:

We weren't lucky enough to see the Atala butterfly, but we did spy a couple of Giant Swallowtail butterflies, a Julia, and a Zebra Longwing - our state butterfly.

As far as observing trees, we were in the right place. The Live Oaks in this park are wonderful.

Not only did they provide shade on a hot day, but they became our friends for the day; each child "introduced" themselves and a friend to a tree, we "built" a tree as a group, and we sat under our trees and got to know them.

I never saw a discontented tree.  They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.  They go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space heaven knows how fast and far!  ~John Muir

Trees are creatures that need energy for survival just like everything else. They are made up of parts that help them achieve their energy needs.

The ROOTS hold the trees steady and grounded- holding them to the earth. They connect with other tree roots in the forest to make themselves even stronger, and they - literally, suck up nutrients and water from the soil.

From the roots, the water and nutrients travel at an incredible speed up through the tree's trunk and into the branches - sending the water and nutrients to the leaves so they can do their thing called PHOTOSYNTHESIS. The traveling force is a group of vessels called the XYLEM. The xylem is composed up of cells and tubes for transporting water, minerals, etc. that the roots received from the soil. When the xylem tissue dies (usually after 1 year), it leaves behind the tree's tell-tale rings. However, in Florida and other tropical climates, trees do not have a steady 4-season(1 year) ring-growth as they do in northern climates, they tend to have much larger growth cycles (the xylem continues growing), and therefore, wider or non-existent rings.

After the leaves in the CROWN of the tree do their magic called Photosynthesis- making sugar food by mixing a little sunshine with some carbon dioxide (that we breathe out by the way) together with the water and minerals from the leaves, the sugar (aka, SAP) travels back down the trunk to feed the tree through the vessels known as the PHLOEM.

The phloem and the xylem make up the cambium layer - the new layer of tree - how the tree grows - the wood. When the tree continues to grow over the years, the inner cambium becomes clogged with sap and "dies", this is called the HEARTWOOD. The heartwood holds the tree strong and tall.

The BARK is an outside layer of protection - keeping out bugs, bacteria, viruses and keeping in the sap and nutrients. The bark prevents damage from fire, storms, and breakage.

My ECO naturalists learned all these parts and then got to act them out as a group - showing how all parts work holistically in order for the tree to function. The activity is called "Build a Tree" by Joseph Cornell, from the book, "Sharing Nature With Children". The game is a great way to teach cooperation, as well as the workings of a tree.

After building a tree, we got to "Meet a Tree", an activity also learned from Joseph Cornell. Teams, or partners, take turns introducing a blind-folded student to a tree. They are gently guided and instructed to use their senses (minus sight) to get to know their tree. Then, a bit later, they try to find it without their blindfold. The kids were shy at first and didn't know what to do, but then they got really into it and wanted to do it over and over, especially with their moms.

After meeting our trees, we then sat with our trees. Each child (some with moms, some without) went to their favorite tree and sat. They listened, they looked, they laid down in the grass and looked up, they looked in the dirt, they rubbed the bark with crayons and paper, and they hugged their trees, some even climbed their trees.

It is difficult to sit still, we don't do it much, it will take practice. I think the children and their adults came away more peaceful and reflective.

We talked about butterflies. The children learned the stages of life the butterfly goes through - egg, larvae (caterpillar), chrysalis, and then, butterfly. Did you know that butterflies were named so because they would flit around the cream that was being churned into butter? Isn't that great?

We walked with the butterflies...saw just a few, and then played the Metamorphosis game, from Paul Grafton's "Ecology of California Butterflies" workshop at the Spring 2006 AEOE Conference in Malibu (found on the AEOE website)! A few of the kids remembered playing this game at Pine Island Ridge not too long ago. I have to admit it worked better last time - due to a larger group and more diversity in age. Each child took turns being an egg, caterpillar, and butterfly. They advanced to each stage by winning rock, paper, scissors with another child in the same stage. It's very silly seeing children hopping or flying around playing RPS.

My favorite thing about this nature class was the ability to be still. We don't have too many places where the kids can go find a tree and sit on their own here in South Florida. We have too many ants, poisonous or thorny plants, snakes, spiders, etc. for me to feel comfortable sending them off. I loved being able to see the kids and watch them connect with their world.

The children sent their tap roots down, and as a result they will be more grounded, stable, and nourished.

The photos were taken by the birthday girl, Patty.


  1. Fantastic! I live on Hollywood Beach and have always wanted to visit all of the parks that you have so wonderfully documented, so now I have visited the parks to that extent, thanks for the tour. I do a video blog of the Hollywood beach area, featuring nature, flora, fauna, sunrises, sunsets, all that, to include a short section on local parks for visitors to the area. I have added two links to your site from mine, hope it drives some traffic your way. If you would like to check out my site and maybe even do a reciprocal link, send me an email at and I will send you the URL (hint, it is in my email address...)...

    Best Regards, Jeb

  2. Hi Jeb,
    I'm so glad you enjoyed the posts, it's a pleasure exploring all of our beautiful habitats. I've checked out your website, how wonderful to see Hollywood on film.


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