Early settlers thrived in Florida's agricultural heaven

When settlers arrived in the region that would become Florida, they encountered an ideal climate, a variety of soils, and plentiful rainfall. These newcomers anticipated cultivated plants to thrive. 

The Spanish, who established the first permanent European settlement in America at St. Augustine in 1565, came equipped with grain seeds and cuttings to plant. The Timucua Native Americans were already in the area raising corn, beans and squash. 

In the 1700s, the Native American Creeks — later known as Seminoles — came from Georgia and Alabama. Corn was a basic crop. The hardy Seminole pumpkin also was a mainstay. The Native Americans were knowledgeable gardeners, even practicing crop rotation.

British and American settlers arrived in 1763. They were the Crackers — possibly derived from cracking whips at roundup.  Furthermore, they were proficient at raising crops, especially corn and sugarcane, and foraging swamp cabbage, or hearts of palm. This staple was gathered from the wild sabal palm, now Florida’s state tree. Cracker swamp cabbage recipes are now delicacies.

Crop production remains a key part of Florida’s economy.  However, the orange, our signature crop, is being ravaged by citrus greening caused by insect-borne, imported bacteria that ruin the fruit and kill the trees. Severe weather and land development make farming more difficult. Nevertheless, orange juice sales are escalating since this drink might boost the immune system against coronavirus.

There are other significant crops. Greenhouse and nursery products, especially indoor plants, are big sellers. Sugarcane, a tropical grass, is Florida’s most valuable field crop and grows suitably in farmland south of Lake Okeechobee, where some of the world’s richest soils exist. Palm Beach County supplies fresh produce throughout the country. Cotton dominates in the Panhandle. The Winter Strawberry Capital of the World is in Plant City. Sod is profitable in many areas.

Furthermore, flowering plants are invariably profitable because of their aesthetic qualities. The orange blossom, the state flower, is fashionable at weddings. The coreopsis (tickseed), the state wildflower, overwhelms gardens, fields and roadsides with its golden splendor.

Flower crops also benefit nature by attracting pollinators, which support ecosystems. For example, the bracts of the bougainvillea are specialized leaves, often mistaken for petals, which entice pollinators with color as in vivid magenta. Subsequently, miniature cream-colored flowers protected among the bracts are fertilized.

Likewise helpful is the purple passionflower vine which appeals to the black, yellow-striped zebra longwing, Florida’s official butterfly.  The spectacular blooms nourish the pollinator with nectar and pollen. The caterpillar ingests toxins from this host plant. Its foul taste is transferred to the ensuing butterfly, helping to deter predators. 

Yet, crop propagation has issues. One significant concern is polluted agricultural runoff. Pristine environments become endangered, such as the Everglades ecosystem which supplies drinking water for one out of three Floridians and irrigation for agriculture. Efforts to mitigate pollution are now evident, especially in western Palm Beach County where sugarcane and vegetables are grown.

Judicious management of land and water sustains crops and preserves ecosystems.