LEESBURG — For Peter Moeller and other volunteers at the Palatlakaha Environmental & Agricultural Reserve (PEAR Park) in a quiet corner of Leesburg, their hard work is intended for more than simply preserving a tranquil natural environment. They see it as an important investment in Lake County’s future way of life and the community’s prosperity.
PEAR Park, located at 4800 University Ave. in Leesburg, is a total of 318 acres, 268 acres of which are on lease from the state of Florida for about the next 40 years. Five of the more than 50 acres that have received restoration, have been led by Moeller. His efforts include the re-introduction of native bunch grasses and a wildflowers meadow, as well as a butterfly and native-plant garden.
According to Wendy Poag, naturalist and land steward with the Lake County Parks & Trails Division, most of PEAR Park is in need of restoration – which means removal of exotic plant and animal species, and reintegration of native species. This involves the study of soils and elevation, as well as re-introducing controlled fire “regimes,” or fire patterns that are historically natural to this ecosystem. It also involves correcting hydrological alterations in the system where possible.
“The vision for this project has been to restore the area to its ‘Old Florida’ condition,” said Poag. “We want some conservation and some green space in an area that’s surrounded by areas that have been developed. The research and the sweat-equity Peter (Moeller) has put into this cannot be imagined by most people.”
During the past five years, the PEAR Association, a group of volunteers that dedicate their efforts to the park, has spent more than $30,000 on restoration, with the 5 acres of meadows restoration costing about $10,000. These costs do not include volunteer labor, prescribed burns, regular mowing and upkeep and herbicide treatment.
Moeller’s meadow is intended to be a “mosaic” of ecosystems, including scrub, scrubby flatwoods, ephemeral wetlands, sandhills and hardwood hammocks. Many types of bird and tortoise species benefit from this type of native grassland prairies system – which includes groundcover herbs, wildflowers and grasses providing cover, forage and nesting space.
“After 50 or 60 years of development and conversion to varying extremes, there was virtually nothing left native on these sites,” Moeller said. “PEAR Park was farmed for so many years – mostly to raise watermelon varieties – that it has been a difficult site to restore.”
The botanical garden helps homeowners learn what native plants are drought- and cold-tolerant, and in turn, learn what can be used on the home landscape. The meadow system, with its demonstration gardens, has had several volunteers in the past five years from the PEAR Association, who have been working to restore the area with native plants. Lake County park rangers see these efforts as in Lake County’s best interest in more than one way.
“A lot of people come to our parks and reserves because they want a break. They come to do photography, to exercise, to relax and as a stop during their vacation. People who are interested in birds, butterflies, tortoises and other animals take the opportunity to go on our preserved lands,” said Rachel Dellinger, Ph.D., and park ranger with Lake County Parks & Trails. “But there’s more to be gained than scenic settings. Natural pollinators, such as bumblebees, hummingbirds and even bats help support the growth of a lot of our food. We should preserve every piece of fruit, every nut and every vegetable that pollinators need in order to grow our food. We depend on them.”
“It's very labor-intensive to have workers hand-pollinate flowers and crops,” Dellinger continued. “It saves billions of dollars to have insects do it for us.”
Other areas of PEAR Park have seen restoration. During a period of several years, about 12,000 scrub trees were successfully planted on 50 acres by the efforts of local horticulture experts Ron Plakke and Peg Urban. Their goal was to set up a structure to make the land suitable for the Florida Scrub-Jay, the state’s only endemic bird species, which dwells mostly in the Ocala National Forest and Merritt Island. Each Scrub-Jay family needs at least 25 acres of natural territory in order to thrive. As it is a threatened species, Lake County wants to help preserve the statewide population.
“The basic matrix of the ground cover was completed last year,” Poag said. “We want to improve it to make it attractive enough for the neighboring Scrub-Jays to set up territories, nest and have young. They are very friendly and beautiful birds. We want at least one family in the area, ideally two.”
All state-owned lands are under state-approved management plans, and their restoration progress is scheduled to be reviewed every five years. The most recent management plan for PEAR Park was approved by the Lake County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, Aug. 27.
“It’s amazing how many hours the PEAR Association has worked to help with restoration efforts at the park,” said Lake County Commissioner Leslie Campione. “We truly appreciate their contributions to the park and the community as a whole.”
PEAR Park is open daily from dawn to dusk. The park will serve as a destination during the 2nd Annual Wings & Wildflowers Festival, which will take place Oct. 4 through 6. During the event, Dr. Jeff Norcini will lead a Wildflower Walk from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 4 at the park. Dr. Norcini, who has an M.S. and Ph.D. in horticulture and a B.S. in biology, also has served with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension in Lake County. This nationally recognized, published expert will give visitors ideas of how to revive and transform a portion of a yard or garden using native plants. Space is limited for the free event and registration is required. To learn more about this and other events for the festival, visit www.WingsAndWildflowers.com.
To learn more about PEAR Park and to view a map, visit www.pearassoc.org or www.lakecountyfl.gov/ parks/pear_park.aspx.