A large shrub with purple beautyberries grows in a Florida backyard.
Beautyberry plants were previously found in McCarty Woods, but have dwindled in recent years. On Saturday, volunteers will plant beautyberry and other species in the woods as part of their conservation efforts. (WUFT News file photo)

Beautyberry from the backyard: How McCarty Woods is getting back to its roots

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On Saturday, volunteers will take to McCarty Woods in the latest update of a year-long effort to conserve the two acres of University of Florida land from development. The volunteer movement, spearheaded by faculty members Lucas Majure and Pam and Douglas Soltis, will again return to the woods. This time, they will be planting. 

The group will be planting over ten species native to the area. Some of these plants, like persimmon trees, were previously found in McCarty Woods but have since gone extinct from the area. 

UF professor Douglas Soltis seeks to reintroduce these plants to the woods.

“We want to make sure we’re putting in genotypes that are local to Alachua County,” Soltis said. “A lot of these plants were found in the woods 20 years ago, but you won’t see them there today.”

The commitment to planting native species includes enlisting the help of a local nursery and growing plants in the volunteers’ backyards. Soltis is growing beautyberries in pots at home.

“I’ve been growing some in my backyard waiting for this day,” he said.

The volunteer group has acquired some of these species from Chiappini Farm Native Nursery in Hawthorne. Chiappini Farms is a local nursery that boasts 30 acres of native plants.

Soltis is also excited to reintroduce some herbaceous plants to the area, including ironweed, a native resilient plant that blooms with purple flowers in the summertime.

The image shows the purple, flowering plant ironweed.
Professor Douglas Soltis is growing ironweed in his backyard. The ironweed planted by volunteers in McCarty Woods will come from this plant. (Courtesy of Douglas Soltis)

This is not the first time volunteers have gotten their hands dirty in McCarty Woods. For the past six months, they have organized once a month to improve clean the woods by removing thousands of pounds of non-native plants using hand saws and other tools. The invasive species that encroach on the land include cat’s claw, skunk vines and Asian privet trees.

These extremely invasive species blanket trees and block out light from reaching the plants native to the area. The negative impacts of invasive species will only be worsened by climate change, according to a long-term study conducted by UF ecology professor Luke Flory.

Invasive species are not the only thing keeping conservationists on edge about the land. Over winter break, UF Facilities Services had a grounds crew cut back much of the forest’s border on the east side without notifying faculty, staff, students or volunteers. 

Soltis does not see Saturday’s events as a one-time thing. Volunteers will have to continue to monitor rainfall to ensure the saplings get enough water.

“If not, we’ll have to bring out the Bucket Brigade,” Soltis said. “It’s not like there’s a hose nearby.”

He also hopes to organize a planting next month while the weather is still cool in order to establish the plants in the woods. The group will reintroduce more species then, including more tuliptree, musclewood and redbay trees. 

These planting efforts have been exclusively funded through volunteer efforts. The Florida Museum has additionally set up a fund where donors can support these conservation efforts.

For those looking to donate their time, volunteers will meet at 9 a.m. Saturday at the north side of the woods by the parking lot. The first 50 volunteers will receive a “Save McCarty Woods” shirt.

Florida Museum of Natural History science writer Jerald Pinson explained the educational opportunities within a restored McCarty Woods. Currently, the space is used as a teaching lab for wildlife ecology and UF’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

“There will be faculty members that go out there to teach plant identification or plot for different analyses,” Pinson said. “So, it’s really valuable in that regard –not just from the standpoint of students using it as a way to get away from the bubble of campus– it’s also being used for research and teaching purposes.”

Soltis also sees this as the first step of a multi-year process to build back McCarty Woods.

“The whole mission is restoration,” Soltis said. “We want this to be a super cool woods that should be a showpiece of campus.”

About Grace Banahan

Grace is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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