Stop #6: The Ais Trail
You are standing on the remains of a midden, which is an old dump for domestic waste that may include animal bone, human excrement, botanical material, mollusk shells, potsherds, and other artifacts associated with past human occupation.
Middens provide a useful resource for archaeologists who study the diets and habits of past societies. The fact that there is a midden here means there once was a village here. This is where the Ais indigenous people lived.
The Ais were surrounded on two sides by powerful Native American superpowers — enemies who sought to subjugate them. To the south lived the superpower of the Calusa federation and to the north were the powerful Timucua. Consequently, the arrival of the Spanish was the least of the Ais’ concerns.
The Ais are the probable descendants of the Windover burial pond culture of Titusville. You can find information about the Windover people at the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science in Cocoa.
Most of what we know about the Ais comes from Jonathan Dickinson’s journal from 1696 when he was shipwrecked and spent several weeks among the Ais. Dickinson stated that the Ais “neither sow nor plant any manner of thing whatsoever, but fished and gathered palmetto, cocoplum, and seagrape berries.” It is currently thought that the Ais did not survive long after Dickinson’s sojourn with them. Shortly after 1700, settlers in the Province of Carolina and their Indian allies started raiding the Ais, killing some and carrying captives to Charles Town to be sold as slaves.
As you walk along the trail keep an eye out for the plants listed below. There are several overlooks along the trail, so stop and enjoy the views.
American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
Beautyberry is growing along the road by the trail entrance and also sparsely along the trail.
It’s a native plant that prefers sun but tolerates shade, like at the edge of the forest.
Deer love to eat Beautyberry leaves and they also can be used as a natural, highly effective, single-ingredient mosquito and tick repellent. Simply crush beautyberry leaves in your hand and rub them on yourself.
Birds eat beautyberries throughout the winter. The berries are also edible for humans and can be harvested throughout the winter until they turn brown. Berry clusters should be completely purple when picked and can be eaten straight from the plant or cooked and concentrated into a juice that can be used for teas, sauces, jellies, or wine.
Wild Olive/Devilwood (Osmanthus americanus)
You will find this small, native tree at the entrance to the trail. It can grow under many conditions and is somewhat salt tolerant.
The clusters of small, fragrant white flowers in spring are followed by half-inch blue-black fruits that ripen in fall and are eaten by birds or other wildlife.
It acquired the common name of Devilwood because the fine-textured wood is difficult to split and hard to work.
Night-Blooming Cereus Cactus (Selenicereus grandifloras)
You can find this cactus growing on several palm trees along the trail. It is a native of Central and South America but not Florida.
The plant has large fragrant flowers in late spring or early summer that bloom at night and then wilt within hours.
If you get to see one bloom, consider yourself fortunate.
Wild Coffee (Psychotria nervosa)
Wild coffee is a small, native shrub that gets its common name from the small, red fruit that resembles the true coffee bean.
This is not a substitute for coffee as the beans contain no caffeine, but birds like them.
It does great in shady or partially shady areas but is only slightly salt tolerant.
It is a nectar plant for the following butterflies:
Atala (Eumaeus atala)
Great Southern White (Ascia monuste)
Julia (Dryas iulia)
Schaus’ Swallowtail (Heraclides aristodemus)
Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) or Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto)
When these two species of plants are young they look very similar. So how do you know if you have a palm tree or a palmetto? Look closely at the base of the leaf. A saw palmetto base is straight across and a cabbage palm leaf is angled.
Saw palmetto is a slow-growing, native plant that is long-lived, with some Florida plants as old as 500–700 years old. The plant is an important food source and habitat for more than 100 bird species, 27 mammals (historically including humans), 25 amphibians, 61 reptiles, and countless insects. The flowers are also a source of nectar for many pollinators.
The fan-shaped leaves have been widely used for thatch roofing and also baskets and mats. Saw palmetto fibers have been found among materials from indigenous people as far north as Wisconsin and New York, strongly suggesting this material was widely traded prior to European contact.
The sabal palm, or cabbage palm, is native to Florida and is the state tree of both South Carolina and Florida. It is remarkably resistant to fire, floods, coastal conditions, cold, high winds, and drought.
The branched inflorescences produce thousands of tiny, creamy-white, fragrant flowers that attract bees. Black fruits are formed in late summer and are eaten by raccoons and other animals that disperse the seeds.
Harvesting Cabbage Palm Heart
The name “cabbage palm” comes from its edible immature leaves, or “heart,” which has a cabbage-like flavor.
Heart of palm was commonly eaten by indigenous people.
However, extracting the heart kills this species of palm, because the terminal bud is the only point from which the palm can grow, so without this bud, the palm eventually dies.
Taking the easy way by cutting with a chain saw.
Outer leaves are removed and you can see where the stem ends and the heart begins.
The heart is cut like cabbage and used in a swamp cabbage stew.
This palm is also a source of tinder for fires and the fraying leaf fibers were used by indigenous people to make twine. This versatile palm was the perfect choice for our state tree!
Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra)
The pignut hickory on this property denotes the end of the former midden.
It is a native deciduous shade tree that is noted for its fall color, interesting foliage, and hurricane wind resistance.
It is not salt tolerant and nut and leaf litter can be a problem in residential landscapes.
It is called pignut because pigs eat the bitter nuts, but it is also a favorite food of squirrels.
The tough, heavy wood makes excellent tool handles, broom handles, and sport implements.
It is a larval host for many moths including:
Luna Moth (Actias luna)
Hickory Leafroller (Argyrotaenia juglandana)
Royal Walnut (Citheronia regalis)
Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis)
Green-Brier/Cat-Brier (Smilax glauca)
Smilax is a native woody vine that has prickly stems and climbs by means of tendrils. There are twelve species of Smilax in Florida.
They grow from rhizomes that can be dried and made into a powder that has been used in Sarsaparilla or as an addition to flavor root beer.
The rhizomes were also used dried and ground into a flour to thicken soups, sauces, and stews and can be boiled, stewed, or roasted.
This rhizome also makes them very fire resistant and hard to remove from your yard once established.
They provide protection and food for over forty different species of birds, and are an important part of the diet for deer and black bears.
The growing end of a Smilax is a choice wild food and can be eaten raw or cooked like asparagus or green beans.
Here are a few invasive plants you might find along the trail. If you have them in your yard, remove them.
Rosary Pea/Jequirity Bean/Crab’s Eye (Abrus precatorius)
The rosary pea is a severely invasive plant that is native to Asia and Australia.
Once the plant has grown to maturity, its deep roots are extremely difficult to remove, and the plant’s aggressive growth, hard-shelled seeds, and ability to sucker makes it an extremely difficult plant to get rid of.
The entire plant is toxic but the seeds are highly toxic. Ingesting a single seed, well-chewed, can be fatal to adults, children, and livestock.
The plant is best known for its seeds, which are used in jewelry and percussion instruments.
In Trinidad the brightly colored seeds are strung into bracelets and worn around the wrist or ankle to ward off “jumbies” (evil spirits) and “mal-yeux” (the evil eye).
Brazilian Peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolia)
Brazilian Peppertree, sometimes called “Florida Holly” because of its red berries, is an aggressive, invasive woody weed that displaces native vegetation like mangroves and rapidly invades disturbed sites. The species, including the seed, is legally prohibited from sale, transport, or planting in Florida.
It has a high growth rate, wide environmental tolerance, is a prolific seed producer, has a high germination rate, produces shade-tolerant seedlings, and has the ability to form dense thickets. Sounds like the perfect plant for a takeover. Don’t let it get started.
The ingested fruits are noted to have a paralyzing effect on birds. Perhaps you have seen this when the robins come to visit and stumble about after ingesting many berries.
Contact with the sap from a cut or bruised tree can result in rash, lesions, oozing sores, severe itching, welts, and reddening and swelling (especially of the eyes).
The burning of plant matter releases many airborne irritants, and is said to have a mace-like effect upon nearby people. Not a good choice for firewood.
One redeeming quality: A recent study of the fruit of the plant has shown promise as a treatment for MRSA.* A chemical in the berry appears to stop bacteria from producing a toxin which breaks down tissue.
*Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a cause of staph infection that is difficult to treat because of resistance to some antibiotics. — cdc.gov/mrsa/index.html