‘Island In The Sun’
What can a retired Cornell University professor emeritus from the Department of Horticulture learn from his study of Cayo Costa’s natural history and plants? It turns out a lot! He even wrote a book about the subject: “Island in the Sun Reflections on the natural history of Cayo Costa State Park.”
Ken Mudge is a recently retired associate professor from the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. Over the years, Mudge and his wife have visited many of the state parks in Florida and considers Cayo Costa “the best of the best.”
Mudge, originally from Ithaca, N.Y., became interested in horticulture as a young man when he began working for a landscaper.
“That’s where my interest began,” Mudge said, “but my teaching has been in forestry farming.”
Mudge’s page on the Cornell University website states that before retiring he was “engaged in rural economic development through research and education on development of non-timber forest products…”
“My research focuses on the agroforesty practice of forest farming, with a particular emphasis on forest cultivated mushrooms,” Mudge said.
“About 15 years ago my wife was looking for some place to vacation and selected the island of Cayo Costa off of a map,” Mudge said. “We’ve visited many Florida parks but once we visited Cayo Costa, we just kept returning to the island.”
Cayo Costa is a 2,426-acre Florida state park managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The island was first inhabited by the Calusa Indians, then Cuban fishermen in the late 1800s and today a few residents own cabins.
According to Mudge’s book, Cayo Costa is the only Southwest Florida island that has been relatively unspoiled by development.
“The other four barrier islands have been shaped by the same processes as Cayo Costa but they have been tamed by man, in terms of extensive developments of roads, condos, etc.,” Mudge said. “Only Cayo Costa remains nearly as pristine as it was before the Spanish ‘conquered’ the new world.”
“I think what has preserved the island is Lee County and then the state made Cayo Costa a park,” Mudge said. “That’s what protected the island from development.”
The book, “Island in the Sun Reflections on the natural history of Cayo Costa State Park,” is a two-part book. The first half is about the early formation of the island, the amenities the state park offers and details of a tram ride from the bay side (east) to the beach side on the Gulf. Mudge calls this the tram ride the “15 minute plant diversity tour.”
On the “diversity tour,” you’ll see six different communities of plants (out of a total of 12) beginning with the Mangrove Swamp Community on Pelican Bay near the landing docks. As you travel westward, you pass under the live oak trees of the Maritime Hammock Community into a Coastal Grassland Community Mudge identifies as a “seasonal desert.” Still traveling west you’ll enter the Coastal Strand Community where some cabbage palms that survived Hurricane Charley still stand and the area that was planted with Gumbo Limbo and Sea Grape. Finally you’ll reach the Beach Dune Community and the Gulf of Mexico.
The sixth, and last, plant community Mudge covers in his book is the Shell Mound Community. The Shell Mound Community covers the smallest footprint of the five mentioned so far. They carry more significance because of its anthropologic origin (they are Calusa Indian middens). These middens were refuse sites for shell fragments accumulated by the Calusa Indians. “Over centuries these shell mounds became quite extensive and some of the few on Cayo Costa rise nearly 15 feet above sea level,” he said.
The second half of the book covers the phytogeography. Phytogeography simply means, “where the plants are.” Mudge explains the plants that are found in the six plant communities in the book: Seagrapes, Saw Palmetto, Marlberry, Coral Bean, Wild Coffee and many others.
Mudge is planning a second book on the remaining six plant communities and the animals found on Cayo Cosa.
“Thinking back, I am amazed how much I have learned from Cayo Costa,” Mudge said. “The geology is more complex than meets the eye. It’s not just a pile of sand.
“I’m convinced that walking around with your eyes wide open is the best way to learn about nature,” Mudge said. “Hopefully this book will serve as a guidebook that allows the reader to take a systematic approach to learning about Cayo Costa but most of all I hope people have fun!”
“Island in the Sun Reflections on the natural history of Cayo Costa State Park” is available at the concession stand on Cayo Costa for $20 each and on Ebay for $20 each, plus shipping. All of the proceeds from the sale of the book go to Cayo Costa State Park.