The Great Florida Outdoors: Weedon Island Preserve

Dr. Robert Norman, Clinical Professor, Dermatology • Nova Southeastern University

I was coming back to Tampa from Howey in the expansive 3,190-acre coastal system of Weedon Island Preserve includes aquatic and upland ecosystems and many species of native plants and animals. Weedon Island is the largest estuarine preserve in Pinellas County, with aquatic habitats such as mangrove swamps, shoreline, and seagrass beds predominating. Within the reserve are xeric and mesic upland communities of pine flatwoods, scrub, scrubby flatwoods, and hammocks.

I have spent many hours hiking the many captivating trails of the preserve. I hiked the main boardwalk recently at dusk and noted the ghostly mangrove trees caught in a moment of dance—legs and arms outstretched—as intermittent slivers of sunlight touched the trees with a soft glow. On another hike, along a trail and boardwalk up to the observation tower, the interpretive signs highlighted how the environment had changed via the mosquito ditches built in the mid-1900’s to allow fish to come in and eat the mosquito larvae that were hatching and helping to spread yellow fever. From the tower you can see shell middens and mounds as well as the red fringe of the saltern ecosystem.

I recently completed a three-day course at Weedon Island on environmental interpretation as part of the Florida Master Naturalist Program, and the educational facility and displays here, including artifacts, biological specimens, movies, photographs, provided our class with a wonderful cultural history of the indigenous peoples who occupied this site for thousands of years. Perhaps the most well-known new addition to the Center is a 40-foot dugout canoe found in the Weedon Island Preserve and believed to be a Manasotan artifact approximately 1,100 years old. Man and nature enjoy a powerful yet delicate dance, and the exhibit highlights how nature can thrive and help us survive over the 2,000-year history of humans on the island.

Weedon Island Preserve is a wonderful example of keeping history alive. Florida’s first inhabitants arrived as early as 14,000 years ago. About 5,000 years ago, nomadic archaic populations began to settle and enjoyed the rich natural resources along the central gulf coast area and were known as the Manasota cultures. Over time, starting around 1,800 years ago, these sedentary people began to create a new social structure with home-grown ceremonies and artistic pottery and evolved into the Weeden Island culture, a period that lasted around 800 years.

The native population again changed as the first Spanish entered the scene, eventually decimated by disease, warfare, and social destruction. The Creek Indians entered Florida in the 1700’s from Alabama and Georgia and eventually became known as the Seminoles. Weedon Island, following the Civil War, became the homestead of early settlers.

Among those who occupied the land was Dr. Leslie Washington Weedon (1860-1937). He was a major force in the fight against yellow fever and one of the area’s first physicians. Dr. Weedon first acquired the property in 1898. He was fascinated by Native American history and would be elated that his weekend retreat was preserved for the enjoyment of others. The land is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As you walk around the island, you can imagine what amazing interactions must have occurred with Dr. Weedon and others.

By the 1900s, Weedon Island entered into an era that included being host to bootleggers and speakeasies, airports, and Hollywood movies.

As with all the parks in the the Great Florida Outdoors, you should always check out the online calendar for the next scheduled event and register. At Weedon Island Preserve, free guided preserve hikes are given each Saturday of the month from 9am – 11am and a guided photography hike and a guided bird hike is each provided once a month.

Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center is located at 1800 Weedon Drive NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33702. Phone is (727) 453-6500.

To visit the Natural History Center, remember the hours are Thursday – Saturday 9am to 4pm and Sunday 11 am – 4pm (Closed Monday-Wednesday and all county holidays).

If you are interested in mammals, plants, mammals, birds, insects, photography, archaeology, history, paddling, hiking, or other activities, Weedon Island is a great place to explore. Come out to enjoy the Great Florida Outdoors!

Dr. Norman is an award-winning dermatologist and author of 15 textbooks on dermatology. Please call him today at 813-880-7546 to schedule an appointment.


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