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Marine Sciences university students learn archaeology at Mound Key as part Florida Institute of Oceanography program. Andrew West/news-press.com

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Pink bell flowers delicately hang from plants, bringing bursts of color all over the mostly green island.

Wild white cotton clings to other plants while new little gumbo limbo trees grow in the shadows of their larger parent trees.

Visitors that go by boat to Mound Key now will see very different foliage on the island. That’s because a four-year project to remove exotic greenery has led to the flourishing of native vegetation.

“With all the exotics removed, the understory has started blooming,” said Jon Meyer, Estero Bay Preserve environmental specialist.

Workers with the Estero Bay Preserve and Koreshan State Historic Site have removed Brazilian pepper Suriman cherry.

“Those are the key ones we removed to help open up the area,” Meyer explained. “The bluebells and also the wild cotton are really starting to survive out there.”

Never ends

About 10 percent of the island had been covered with exotic vegetation that was choking out the native foliage. Meyer said even though that the bulk of the work is done, it never ends.

“At this point, we are in a maintenance project,” Meyer said. “We go out quarterly and get all the small stuff that is popping up.”

Locals are starting to notice the changes on the island. John Paeno takes kayakers out there regularly on tour.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “It makes interpretive tours out there easier because you can point out the native stuff instead of the exotics.”

Paeno said it is easier for people to see the area where the Calusa had their city, where they dug their canals and where they built their high ground to overlook the island. Visitors also have easier access to see the cistern.

“You can see the way it was laid out as a city and the domain of the Calusa,” Paeno said.

Paeno said it is also easier for people to see the things the Calusa Indians saw and used in their everyday life.

“It has always been there,” he said. “Now the stuff that was there is coming back. There is native cotton. There are stopper trees -- it was important to the Calusas because they would use the leaves to stop diarrhea. That is why it was called stopper.

“Now you can see the white mangrove and the black mangrove and how it is growing on the island. It is very nice to be able to go out there and do a tour with all the native plants in place.”

Now is a good time to visit the island because many of the plants are blooming and showing their springtime colors. There is wild cotton, morning glory, lantana, and Jamaican caper, all flowering right beside the trail.

Good time

This is also a good time to visit because once rainy season starts, the island is infested with mosquitoes. Mound Key is never sprayed like most areas of Southwest Florida so the mosquitoes are horrendous there during the rainy summer months.

Mound Key is situated in the middle of Estero Bay. The 125-acre island is mostly owned by the state and managed by the state park system. About 12 acres are privately owned.

The Calusa created Mound Key more than 2,000 years ago. The island is believed to have been the capitol of the Calusa kingdom. Scientists believe Mound Key started as a natural oyster bar. Waste such as fish bones, animal bone, shell and pottery began building up, enlarging the island as the population grew. The Calusa build a structure of mounds, canals and water courts that still exist today and can be seen mostly from the path that crosses the island.

Later in the early 1900s, some of Southwest Florida’s early settlers lived on the island. They built houses, gardens and even a school there.

If you go

Mound Key is framed in forests of mangrove trees, the shell mounds and ridges of Mound Key rise more than 30 feet above the waters of Estero Bay, according to floridastateparks.org/park/Mound-Key. The only access to the island is by boat; there are no facilities. Interpretive displays can be found along a trail that spans the width of the island. Located in Estero Bay, several miles by boat from Koreshan State Historic Site or Lovers Key State Park. The park is accessible only by the water and is managed by Koreshan State Historic Site, 3800 Corkscrew Road, Estero, call 992-0311.

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