Having ignored all warnings from the prickly pears, de Leon would have found even more species eager to teach him the perils of trespassing in places he wasn’t welcome. Of all the scenes I’ve imagined of Ponce’s first days, none is more satisfying than picturing him gyrating through a bed of sand spurs (Cenchrus spp.) doing the “Ow! Ow! Ow!” tippy-toe dance. You know the one; everyone who’s walked bare-footed through sand spurs knows this dance. While the Spaniard didn’t understand Timucuan, the language of sand spurs would have been clear. If he had taken this message to heart, de Leon might not have returned to South Florida a decade later and been fatally pierced by a different kind of “thorn,” a native arrow.
Coexistence is a common theme in these dunes. Ambling among the soft, rolling swells of sugar-sand, de Leon would certainly have spotted gopher tortoise burrows. These burrows are used by at least 365 species of insects, mammals and reptiles of several species, all of which comfortably cohabitate in the dark passages.
Wherever he went, be it vegetated dune swales or the nearby flatwoods, de Leon would have been surrounded by one of the elders of Florida’s plant communities—saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Recent DNA studies suggest that some saw palmettos may approach 10,000 years of age. This would have been accomplished by the plants habit of regularly sprouting new, prostate stems and sinking new roots from them. Granddaddy saw palmettos could be the clonal descendants of plants whose fruits were eaten by Paleo-Indians (and paleo-critters). As we would expect of such an elder, the lessons of saw palmetto are both numerous and profound. For me, none is more important than the fact that they are hard to cultivate. When removed from an area, they have difficulty reestablishing. This lesson perfectly symbolizes the tragic loss of Florida’s native people just 250 years after de Leon.