By Georgia Tasker
EIGHT OR 10 years ago, when a young pine tree needed some companions, Paula Hamelik rounded up quailberry and snowberry, which are low-growing pine rockland plants, along with a sturdy silver palm and a native cycad called coontie.
These South Florida plants are increasingly rare in the wild, so Hamelik decided to give them a home together in her yard which has gradually evolved into a comfortable refuge for birds, butterflies and critters as well as people.
It does not harbor native plants to the exclusion of everything else, but blends natives with exotic fruit trees and palms. It is a welcoming yard, taking in creatures, rescued areca palms, found and traded plants and neighbors who gather after work.
The mulched beds are edged in coconuts or old palm trunks, which give the yard a hand-made authenticity. Two benches and a small table are arranged on a patio of pavers beneath the shade of an oak. Staghorn ferns and orchids have found suitable tree branches in which to nestle. An unused barbecue has become a much used planter.
Here and there are things that have significance for the people living here: a small statue of a Buddhist monk, a round ceramic cat, a ceramic penguin beneath the cherimoya tree, a couple of chairs that have worn through their primary function and serve cheerfully in a less supporting role.
Paula, who is the gardener, is a massage therapist. In her spare time she volunteers at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, leading walking tours in the winter and cleaning seeds in the summer, and goes to hula school one night a week in Fort Lauderdale.
Her husband Ron is a researcher at the University of Miami medical school. The Hameliks have lived here for 28 years, ”except for a little hiatus after Hurricane Andrew,” Paula says. They have three cats, one of whom is a dedicated butterfly watcher.
Bird Field Guides
When a 9-year-old neighbor, Freddy Schaefer, called Paula over to look at a woodpecker nest, Hamelik decided it was time to concentrate on the wildlife refuge aspect of her yard. She will stop in midsentence to point out a bird, and bird field guides are brought out to decide if a passing raptor is a Red-tailed Hawk or a Red-shouldered Hawk. Being in nature is, well, second-nature.
”Mom was from a Podunk town in north Louisiana,” she says. “She was an avid Girl Scout leader and so my sister and I were brought up with a lot of nature and camping.”
She also likes home-grown fruit, and her wildlife habitat might well pass as an idiosyncratic tropical fruit grove. Carambola, mango, allspice, black sapote, cherimoya, sugar apple, lychee, grapes, coconuts and canistel are the flavors of choice.
Canistel, or egg fruit, is not often grown in South Florida; there just aren’t many aficionados here. Canistel has a yellowish flesh with the consistency of a baked sweet potato. ”It makes a great pie,” Hamelik says. Especially when she adds chopped coconut and macadamia nuts to the top.
Her allspice tree is female and produces berries, which are the source of the spice. In addition, Hamelik incorporates the leaves into her massage work. ”I use the leaves to make massage oil,” she says. “I shred fresh leaves and put them in sunflower oil. I filter that a week later. It’s wonderful for arthritis.”
Along the back fence is a jicama plant, producing bean pods above ground and hiding edible tuberous roots below. She grows the ginger from which turmeric is made.
The ”banana plantation” grows robustly here as well. For a long time, Hamelik says, a couple of banana plants languished. Then someone suggested she put grass clippings around it for mulch. That was the kick start they needed, and now three banana patches shelter compost piles around their feet.
Her ”bootleg” Key lime has come out of hiding now that the canker police have disappeared. Its leaves are enjoyed by the caterpillars of the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly, and that’s part of its reason for being, as Hamelik sees it.
Hamelik has not done away with her lawn, but reduced it with the tidy mulched beds around her trees. The mulch is from a friendly tree service guy who works in the area. She uses citrus and palm fertilizers on the fruit trees and uses a hand sprayer to apply liquid fertilizer to the orchids every 10 days or so.
Small or large, backyard habitats must provide wildlife with food, water, shelter and places to raise young. In Hamelik’s yard, a container of water holds miniature water lilies and a few mosquito fish, while a large firebush has proved to be a suitable nesting site for a hummingbird.
”One morning, I’m out here with my coffee . . . and all of a sudden a hummingbird came out of the firebush. I think water from a sprinkler hit her nest and she was really fussing at me,” Hamelik says. The hummer reappeared day after day.
In addition to benefiting the wildlife and the neighbors, creating the habitat also has benefited the gardener.
”It’s a quiet meditative thing,” says Hamelik, “and I get a tangible sense of accomplishment from it. When I have done a big project, I get a beer and come out here and admire my work.” –Miami Herald