Pierson, the Fern Capital of the World!
It’s not often that you enter a small town and are greeted by claims of being number one in the world but in Florida you encounter more than a few of those.
Over in Lake Placid you get not only a huge number of impressive murals but the declaration, “Caladium Capital of the World.” That seems a pretty fair claim since — according to Wikipedia — a whopping 98% of commercially grown caladium bulbs get their start in the rolling hills around Lake Placid.
North and to the East of Lake Placid you find Crescent City, “The Bass Capital of the World.” Of course further south Okeechobee touts itself as the “Black Bass Capital of the World,” and all of Central Florida declares itself as the “Bigmouth Bass Capital of the World.” I am sure there are plenty of towns banking on tarpon and bonefish or catfish and trout, too.
But coming back to plants we find Sanford down where the St. Johns River runs through Lake Monroe. Sanford has been home to many crops but for a while was “The Celery Capital of the World” though Arvada, Colo. is now claiming to hold that honor.
North of Sanford, still following the meandering path of the St. Johns near US 17, we find Pierson. Blink and you miss it but if your eyes are open when you cross the town line you will find yourself smack dab in the “Fern Capital of the World.” Like many towns on US 17, what you see along the road is the tip of the iceberg and much of community and certainly the homes are off the main road and strung out through the surrounding woods. When driving around these small towns it's helpful to have a map to point you toward where the real town can be found.
In regard to the ferns, up to date information is hard to come by online but twenty years ago the county extension director told the Sun Sentinel that 85% of the floral ferns sold in the US are grown in 6200 shaded acres in Pierson. Alongside all the roads in and out of town are squat structures covered in black shade cloth to cut the blazing Florida sun down to filtered light like one might find in the floor of a dense old growth forest. And in fact a bit down the road you will pass ferns being grown in just such wooded areas.
But back in Pierson it is a lot of work bending over and cutting those fronds at just the right moment for the fern-hungry floral industry. It takes six to eight weeks for a cut frond to regenerate but a well-treated fern just keeps on giving.
Before we found the ferneries in their dark tents on a recent visit we found the Pierson Family Restaurant. Unusual comes to mind as a description. The restaurant has an enclosed patio and the dining room inside is made of rough unfinished wood. The walls are dotted with iconic photographs like the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square at the end of WWII, the Eiffel Town or workers high above NYC walking the girders. This is coupled with a traditional southern menu and some really good burgers. One waitress seemed to handle the entire room and the patio and though she was moving fast, she made it seem almost effortless.
A hand written sign on the door promised fresh peas, shelled, just call this number. We did and spoke with a nice woman who said she was up the road in Seville but could have us a half bushel shelled, packed and chilled in about two hours. We were to meet her at her Pierson office, a coral colored house just beyond the airstrip. It took a few more phone calls and riding around to kill some time but eventually she pulled up and opened a cooler in the back of her almost new Mercedes to reveal a treasure trove of cream peas (as close to little acre peas as I’ve seen in a while) packed up in plastic bags. “Don’t forget,” she said, “we will have squash and watermelons in a couple of weeks.”
While on our time killing drive through the side roads waiting for the peas we found Lake George Road in Seville that snakes about five miles through the woods and ends up on the eastern shore of Lake George by Mary’s Pine Island Resort, a combination RV park and boat launch. A few houses also snuggle up to the lake’s edge and everyone seemed pretty laid back.
Lake George, also called Lake Welaka, is the second largest lake in the state and is brackish due to water rising up through springs that cut through a salt deposit. (See Salt Springs post.). The Lake is six miles wide and 11 miles long and averages eight feet in depth. It is part of the chain of lakes that makes up the St. Johns’ path to the Atlantic just beyond Jacksonville.
With the fine restaurant, good back roads to explore and a bit of sleepy charm, Pierson and Seville are definitely in the Old Florida category. I am thinking of stopping for another burger the first chance I get and I hear the beer is very cold out at Mary’s.
Sadly, I did not get a photo of the 8-foot tall, brightly colored ceramic chicken outside the Pierson Family Restaurant. It had a bag over its head and a large bra strapped on and was a mystifying bit of welcome by the side of the road. I think it came from Barberville Roadside Yard Art and produce a few miles back in Barberville that sells all kinds of life size and larger sculptures ranging from ceramic giraffes to bronze horses interspersed with pottery of all sizes and lots of colors. It is worth a visit on its own.
Sorry I wasn’t able to get back for squash. Those peas, cooked with some sliced okra and a chunk of hog jowl, were really good.
© Copyright 2015: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison for MyOldFlorida.com.