A hundred years ago the Celery Fields were just some swampy sawgrass. Was it really a farm once? This area of 440 acres is now Sarasota County’s primary water collection zone and wetland restoration area. It is a great place for birding, hiking, biking, or just plain wandering. It’s an interesting place to visit and explore.
I can only imagine it in the age of dinosaurs. There was a time when mammoths and mastodons roamed around an ancient lake here. The soil contained layers of rich muck, up to eight feet thick. Below the muck was an equal layer of sand and below that sand was clay.
By the late 1800s this land was drained for agricultural use. By the mid-1920s a series of man-made canals made rows along some 2000 acres of the land. Farmers experimented with various crops and found out quickly that the rich soil was ideal for growing celery. One of the main celery producers for over fifty years was Fancee Farms.
A machine was even developed to help navigate the soft soil. It’s called a “muck mobile” and has special large wheels with caterpillar-type treads. Sarasota was once the third largest producer of celery in Florida. Yes, right here at the Celery Fields.
However, profitable farming came with a cost. Areas of Sarasota became severely flooded by the Phillippi Creek in the early 1990s. Between 1994 and 1995 Sarasota County purchased 300-400 acres of celery farmland in hopes of finding a solution to their flooding. They restored the land and created an award winning storm water collection area. With their system the water passes through stages where erosion is controlled, nutrients are restored, and pollutants are settled.
Today a series of deep ponds, shallow pools, and canals help filter and redirect water before it gets to the Phillippi Creek. One-fourth of the Celery Fields, at least 100 acres, has been restored into wetlands and open marshland. It is a habitat for all sorts of wildlife, especially birds. The Celery Fields is listed on the Great Florida Birding Trail and is a favorite destination among enthusiasts. Since 2001 surveys have helped us keep track of things. We know that at least 246 species of birds have paid a visit.
Where should you start? A good beginning is at the main parking lot off Palmer Blvd, at the Sarasota Audubon Nature Center, open 9 am-noon daily. The center offers educational information, exhibits, and a gift shop. Knowledgeable staff can answer many of your nature and environmental questions.
Located just outside the nature center is a butterfly and native plant garden. There is also a covered walkway and a gazebo. Nearby is a purple martin house. Did you know that those songbirds are dependent on us humans for their housing? Native Americans even provided homes for them by hanging gourds.
Once a week this particular martin house here is taken down for inspection. Baby martins are counted and checked over by Audubon volunteers before the house is carefully returned to its place. All under the watchful eye of the tolerant mother birds! Florida has a long migration period for its purple martins, usually from January to the end of May.
The main attraction though is “Mount Celery.” You can even see it from the interstate! This 55 foot tall man made grassy hill was created from leftover muck as the area was dug out for ponds and canals. The hill has about a mile of walking paths. Side trails lead down from the hill to fields, ponds, canals, and wetlands. Also don’t be surprised if you occasionally hear the roar of a lion or a tiger. No you are not imagining things! Big Cat Rescue is located a short distance away and is a home and rehabilitation center for exotic cats.
It’s summertime right now so please consider the weather if you’re planning a visit as there’s minimal shade at the Celery Fields. The fields are open all year round from 6 am – sunset.
The Celery Fields
6799 Palmer Blvd.
Sarasota, FL 34240
Open daily 6 am-sunset.
The Celery Fields are dog friendly and they must be on a leash.
Audubon Nature Center
999 Center Rd.
Sarasota, FL 34240
Open daily 9 am-noon