Grave markers at the historic cemetery with E. telephiodes growing around them [ Clarence Monette | Contributed ]
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City to adopt new mowing schedule to protect endangered plant species, preserve historic cemetery

The city of Port St. Joe will be adopting a new mowing schedule for the unnamed cemetery cross from the Department of Health after concerns were raised by local historical groups and plant experts.

Nancy Jones,Susan Wozniak took to the podium at the city’s June 13 meeting to voice concerns about the condition of the cemetery and the preservation of an endangered species of plant that can be found there.

Frequent and careless mowing, they said, had resulted in damage to several of the gravestones and put further strain on the colony of Euphorbia telephiodes, one of only a handful remaining populations of the species.

“Back in the spring, knowing about this endangered plant that’s out there, we had an informal survey, and we saw that the land and the plants had been mowed right to the sand,” said Wozniak, a member of the Port St. Joe Garden Club. “But also in the process, these handmade gravestones are being seriously damaged.”

The cemetery, a historic Black cemetery, is believed to house the graves of many of the city’s victims of the Yellow Fever epidemic, which ravaged the town in the 19th century.

It features several handmade grave markers, carved with the names and personal details of the deceased. But according to local records, it is likely there are a number of unmarked graves on the site as well.

“This is a historic African American cemetery. According to Comforter Funeral Home, there may be more than 60 other graves on site that don’t have markers,” said Jones.

“I actually think a reduced mowing is a respectful way to maintain the cemetery, since the plants are beautiful, and most of these graves are no longer being visited by family members, but by members of the public.”

Jones and Wozniak also introduced Scott Davis, the director of the Milkweed Foundation, which seeks to preserve native plant species.

Davis recommended altering the city’s mowing schedule on the property not just to protect the headstones, but also the native species of critically endangered plant.

“The best management practice that’s used across the state… whenever you have a critically endangered species, if they can achieve a single mow (per year) sometime after Thanksgiving, that’s what they do, but in a lot of communities, a single pass in the fall fails because there are complaints both ways,” he said. “So to that end, for this particular species that is there, a compatible mow regiment is for there to be a pass in the spring and then that pass in the fall.”

Euphorbia telephiodes, or Telephus spurge, is known to grow in only three counties on the Florida Panhandle.

According to Davis, the cluster at the historic cemetery represents one of only 19 known locations where it still grows.

“They vanished from some of the surrounding areas as they developed, but they’re holding on there,” he said.

City officials agreed to adjust the city’s mow regiment at the cemetery to a biannual mow in which plants were cut higher than they have been and city employees are reminded to be mindful of the historic gravestones.

Meet the Editor

Wendy Weitzel, The Star’s digital editor, joined the news outlet in August 2021, as a reporter covering primarily Gulf County.

Prior to then, she interned for Oklahoma-based news wire service Gaylord News and for Oklahoma City-based online newspaper during her four years at the University of Oklahoma, from which she graduated in May with degrees in online journalism and political science.

While at OU, Weitzel was selected as Carnegie-Knight News21 Investigative Fellow among 30 top journalism students from around the country. She also was senior editor managing a 12-person newsroom in coordination with Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit news organization in eastern Oklahoma.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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