Dale Colby knows his stuff.
The city park officer pointed out plants along the nature walking trail at Aaron Bessant Park with a hint of excitement in his voice, eager to share a tale.
The deer moss over here is an indication of good air quality, he said while reaching into the brush and pulling up a ball of moss. And the ancestors of that fern over there were around 245 million years ago.
The roughly one-mile nature walking trail winding around Aaron Bessant Park is set into what Colby calls “a maritime forest,” the oldest part of the dune system stretching north from the Gulf.
Although city officials are preparing to expand the concert facilities at Aaron Bessant Park, a construction project that has caused controversy, officials have promised to preserve the walking trail, which Colby said is used daily by city residents, often with their dogs.
Rooted into the area are varieties of plants such as Florida wildflowers, the Gulf Coast lupine, beach sunflowers, American persimmons and the coontie fern, which is called a “living fossil” because it was the dominant type of flora during the age of the dinosaurs, Colby said.
“If you want to walk like the dinosaurs, you can walk around the coonties,” he said with a smile. “It’s always been a love of mine: plants, birds, animals, nature.”
Colorful butterflies called Gulf fritillaries, or passion butterflies, similar to monarchs, flit and flutter through the park in the fall during their migrations.
Pedro Laca of Panama City Beach was out walking the trail recently with his dog, Stitch. He said he walks almost every day.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “Even when the wind is blowing on one side it will be calm on the other side. It’s always well-cared for.”
Teresa Winford, who took to the trail during a recent 3K “Walk for a Cure” benefit for breast cancer, also was out at the park with her dog, Kent, last week. “I love the walking trail,” she said.
The park has been mapped with GPS coordinates for several specific plant varieties, so anyone with a GPS-capable cellphone can go straight to a coontie, or a woody goldenrod, or trees called “snags,” which stand barren against the skyline but provide needed habitat for birds.
“It’s been a pet project of mine,” Colby said of the GPS map, and one he hopes to extend to the 22 miles of walking and biking trails at the new Conservation Park west of State 79 that recently opened with fanfare.
He calls the GPS mapping “biocaching,” a sort of treasure hunt for flora jewels that botany students and classes can use, and he hopes it can help become a spark that gets them inspired to learn.
“Bring your kid and take a journey in nature,” Colby said.