Monday, July 11, 2011

Florida History: Move over tomatoes, coontie was South Florida's first crop

By Jane Feehan    (Use search box at right to find more "Florida history")

One of the earliest industries in South Florida involved “Coontie,”  also known as Florida arrowroot.  Botanists know it as Zamia Floridana, a cycad, one of the oldest forms of plant life.

Seminoles named it coontie.  They gathered the fern-like plant, which grew wild in the area, and pounded its root into a starch to bake their version of bread or biscuits. White settlers to South Florida followed suit, collecting and milling the plant to use as food, or to exchange for provisions in Miami.  

Early Fort Lauderdale resident William Colee (or Cooley) was considered a prosperous coontie farmer near New River before his family was killed by Seminoles in 1836. The tradition of growing and milling Florida arrowroot continued with others - at least into the early 20th-century.

News accounts in 1913 report a land purchase of 2,500 acres by two Coloradans for the purpose of growing the edible starch. Other stories detail the demand, milling and marketing of coontie at the time. Competing crops of vegetables - particularly tomatoes - and fruits would soon dethrone Florida arrowroot.  World War I gave the industry its last shot when it was reported that soldiers who were gassed managed to drink a thin gruel of coontie. The business of milling this edible tropical starch is long gone but its place in South Florida history remains firm; coontie was an integral part of Seminole and settler life.

For more about Florida tomato crop history, see:
Miami News, June 14, 1913, p. 10.
Miami News, March 6, 1956, p. 15.
Miami News, Dec. 6, 1953, p. 29.

Tags: Fort Lauderdale history, early South Florida crops, South Florida history, 
Florida film research

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