From an Abandoned Orange Grove to Conservation Land: The 2022 Florida ‘Vous Tree Climbing Site

Note: this story originally appeared in GOTC’s Summer Newsletter Summer 2021 Newsletter (

Article by Nadia Lombardero

Photos by Scott LaRosa, Maria Colon, and Nadia Lombardero

Through some of its members, GOTC has become a proud part of Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens (a (501(c)(3) non-profit) founder’s conservation vision.  Florida GOTC volunteers are clearing an abandoned 10-acre orange grove recently obtained by Dr. Raymond Webber. This new stretch of land will be added to the 54-acre surrounding woodlands already donated by him to Conservation Florida – Our Story — Conservation Florida (

The 2022 Florida Rendezvous will take place April 1-4 in a very special and unique location.  I encourage you to read its fascinating and heartwarming history: History (

When a group of the ‘Vous organizers approached the Gardens with the request of using their facility as a Rendezvous destination, we were presented the option of climbing in an area adjacent to the gardens and recently acquired specifically for the purpose of saving a grove full of very old live oaks and protecting them for future generations.  Was it destiny? We were in awe as soon as we walked through the old wooden gate and saw the field of majestic live oaks.  All we could see was the immensity, varied formations, and breathtaking beauty of these trees and thought “Oh my goodness if these trees could just talk!”  Santiago Casanova and I love live oaks and agree that if those were the only trees we could climb for the rest of our lives, we would be in tree heaven.  However, in our moment of complete admiration, we failed to notice the extensive hostile underbrush.

A native of China, Hardy Orange (Poncirus trifoliata) aka Trifoliate Orange is commonly known as sour orange in this region of Florida.  The shrub has been used primarily as root stock for citrus groves.  When the scion of the grafted tree dies, the root stock takes over the grove. The root stock shrubs grow very rapidly to 8-20 feet tall, especially in an understory environment. They are able to shade out native plants, and their vicious thorns do not provide adequate habitat or shelter for many animals. This is one very invasive species.

Fully committed to making this site work for a future Rendezvous, Santiago, Rosa Colon, and I climbed a nearby live oak and proceeded to brainstorm.  There was much contemplation, discussion, and planning about how to tackle this challenging job! It would have to be done one bite at a time, and we would need some serious level of volunteerism!  Planning the annual Rendezvous event is a massive task in and of itself.  Adding to that the clearing and preparing of land for the climbing event is just madness.

For several weeks, an amazing group of volunteers has been clearing the area. I hope you meet them in person next year, as for all of them the 2022 Florida ‘Vous will be the very first Rendezvous they attend in person!

For now, meet the LaRosa’s who are not tree climbers. For the past 5 years, this husband and wife team has volunteered  frequently for the Florida Trail Association (from which they received Trail Skills Training) and the Greenway Cooperative Trail.  Carey has a degree in Environmental Sciences and is a Florida Master Naturalist.  Scott is a retired Fish and Wildlife officer and is Sawyer Certified.  After seeing the understory wall of sour oranges up-close and personal, Scott posted: “Behold the Wild Orange aka Naranja, which in my years of chopping stuff down is quite possibly the Most Evil thing I’ve ever dealt with.”

Many lessons were learned after the first day, and tools, techniques, and plans of action were quickly adapted to adjust to the challenging environment. The DR Field Mower 30” was used to cut the shorter sour orange stock, which helped us see the area better so we could identify native species and animal borrows, which were clearly flagged for protection.

However, the larger trees/shrubs had to be cut by hand, bundled, and transported outside of the conservation area.  Nick Maul, who has been climbing for less than 2 years, noticed how the base of the shrubs were mostly free of thorns so he devised the “deep sea fishing casting method” of loading each bundle by treating it like a long fishing rod and casting it into the trailer.  He trained Jesse Moral, one of our newest and very strong climbers, and they perfected the system together with Santiago, who figured out how to use ropes for managing the safe removal of the load.  Thus, many loads of thorny bushes and dead wood were hauled away.

Cutting short stumps flush to the ground, clipping pesky smilax vines, and removing rocks and dead wood were all done by hand and was a team effort. Then Santiago could follow up with a diesel Kubota GR2100  and give the area a final trim.

Safety, hydration, and rest were incorporated throughout the process.

We will share more adventures in the next newsletter, as a new group of volunteers climbs the now accessible trees and continues to assess them for next year’s Rendezvous.  We look forward to sharing this magical place with you!