Header Image: Pine Flatwoods Dawn
“And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!”
(From The Creation by James Weldon Johnson.)
We often visit the swamp. Florida has quite a few areas which meet the definition of a swamp. One of the shortest informative descriptions I’ve run across says a swamp is a “forested wetland”. Marshes, on the other hand, are distinguished by the main vegetation being grasses rather than trees.
Our “local” destination is central Florida’s Green Swamp. Over 560,000 acres (227,000 hectares) of river swamp, longleaf pine sandhills, hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods and cypress ponds located between Tampa and Orlando. It sounds odd, but the Green Swamp is actually on a “plateau” surrounded by sand ridges. A vast underground aquifer rises near the surface in this area and as rain falls it trickles through the soil to replenish what is the state’s main source of drinking water. Annual rains here also form the headwaters of four major rivers: the Withlacoochee, the Ocklawaha, the Hillsborough and the Peace.
Light fog filtered early rays of the rising sun through the dense pine forest. Clearings were thick with lush ferns, saw palmetto and wildflowers. The most prominent bloom was Pale Meadowbeauty, providing a pink welcome mat into the depths of the swamp. Gossamer nets woven by industrious spiders covered the open glades forming bowls in the grass as well as stretched between tree trunks and tall plants. Woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatches scolded from high above. The scream of a Red-shouldered Hawk alerted all in the area of our intrusion into their world.
Logging roads crisscross the area we were exploring. Care must be taken as rains and fallen trees can make some of the roads hazardous to navigate. A combination of driving slowly and hiking an interesting-looking trail reveals an incredible diversity of life. Today should we be birders, budding botanists, promising herpetologists, intrepid dragon hunters or just visitors who love the aroma of fresh pine and the beauty of a simple flower? All of the above.
We seldom encounter many humans in this area. The solitude enriches our souls. As we turn onto the paved road and head to the house, we sigh in unison and instinctively know each other’s thoughts about the morning: “That’s good!“.
A few images may illustrate why we love our swamp.
Open meadows adjacent to the pine forest are common and always seem to offer something different each time we visit.
The likely engineer of this intricate bowl-shaped web is one of the Orchard Orbweavers (Leucauge species).
Carolina Redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana) is plentiful throughout the swamp and is loved by a host of nectar-loving insects, such as this Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus).
Pink is the color of the day at this time of year in the pine woods. Virtually every open spot we passed was filled with Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana). We didn’t mind one bit.
Some early fall foliage was provided by a native Red Maple (Acer rubrum) inviting us to explore a creek through the forest.
Horsetail or Scouringrush (Equisetum hyemale), is a reed-like plant which loves wet areas. It reminds us of asparagus. (No, we didn’t taste it on this trip.)
As we look around at birds and flowers, we are likely to miss some colorful jewels right at our feet. Small but beautiful, a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) looks like a little flying stained-glass window.
There are a few physical differences between a Pig Frog (Rana grylio) and an American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), but if you’re able to hear them call you will have no doubt.
More Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana) and lower in the vegetation is Yellow Milkwort (Polygala rugelii), a species endemic to Florida.
Adding another dimension to our already colorful experience is a male Golden-winged Skimmer (Libellula auripennis).
A sprinkling of white decorated the edge of a section of forest as we left the area. Standing nearly three feet tall, the Flattened Pipewort or Hatpins (Eriocaulon compressum) added a delicate touch to the landscape.
Away from the noise of human endeavor, amid the calls of Blue Jays and Pig Frogs, Gini and I recharged our internal batteries. We indulged our appetite for nature’s beauty at one of her bountiful banquet tables. We will repeat the process again. Often.
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!