Sunday, April 20, 2014

Into The Swamp

This was my first canoe trip. It was raining. Trepidation and discomfort make for very unpleasant companions, and it didn’t help that I watched someone flip over while trying to get into a sit-on-top kayak.  Yet with the hope of seeing beautiful and unique things (and with the smartphone’s promise that the rain was moving out), we launched 8 canoes and 3 kayaks into the inky waters off Kingfisher Landing. 

This is part 2 of my weekend in the Okefenokee Swamp. Read part one here.

Map source:

The watery black path we followed was lined on both sides with water loving trees and shrubs: pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) and bay trees like swampbay (Persea palustris), loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus) and sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) were there.

Lyonia lucida

Shrubs like the hurrah-bush (Lyonia lucida) were in various stages of flowering; the bright pink buds of the Lyonia were striking against the green sphagnum moss shown here. Also present were swamp ti-ti (Cyrilla racemilflora), dahoon (Ilex cassine) and vines like laurel greenbrier (Smilax laurifolia) and coral greenbrier (S. walteri). A blueberry flashed bright white flowers in one spot.

Our destination was the Green Trail where we hoped to go as far as Bluff Lake, stopping for lunch (eat in your canoe, there’s no place to get out!) along the way. Since it was raining when we set out, I focused on getting used to the canoe and my canoe partner (an awesome guy!) and taking in the sensation of being on the water. There would be time for pictures later.

Nuphar advena
The first aquatic plant we found was spadderdock (Nuphar advena), with leaves like upright water lilies but strange eyeball-like flowers. It was quite common and we occasionally saw huge floating roots from it that had risen to the surface.

Sarracenia flava

The first pitcher plant we saw was very exciting and our enthusiasm for them never diminished. We saw two kinds, but only one was in flower - Sarracenia flava, the yellow pitcher plant.

Nymphaea odorata

Later we did find water lilies (Nymphaea odorata), but most of them were not open in the cool, rainy weather. It did finally stop raining and I was able to take pictures, as you can see. Isn't the reflection in the water beautiful?

Another very common aquatic plant was the goldenclub (Orontium aquaticum), also called "neverwet." I don't know about other days, but it was certainly wet that day! I think the name refers to the fact that the leaves shed water and look dry.

Orontium aquaticum

A couple of other aquatic plants were the floating bladderworts (we found other bladderworts on our land excursions) like this Utricularia inflata. Pipewort, also called hat pins, was another plant found here and on land, although the land ones were much smaller. This one is Eriocaulon compressum.

Inflated bladderwort (Utricularia inflata)

Hat pins or pipewort (Eriocaulon compressum)

One very interesting aspect was the presence of prairies. These huge areas of aquatic plants create the effect of an open prairie. It is an area that we might have called a marsh in a coastal environment. It's a beautiful and unique environment that can only be seen from a boat. I'm glad I got the opportunity to be there.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Okefenokee by Land

This is the first of 3 posts to describe the wonderful plants and environment that I found during the 2014 Georgia Botanical Society Spring Pilgrimage. Each year BotSoc chooses a botanically rich area to hold its 3-day pilgrimage. When I heard the 2014 trip would be to the Okefenokee Swamp, I knew I had to go!

Sisyrinchium angustifolium
The Georgia Botanical Society prides itself on its field trip program and justifiably so. They have personable and knowledgeable trip leaders for their trips throughout the year and the Pilgrimage trips are no exception. I knew that my first visit to the Swamp would benefit from having experienced leaders.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1937 by Executive Order. It is almost 402,000 acres; the Swamp itself is a little bigger, spanning 38 miles in length and up to 25 miles wide. It resides in 5 counties and two states. The swamp is approximately 7000 years old and is a peat-filled bog inside a saucer-shaped depression that was originally part of the ocean floor.

Longleaf pine and saw palmetto forest on Swamp Island Drive

It is one of the oldest and best preserved freshwater systems in America. Native Americans called it Okefenoka, meaning “quivering earth” or “Land of the Trembling Earth.”  The dark color of the water is from tannic acid which is a result of the decomposing plant material in the swamp. Rainfall accounts for most of the water in the swamp so the environment is significantly affected during droughts.

You would be surprised to know that the environment is so large that the swamp has its own islands and lakes within it. It also has “prairies,” which consist of their own unique types of vegetation. One might think that such a swampy area would be limited in the types of plants and wildlife it can support. That is not true.

There are well over 600 different species of plants found there, including many carnivorous plants like pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts and butterworts. The swamp is an important refuge for wildlife with over 200 species of birds identified there, 49 species of mammals, 64 reptiles, 37 amphibians and 39 species of fish. Birds were migrating through while we were there.

My first trip of the weekend was a Friday afternoon trip to Swamp Island Drive. Swamp Island Drive is accessed via the eastern entrance to the swamp, one of five entrances. Swamp Island Drive allows for scenic car travel with occasional stops to examine choice areas of flora (and yes we saw some fauna too).

Chaptalia tomentosa
Our first stop was a wet ditch. In a natural environment, relatively free from non-native invaders, a ditch can be a wonderful place to find interesting plants. This stop found us admiring blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), wooly sunbonnets (Chaptalia tomentosa), grassy arrowhead (Sagittaria graminea), sunny spring helenium (Helenium vernale), and delicate bog white violets (Viola lanceolata).

Sagittaria graminea

Helenium vernale

After thoroughly examining these plants, we drove on to an area that bordered a saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forest. Some of the trees were marked with white paint, a sign that the tree was home to a red-cockaded woodpecker nest.

Caterpillar on bloom of Asimina incana

This area contained more woody plants than the first stop, with blooming plants like dwarf blueberry (Vaccinium myrsinites), rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum), and the wooly paw paw (Asimina incana). All of these were in bloom, but it was the paw paw that attracted the most attention. Shrieks of delight went up when someone found a caterpillar hosting on it.

The grassy area next to the road was rich with flowers. We found colorful bog cheetos and candyroot (Polygala lutea and P. nana), bright deerbells (Crotalaria rotundifolia), and plants so tiny that you were stepping on them before you saw them: bladderworts (like Utricularia subulata),  spring bartonia (Bartonia verna), and sundews like Drosera capillaris.

Polygala nana
Crotalaria rotundifolia

Click on this for best view! Drosera capillaris

This little sundew appears to have snagged a small meal. The sundews were not the only carnivorous plants we saw. Who would have thought that plants with cute names like sundew and butterwort would be so sneaky? More on that in the next installment.

We continued on to areas that were more than just moist roadsides. Ditches and ponds full of water introduced us to real aquatic plants like water lilies, golden clubs, and inflated bladderworts. Next week I'll cover my trip in a canoe where we saw aquatic plants up close.

And yes, if you were wondering if we saw a gator even on our Swamp Island Drive, the answer is Yes.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What Is That Yellow Blooming Tree?

Driving along the highway offers opportunities to see some of our native blooming trees tucked into the woodland edges. The season starts early with the red maples (Acer rubrum) followed by redbuds (Cercis canadensis) peeking out from behind the pines, thickety plums and tall cherries (Prunus spp.), and the gracefully layered flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida).

Of course, we also see non-native opportunists like the ornamental pear (son of Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’), the upside down wisteria tree (Paulownia), chinaberry (Melia azedarach) and a few others. They love disturbed roadsides.

None of these trees has bright yellow blooms. Yet along the southern roadsides in the spring, there is a striking yellow flower to be noticed. Sometimes it is blooming at shrub height and sometimes it is blooming up to heights of 20 feet. It is one to catch your eye, even at 60 miles an hour.

What is this tree?

I drove along many a roadside this past weekend and saw this “tree” blooming everywhere. I knew it wasn’t a tree. I knew it was Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens). But I wondered how many other travelers might whiz by and think it was a tree.

This evergreen vine has no clasping method so it must rely on its ability to drape itself over the branches of trees and shrubs, climbing a bit higher each time. This casual approach on the roadside creates a rather open and airy plant, allowing the vine to take on the shape of the plant it is climbing.

Wiry thin stems pause along each branch of the tree it climbs while other branches turn upward. That is why it looks like a tree. But it’s not a tree. It’s pure Carolina gold. Enjoy.

Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)