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.

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