Sunday, June 28, 2015

Water Tumbles Down the Fall Line

On a very late spring day, I visited High Falls State Park in Jackson, GA, Monroe County. The highlight for most folks is the showy falls that are part of the geological change known as the Fall Line and which were enhanced by a dam developed for power generation in 1890. My goal, of course, was to see what native plants could be found in this park around the Towaliga River.

The falls, enhanced by man here.
Prior to the dam being built, the power of the river and a natural 135-foot waterfall were used by local folks to power a grist mill and other industries. Only a few remnants of the grist mill remain; it was mostly torn down after it closed in 1960.

The old powerhouse, completed in 1905 by the Georgia Hydro-Electric Company, resides there in shambles, decorated with graffiti and invasive plants. It was last operated by Georgia Power Company and closed in 1958.

Parts of the old powerhouse
Although it is billed as the largest waterfall in middle Georgia, the waterfall is not the traditional steep drop you might expect.  The dam is 35 feet high and the rest of the falls drops 100 feet in a long slide with large outcrops of rock that create a frothy path. There is a trail alongside the falls area that is south of the bridge. Known as the Falls Trail, it has wooden boardwalk sections with steps that are interspersed with rocky trail.

The natural part of the falls
Although there are native plants along the way, I realize that probably all of this area has been disturbed by man these last 200-300 years due to its value being adjacent to a strong-flowing river. Poison ivy was everywhere (and I’m sure it went home with a lot of kids), including one super healthy stand growing up the old bridge; it was loaded with fruit (which birds love).

On the Falls Trail there was a beautiful blooming yucca (Yucca filamentosa) and a sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) that was covered in tiny white bell blossoms. Across the river was an elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) with large clusters of white flowers. A tall old tree stump was covered in a trio of vines: trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), morning glory (Ipomoea), and crossvine (Bignonia capreolata). In the middle of the river, 3 crows were arguing with a vulture over something to eat on an outcrop while a great blue heron fished for his lunch.

Vaccinium arboreum
Yucca filamentosa

Justicia americana

Closer to the dam, the flatter area of shoals hosted a number of water loving plants. Elderberry mixed with swamp dogwood (Cornus amomum) while American water-willow (Justicia americana) grew lushly at the water’s edge. 

Unfortunately, non-native elephant-ears were also thickly growing throughout the area. They are probably choking out some native aquatic plants with their dense growth. Occasional floods, like the one in 1994 that knocked out half of an old steel bridge, probably clear out this growth and send the invasive plants further downstream.

Spigelia marilandica

The old powerhouse is further downstream and the woods around it are regenerating as the years go by. I saw ginger (Hexastylis arifolia) and ferns and several stands of vibrant Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica).

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and lookalike tick-trefoil (Desmodium) twined around it, helping visitors to keep their distance. Inside the fence around the old structure, invasive trees like mimosa and tree of heaven fought for space alongside sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). It looks like crews come in occasionally and cut them down.

State Parks are a valuable resource to Georgia citizens and this 1,050-acre one offers many features to help people enjoy and learn more about the great outdoors. Be sure to notice the plants while you are there and learn more about them. The office is staffed with helpful rangers and lots of resources (I noticed they keep a copy of The Natural Communities of Georgia close at hand).

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