Just as our plane was scheduled to take off from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on a cold late January evening, a front moved in bringing a squall of snow to the region. Immediately, departure times were pushed back, and the de-icing of planes began. Our plane’s wing had icicles hanging off it when we boarded. The runway had to be cleared and the wind was blowing cold arctic air down from the north. Eventually we did manage to take off into the oily darkness heading due south, as fast as reasonably possible. We flew over Baltimore and D.C., and then eventually we could see the lights of Savannah Georgia and then Jacksonville Florida as we descended towards our destination of Tampa, Florida. The night sky opened up to the land as we neared Orlando, and then suddenly the full Moon made its appearance, not from the sky but from earth below!
The brightly lit image of the entire full moon was flashing every few seconds, each time we passed over one of the many circular, central Florida lakes. It was as if the Moon was jumping from lake to lake to lake!
What a grand entrance we made into the state of Florida!
Several hours drive north of Tampa brings us to one of the most remote parts of Florida. A beautiful place to suddenly be! Green, warm, sunny and with blooming flowers! This is a disorienting experience (without the Jet lag), to go from the frigid winter of the Northeast to a quiet early Spring in this Hardwood Bottomland Forest along The Suwannee River. This Native blooming twining vine, the Carolina Jasmine, was growing all along the sides of the highways and in openings in the forests. The yellow blooming flowers of the fragrant Gelsemium sempervirens, growing along the path that led us towards the Hardwood Bottomlands created an enchanting springtime mood for our walk.
Here is the Forest!
This is the mud turtle we met up with.
Bluets, blooming away.
This was blooming next to the Bluets. Anyone know what it is? (Note the thin single stem and the compact rosette with a light green outline of the leaves.)
A Red Maple, already having bloomed, is laden with its red samaras, floating in this scene among the Bald Cypress.
Sugarberry, bark and trunk (Celtis laevigata) This tree is similar to Hackberry, but it grows in floodplains, whereas Hackberry is more commonly associated with Upland sites.
Here is a great view of the Bottomland Forest with the Suwannee in the backround.
This, a drier site, near the road that led in to the forest.
Somebody tossed a beer can into the forest and of course we had to remove it.
Driving for miles and miles through these forests on the way to Cedar Key, where we stayed, we passed blooming redbuds, many a blooming patch of Carolina Jasmine, Red Maples and stands of Bald Cypress. Turkey Vultures often swooped overhead.
One balmy evening we took a walk in the bright Florida moonlight.
Wish you were here! You could see the Manatees! So close you can see their whiskers as they look up at you. Park officials actually have to tell you to not try to pet them.
You would love the Bald Cypress trees.
There are magnificent specimens on the Wakulla River- we saw one that was 500 years young. So young that it could be expected to live another 500+ years in optimal conditions. It is called a Bald Cypress because it is a conifer that sheds its needles in the winter. The tree needs moving water to survive. In areas of stagnant water, a tree called the Pond Cypress grows. There is a debate in the scientific community on whether the Pond Cypress is a separate species from Bald Cypress or just a sub-species. One day, the Sanguine Root hopes to find a Pond Cypress in the great woods of the American South.
Outside of its natural range, the Bald Cypress, when cultivated will survive, but not be able to reproduce. The Bald Cypress has become fashionable as an urban street tree as well as a garden specimen. In fact, just footsteps from the Sanguine Root’s Parkside office in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a Bald Cypress! This specimen was most likely planted, being that the utmost northern edge of its natural range is in southern Delaware, about 100 miles south. If you live in Philadelphia, or are visiting and want to see, it is located on the south shore of Centennial Lake near Belmont Avenue.
Ancient remnants of them have been pulled out of swamps in New Jersey.
You would love to see the Anhinga bird, but here it is pictured for you. This bird loves to hunt for amphibians below the surface of the water and it will dive down to get them, moving through the water with ease, with just its head sticking out of the surface. It is able to do this because its feathers do not shed water easily, which allows it to sink in easily and stay down so it can hunt. A duck’s feathers shed water so easily that they cannot sink into the water and hunt as easily, because they are so lightweight and their bouyancy keeps them afloat. Birds are so light that it is difficult to be submerged in water at all. A duck is so light it is unlikely to go completely underwater to fetch a fish!
The Anhinga, however, are able to soak up enough water in their feathers that they can sink down and hunt for the fish and amphibians below the surface. But then again, nothing comes easy. The bird has to address the issue of waterlogged wings, hopefully after its meal has been achieved. Meal or not, the Anhinga has to get up in the last bits of sun and sit still with its wings spread all the way out so they can dry. The wet wings if not dried out could lead to a whole host of problems, most likely beginning with mold and moving on from there. The picture above is a classic Anhinga pose- drying out its wings.
You would love to have seen the picture above in person, but here it is. If you like Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), this is the place. A tree full of them is a breathtaking sight. In Wakulla Springs, they often share a tree with the Anhinga.
In the above picture, along the water level, you will see some protrusions circling the Bald Cypress the Turkey Vultures are perched upon. You may notice in this particular picture how clearly these protrusions seem equally spaced in a circular fashion about the tree. These are indeed a part of the Bald Cypress tree. These protrusions, two to three feet above the water are called knees, and are a unique and distinguishing aspect of the Bald Cypress tree, aside from its buttressed trunks and seasonal defoliation of it needles.
The Knees are growing out of the shallow root systems of the Bald Cypress. From the above photograph, it can be easily ascertained that these knees are performing some vital function to the tree- like with the water-penetrating feathers of the Anhinga or the water-resisting feathers of the duck. Exactly what this function is, is still a matter of debate.
The conventional wisdom is that the knees provide much needed oxygen to the tree during times of flood. Scientists have chopped off all of the knees of trees and watched them survive through floods, thus creating a challenge to this ongoing theory. Now there is alot of talk about how the knees are actually a structural supporting system, especially for hurricanes, which the Bald Cypress has a strong track record of surviving. Looking at the picture above, from a structural point of view, this new theory has some weight. Just look at how this structure encircles the tree, with the vertical members providing a stiffness to the tree that conventional roots could not- a stiffening that could perhaps survive powerful and unrelenting hurricane winds. With all of this in mind, perhaps the oxygen theory also is true-the survival strategy of any species is multi-faceted. Trees can die from having their roots covered and choked off from the air.
You would love this debate that is going on down here. Can we solve once and for all the question of the Bald Cypress Knees? Come on down to Wakulla Springs and lets think about it!
Saving the most unique and precious for last, you would love to see the Manatees! They were the reason we came down here. Here we have a species of mammals that at last count is numbered in the thousands- around 4000 specimens minimum. That would be every member of this species existing on our planet. To be able to see the actual specimens in their ecosystem is a special occasion.
Thanks to Cathy Smith, a Tallahassee Florida schoolteacher who educates her students on the manatees that live just miles from her student’s homes, this experience was made possible. Cathy’s familiarity with Wakulla Springs and the many species of birds and plants that inhabit the area was also a great help in getting oriented to this fantastic environment.
Above, a Manatee is outfitted with an antenna and gps (global positioning system). This is a serious matter when this device is employed for scientific purposes. This is a species that is facing extinction.
The white markings seen just above the device’s strap are scars, most likely from contact with a watercraft. Many of the Manatees we saw had these scars. This is a common cause of injury and death for them.
The gps device has been tested and purportedly does not interfere with the ongoing daily activities of the Manatee. Since this device has been installed, the Manatees have been traced to go all the way to Massachusetts in the summer. The whole lives of Manatees can be monitored in a way never done before. With a species at the edge of survival, this intervention is necessary and can help us humans guide the path of action for the next decades. Our species has very possibly the means to allow the species of Manatees to survive.
Counting the Manatees is an important ongoing effort to gauge their population stability. We have no idea how many Manatees existed 50 years ago, because they were not counted.
The picture above was a unique moment for Sanguine Root staff photographer Sean Solomon. All of our discussions and explorations of plants and the botanical world ultimately are about diverse and sustainable ecosystems. An ecosystem that can sustain a magnificent wild creature such as the Manatee is supported by a multitude of native lifeforms- ultimately by a few key plants such as certain native seagrasses that require very specific environments to survive. Sustaining our beloved native animals and birds are the native plants they have evolved to depend on. Thinking about how we impact the habitats of these plants is a great way to approach our strategy to save the animals and birds. If we can sustain the native plants of an indigenous ecosystem, then we are well on our way to maintaining the more complex fauna that we value in our environment. This approach is one easier to comprehend and implement. If what we are doing is killing the plants, then the animals and birds are going to die too.
The number one human activity that is causing the threat of extinction to the Manatee is the loss of habitat. This is from overdevelopment that is killing off the habitats of the native seagrasses the Manatees depend on for food.
This next picture was taken just moments from the previous one of the full Manatee. Here we see the trees- The bald cypress, the ferns, a shrub layer and the water.
Reflecting upon all of this is an ecosystem that has existed for millennia, with a fossil record to back up this fact. Here it is, a part of the continuum, perhaps a vestige, but we still have it in our world, right here in our Florida.
In the two pictures above, there can bee seen a mass of green in the water. Much of this is an invasive plant called Hydrilla, which is a huge problem in Florida waters. It originated as an aquarium plant that escaped, most likely from aquariums being dumped into the water. The Park Ranger explained to us how these grasses have taken over and have crowded out much of the native plant life in the Wakulla River. In an interesting twist of events, the herbivorous Manatees are eating the Hydrilla! It would be interesting to find out if they really like it, whether it provides them enough nutrition, or if they have no choice but to eat it for survival, since it has replaced the native grasses.
In Wakulla Springs you can see a tree full of Turkey vultures and waters teeming with Manatees-Mammals ten feet in length that spend most of their time eating, resting and traveling!
It takes alot of ecosystem to support complex and large beings, like this Alligator.
And here we have an Anhinga that has dried out its wings and is just satisfied relaxing on this old tree branch.
You can write back on this postcard! Let us know your thoughts on our comment box!
As far as highway rest stops go, this one on Interstate 10 an hour west of Jacksonville, Florida is spectacular and has earned its place on the Sanguine Root list of Happy Places. This westbound rest stop at mile 318 is located within the Osceola National Forest, which Interstate 10 cuts right through. It has the usual amenities of a standard rest stop: the truck parking area, bathrooms, a doggie area, an easy merge back on the highway.
This one is special because it features a one mile long nature trail that leads into a forest of Bald Cypress trees, complete with boardwalk and signage.
Here on the trail is the Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) underneath a canopy of Longleaf Pine. This fine forest is right behind the pictured rest stop below. A sign directs the interested visitor right into this enchanting forest landscape.
Note that some trees were kept as landscape specimens.
On the long ride, a little bit of education can go a long way.
This rest stop has the infrastructure for touring a Bald Cypress habitat! Sean Solomon is trying to decide which plant to photograph first.
Does a Bear drop scat in the woods? This above pictured deposit has been identified as the waste material left by a bear. Its always good to be able to read the landscape and get an understanding of what beings are part of certain habitats.
At first sight, the buttressed trunk of the Bald Cypress is the most striking feature. This stand features an understory of Magnolia virginiana, the Sweetbay Magnolia.
Northern Florida is 27 inches below average rainfall this year, and this swamp has dried down.
The snag (a dead tree still standing) to the left of the large Bald cypress has a hole in it, most likely dug out by a woodpecker.