I discussed in my August 3rd post a visit to some karst features in the Waccasassa River Floodplain. You may remember that we reconned a solution valley with small remnant caves, and visited a small area of karst pavement about a quarter-mile away. Later I noticed that the solution valley and the limestone pavement formed a line parallel with the river.
Today, Brack and I drove over to the public boat ramp parking lot, biked from there to a jumpoff point and then hiked in along an extension of the parallel line through low hammock, unexplored territory. We walked an approx 3-mile loop through mostly low hammock, trying to stay at the boundary (ecotone) between the low hammock and the shallowly-inundated mixed cypress-and-hardwood swamp.
So we got our feet wet but ran into some fine natural history things out there. First were the ripe persimmons (Diospyros virginiana). Their fruit are as sweet as any native Florida fruit I have ever eaten in the wild, and I have eaten just about all of them. You just have to remember not to eat them until they are ripe!
It is not often that we are privileged to experience what early Florida naturalists called the Peninsula’s “climax forest.” They often saw it in the northern and central part of the Peninsula, a mixed hardwood, old growth forest dominated by Southern magnolia, live oak, sugarberry, hickory and other trees appropriate to the local soils. All but tiny patches of it have since been logged, long gone. I have seen only a handful of such climax stands in Florida in my lifetime of wood wanderings, and today I saw another small stand of it. Not much more than 2 or 3 acres in size, its trees weren’t giants, but were definitely well beyond any “early successional stage.” Note the open, park-like nature under the canopy, and imagine the same scene a few centuries ago with trees 3 – 4 ft in diameter:
The old-timers thought the final, ultra-climax [my phrasing] forest community over centuries of time in the absence of fire in Florida would consist purely of Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). This most magnificent species of an ancient genus has large, thick evergreen leaves, piled layer upon layer, such that the shade under a mature magnolia is too dark for other plants to grow. I have seen a 5-acre stand of almost pure magnolia on the north side of Payne’s Prairie in north Florida. It is about 90 percent magnolia and 10 percent sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) at its periphery, but in its interior there is no sugarberry left standing – it is all grandiflora.
The older growth forest we saw today was composed of perhaps 50 percent magnolia, not bad. Interestingly, the swamp surrounding this climax forest unit has a large component of sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana), a sister species. Doubly interesting, sweetbay totally dominates a curious habitat type in central Florida, forming stunted and twisted epiphyte-infested forest-thickets on pedestal peat deposits in intermittent, depressional wetlands. The genus Magnolia is one tough competitor! I bet it outlasts cockroaches.
Our little magnolia McMansion today also sported a “mass” bloom of a tiny ground orchid, the name of which I am at a loss. I don’t suppose anyone out there knows what it is?
We ran across several hefty old live oaks along the way, warming up on yer garden variety of large live oak that we see down here all the time. Then we came upon this terrific live oak with a hyper-swollen bole:
This tree must be 14 ft across at its base, with the fat bole rising 3-4 ft above the ground. It is not unusual for a live oak’s ground-base to be 2-4 ft wider than the trunk proper, but this old lady has a gown flowing out a full 5 ft out from her bunions all the way around. Nonpareil! Hunkered down about 5 ft above the ground on this live oak was this 2-inch Southern toad, Bufo terrestris:
Don’t you agree it’s a particularly beautiful frog? Lovely browns. This tree is hollow, has numerous entrances into the refuge, and probably shelters more herps than just this blue-tailed skink, Eumeces sp.:
As I was wondering why the nocturnal toad was spending the day off the ground in plain sight, Brack stopped suddenly and whispered, “water moccasin!” He pointed down at his feet and then slowly backed away while I got out my camera. Perhaps the little toad is hiding above the normally ground-dwelling moccasin? Any port in a storm, I guess. Brack got too close to the serpent’s personal space, so it vibrated its tail and held its mouth wide open in warning, getting his attention.
Oh, I almost forgot the karst. As I said, we didn’t find much of interest, although we did find more limestone outcroppings along that extended line, but they petered out into foot-high rocks set into a zero mean sea level swamp. This is truly where ridgewalking in Florida swampland drowns out.