Sawgrass Marshes, Wetland Prairies, and the River of Grass
Imagine a seemingly endless plain of long, narrowly sharp grass stretching as far as the eye can see. The warm tropical breeze makes the tall grass wave and bustle. Picture within these terrains a magnificent variety of beautiful wading birds, colorful and graceful, cautiously creeping through the marsh, groping into the shallow waters and hoping to catch a midmorning snack. Alongside them, ferocious gators bask under the South Floridian sun. All the surrounding wildlife stays weary of their presence—if they’re not careful, they could end up in the belly one of these prehistoric reptiles.
The marshes and prairies of the Everglades are its primary features and also make up for most of the territory. There are more than 1.8 million acres of this vast environment within the Everglades territory.15 Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who wrote the influential non-fiction book, The Everglades: River of Grass, best described this vast environment as the River of Grass.16 Her work drew national attention to the Everglades for the first time in 1947. Since then, the inseparable combination of water and grass has become an iconic symbol of the local ecosystem.
The marshes, prairies, and sloughs that makeup these extraordinary wetlands run in a north–south direction from Lake Okeechobee down to Florida Bay. During the wet season, Lake Okeechobee overfloods, and the resulting overflow of water runs in a southerly direction due to a slight vertical slope that stretches southward. The rate of flowing water is very slow and gradual, estimated to flow at speeds of two inches per mile.17 These wetlands terrains inhabit a large population of wading birds that find suitable conditions among the marshes and prairies for feeding and nesting. Alligators also chose sawgrass marshes as primary nesting grounds.
Tropical Hardwood Hammock
A diverse, closed canopy of thick bread-loaf trees, barrier shrubs, and vines best illustrates a typical tropical hardwood hammock setting.18 The vegetation in these environments can grow rather thick; hammocks usually occur in areas that sit on elevated outcrops of limestone sediment and thick soil.18 Tropical hardwood hammocks once occurred in many parts of Florida, ranging from Key Largo and all the way north to Cape Canaveral, but they now exclusively exist in areas of South Florida.
Of the many species of plants one can expect to find in a tropical hardwood hammock, the most commonly known includes the strangle fig, gumbo limbo, poisonwood, wild tamarind, Florida royal palm, live oak, mahogany, wild dilly, green thatch palm, and other plant species of West Indian origin.18 Tropical hardwood hammocks also provide important habitat for many species of animals, including nine federally listed species.18
Like tropical hardwood hammocks, pineland habitats also sit on higher ground. Because of its geological positioning, pinelands habitats experience little or no hydroperiods.19 Moreover, dry conditions make pineland habitats vulnerable to seasonal fires usually brought on by lightning strikes, but this has its advantage: seasonal fires help keep invasive species of plants and thick vegetation from overgrowing unto pineland habitat. Many plants that naturally grow in pineland have become remarkably resistant to fire. For example, slash pine evolved natural insulation, and saw palmetto developed mechanisms that allow it to sprout quickly after being charred. 1
Pinelands are home to a variety of animals that prefer drier environments. Many birds, including land birds and birds of prey, make the pinelands a year-round destination. It is estimated that prior to urban development, South Florida was covered with more than 186,000 acres of pine rockland.19 Today, less than a quarter of that estimate actually exists. Fortunately, efforts are underway to restore much of our precious pinelands.
Cypress swamps are common to many parts of the southeastern United States. In particular, South Florida’s network of cypress swamps is quite extensive, scattered all along the Atlantic Coastal Ridge and between Lake Okeechobee and the eastern flatwoods.69 The largest concentration of cypress domes is located in Big Cypress National Preserve.
The iconic symbol of this native habitat is the bald cypress tree. In fact, the dominate canopy vegetation in cypress swamps include cypress trees and water tupelo trees.71 A bald cypress can reach lengths of up to 44 meters tall with trunk diameters reaching 5 meters in circumference.21 Bald cypress trees occur in environments that are subject to periodic flooding. The ground underneath south Floridian cypress swamps are made of a thin layer of limestone containing essential minerals that provide the right nutrients for water-resistant vegetations to flourish.20 Animals like the American alligator, white-tailed deer, river otter, anhinga, herons, American wood stork, and cottonmouth are often found lurking in cypress swamps.
And They Called It Florida …
It is often said that when Ponce de Leon first sighted the south Floridian coast in the year 1513, he called it La Florida (meaning flowery), because of the delightful assortment of colorful vegetation that he encountered.70 This historic discovery also coincided with the traditional Feast of Flowers.4 Surely the timing was excellent, the choice of name most appropriate. Florida’s tropical foliage and beautiful flowers make it unlike anything else in North America.
Florida’s Everglades has about 1,000 different kinds of seed-bearing plants and 120 species of trees, making up a diverse complex of flora.22 The warm, humid climate is ideal for native plant populations, and although many beautiful indigenous plants can be seen by taking a drive through the national parks, others are more difficult to view. The rare plant varieties, especially orchids, are situated deep within the wilderness. Hiking trails and backcountry paths make these rare orchids accessible. However, the difficult terrain may detour even the most adventurous of explorers from making the journey.
Of the many species of orchids one can expect to find in South Florida, the most commonly known include the butterfly orchid, vanilla orchid, cigar orchid, lawn orchid, leafless beaked lady orchid, clamshell orchid, cyclopogon elatus, and ghost orchid, among many more. Other plant life worth mentioning belongs to the group of bromeliads, such as Spanish moss and giant air plant. Various groups of lichens and tropical ferns are also interesting specimens, and they are commonly found throughout the Everglades.