The following post was originally written for my class at Green Mountain College, Bioregional Theory and the Foodshed, in December 2014.
Cover photo: “Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Boardwalk.” Source: Daunier Estevez.
“Where land and water intermingle, something magical occurs: a landscape both luxuriant and alluring. Gleaming lily-covered ponds are nearly everywhere, dotted with white egret silently stalking small fish. Along winding, cypress-lined rivers, stately blue herons wade amid aquatic gardens profuse with scalloped pennywarts and blue-flowered pickerelweeds. In the dark recesses of remote swamps, canary-yellow prothonotary warblers build their nests in the hollows of cypress and tupelo trees whose strangely swollen trunks rise from midnight-black water.” – Ron Larson, Swamp Song
The Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion is a tale of antilogies: wetlands alongside drylands, muck juxtaposing sand, fire compliments water, thunderstorms trample drought. Extremes coexist in the forms of cypress swamps and pine flatwoods ecosystems, which sometimes neighbor each other in a tacit solidarity. Such is the case at Corkscrew Swamp (see cover photograph), where pine flatwoods give way to marshy grass and finally dip into a large cypress dome.
The Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion hugs the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to the west and is bordered by the Lake Wales Ridge to the east and is contained within the plant hardiness zones 9b to 10a. (See figure 1.)
FIGURE 1: Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion, Adapted from Earth Observatory. 2000.
The US Forest Service creates designations for ecoregions from a geographically large scale to very small zones. From broad to specific, The Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion falls within the USFS-designated Eastern Humid Temperate Domain, Subtropical Division, and Outer Coastal Plain Mixed Province (1995). Within Florida, USFS would specify down to the Southern Coastal Plain and the Southwestern Florida Flatwoods. (See figure 2, below.)While these ecoregions are helpful indicators about where this bioregion exists, a more specific designation should be made, hence the identification of “Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion.” This bioregion has climatic and biotic differences that make it unique from the closest Ecoregion designation. Consider the plant hardiness zones map as a prime example. (See figure 3.) This bioregion’s boundaries stay within the 9b to 10a zones, unlike the Ecoregions map which encompasses zones 8b through 10b. Personal experience underscores the definite change when traveling from the plant hardiness zones 9a to 9b: the plant life becomes very tropical due to lack of frequent frosts in the wintertime. The spirit of the mango resides in these more tropical hardiness zones, a member of the community the bioregion could not exist without.
The designation made by the EPA’s Lake Regions map, the Southwestern Flatlands, (see figure 4) is more accurate than the Ecoregions map when considering the actual experience of the biodiversity in this bioregion, but it does not include Lake Region Immokalee Rise which is also within plant hardiness zone 10a and of which the biota are true to this bioregion. Therefore, both the Lake Regions Southwestern Flatlands and Immokalee Rise are included in the Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatlands bioregion. Figure 5 depicts the overlap of the 10a plant hardiness zone with the Southwestern Flatlands and Immokalee Rise Lake Regions, a helpful determinate for this bioregion.This changing and dynamic landscape gives rise to many interesting characteristics and species. Cypress “domes,” the term referring to their shape from afar, are biologically rich lowlands due to the abundant water flowing through their tributary and creek systems; other wet ecosystems include the wide freshwater marshes and wet prairies. In addition to cypress domes, which are typically swampy year-round, ephemeral, or seasonal, wet areas abound. In ephemeral swamps, hardwood tree stands, bayheads (boggy areas with mucky soil) (Florida Department of Environmental Protection 2011), and grassy marshes grow (Beever and Thomas 2006, 1). Ephemeral ponds are a critical home to wildlife in Florida, especially wading birds like herons and egrets. Wetlands in this bioregion are also home to manatee, American alligator, little blue heron, Audubon’s crested caracara, roseate spoonbill, snowy egret, river otter, and many others (Beever and Thomas 2006, 7, 24). (See photos 1 and 2.)
PHOTO 1: Cypress Tree at Fish Eating Creek Palmdale, Florida. Reproduced from Kim Seng. 2012.
PHOTO 2: Alligator submerged, cooling in mud and water lettuce; Corkscrew Swamp National Park, Florida. Reproduced from Barbara Magnuson. 2014.
In contrast, the pine and scrub oak flatwoods, which are higher in elevation, are where various types of pine trees, like slash and longleaf, and saw palmetto dominate the landscape. (See photo 3.) The understory of this ecosystem, saw palmetto, produces a berry which is a food staple for the Florida black bear among other wildlife (Beever and Thomas 2006, 8). The threatened pine flatwoods are also home to the endangered Florida panther, the fox squirrel, bald eagle, gopher tortoise, Florida long-tailed weasel, bobcat, white-tailed deer, red-cockaded woodpecker, and eastern indigo snake among many others (Beever and Thomas 2006, 10-12). Though host to a variety of wildlife, these regions are typically dry with sandy soil that is low in organic matter. Dry grassy prairies, also known as tropical savannas, stretch across the landscape or hide among the pines. However, even the flatlands have a summer wet season, June to September (Beever and Thomas 2006, 1). The wet season in this bioregion entails dramatic tropical thunderstorms that whip the tall thin pines and flood the landscape with water. The characteristic lightning storms makes this area the lightning capital of North America at ninety-one thunder days per year, occasionally inciting forest fires (Christian et al. 2003). The flatwoods ecosystem is highly adapted and dependent on regular fire for its lifecycle functions (Beever and Thomas 2006, 8). Every two to four years, the fires rage through the landscape, preventing shrubs and hardwood sprouts from growing, ensuring a “highly diverse herb-dominated ground flora” as the forest floor recovers (Martin and Kirkman 2009). In fact, there is evidence to suggest that native people routinely set fires in the region since about 12,000 years ago! (See photo 4) (Myers and Peroni 1983).Though it has not been determined whether they were one of the fire-setting tribes, the Tocobaga Native Americans inhabited the Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion near the Tampa Bay area. (See figure 6.) They would have had an interest in maintaining the flatwoods, though, because they used the palm thatch for roofing material as well as foraging local edibles (Ricky 1998, 242, 258). Another influential tribe of the Everglades is the Miccosukee, who were forced south from the Carolinas by white expansion in the 1800s. The Miccosukee utilized Florida native plants, and they also used palmetto leaves for thatched roofs and created dugout canoes from cypress timbers (Ricky 1998, 178-179).
FIGURE 6: Distribution of Southeast American Indian cultures. Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica. 1998.
The unique geology beneath the earth’s surface created the waterways and watersheds characteristic to this region. Ancient rock formations created the foundations on which other qualities of the bioregion depend. Geologically speaking, several features contribute to the basins and elevations shaping the region. Rising to the east is the Lake Wales Ridge, summiting with Sugarloaf Mountain at 308 feet above sea level (USGS 2014). The Ocala Platform (figure 7), a limestone formation, hugs the region to the north, and the Peace River Formation (figure 8) traverses the center of the bioregion (Tihansky and Knochenmus 2013). The Peace River Formation begins at the southern end of the Ocala Platform stretching south to the Okeechobee Basin. According to the USGS, the Peace River Formation is made up of interbedded sands, clays, and carbonates and is rich in phosphorus (2013).The Peace River Basin fills the center of this bioregion and contributes to many of the cypress swamps. (See figure 9.) The watershed covers 2,300 square miles, and the Peace River runs through the center of the basin, beginning in the Green Swamp Lake Region and emptying into Charlotte Harbor (Our Phosphate Risk 2008). Other water features of note include the Gulf of Mexico to the west, Charlotte Bay to the Southwest, and Caloosahatchee River to the south (See figure 10), framing the bioregion on three sides. These many lakes, rivers, and swamps create habitat for the cypress ecosystems.
The Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion’s unique qualities provide the only habitat in the world for much of its native wildlife (Beever and Thomas 2006). Unfortunately this beautiful land is at severe risk due to human actions. The root cause of the disappearance of this region is development. By 1970, only half of the historic flatwoods still remained, and far less exist today. People have over-harvested the saw palmetto berry for medicinal use, which is a part of the Florida black bear’s food supply (Beever and Thomas 2006, 8). Fecal coliform bacteria from agriculture, neighborhood septic system overflow, and spreading of biosolids on the landscape often contaminate this precious ecosystem. The phosphorus here has been mined for agricultural use in chemical fertilizers, which has caused “catastrophic” phosphate pollution in the Peace River (Froelich et al. 1985). Beever and Thomas predict that unless strict measures are made to protect the flatwoods, they will soon be totally decimated for use by humans alone: cities, suburbs, and food production (2006, 9-10).
We, as members of this bioregion, should do all we can to protect what is left of our natural ecosystem. Fragile biomes everywhere are being choked out by unwise development. If we wish to experience the delight of such creatures as the endangered ghost orchid (see photo 5 below), as well as recognize their prerogative to exist, we will engage in smart development to preserve the cypress domes and pine flatwoods and all their inhabitants for years to come (Wiley 2010).
PHOTO 5: Rare Ghost Orchid “Super Ghost” Blooms at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Reproduced from Audubon Florida, Courtesy of Rod Wiley. 2010.
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Magnuson, Barbara. Alligator [Alligator mississippiensis] submerged, cooling in mud and water lettuce; Corkscrew Swamp National Park, Florida. Photograph. Copyright Barbara Magnuson / Larry Kimball. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://magnusonkimball.photoshelter.com/image/I0000JomgTlGXukU.
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Wiley, Rod. Ghost Orchid Blooming in July 2010. 2010. Photograph. Audubon Florida News. Accessed November 23, 2014. http://audubonoffloridanews.org/?p=4607.