One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to visit gardens: arboretums, public gardens, botanical gardens, greenhouses, and nurseries. On a recent trip to Amelia Island, we didn’t find any of those, but we did make the easy drive to Georgia and the Okefenokee Swamp, to indulge my husband’s fascination with Pogo. There, we saw many plants in their natural habitat. We enjoyed getting a closer look by taking a boat tour through the swamp.
Pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) appears majestic when it towers among the lower shrubs in the swamp. In other areas, it created a dense, and mystical forest – especially when surrounded by many of the ‘knees’ that are common to much of this genus. There is a photo of the knees, later in this post.
The sense of mystery created by a group of these trees is especially noticeable when there are narrow waterways meandering through trees draped in Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides.) Although Spanish moss is neither Spanish, nor a moss, it is related to other Tillandsia, or air plants that are popular, low-maintenance house plants. We saw this plant in many places, and I was tempted to bring a piece home, until we were told that the plant often harbors chiggers. This is especially true of pieces that have fallen to the ground, making a welcome place for these annoying creatures to hide.
Pond Cypress and Bald or Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum) have woody growths known as ‘knees.’ Their purpose is not really known. Theories are that they help to aerate these plants in their very wet environments, that they help to anchor the roots, or that create a barrier to catch sediment and reduce erosion. Whatever their true purpose, the knees and very wide base of these trees are a distinctive key to identification. Pond cypress are native to the Southeastern United States, from Virginia to parts of Florida. The bald cypress has a slightly larger native range. There are planted specimens growing at the Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA.
In early March there were only a few flowers blooming in the Okefenokee. One that I had never seen before was Golden Club (Orontium aquaticum.) This flower has no petals, only a colorful red, white and gold stalk. It is native to much of the country. Some rare populations exist as far north as Massachusetts, where it is considered endangered. It is winter hardy to zone 5, and can be grown in water gardens or at the muddy edge of ponds.
Another blooming plant, was the fetterbush, or Lyonia lucida. This bog plant is only hardy to zone 7, but is related to heaths, and to leucothoe. We can have similar flowers by growing those in our gardens.
And, of course, if we were in the Okefenokee, we saw many alligators!