Flora: Taxodium distichum

Taxodium distichum
Bald cypress tree

“Taxodium distichum, Deciduous cypress.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1837.

The bald cypress tree is a native to the Ogeechee River basin, with a network that stretches across the southern United States. Reaching heights of more than 100 feet tall and spanning diameters of 6 feet or more, this deciduous conifer echoes the giant nature of its relatives in the Redwood Forest. Under the right conditions, the bald cypress can live for centuries. 

Adorned with Spanish moss, bald cypress trees are often the tallest of the lot. Overhead, a canopy of color ranges from soft green to brilliant orange, to tan – depending on the season. As the name suggests, bald cypresses lose their needles in the fall and remain bare until late spring. In early growth stages, stringy layers of reddish-brown bark will peel off to reveal deeper, more pitted grooves with age. An elongated trunk fans out into a pleated, hollow base. 

The most interesting features are what are known as cypress knees (pneumatophores). These scraped up, wobbly mounds appear around the tree’s base in various shapes and sizes when water is present. They congregate in conical droves, but the true function of cypress knees remains unknown.

There is heavy speculation that these knobby structures are conduits for aeration. Acting like snorkels, cypress knees might deliver air to crucial points where water is high and dissolved oxygen is low. They may also help with nutrient absorption/distribution. 

The bald cypress tree shares a symbiotic relationship with the environment. Cypress trees found in wetlands are great storage units for excess water, which prevents downstream flooding and long-term erosion. Additionally, the bald cypress is a buffer that disengages toxins from the watershed.  

From crown to root, the bald cypress is home to a multitude of critters. Wading birds and large raptors use the treetops as vantage points for nesting or hunting. Smaller mammals, such as rats or squirrels, roost in the nooks and crannies of the trunk. The stumpy knees provide a habitat for frogs, lizards, fish, and even alligators.

Cones produced by the bald cypress are foraged as a food source. The round, greenish pellets that drop in the fall contain seeds that are edible to certain species (humans excluded). Throughout the winter, cones will ripen up and the seeds can then be enjoyed by squirrels, ducks, and wild turkey. 

Highly coveted in the lumber industry, the bald cypress tree upholds its reputation with endurance and strength. It is inherently resistant to water and slow to rot due to its “pecky” grain. Pecky cypress bears a malleable texture that is easy to work with and makes excellent indoor furniture for shelves, tables, or chairs. Finding the right piece can be like mining for gold.

To its advantage, the bald cypress has made a home in destinations that are uninviting and downright inaccessible to most loggers. The best lumber remains concealed by the murky mysteries of America’s swampland. ORk recommends one simply admires the bald cypress via a trip on the river.

– LP

Flora: Fothergilla gardenii


‘Fothergil a feuilles d’aune – Fothergilla alnifolia Lin.’ Dictionaire des sciences naturelles classee d’apres la methode naturelle de M. Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu.’, by Pierre Jean Francois Turpin, published in Paris and Strasbourg by F.G. Levrault, 1816-1829.

Fothergilla gardenii
Coastal witch-alder

Witch-alder is a small shrub in the witch-hazel family. It is found in the Ogeechee watershed but it is threatened as a species. Wild populations are rare, with just four having been found in the past 20 years. They flourish on the edge of swamps and riverbanks, in slightly acidic or sandy, neutral soil. It prefers a fair amount of sun, or even dappled shade. 

Its appearance changes greatly during the seasons. In spring, it displays white or cream ‘bottlebrush’ blooms with a sweet smell. Technically, these are pistils and stamens, with no petals at all. The blossoms often appear even before the light green foliage comes out. These attributes make them very popular with pollinators. After a summer of blue-green shrub leaves, it changes into vibrant reds and oranges for the fall.

Fall colors
Spring blooms

The plant is easily grown in home gardens and recommended as a native plant in the southeast United States. 

The genus name of the shrub is in honor of John Fothergill (1712-1780), a British doctor and botanist. He earned his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society. Interested in botanical medicine, he pioneered new, sensible treatments for strep throat and was friends with fellow scientist Benjamin Franklin.

Portrait of John Fothergill; bust facing three-quarter to right; in an oval; after R. Livesay; illustration to Lettsom’s ‘Memoirs of John Fothergill’ (4th ed. London, 1786).

The species name honors Alexander Garden (1730-1791), a Scottish physician and plant enthusiast who lived in Charleston, South Carolina for several years. Garden studied and sent dozens of specimens to England botanical societies and to Carl Linnaeus in Sweden. The fragrant flower Gardenia is named in his memory.

Learn more about growing it in your backyard.


FLORA: Lobelia boykinii

Boykin’s Lobelia
Lobelia boykinii

Image by iNaturalist

Boykin’s lobelia forms networks of underground root colonies and is the only rhizome of the genus. It sprouts tall, slim stems that can grow to 3 feet tall. The blooms flower in a cluster at the top of each stem. The flower is a lovely violet-blue with a bit of white in the center.

Harvard Specimen Library

The plant needs specific environmental conditions in order to thrive, which is why it remains rare. Boykin’s lobelia lives in cypress swamps, Carolina bays, wetlands, wet pine flatlands, and ditches. These locations can be found throughout the Ogeechee watershed. It also requires cross-pollination by insects in order to reproduce. This combination of requirements is increasing difficult find in its natural habitat.

via iNaturalist

The species appears to have been first described in the 1830s and was included in the herbarium compiled by Alphonse Louis Pierre Pyramus de Candolle. Letters between A.W. Chapman and Dr. John Torrey held at Columbia University and mention finding a new species of lobelia in northern Florida.

According to the GA Department of Natural Resources (DNR), “Thirty-five populations have been documented since 1902 but only 7 have been confirmed since 2000, most of these on conservation lands.” The DNR suggests pesticide-free buffers, prevent clearing and filling of wetlands, and protect the water table and natural hydrology to make sure the plant species can thrive and return to normal population numbers. 

Flora: Tillandsia usneoides

Spanish moss
Tillandsia usneoides

Spanish moss isn’t really a moss at all; it’s an epiphyte or air plant. Botanically, it is closely related to the pineapple and absorbs nutrients and water through the air and rainfall. It does occasionally flower but it is rarely seen. The silver-gray plant grows in long, hair-like clumps, hanging from trees in subtropical climates.

According to botanical guides, it has “threadlike stems up to 6 to 7.5 metres (about 20 to 25 feet) long. The leaves, also threadlike, are about 2.5 to 7.5 centimetres (1 to 3 inches) long.”

Spanish Moss growing on live oak tree, South Carolina

It is commonly found living on the southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) and bald-cypress (Taxodium distichum) in the lowlands, swamps, and marshes of the southeastern United States and can be found as far west as Texas and southern Arkansas. It does not harm or kill the trees it lives on.

William Bartram described it, and its uses, in his 1770s travels to the area:

When fresh, cattle and deer will eat it in the winter season. It seems particularly adapted to the purpose of stuffing mattrasses, chairs, saddles, collars, &c. and for these purposes, nothing yet known equals it. The Spaniards in South America, and the West-Indies, work it into cables that are said to be very strong and durable; but, in order to render it useful, it ought to be thrown into shallow ponds of water, and exposed to the sun, where it soon rots, and the outside furry substance is dissolved. It is then taken out of the water, and spread to dry; when, after a little beating and shaking, it is sufficiently clean, nothing remaining but the interior, hard, black, elastic filament, entangled together, and greatly resembling horse-hair.

In the modern era, Spanish moss has been used for building insulation, mulch, packing material, mattress stuffing, and fiber. It was even used in the padding of car seats by Henry Ford who had a home in Richmond Hill and a dealership in Savannah.

Popular Science, June 1937, page 32

The etymology for “Spanish moss” is not known although it is often supposed it is related to a term used by French settlers in the southeastern U.S. in the 1700s. They called it barbe Espagnol, or Spanish beard, referring to the long beards popular among Spanish explorers of the era. It has become an iconic image of the South, including in Southern gothic literature and in folklore.

Image from NYPL Digital Collections. Live Oak Avenue, Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Ga. Stereograph. 1880. The description on the reverse reads, in part: “The majority if these trees are of the Live Oak species, with but few others. The latter have long since passed away, but the sturdy oaks, with their hoary beard of moss, still defy the gales of the Atlantic and wintry blasts; and their rustling leaves whisper a ceaseless lullaby to the quiet and peaceful sleepers at their feet.”

Flora: Ilex vomitoria

Catesby, M., natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, ed. 2, vol. 2: t. 57 (1754)

Ilex vomitoria

This species of holly is an evergreen shrub and can be found throughout the southeast. It flowers in April and May and produces red berries in September and October. These berries are generous food source for birds, armadillo, black bear, fox, raccoon and more.

The plant is hardy can can thrive in salt spray, sandy soil, constant wind, harsh sunlight, and high temperatures. They are often found on streambanks, in dunes, woodlands and floodplains. All of these conditions mean it flourishes in the Ogeechee River basin.

Photo by Marcus, Joseph A., Austin, TX

Ossabaw Island, bounded to the north by the Ogeechee River, plays an important role in the history of yaupon. Yaupon is the only plant native to the Americas that contains caffeine. Early native populations made tea from its dried leaves and there are some stories of them using its berries in ceremonies and to see visions.

The popularity of the yaupon’s effects made it a traded commodity. Evidence of yaupon tea has been found as far afield as Cahokia, Illinois, near the Mississippi River. One of the places where yaupon could be harvested was Ossabaw Island. It was so plentiful that the Creek Indians named the island ‘asapo’, which translates as “land of holly” or “holly growing place.” There is evidence of natives used Ossabaw as a seasonal village, for harvesting yaupon and other foods, dating back at least 4,000 years.

Chief Saturiwa prepares his men for battle, from Plate XI of Jacques le Moyne des Morgues’ engraving of Fort Caroline”, Jacques le Moyne and Theodor De Bry.

Yaupon tea never gained popularity over traditional camellia sinesis tea when Europeans began moving to the colonies, but it has many similar properties. It contains antioxidants and caffeine, though its tannic properties are slightly different. There are reports of it being used as a substitute for coffee and tea during the Civil War. It eventually fell out of favor socially because it was readily available and became associated with poor, rural people.

Yaupon tastes similar to a light black or a green tea. Some local restaurants and beverage companies are now “rediscovering” the tea drink.