Swamp’s falling foliage
And why it bests the fall "leaf change" up north

In the summer swamp, everything is green.

That gradually gives way in fall to a study in black and white.

The swamp mosaic turns green and gray during the fall, helping make it visually pop. But is it as scenic as the “leaf change” Up North?

Well, probably green and gray is a better way to describe it. Slash pine and cypress comprise the majority of the swamp, and in some places are pretty much all you see. While a connoisseur of the Big Cypress landscape can easily differentiate the cypress from the pines during the spring and summer half of the year (and for the more botanically inclined, all the other green-leafed trees, i.e. gumbo limbo, pop ash, willow and pond apple to name a few): It isn’t until mid October with the browning and then falling of the cypress needles that the boundary lines between cypress, pinelands, prairie and hammocks really start to pop.

While I may be biased, and don’t get me wrong I love the summer clouds — There’s just something super scenic about the cypress losing their needles and turning gray. Partly it’s the contrast to the perpetually green pines, but it also has something to do with the abundance of water still on the ground. October is high water season in the swamp.

The mosaic is more than just pinelands and cypress. As shown above, taller cypress domes are separated by a sea of dwarf cypress and dotted by hardwood hammocks as shown in the foreground

Everyone raves about the fall foliage in the deciduous forest of the Northeast, but we can’t forget that cypress is a deciduous (albeit also a conifer) tree, too. South Florida may not have your traditional “leaf changing” season of multitudinous orange, yellows and reds. However, the cypress needles – by browning and falling – put on an autumnal show all their own. Better yet, it lasts quite a bit longer, too — for four months all the way to February.

But to see it in its most glorious form, you need to see it when the water is still up. Disclaimer: This may involve getting your feet wet. Water is shin to knee deep depending on where you walk in the swamp.

Fall foliage along Turner River road, looking north. Can you see the open marl prairie in the distance towards Upper Wagon Wheel Road?

In sum, for me, if I had to chose: When it comes to the autumnal foliage event, I’d take the swamp’s “falling of the needles” over the continent’s “changing of the leaves” every time.

Full disclosure: My proximity to the swamp probably sways my opinion (to a degree).

ecology

Multitudes of green
Swamp mosaic starts to pop

How do you best describe …

Every shade of green on the swamp?

The cypress will turn brown then gray in the weeks ahead

The term is called the swamp mosaic. Bright green are slash pine and palmetto. Dark green is a hardwood hammock. Brownish green are senescing cypress. It’s a bit of an optical illusion looking at the photo above. The highest ground is actually the hardwood hammock, even though it looks recessed. And the lowest ground is the cypress strand despite its appearance that it is higher up. Actually, I take that back: Even lower than the cypress is the open pond to the right. I would venture a guess that’s about 4 feet deep, about half the depth of the water in the adjacent cypress and the hammock being completely dry. And I almost forgot. About mid photo, a little to the right, is a marl prairie. It’s flooded shin deep with water.

ecology

Swamp ladder
From highest to lowest

Big Cypress National Preserve is considered to be part of the greater Everglades ecosystem, but is also recognized as a distinct physiographic province even if the terms used to describe it — such as Western Everglades and swamp — fall short.

From highest (top) to lowest (bottom): mesic pines, marl prairie, outer edge of a cypress dome, interior pond apple center of a cypress dome,

What we do know is that you know it when you’re in it. In contrast to the Water Conservation Areas and Everglades National Park to the east which are dominated by the vast and perennially-flooded plain of peat-underlain ridges and sloughs (and dotted with tree islands), the Big Cypress consists of an interwoven mosaic of shorter hydroperiod wetlands. The Big Cypress also includes peat marshes, but is made visually distinct by its cypress forests – called domes and strands – which beneath their vertical apogee give way to orchid-hiding swamp forests and which at their fringes recede into a combination of open vistas of herbaceous marl prairies, fire-swept pinelands and scattered upland islands of hard-wood hammocks.

Its pattern of vegetation is commonly referred to as a mosaic and is a reflection of liliputian valleys and hills of the preserve’s flat and expansive wetland terrain. The difference between the preserve’s low-lying swamp and pineland high ground is only 3 feet.

I like to call it the swamp ladder. But maybe stepstool is more accurate.

fall

Signs of fall
Fall arrives in many ways, just not temperatures

Signs of fall in the swamp are subtle,

But they are there if you know where to look.

Early October:
Resurrection fern shrinks
to shriveled state indicating
less rain
Late October:
Dwarf cypress prairie
become needle bare indicating
less daylight hours
Early November:
Cold water seeps into boots
indicating lower air temperatures
Late November:
The cypress-pine
swamp mosaic really
starts to “pop”

Can you think of others?

Mythical Big Cypress

Big Cypress Watershed
Or is the term "mosaic" a better descriptor?

Animated cross section of the rise and fall of the water table in Big Cypress National Preserve
Swamp water cycle in motion

In the modern era, we’ve come to know the Big Cypress as a watershed. But what if I were to tell you, use of that term for the Big Cypress is as new as the preserve? Yes, that’s right, the day Big Cypress National Preserve was established in 1974, it was dubbed a watershed – it’s own watershed, a watershed separate from the Everglades and the Lake – and has been thought of in that pristine, almost utopian way, ever since. But the truth is the Big Cypress is only a watershed because its original “other sources” of water were drained away, or diverted.

Listen to Audio Introduction

What were those sources? Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades definitely flowed into the swamp. If you don’t believe me, just read the Buckingham Report from 1848. And prior to the destruction of the Ft. Thompson Falls and drainage of the Upper Caloosahatchee Basin (Lake Flirt, Lake Bonnet and Lake Hicpochee), the swamp was fed water through groundwater seeps from the Immokalee Rise.

Before, Current and Future Restored Maps of the Big Cypress Swamp
The rainfed swamp we know today was once fed by upstream water sources

So yes, in a way the Big Cypress we know today is a rainfall-sustained ruins of a pre-drainage cathedral of of headwater flows, now largely collapsed (by drainage). That doesn’t make the swamp any less special. In fact it makes it more interesting than we knew. And it also points to our need to steward water. The sky provides the Big Cypress with a bounty of water. But it needs help, our help, to make sure its clean, connected to its remnant headwaters where possible, and help it spread out.

And the swamp needs fire, too. Every square inch of flora and fauna in the swamp depends on a regular return interval and dosage of flood and fire. Those are the two forces that give the swamp its distinctive mosaic of habitats. The cypress may look “old as the hills” but they are actually holes — although it is incorrect to call it a homogenous swamp.

More correctly stated, it’s a malleable swampy mosaic that’s semi-fixed in time and space. Or as we like to say around here:

So goes flood and fire, so goes the swamp.

Talking to plants
And how plants talk to you

This cypress dome may look dry …

But it’s showing water in two ways.

Soggy peat and dry water rings, south of the Alley

First, the peat is still soggy.

The water table was about a foot below the surface. That’s high enough for the peat to wick some moisture up, especially in the lowest spots. Also factoring in was a recent rain storm that wetted the peat top down.

Second are the high-water water rings around the fluted trunks. That’s the tree telling the water cycle how high it would like to be filled up. Word is the sky could start obliging in about a week (fingers crossed).

Before I left the dome I made sure I told the trees that.

flood and fire

Mosaic on mosaic
And how fire shapes it

The term swamp is a bit of a misnomer.

Mosaic is probably the better term.

Green within the black

It applies to both its maze of plant communities …

And the patchy pattern by which it burns.

Black within the green

And the variable nature of water …

In terms of both duration and depth.

So go flood and fire, so go the swamp … I mean mosaic!

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