Swamp Mosaic

Less a monoculture of open water and glades, the Big Cypress Swamp is better characterized as labyrinth of scenic prairies, open marsh, meandering strands and rolling domes that give way to orchid-hiding groves of pond apple and pop ash in the swamp’s deepest and most hidden spots; or just the mosaic. Cypress domes | Strands and sloughsSwamp mosaic?Flood and fire | Marl Prairies | UplandsBotany | Alligators and more | Life cycle of a pond apple | mangroves

cypress strands

Major Swamp Flowways
Roberts Lakes and Gator Hook Strand

From the ground …

It can all look like a bunch of cypress trees.

Strands are the cypress-tree equivalent to the sloughs in the Everglades

But higher up, from 500 feet, the mosaic really starts to pop, or become transparent as we sometimes say. And by transparent we mean all the habitats really jump out, and none more than the giant strands where the cypress grow tall and spread out. Not that the mosaic doesn’t pop from ground view, too. Or do I mean water view? Soggy socks is a badge of honor in the swamp.

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About the view: The liquid heart of a cypress strand, as seen during the summer wet season.


Swamp ladder, or step stool?
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.

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Safety Tip: Be careful on ladders of all sizes!


Seeing the mosaic
The art of drawing water

As much as I’ve tried,

Photos always seem to fall a little short.

Photo of the mosaic: From highest to lowest, the “swamp mosaic” pinelands (dark green), cypress (gray), marsh (yellow) and open pool (blue). Difference in elevation: about 4 feet

Not that they don’t tell a thousand words, they do. And sometimes even more (sometimes less). But still, whenever I take a photograph trying to capture the swamp’s mosaic, there’s always something that gets left out. Not that it stops me from trying. Whenever I fly, the pilot says to me: Didn’t take a photograph of that before. “Probably. Actually that’s a definite yes,” is my usual response. Even down on the ground in front of what some would say is a not-so-scenic monolith of concrete better known as a water management gate, I can’t seem to photograph it enough.

Diagram of the mosaic

That’s where diagrams come in handy. You can pack in a diagram everything you couldn’t get in a photograph, even in a helicopter at a thousand feet. As for which is better? I like a combination of both. I’ll continue to take photos and draw. And know, I’m not a photographer (a paid one) or an artist (to be debated, but yes, also unpaid), but I am a hydrologist. The truth about hydrology is that taking photographs and drawing sketches is all part of a days work.

Swamp of inches
High and low ground explained

Small variations in land elevation …

Translate into large variation in plant composition.

Can you see the high ground? Hint: It’s green.
Here’s a closer look at a pine island
Water is retreating into the lower-lying domes

A vertical range of just 2.5 feet differentiate the Preserve’s major vegetation communities.  More than the Everglades which is mostly buried under peat, differences in elevation, hydrology and plant communities in the Big Cypress are related to undulations in the underlying bedrock (Lodge, 2010).  The underlying bedrock is irregular, and both exposed at the surface and buried by as much as 10 feet of soil and organic matter.  Hammocks and pinelands are typically found where bedrock is at or near the surface.  Cypress strands form where bedrock undulations are deepest and marshy sloughs where bedrock undulations are shallower. 

Rolling Swamp
And why the canopy doesn't lie

Swamps are flat and low …

Making it impossible to see a good view, right?

Big Cypress National Preserve’s Mullet Slough

That might usually be the case, but not in the Big Cypress Swamp. The reasons? The swamp ecosystem is full of mountain ranges of linear-running cypress strands and rolling hills of cypress domes. And yes, those strands and domes are actually places where the land dips (and water stays longest), but the canopy couldn’t be more clear: the swamp is a uniquely undulating terrain. And it’s not just from the sky that you can see the effect. The best vantage is probably best from the ground, in a marl prairie where the vista to the horizon is clear and the distant mountain ranges (strands) and hills (domes) abound. Or is the better view from the domes and strands themselves? Walking in the trees are dense at first, until it opens up and there you are — at the bottom of the tallest trees (the mountain tops) looking up.

More about the photo above: The deepest spot is the hole where there are no trees. As for the highest ground, that would be the green area in the middle that looks lower than everything else. The land in there is called a hardwood hammock and is actually dry all year round compared to the rolling (and flooded) hills of cypress around it.