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Showing posts from 2019

Ancient Trees: The Baldcypress, Part 2

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Historically, old growth Baldcypress growing in the swamps, bottomlands, and along rivers of the Southeastern United States were commercially valuable. Individual trees were often huge, with straight, relatively unbranched trunks that could be cut into long, rot-resistant boards and shingles. 

By the nineteen twenties, nearly all  of the ancient giants had been logged out, and the unique ecology and species mix of their habitat also vanished. Fortunately, climatological conditions at the time were favorable for the germination and survival of a large group of seedlings. Many of today’s mature trees began their lives at that time. Baldcypress populations are considered relatively stable for now, even though overall southern forest loss has accelerated. Coastal populations of the species, in particular, are threatened by rising sea levels and increasing salinity in the wet places where they grow. Trees of all ages are harvested to be shredded and sold as landscaping mulch, although pr…

Ancient Trees: The Baldcypress

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The Baldcypress, Taxodium distichum, is an evocative symbol of southern lakes, river bottomlands, and swamps. These ancient members of the Cypress family occur as far north as Southern Illinois and Maryland and as far west as South-Central Texas. Baldcypresses, along with several related genera like the Redwood and Sequoia, were placed in their own family, the Taxodiaceae. Now, all are classified in the same family with a number of other conifer genera, such as true Cypress and Juniper. Surprisingly for such a well-known genus, it seems that its three members have hardly any genetic differences between them, and are either varieties of a single species or perhaps two. Baldcypress wood is extremely rot-resistant to water. Submerged trunks, lost during historical logging activities, are valuable, and often salvaged for milling.  I’ve seen the trunks of trees toppled during the terrible hurricanes of the nineteen twenties lying in shallow water in the Big Cypress Swamp. T…

Planting the Mangrove Forest

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Mangroves are woody trees or shrubs belonging to several plant families. Their lifestyle allows them to live along tropical coastlines and the banks of rivers where salt and freshwater intermingle. Growing in dense stands and forests, tropical mangrove habitats are critical to provide proper ecosystem functions, the creation of new land, and in mitigating the effects of storms, flooding, and other disruptive effects of rising sea levels.
 
Each species commonly grouped together under the mangrove lifestyle has differing tolerances to saltwater; they use various strategies to block absorption or to excrete dangerous salt from their tissues. They also grow in slightly different environments. Mangroves don’t need saltwater to live, they just tolerate it much better than other plants. It’s a great advantage and an evolutionary strategy that rids them of competitors. Some must have primarily freshwater or water that is only slightly brackish to survive. Other mangroves are found closer to…

The Mangrove Palm

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"If there are no mangrove forests, then the sea will have no meaning. It is like having a tree with no roots, for the mangroves are the roots of the sea."

 Unknown fisherman, Trang Province, Southern Thailand 
Mangroves are woody trees or shrubs that are salt-tolerant and grow along coasts in tropical and subtropical regions. Their distinctive and ecologically important communities consist of members of a number of plant families. Mangrove species can be said to have a common lifestyle, rather than being taxonomically related. The Nipa Palm, Nypa fruticans, is naturally distributed along Asian and Northern Australian rivers and brackish estuarian environments, often in dense stands that can extend for miles. In many areas the palm is a significant and sometimes dominant component of mangrove forests. It’s quite unusual, as palms go. Characteristic of the species is its mild salinity tolerance, which is generally uncommon among palms. The trees develop subterranean, horizontally…

The Strangest Plant on Earth

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 “He wrote that he was so astonished that he knelt on the hot sand in bewilderment, thinking that his fantasies had taken flight.” Chris Bornman, describing the reaction of Friedrich Welwitsch upon seeing Welwitschia mirabilis for the first time.

A fine candidate for the most world’s most biologically unique plant, Welwitschia mirabilis is the sole member of the family Welwitschiaceae. This strange cone-bearing plant was first brought to the attention of science by the plant explorer for whom it was named.


Friedrich Welwitsch was an Austrian, trained in medicine and botany, who disappointed his parents by not developing a law career. Instead, after briefly working as a physician, he pursued his interests in plants, working for important botanical gardens in Portugal and England. His African explorations resulted in the discovery of several new species. Welwitsch died in 1872 but left a fine collection of many thousands of dried herbarium specimens. Three hundred and twenty nine speci…

Grapes, Plums, and Pigeons

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Coccoloba is a large genus of Neotropical trees and shrubs belonging to the Buckwheat Family. Two species are found as far North as Southern Florida, where they are important and distinctive components of coastal plant communities. Sea Grape, Coccoloba uvifera, is a broad-canopied tree commonly growing in sand or very sandy soil behind the first dune line on beaches or in coastal hammocks inland from mangroves. Sometimes it can be found along the shore just inland of the high tide line. The species is both salt and drought tolerant. Depending on location, Sea Grape can grow as a medium-tall tree with a mound-like shape, or be wind- sculpted and sand-blasted into a sparser, irregular form. It can also be found as a thicket or tall groundcover that helps anchor and stabilize beaches. Its dense branches and thick foliage shelter wildlife; it’s an important nectar source for several butterfly species. Female trees bear tasty fruit, a food source for birds and mammals. The fully ripe fruit…

Planting Trees and the Complexities of Good Intentions

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As humans, we often treat ourselves as though we are somehow separate from the rest of Nature. Yet everything that we do connects to the greater world. The growth and migration of human populations have profoundly influenced landscapes, species composition, and ecosystem functions for thousands of years. It’s only in our contemporary period of rapidly accelerating instability and destruction that efforts at environmental mitigation and restoration are being attempted. Many solutions seem straightforward; if a forest is logged, then replant. If the burning of fossil fuels causes climatological warming, then utilize renewable energy resources. We seek elegant, simple solutions to complex problems. Sometimes, the applied fixes exacerbate the negative conditions that need correction. Around the world, forests are being lost to the expansion of agriculture and cattle-grazing, wood-cutting for fuel and construction, mining, and the growth of cities. Replanted trees are often utilized as a re…

The African Tree of Life

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“Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no individual can embrace it."
Some trees are strongly associated with the places in which they grow, so much that they become symbols of the places themselves; think of the Coast Redwoods of California, the Pehuen or Monkey Puzzle of the Andean foothills of Chile, or the various species of Australian Eucalyptus. One tree that is distinctly recognizable in the drier parts of sub-Saharan Africa is the Baobab, Adansonia digitata. Baobabs are naturally distributed from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, and to the northernmost part of South Africa. Like other organisms that are so well known that they have been taken for granted, the massive Baobabs still have secrets to reveal. Some of the trees might be a newly described species, Adansonia kilima, according to the latest genetic analysis. Baobabs provide significant environmental benefits to wildlife: safety and a nesting place for many creatures, nectar for the species’ fruit bat and insect pollinators, a…

Living on the Edge: the Cottontop Cactus

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 The Cottontop Cactus, Echinocactus polycephalus, is a moderate-sized barrel cactus that lives in some of the driest areas of North America. There are two similar subspecies: polycephalus,the most widespread, found in parts of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and northern Mexico, and xeranthemoides, found near the Grand Canyon in southeastern Nevada and Northern Arizona. “Way over to Hell and gone” is an apt description of the species’ habitat. It occurs from the spectacularly desolate mountains overlooking Death Valley to the wretchedly arid flats of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Cottontop Cactus grow in arid or hyper-arid landscapes that usually receive no more than 5 inches of precipitation per year. In the Mojave Desert the species must survive exclusively on winter rainfall, but plants in the Sonoran Desert occasionally experience summer thunderstorms during the monsoon season. In the hot, stony wastes in which they grow, the sparse rains quickly drain away or eva…

Bananaquits in our Gardens

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Recently, a pair of modestly colored, unusual birds have moved into the entrance area at Pinecrest Gardens. Occasionally found in South Florida, they most likely have flown here from the Bahamas. They are quite noticeable, actively flitting from shrub to signpost to roofline to trees. Their frequent singing is loud and pleasant; we hope that they stay and perhaps nest here.
The Bananquit, Coereba flaveola, is a small bird of the New World tropics. The species belongs to the large avian group known as perching birds, a taxonomic order that includes many of the best known and liked songbirds, including their close relatives, the Tanagers. Bananaquits are small and mostly grey, with white or bright yellow breasts and white-striped heads. They are inhabit a wide geographical range that includes much of the South American tropics and subtropics east of the Andes Mountains, parts of Central America and Mexico, and Caribbean and Antillean islands. They live in diverse habitats, including op…