Hidden gems of the Deep South

Discover the breathtaking diversity and fascinating interactions within the Southern forest ecosystems. 

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

Forests are the lungs of the planet. As any schoolchild knows, trees give off oxygen while absorbing and storing carbon dioxide in their wood, thus cooling the earth and making the air we breathe sweeter. Here in the Deep South, we are blessed to have a lot of forested lands, even if they look different today than they did in their virgin state. Since the arrival of the first European colonizers, 99 percent of the original tree cover has been logged. Even the second- and third-growth forests have been cut and re-cut for farmland, timber harvest and development. The remaining shreds of old-growth, many protected in parks and preserves, are awe-inspiring places worth visiting. 

Despite modern demands on forests — not the least of which is the conversion into commercial and residential areas — the amount of timberland in the Southeast has remained stable over the past few decades, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Yet climate change poses other threats, such as dangerous wildfires, plagues of destructive insects and the spread of invasive species. In 2012 the World Resources Institute released a seminal report entitled “Southern Forests for the Future,” which found that 87 percent of the region’s forests are privately owned. Two-thirds of that acreage lies in the hands of individuals and families, meaning that the fate of our forests lies primarily with us. Although the average family-owned forest is just 29 acres, there are compelling reasons to preserve or sustainably manage them, including tax incentives and income from carbon offsets that make conservation more economically feasible. It all starts with understanding the ecology of our southern forests and appreciating their value. 

There are dozens of different types of forest ecosystems throughout the Southeast. Here are three of the most iconic.

The lost groves 

Longleaf pine savanna

Longleaf pine forests once covered 92 million acres to extend over most of the South. Early botanists described them as park-like groves of behemoth trees with delightfully airy understories maintained by periodic low-grade wildfires that encouraged the flame-resistant longleafs. Ferns and delicate flowering grasses also thrived, and in boggy sections — called flatwoods or savannas — orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants dotted the landscape. Today virtually nothing remains of these original old-growth stands due to excessive logging, suppression of wildfires and the replanting of other species in pine farms. But where longleaf ecosystems are still found, they harbor immense biodiversity: 900 plant and animal species, including 29 that are threatened or endangered. Notables include the gopher tortoise, red-cockaded woodpecker, sandhill crane, flatwoods salamander and the Eastern indigo snake. At the same time, most timber interests favor dense mono-cultures of fast-growing loblolly or slash pine, a minority values longleaf for its superior wood quality, elegant beauty and healthier ecosystem. 

Check out longleaf pine savanna: Tramp through Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest for pitcher bogs; spot endangered birds in the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge; hike the 2.2-mile Gopher Tortoise Nature Trail in Georgia’s Seminole State Park.

Waterlogged wonderland

Hardwood bottomland

No other habitat is so emblematic of the Deep South as hardwood bottomland — aka swamp. These brooding, watery realms are found along rivers and stream beds from the Mississippi Delta to the bayous of Louisiana, from the backwoods of Georgia, Alabama and North Florida to the floodplains of Virginia and the Carolinas. Characterized by periodic inundation, such areas contain flora that has adapted accordingly. Trees like tupelo and bald cypress have buttressed trunks that anchor them in the soft mud, and the cypresses have knobby root projections called “knees,” which rise above the water to perform functions still not fully understood by science. Diverse fauna includes pileated woodpeckers, river otters, migratory songbirds like the prothonotary warbler, snakes like the venomous water moccasin, and the venerable alligator. While the stereotype is that swamps are dark, stinky and dangerous, the reality of hardwood bottomlands is enjoyable, often a few degrees cooler in summer and bursting with fragrant wildflowers in spring. Besides harboring biodiversity, these environments perform the essential functions of controlling flooding and filtering water. 

Check out hardwood bottomlands: Paddle Ebenezer Creek in Rincon, Georgia; stroll the 1.75-mile boardwalk through Audubon Beidler Forest in Harleyville; visit Savannah National Wild Life Refuge; hike or canoe Congaree National Park outside of Columbia. 

Coastal Eden

Maritime forest

This beautiful, jungly habitat is familiar to us here in the Lowcountry. Along the beaches and barrier islands, dense stands of saw palmetto and live oak are cropped by salt spray and wind. Just inland a riot of cabbage palms, pines, magnolias, sweet gums and water oaks are adorned with Spanish moss, grape vines and resurrection fern. The vegetation of these coastal forests is evergreen and grows so thickly that a trail cut through it is like a living tunnel. Raccoons, deer, squirrels, armadillos and possums move through it with secretive ease. Songbirds like the brilliantly painted bunting are spotted with difficulty. Unfortunately, these forests are being erased at an alarming pace to make room for beach-front development without adequate thought given to the storm protection, wildlife habitat, groundwater and nutrient conservation they provide. 

Check out maritime forests:Camp on undeveloped Cumberland Island National Seashore; hike Hunting Island State Park or Pinckney Island; ride horseback through Sea Pines Forest Preserve, take a road trip to Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, Florida, or Jekyll Island in Georgia.

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