by Tony Marx
Visitors to Southwest Florida are often intrigued by the undulating tree-covered backdrop which seems to comprise small hills. Most obvious as you drive along I-75 Alligator Alley, this is also evident in the Fakahatchee Strand State Park as you begin driving along the dirt-surfaced Janes Scenic Drive after leaving the paved road. Look to your right at the distant tree line and it is not level as you would expect, when viewed across the open marl prairie. Rather than a rise and fall in elevation, the dome shaped mounds of trees actually indicate a water-filled depression or solution hole under the dome. At its deepest point, the bald cypress trees grow tallest, gaining height and strength from the peat that accumulates at its deepest point. Where the trees grow around the edges of the dome, they grow shorter although they are actually the same age.
These Cypress Heads, or Domes as they are called, remain wet all year round, when the sawgrass prairie and open areas dry up and become parched during the winter and early spring Dry Season. Here alligators and wading birds collect to feed on the surviving aquatic life, and the turkey vultures gather in great numbers to feast on the left-overs. In winter, the cypress trees are bare as they annually shed their needles. These decay and, besides adding to the peat, produce acid which continues to dissolve the limestone base. Thus, the depression very slowly expands over the years.
The sub-tropical South Florida landscape, although seemingly flat, is sensitive to the slight rise and fall of elevation, when a matter of inches can promote a sharp change in scenery. The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park offers an ever changing skyline. Just about all tree and plant communities found in the larger adjoining Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park are found here. Where the land remains mostly unflooded, pine and palm trees replace the cypress or dense tracts of hardwoods. The ‘tree islands’ seemingly sprouting out of the open stretches of marl prairie as you drive along Tamiami Trail are also found here and one can be seen next to the road on your left about a mile along Janes Scenic Drive.
The opposite to a Cypress Dome, which sometimes looks like a tree island set in a wide expanse of sawgrass prairie, is a Cypress Head, or Hardwood Hammock. It may be a small clump of hardwoods and palms growing on a limestone ridge above the surrounding marshland. Or it may be a wider stretch of jungle vegetation dominated by Gumbo Limbo, Cabbage Palms, Oak, Mahogany, Red Maple, and others which need to remain several feet above the surrounding swamp land. As may be expected, it is home to a variety of animals, birds, and reptiles.At the center it often contains a ‘gator hole’ where alligators gather when the surrounding marsh land dries up in winter. In times of heavy rain – when the surrounding area can flood to a depth of several feet – deer, bear, and Florida panther may also take temporary refuge there.
Seen from the air or on maps, these hammocks have a distinct tear drop shape usually running north to south. They rarely flood and are often surrounded by a moat of water which keeps fires at bay. A profusion of ferns, orchids, and bromeliad adds to the jungle atmosphere. Knowing and recognizing the different tree and plant cover as you drive along Janes Scenic Drive will make your trip all the more rewarding. Deer may be seen on the open prairie, wading birds in shallow water, an owl perched silently watching for an unsuspecting rodent, a raccoon climbing a tree, and always an alligator floating lazily by or resting close to the trail. If you are really lucky, and it’s early morning or close to dusk, you may encounter a black bear or panther crossing the road or appearing ahead on the trail.
Take your time, drive slowly, and stop where safe and clear. Look down at the water, then through and up into the trees, and you will often get a pleasant surprise and a photo opportunity. Whether you see them or not, the Fakahatchee animal, reptile, and bird population is always nearby. Find a spot to park and watch quietly; one of them may appear and venture across the road or be noticed only a few feet away. Of course, a short hike along one of the marked trails is better still. Walk quietly and stop now and again to look and listen. A rustle, call, or movement will direct you to where one of our wildlife friends is going quietly about their business.
Tony Marx is a Florida Master Naturalist and former FOF Board Member. He is also a volunteer interpreter for the Fakahatchee guided tram tours and frequently contributes articles to The Ghost Writer.