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The weather has definitely broken into fall here in Southwest Florida, and that means the delight of being able to exert one’s self outdoors without risking heat stroke and/or coming home dripping wet.
This is an awesome time of year for hiking and exploring in Florida’s parks and preserves. One of my favorites, in part because it is so close to where I live, is Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers. The slough is a sacred place, where water moves at a snail’s pace and all manner of flora and fauna grow and thrive. I see something new every time I go there. It never gets old.
Due to the heavy concentration of cypress trees in the Slough, it’s a great place to witness the colors of autumn. Yes, you heard me. Bet you didn’t know that the trees change color and shed their leaves even here in Florida. Well, it’s true! I’ll show you. Ready for a walk? Let’s go!
Let’s play a game. Can you “Spot The Gator”? He was about a four-footer, just catching some sun in the shallows right alongside the boardwalk. Some little kids came by and I put my finger to my lips. They froze and conspired with me, silently tip-toeing over to see what I was pointing at. How excited they were to see their first gator, so close!
I took my leave of the children and soon came to my favorite place to “sit down in the woods and wait”. As many times as I’ve sat here before, I never noticed this…
See that skinny little tree over there? It’s holding on to the handrail!
Or maybe it has grown a tongue, which now laps at the boardwalk. How odd and beautiful it is, all at once.
I then noticed something else about the little tree – it seems to be growing out of another tree, of a different species!
See? The little tree is a cypress, and the “host” seems to be an oak of some sort.
Further along the boardwalk, I saw the situation in reverse – a slender oak is growing out of a cypress tree.
This cypress tree is very tall compared to the little oak.
In the autumn, when the leaves start to wither and die and fall away, a number of things change in the swamp. Leaves falling into the water decompose, turning the water a deep reddish brown with tannins. This decomposing matter settles around the roots of the trees, and makes a great growing medium for little acorns and seeds. This is why it looks like one species is “growing out of” the other – it isn’t really, it’s just using the growing medium trapped there against the mature tree. Another thing that happens is that more sunlight can penetrate the swamp forest. The middle story of the forest opens up too, after the vines start to wither and fall away. The result is a better-lit, cleared away space where one can see the hidden infrastructure of the swamp. I walk through here frequently, and never see so many windfalls as I do when I come through after the leaves have had a chance to fall and the vines have withered and died away.
There are a few red maple trees in the swamp, and they provide for a riot of red here and there. Here’s one along the boardwalk close to the amphitheater.
Here’s a young cypress just dripping in autumnal gold. See? Who says we don’t get fall colors down this way!
A few resistors struggle to maintain their greenery nearby. Who can say why some are so ready to shed, while others hold on to the bitter end?
There are two varieties of cypress here, and they are relatively easy to tell apart – I just keep forgetting which is which! I made sure to bring home photographs of both this time, so I’d be able to look them up and learn this once and for all. This is a pond cypress. The needles are close to the stem and sometimes give the impression of spiraling around it.
And this is a bald cypress. The leaves are flatly fanned out from the stem. There. Now you know the difference, too. 😉