Relishing Southern Biodiversity

My trip to South Carolina was full of the expected- great food, beaches, vintage houses, horse carriage rides, as well as some of the unexpected- an opportunity to explore the biodiversity unique to this region.

The most prominent and distinct element is of course the Spanish moss, a fascinating flowering plant that extracts moisture not from soil, but from the air using its aerial roots- an adaptation that frees it up to explore unconventional habitats, such as branches of tall trees, maximizing sun exposure, without spending the energy it takes to grow as tall as the tree.  This quality of Spanish moss, scientifically known as Tillandsia usneoides, to use aerial roots classifies it as an epiphyte- plants that can be thought of as renters, relying on other trees to grow on, without causing any major harm to their host. Other commonly known epiphytes include orchids and moss.  I witnessed Spanish Moss for the first time and found them breath-taking. Bundles of curls decorated large oak trees, hanging like chandeliers from a massive ceiling. At night, these ornaments look rather eerie; boosting the economy of the state’s many ghost tours.

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Another opportunity to relish southern biodiversity came from touring the Audubon Swamp Garden of the magnolia plantation. Originally a rice plantation, first established in 1679, the Magnolia plantation was set on hundreds of acres of land on the banks of the Ashley River. The abandoned paddies now serve as habitat for myriad species of animals, birds, and trees. Some highlights included:

Duckweed, of the family Lemonideae, is a small flowering plant that floats on the surface of swampy water, forming a discontinuous green sheet on the surface. Aerenchymas, tiny, air-filled cavities in the plant, serve as the plants’ floatation device. Lacking the usual plant anatomy, i.e., stem or leaves, Duckweed are essentially little spheres that reproduce rapidly by budding, the process by which a new cell is formed as an outgrowth or bud from an existing cell. These plants provide essential nutritional support to other species living in the swamps, including birds and fish. By blocking sunlight and consuming excess nutrients, they also prevent the formation of destructive algal blooms that can be harmful to other inhabitants of the water. Interestingly, the algae also form a green film on the surface of water, so distinguishing duckweed from algae isn’t easy.

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Also growing in the swampy waters were towering bald Cypress trees, scientifically known as Taxodium distichum, especially adapted to thrive in swampy environments. Accompanying their trunks were several curious little woody stumps called Cypress knees – above-surface projections from the roots of the trees that do not grow into large trees. Although many theories abound, including stability and enhanced oxygen exchange, the exact function and utility of these knees remains unknown. Another notable water- resistant tree at the Swamp was the Tupelo gum tree, also known for its height, growing as much as 90 feet, and living up to 1000 years.

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Our good fortune allowed for many sunny and warm days during our December trip, which meant that several hibernating animals made appearances to soak up the sun, a behavior that proved deadly for one snake that went by the weather, and not by the calendar, succumbing to imminent colder temperatures of the night. Other than the dead snake, we saw a couple of alligators and turtles in the swamp.

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Flowering plants at the swamp included Camellia japonicum, also known as rose of winter, native to China, Japan, and Korea. They were brought to the US in the 1800s with the intended use as greenhouse plants. In the 19th century, however, the Magnolia plantation became the first site that used these flowers as outdoor plants. As a result, even today, the swamp is peppered with these beautiful flowers that blossom between January to March. Interestingly, azaleas were first introduced to America also at the Magnolia plantation. We didn’t see any flowers since unlike Japonicum, azaleas bloom in late March- early April.

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Other natural treasures outside the plantation, included long stretches of savannah, grasslands with trees spaced sufficiently apart to permit sunlight to reach the ground, allowing shorter, grassy species to thrive, and the Angel Oak tree, a colossal 20 meters tall Oak aged 400- 1400 years, definitely a must see wonder!

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