A trail leads into the woods across the street from where I live and work. It leads you first through a stand of cabbage palms, then up a hill (actually an ancient dune), on the far side of which you’re confronted with this.
I use this trail regularly when teaching forest ecology, and I’d noticed before that the plants in the low area traversed by this boardwalk were different from those elsewhere along the trail, but I hadn’t really understood their significance until I went botanizing there with my boss and some coworkers yesterday. Apparently, though most of the plant species aren’t particularly rare when taken as individuals, the plant community they form together is. In fact, this site is the first place it was discovered in Georgia. According to the conventions of vegetation classification, the community is known as Southern Atlantic Coastal Plane Carolina Willow Dune Swale (kind of a mouthful), or by its dominant plants as Carolina Willow/Swamp Rosemallow/Dotted Smartweed Woodland. It’s found, here and elsewhere on the coast, in swales between old dune ridges in live oak forests.
The Swamp Rosemallow, Hibiscus grandiflorus, is the rarest of the dominant plant species. In summer it would have enormous five-petaled pink blossoms (apparently the flowers, at six inches across, are among the largest produced by any native North American plant). Even at this time of year it’s impressive, with towering woody stalks and big seedheads.
The plants that impressed me most were actually the Royal Ferns, Osmunda regalis. Carpeting the floor of the gully in a lush thicket, they were growing from knee-high tangles of rhizomes unlike anything I’d seen before.
Once again, I’m convinced that the woods across the street is a magical place.