Big Cypress Preserve // Montgomery Botanical Centre // Vizcaya // Block Botanical Garden // Pinecrest
Apart from all the serious conferencing I did in Miami, I also managed to get out and see some of Florida. The most MEGA EXCITING thing I did was a short visit & tour of Big Cypress Preserve, which is part of the Everglades ecosystem, lying just north of Everglades National Park. It is is 720,000 acres big, so I only saw a little bit of it, but we did get to walk through 3 of the 5 habitats in the park- Prairie, Cypress Dome and Pineland- the most exciting of which was the cypress dome since it involved wading up to my crotch through the water…
A Cypress Dome is the term to describe the type of swamp that exists in Florida & other places in the US, which is characterised by the main tree species- Swamp Cypress or Taxodium. You see these trees planted in gardens in the UK (there are some at Bodnant) but what you don’t normally see is the huge “cypress knees” that they can produce- weird upright growths coming out of the ground around them. It’s not known what they’re for (oxygenation? Stability?) but they’re usually only produced when the trees are growing in flooded places, like their natural habitat. A Cypress Dome is called a dome because the trees in the centre (where the water is deeper) grow taller, so from a distance the trees make a dome shape.
What was really amazing was that the Cypress Dome started and ended so suddenly: you’re standing on a prairie one minute, and then within 20 meters you’re knee deep in water. Florida is pretty much entirely flat and at sea level so the changes in these habitats are caused by tiny changes in elevation of only a few inches; I certainly didn’t notice going downhill at any point- just getting wettter and wetter, until I had to take my note book out of my pocket and hold it over my head!
The atmosphere within the swamp is like nowhere else I’ve ever been- dark and eerie and completely beautiful. The trees are covered in epiphytic plants: ferns, bromeliads and moss. Almost all of the trees are cypress (there are a few palms, maples, sweet gums too) so it is quite a consistent view and feels like an alien world. Plus I saw plants that I’ve only ever seen in glasshouses, or only ever read about. My geek self was going crazy. Just amazing!!!
The other two ecosystems were also interesting, mostly because they’re controlled by regular burning. This prescribed burning is like the way that heaths are burnt in the UK, but on a whole different scale. This is epic. They use helicopters with some kind of flame throwing contraption to set thousands of acres on fire at once, in order to maintain the health of the prairie and pinelands. The fire has the effect of wiping out woody species in the prairie, reducing invasive exotics and promoting renewal and seed germination. These habitats are adapted to fire- in fact they rely on it- and it was amazing to see the bark of the slash pines (Pinus elliottii) blackened and charred on the outside with no damage to the tree at all.
I also visited a few gardens, the best of which was Vizcaya. No, it wasn’t the best just because that’s where we had a big party with a free bar and huge buffet- although that did help- I enjoyed it for the surreal atmosphere resulting from a formal European landscape design planted with tropicals. In general it was a humbling (as well as fascinating) experience to visit these tropical gardens because they are filled with plants that I’ve never seen before. I am guilty of a quite a reasonable level of smugness, which has resulted from being able to walk around the gardens of the UK and name 90% of the plants at least to genus level; luckily for the size of my head, visiting these gardens reminded me that I know nothing! It’s actually a very enjoyable feeling, I recommend it 🙂