February 6, 2013

Tropical Hardwood Hammocks of Everglades National Park

The tropical hardwood hammocks of the Everglades represent the northernmost extend of the range a number of species. Common in the Caribbean and other tropical regions of the Americas, these forest tree species can not tolerate freezing. What also marks these forests with distinction, is how they exist in small isolated pockets within a sea of sawgrass or cypress. Requiring well-drained limestone bedrock, they only exist where the limestone rises a few inches to a couple of feet above the high water table of the region.

Epiphytes hang from the largest West Indian Mahogany in the United States

While there are hundreds of these tree islands, some are easier to visit than others by the very fact that most are surrounded by standing or flowing water. This post will focus on a few of the easiest to reach. Perhaps the most famous one is the Mahagony Hammock within Everglades National Park. This hammock contains the largest West Indian Mahagony in the United States. A short spur road off of the Main Park Road about halfway from the entrance station to Flamingo will take you to the hammock. There is a boardwalk that takes a short loop around the hammock.

The Mahogany Hammock in Everglades National Park

There are gumbo limbos, strangler figs, pigeon plum, wild mastic, paradise tree, thatch and royal palms, Jamaican dogwood, buttonwood, as well as, dozens of other small tree and shrub species. Within the understory, there are a variety of endemic ferns, cacti, and bromeliads. These are not fire adapted ecosystems, the way the pinelands and sawgrass are. Thus, they can be destroyed by catastrophic fire. These were the places where the native Colusa people would set up their homes to stay dry above the sawgrass. They were also rich in wildlife and plant species.

A barred owl in Mahogany Hammock

Also within these hammocks are a variety of bird species that nest or roost in the high canopies. White-crowned pigeons are a Caribbean species which in America is only found in South Florida. Within the Mahagony Hammock, there is a barred owl that nests there and is often visible to visitors who are aware. The one disadvantage of the hammocks are that because of the deep shade, they have the highest mosquito densities of the region (outside of the salt marshes and mangrove swamps). So, if you are visiting in the dry season of winter, the only place you may find a few buzzing you is within these stands.

The sun shines through the red peeling bark of the gumbo limbo tree

Some of the best tropical hardwood hammocks are in the Florida Keys. Windley Key Geologic State Park contains a beautiful intact hammock with a trail that loops throughout the forest. Long Key State Park also has a nice stretch of hammock, in addition to mangroves, on its trail. 

But, perhaps the most famous hammock outside of Mahogany Hammock is the Gumbo Limbo Trail located near the Everglades National Park entrance and the world famous Anhinga Trail. That was the focus of a post over at the Hikemaster's Trail Description Site HERE.

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