The Coastal Star

Secret Gardens: Boardwalk could change your view of a swamp

A father and son take in the peacefulness of the Cypress Swamp.

Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

Baton Rouge, a lichen, grows where the air quality is good.

Spider lilies are among the varied flora in the national refuge.

Purple beautyberry offers a spot of color to boardwalk visitors.

A pileated woodpecker drills on one of the swamp’s tree trunks.

By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley

    The Cypress Swamp in Boynton Beach may be one of our area’s best kept secrets.
    “People don’t seem to know we are out here,” says Bruce Rosenberg, a volunteer at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, where the swamp is located.
    And that’s too bad, because as you walk through the swamp on a 0.4-mile boardwalk, you discover what’s special about this unique ecosystem that used to stretch from Fort Lauderdale north past Lake Okeechobee.
    “Today there are only about 500 acres of swamp left, but what’s here is an environmental jewel,” says Rosenberg, who is an encyclopedia of information about the flora and fauna.
    He points out the trees that tower overhead and filter the light. These pond cypress and bald cypress are at home with their feet and knees in the water. But this time of year they look like they are on dry land.
    Don’t be fooled, says our guide as he explains that October to May is the dry season when the water is stored in layers of peat and muck lying atop an underground base of limestone.
    Notice one large specimen bordering the walkway has striations in its trunk. These are markings of a resident bobcat that uses the tree for honing his claws so he can hunt for raccoons and possums. Take a look on the railing lining the walk and you may find some of his scat.
    Overhead, hanging Spanish moss adds a bit of intrigue to the trees. The Seminoles used the moss as blankets when nights got chilly, Rosenberg tells us.
    On other trees you’ll notice small ferns that may be brown or green depending upon when you visit. This is the resurrection fern that can live for 100 years without water. When it’s dry, the plant looks desiccated and gray but when it detects moisture, it turns bright green.
    There are 11 species of ferns in the swamp, including the giant leather fern that can grow to 12 feet, plus the strap fern, the Hottentot fern, the royal fern and the sword fern.
    Also look on the tree trunks for lichens. The swamp is home to five varieties, ranging from red velvety splashes of Baton Rouge to the greenish tangles that are old-man’s-beard.
    “You only get lichens growing where there’s good air quality,” says Rosenberg.
 Take a deep breath and the air does seem pure.
    But as you near the center of the swamp, you’ll notice there’s very little breeze. Rosenberg explains that the ferns and other plants block the wind and keep the air still.
    Look closely and you’ll even see flowers growing here. Blue mist flower has colorful fuzzy blooms. There also are the purple blooms of the climbing aster. And if you look up you may even see a stiff flower star orchid with its pale green flowers growing in a tree.
    When you tire of looking at what’s growing in the swamp, consider what else lives here. Dragon flies dart from plant to plant. Pileated woodpeckers find the perfect spot to drill into the saw palmettos. Eastern screech owls and great horned owls with their 5-foot wingspans have been spotted. And the air is filled with the chirping of insects and frogs.
    In fact, Cuban tree frogs are the reason you’ll see about 100 numbered lengths of white plastic pipe stuck into the muck. They trap these invasive frogs, which are being counted for a census of their population.
    Although this boardwalk is relatively short, it’s a good place to get away from civilization, and a visit may change preconceived notions you have about swamps.  
    “This is a very peaceful place,” says Rosenberg.

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a certified master gardener who can be reached at debhartz@att.net.

If You Go
    The Cypress Swamp is part of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, 10216 Lee Road, Boynton Beach.
    The Visitor Center is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. It’s closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.
    The swamp boardwalk that you enter behind the center is open daily 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
    Entrance fee is $5 per private vehicle. If it’s not being collected at the gate, please pay in the Visitor Center. Several types of passes are available.
    For information, call 734-8303 or visit www.fws.gov/refuge/arm_loxahatchee/ or loxahatcheefriends.com.
    Volunteer Bruce Rosenberg, a self-taught ethnobotanist, offers a free swamp tour from 1:30 to 3 p.m.  Mondays and Thursdays. To find out about this and other tours, call or visit the websites. Always call before attending any event or tour to be sure it will take place as scheduled.


Gardening Tip     
“You should treat plants that you find growing in South Florida like you would mushrooms up North. Avoid eating them unless you know they are safe. Many of the plants you’ll see here are very poisonous.”
— Bruce Rosenberg, volunteer guide at the Cypress Swamp, Boynton Beach

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