It’s a jungle out there, and it smells like licorice! [Morman Branch, Ocala National Forest Annual Conference Field Trip]

Story and Photos by Donna Bollenbach

Despite the warnings of “DIFFICULT” and “YOU WILL GET WET”, my decision to go on the Mormon Branch/Ocala National Forest conference field trip in May, was based on two things:

First, it was led by Scott Davis. I have been on a few adventures with Scott and have enjoyed every one of them. Even though I don’t think I am going to remember every plant and botanical detail Scott rattles off, I always go home knowing more than I thought I would. I think this is because Scott impresses upon the what's interesting and important.

Second, I wanted to see where the Large-leaf grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia grandiflora) blooms. Though I knew I would not see the flower because it is a fall bloomer, I still wanted to see the plant. I read that the presence of Parnassia, along with the Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), is an indicator of high plant diversity and rare species. In other words, it would be pristine habitat.

Pristine it was! So pristine that there were no trails. We worked out way down the slope to Mormon Creek through a forest of loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus), sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana), cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), laurel oaks (Quercus laurifolia) and red maple (Acer rubrum). As we approached the bottom of the slope the passage became more difficult, but not unpleasant. There was thick understory of fragrant and fruitful evergreen shrubs. Fetterbush (Lyonialucida), swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum)  Pipestem (Agarista populifolia), high bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) and the sweetest of all, the yellow anise (Illicium parviflorum), which filled the forest with the a sweet smell of licorice.

Taller shrubs and small trees grew in mass near the edge of the creek. There we encountered  Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera), Dahoon Holly (Ilex cassine), Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix), and the occasional Florida Willow (Salix floridana). The vegetation was so dense there, we had to walk in the creek to continue our journey.
The soil in this area is mostly acidic peat, or commonly called “muck,” and muck was exactly what we found while navigating the creek. Occasionally someone’s leg would sink knee deep in the soft and muddy creek bottom, and they could only hope to still have their shoe on when finally pulled free of the sludge. Others stepped in deep holes, and were baptized in the Mormon Branch. But, we just pulled up our boots and marched on.

Muck, or acidic peat is what defines this ecosystem. The Atlantic White Cedar, which has its southernmost strand in Mormon Branch, prefers to rest its roots in moist, peaty soil.  A narrow band of these evergreens with ash gray to reddish brown, smooth to ridged bark, rise to nearly 60 - 80 feet tall not far from the creek bed. Underneath its canopy of feathery, needle-like leaves  the vegetation is thin, due to the deep shade it creates. The canopy provides cover for birds and small mammals, while the forest glades under the trees provide passage for black bear, whitetail deer and other animals.

The  large-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus also likes acidic soil and wet, shady habitats. We saw many of the plants along the stream bed in Mormon Branch.  The oblong, nearly heart-shaped leaves are bright green and prominent. While we didn’t see the flowers because they bloom in the late fall,  I read that they stand on stalks up to two feet above the leaves. The flower, white veined in olive green, with red capped pistils, is much admired.
While Mormon Branch is an ecosystem in itself, I couldn’t help but notice the little ecosystems within the ecosystem. Each rock In the creek bed was home to a plethora of ferns and moss. The fallen logs give birth to even more plants, animals and fungus.  The mossy bark of the live trees were alive in epiphytes, and bugs.  The hardest part of the hike was not getting too distracted by the surroundings that you step into a hole or trip over a log, so I was thankful I brought my walking stick. 
Scott and I navigating the by S.Denton
In closing, I should mention that Scott and our young guides on this hike, were more than accommodating. They held branches out of the way as we passed, picked us up if we fell, led the way, and left no one behind.

Because of them, it wasn't just a fieldtrip, it was an adventure!


Jan said…
Three cheers for Louie and Samantha, who helped us "old people" through the forest, over and under logs and slogging through shoe-sucking mud!

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