If you have seen the Lowcountry from the waterways, you may have been audience to some remaining maritime forest.
You may have been lucky enough to stand in the maritime forest if you looked toward the waterway. Have you ever noticed that in the natural areas of Beaufort County, all the trees and shrubs are the same mixture of species at the water’s edge? That they are always green, even in the middle of winter?! These evergreen trees and shrubs develop waxy coatings on their leaves to resist wind carrying sand and salt spray. Their root system manages to hold firm and find nutrients in sandy soil. They may be shaped to accommodate a howling wind from the ocean, or a gentle breeze near the protected waterway. The tree canopy is dense and understory growth is comparatively sparse, but nature does everything deliberately.
Many of the barrier islands have been developed, and the natural landscape has been altered. Even before Beaufort County was a resort destination, much of the land was clear cut to be cultivated, so most of the present growth is secondary. By the way, if you see a bright red leaf on the bluff in the fall, it probably came from Home Depot!
Trees common to the maritime forest are live oak, loblolly pine, slash pine, cabbage palmetto, southern red cedar, and magnolia. Water oak, sweet gum, and laurel oak may also be found nearby. Instead of describing each individual tree, I am going to concentrate on what they have in common. Their purpose is to survive in a harsh environment, stabilize the barrier islands, and provide shelter and food for the wildlife living beneath their canopy.
The tall trees grow side by side and interlock their branches for stability against prevailing winds. This density of branches provides a platform for travelers in the tree tops like squirrels, birds, lizards, spiders, and palmetto bugs. The strong branches give nests the security that they need. Acorns falling to the floor are a food source from the live oak tree. Pine needles carpet the forest floor and the canopy keeps the overall temperature of the forest cooler. The shade provided is important for the wildlife when it is 100 degrees outside!
Shrubs common to the maritime forest are American holly, wax myrtle or bayberry, yaupon holly, saw palmetto, and beauty berry. Since the tree canopy is so dense, little sunlight reaches the forest floor, and the shrubs are less likely to cover the ground. However, these shrubs are extremely hardy and provide safe spots for ground dwellers to hide. Some of the plants have protective qualities like the saw palmetto. Have you ever tried to grab one of those to move it out of the way? Ouch! Most of the shrubs mentioned produce berries that are a food source for raccoons, squirrels, deer, and birds foraging on the forest floor. The scientific name for yaupon holly is Ilex vomitoria, and the deer tend to leave that one alone for obvious reasons.
South Carolina has approximately 35 barrier islands and Georgia has about 15. Together, we are located in the South Atlantic Bight, a slight indentation landward. Due to a combination of this protected inlet and the substantial offshore distance of the Gulf Stream (70 miles away), we do not typically experience devastating tropical storms compared to other states on the eastern seaboard. A forest fire sparked by dry lightning would be more likely to impede this maritime forest. The South Carolina Lowcountry has an extensive rage of approximately 145,000 acres*, but there is a threat to this unique ecosystem. Waterfront property is prime and we are perilously developing the South Carolina maritime forest. I think that it is important to remember that our impact is more detrimental to the barrier islands than we think.
Some developments have made efforts to preserve the natural landscape.
On Hilton Head, Sea Pines designates 605 acres to allow wildlife to remain on the south end of the island. I love to see the deer bounding through the dunes on early morning sea turtle patrol in front of the beachfront luxury homes—the irony. Yes, they are overpopulated because we eradicated big game predators (subject for later discussion). But, it gives me hope that we may still have a hint of what is natural. If you have never seen a functioning maritime forest, I encourage you to visit Cumberland Island, GA. It is spectacular!
*Biological Technical Report 30. May 1995. Ecology of the Maritime Forests of the Southern Atlantic Coast: A Community Profile. U.S. Department of the Interior
Written by Amber Hester Kuehn.