Cypress Swamps

cypress swampCypress swamps are the most common and widespread of Florida's stillwater swamps. These swamps occur where depressions expose the shallow water table.

Introduction

In North Florida, they are scattered throughout a matrix of flatwoods and pine plantations.  The impermeable clay layers which underlie this landscape are found beneath these swamps as well. In South Florida, they occupy depressions in the mineral soil underlain by marl and limestone bedrock.

north Florida cypress swamp, photo by BIll CaseyCypress swamps appear to be even-aged stands, but it is not clear if this is due to natural conditions or previous harvesting practices. Regeneration does not occur every year because of variations in seed production and water level. Seeds are not produced every year by every tree and they will not germinate under standing water. Also, regeneration seems to be best in nearly full sunlight, so new seedlings may establish only once in several years.

Most cypress swamps in the Southeast were harvested during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The wood was used for a variety of purposes, some of which took advantage of the rot-resistant properties of the heartwood in very old (>100 yrs.) trees.  Most of the cypress trees we see in swamps today were established after those harvests.

The water level of most cypress swamps fluctuates dramatically once or twice a year, exposing the peat floor for weeks to months at a time.  This is when these ecosystems can be exposed to fire.

When water is present, litter decomposition rates are slow, and organic acids accumulate in the water column.  This is the reason why the standing water in these swamps appears reddish-brown.  This organic material decreases the amount of light available to phytoplankton, which in turn reduces productivity and oxygen production.  Also, there is very little wind at the water surface because it is blocked by the swamp trees.  This eliminates another source of oxygenation. 

Cypress strands are common throughout Florida and form where there is  sufficient water and flow to cut a depression channel. However, this flow is seldom observed. Some swamps become strands for several weeks when connected during unusually high rainfall. The term cypress head is believed to refer to the cypress swamp at the head of a cypress strand.

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Vegetation

The diversity of plants is relatively low in cypress swamps, but increases in strands and swamp edges.  These swamps will burn during droughts, which is thought to reduce the number of species and the relative importance of broadleaved plants, thereby maintaining the dominance of cypress trees.  When protected from fire, cypress swamps may eventually develop into mixed hardwood swamps or bay swamps.  Cypress swamps are characterized by:

Trees:

  • pond cypress(Taxodium ascendens)
  • bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)
  • blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica)
  • coastal plain willow (Salix caroliniana)
  • red maple (Acer rubrum)

Shrubs:

  • fetterbush(Lyonia lucida) - a common shrub
  • buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
  • wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera)

For more information on these and other trees and shrubs, visit our Trees of Florida page.

Herbaceous Plants and Vines:

  • cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)
  • fall-flowering ixia (Nemastylis floridana)
  • laurel greenbriar (Smilax laurifolia)
  • pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata)
  • royal fern (Osmunda regalis)
  • Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides)
  • stiff-leafed wild pine (Tillandsia utriculata)
  • sphagnum moss (Sphagnum spp.)

Threatened or Endangered Plants

Herbaceous Plants and Vines:

  • bird's nest spleenwort (Asplenium serratum)
  • climbing dayflower (Commelina gigas)
  • fuzzy-wuzzy air plant (Tillandsia pruinosa)
  • giant water dropwort (Oxypolis greenmanii)
  • hidden orchid (Maxillaria crassfolia)
  • nodding catopsis (Catopsis nutans)
  • grass-of-parnassus (Parnassia grandiflora

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Fauna

Mammals:

  • white-tailed deer (Odecoileus virginianus)
  • mink (Mustela vison)
  • raccoon (Procyon lotor)
  • otter (Lutra canadensis)

Birds:

  • anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)blue heron, photo by Julie Anne Ferguson Demers
  • barred owl (Strix varia)
  • limpkin (Aramus guarauna)
  • pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
  • purple gallinule (Gallinula chloropus)
  • prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea)
  • wood duck (Aix sponsa)
  • wood stork (Mycteria americana)
  • egrets
  • herons 

Amphibians:

  • frogsalligator, photo by Julie Anne Ferguson Demers
  • salamanders

Reptiles:

  • alligator (Alligator mississippiensis
  • turtles
  • water snakes

Threatened or Endangered Wildlife

Mammals:

  • Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus)

Birds:

  • ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)
  • bald eagle (Halliaeetus leucocephalus)
  • wood stork (Mycteria americana)

Additional Resources

Dr. Mary Duryea and L. Annie Hermansen developed an extension publication about cypress swamps, cypress trees, and more.  Read the publication, More Information on Cypress to learn more.

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