Spring brings lush beauty to Okefenokee Swamp

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Spring brings lush beauty to Okefenokee Swamp

IF YOU GO

The 402,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, occupies most of the Okefenokee Swamp’s total acreage in southeast Georgia. It is filled with alligators, black bears, sandhill cranes, red-cockaded woodpeckers, herons, songbirds and more than 400 other species of animals. It also harbors more than 600 plant species, including numerous insect-eating sundews and pitcher plants.

Guided boat tours take visitors through cypress forests, historic canals and open prairies. Water trails and platforms allow people to canoe for the day or stay overnight deep within the swamp. Winding boardwalks and trails lead through unique habitats to observation towers and viewing platforms. An auto tour route to see an old “swamper’s” homestead is at the swamp’s east entrance.

There are three major entrances to Okefenokee NWR, each with its own facilities — bathrooms, picnic tables — and special character. An entry fee is required at each entrance. Additional fees are required for boat tours, canoe rentals and other activities. For more information on fees, hours and directions, visit: www.fws.gov/okefenokee/.

East Entrance (Suwannee Canal Recreation Area) — Main Fish and Wildlife Service entrance, located 11 miles southwest of Folkston on Ga. 121. Phone: 912-496-7836.

West Entrance (Stephen C. Foster State Park) — Near Fargo on refuge land leased to the state of Georgia. Phone: 912-637-5274.

North Entrance (Okefenokee Swamp Park) — Private, nonprofit park just south of Waycross on U.S. 1/23. Features a reconstructed pioneer village, souvenir sales area, serpentarium, boardwalk, and viewing areas for alligators, river otters, turtles, deer and bear. Phone: 912-283-0583.

One of my most favorite places on Earth — and, to me, one of the most beautiful places in the world — is right here in Georgia, the vast Okefenokee Swamp.

So, it was to my great delight that one of my most favorite events of the year, the Georgia Botanical Society’s annual wildflower pilgrimage, was held in the famed southeast Georgia swamp last weekend.

During several hikes and boat trips in various parts of the swamp, we found the remote 438,000-acre wetland breathtaking in its early spring splendor. Especially eye-catching were the soaring pond-cypresses, more than 100 feet tall and draped in Spanish moss, reflected in the swamp’s mirrorlike dark water.

The pond-cypress is the Okefenokee’s signature tree, creating the haunting, mysterious beauty that most people associate with the swamp. (The bald-cypress also grows abundantly here but is not as dominant as the pond-cypress.)

In lush bloom in the swamp’s prairies was the strikingly beautiful golden club, one of the wetland’s more common aquatic plants in spring. Old-timers say that when the golden club blooms, it is truly spring in the swamp. The plant has minute, golden yellow flowers clustered at the tip of a spike. Below the yellow tip, the spike is white, then red. A waxy coating on the leaves repels water and gives the plant its nickname, “neverwet.”

Also getting our attention — besides the numerous alligators — were the blooms of the swamp iris, a beautiful, purple-blue flower of the swamp. Butterworts, bladderworts and sundews — all insect-eating plants — were abundant. Getting ready to bloom were the ubiquitous fragrant waterlilies, which float in large masses on the swamp’s reflective water. The white-flowered waterlily probably is the Okefenokee’s most common — and most dramatic — wildflower.

Blooming soon will be the swamp’s three species of insect-eating pitcher plants — golden trumpet, parrot and hooded pitcher plants.

Seeing all of this natural splendor, it is hard to believe that a massive fire swept through the Okefenokee only three years ago, scorching more than 315,000 acres. Yet, without wildfires, the Okefenokee as we know it would cease to exist. Fire helps keep excess vegetation from choking the swamp to death.

IN THE SKY: The moon will be first quarter Monday, rising out of the east around lunchtime and setting in the west around midnight, said David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer. Venus rises out of the east about three hours before dawn. Mars rises out of the east just after dusk. Jupiter is high in the southwest at dusk and sets in the west before midnight, and will appear near the moon Sunday night. Saturn rises out of the east a few hours after sunset.

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