Field Trip: Swamp Serenity

trees_cypress trees in wetland
Cypress trees in wetland

This past summer, I travelled to South Carolina to visit my mother’s family in Sumter, South Carolina.

It was hot. The temperature topped 100°. One hot morning (which was all of them) my mother and I decided to visit the Swan Lake Iris Gardens. Swan Lake Iris Gardens is “the only public park to have all eight swan species” and the “most intensive plantings of irises” in the United States.

iris gardens sign
Swan Lake Gardens in Sumter, South Carolina

Usually a garden planted with exotics and “staffed’ by transplanted animals, doesn’t pique my interest enough to visit. But Swan Lake Iris gardens has something else, a Bald Cypress Swamp.

Yes, across the street from the manicured plantings and graceful swans sailing across a cement pond, a little bit of native habitat endures. The swamp was cool, quiet, and serene. I didn’t want to leave the protective shade of the towering trees. I wasn’t devoured by insects or frightened by woman-eating snakes. It is funny. Whenever I venture into a healthy and balanced wetland, the insects are never oppressive or annoying.

ferns in wetland
Ferns in Iris Gardens

The 100 feet tall Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees are found in southeastern North America.  Bald Cypress is the most common tree of the very wet forest and dense mud of the southern swamps. They grow from the coastal plain of southern Maryland southward on the coastal plain. The trees grow next to ponds, slow-moving streams, rivers and lowlands of standing water.

plants_knees of cypress trees
knees of cypress trees

Bald Cypress knees are thought to absorb oxygen for the trees. I don’t think there isn’t much oxygen in the water-logged soil.

This very wet forest of dense mud is too wet to travel on, so wooden boardwalks were built  throughout the swamp.

plant_Spanish moss hanging from a tree
Spanish moss hanging from a tree

Spanish Moss hangs from the branches of the cypress trees. Spanish moss is not a parasite and doesn’t cause any harm to the trees. It is not a true moss either. We humans call it an epiphytic bromeliad, an “air plant”. It uses the tiny scales on its leaves to absorb minerals from rainwater. It also photosynthesizes, capturing energy from the sun’s light to carry out it’s body’s functions.

plant_closeup of Spanish moss
closeup of Spanish moss

Spanish Moss close up. I like the light , airy look and the lovely gray-green color.

Ferns grow in the Bald Cypress Swamp.

birds_female ducks
Female ducks in Iris Gardens

Ducks nest on the spots of dry land.

I have seen one other small Bald Cypress forest in Sumter County near where my mother was born. It straddles either side of a well travel country road. I have often seen drivers moving at a flying 60 m.p.h. slam on brakes and back up to marvel at the deep, dark coolness of the roadside Bald Cypress Swamp.

My family who live in the area, said most of the land used to be Cypress swamp. I like to think what it was like before most of the forest was cut down and the land was a patchwork of dry upland southern forest and wet swamps.

More Field Trips

Field Trip: Jenkintown Creek and a Not Quite Vernal Pool

Hiking the Lower Wissahickon

A Wetland Walk at Tinicum NWR

Philadelphia’s Coastal Plain


  1. I absolutely LOVE this swamp and can actually imagine being in heaven there. Your photos are so good and really bring out the beauty and serenity of the place – what an absoloutly grand time you must have had…precious!

  2. Mulch volcanoes are horrible and idiotic. I had no idea they are also an insidious form of planned obsolescence as well.

  3. What a wonderful side trip!! Thanks so much for sharing your experience and pictures! Having lived in the midwest all my life, seeing what is special and unique to other parts of the country are interesting and educational.

  4. It is also possible the cypress knees provide stability to the tall trees in the case of hurricanes.

    • Hi, Sean
      Yes, the cypress knees may provide support in a hurricane. And trees in a large group, such as a forest, are able to withstand gale force winds better than a tree all by its’ self.

      We can also think about the mistake that landscapers make when they deliberately add what is commonly referred to as “mulch volcano” mounds around the base of trees. The landscapers know that the flare at the base of a tree trunk needs to remain uncovered and that the tree breathes through the roots just beneath the soil surface. Landscapers know that the tree is suffocating under the mounds and will die in three to five years. They can replace the tree and charge for the purchase and planting of a new tree. An former landscaper told me that the landscapers know full well what they are doing to tree with the volcano mounds.

      Sorry, Sean but your comment lead me to a pet-peeve of mine. Thanks again.

      I think the Bald Cypress are much like most trees and need their roots to absorb oxygen from the air, hence the cypress “knees”.

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