A Special Place

Florida being relatively flat and of low elevation, there are few places in the state where the limestone bedrock is significantly elevated above the water table. In the center of the Florida panhandle, however, there exists a geologic formation known as the "Chattahoochee Anticline". In this area the rock has been pushed up to fairly high elevations, and there exist some sizable hills here. The Nature Conservancy owns one of the more interesting ones, named "Rock Hill" for obvious reasons. The outcrops and boulders on this hill are of a sandy limestone known as "grit", again, for obvious reasons. This area also includes numerous "dry" caves (meaning only that they are not filled with water; they are certainly humid). Several of these are quite large, providing local "spelunkers" with many hours of exploration.

Valleys and ravines filled with massive, ancient trees, rock-strewn trails and creeks, waterfalls, a thousand species of plants (some existing nowhere else), hundreds of species of birds and animals...this is the magic of the area set aside as Torreya Sate Park. There is no other place like it in Florida... perhaps no place like it in the world.

The 2,495 acre park is named after the Torreya tree (Torreya taxifolia), which once filled the valleys along this section of the Apalachicola River. They stood fifty to sixty feet tall, their dark green needles and conical form reminiscent of Eastern Hemlock, and contributed to the area's Appalachian character. During the late 1950s, the Torreya was devasted by a fungal blight, and today only suckers and shoots mark the spots where these mysterious trees once grew. Researchers are seeking to understand the origin of this fungus, as well as ways to reduce the Torreya's susceptibility to it, but time is growing short...

The park's list of other endangered, threatened and rare plants is so long as to numb one to its significance; we will not do so here. Several worth mentioning are:

Florida Yew (Taxus floridiana), a close relative of Torreya. Though classified a tree, the Florida Yew is more commonly a shrub, often forming dense thickets in the dark climax forest. Its soft, springy needles are in marked contrast to the hard, sharp ones of the Torreya.

Ashe Magnolia (Magnolia ashei) is a relative of Bigleaf Magnolia. It is smaller than its cousin, but the leaves (deciduous) are equally large, growing to two feet in length. The flowers of the Ashe Magnolia, which can be seen in late spring, are spectacular - a foot across and brilliant white, with a purple-lavender center.

Croomia (Croomia pauciflora), a small, inconspicuous herb, is one of the oldest still-extant plants. Fossil specimens of Croomia have been found in 70 million-year-old deposits, which means that Croomia co-existed with the dinosaurs. The local range of the plant extends from about Bristol north, through the park, and a little ways into Georgia. Two other isolated populations are found in Alabama; this ancient plant is not known to exist anywhere else.

Numerous species of birds make their home in the park; others stop for a while when migrating. Bald Eagles nest here in the spring, snatching fish from the Apalachicola and carrying them away to their perpetually ravenous young. Wild turkey have been flushed on several occasions.

The usual assortment of North Florida mammals can be found here: deer, squirrel, raccoon, opossum, fox, skunk, rabbit, and bobcat. The occasional black bear will wander through, usually on the floodplain adjacent to the park.

Sixty three species of amphibians and reptiles have been reported , including the rare Apalachicola dusky salamander. On a recent visit to the park (August), an Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platyrhinos), which puffed and hissed menacingly before retreating down a gopher tortoise burrow was seen.

With the abundance of Beech, White Oak, Yellow Poplar and Southern Sugar Maple, along with Spruce Pine (whose finely furrowed bark and dark, short needles suggest a closer affinity to Northern White Pine than with other southern pines), the forest would seem a transplant from a northern locale save for the abundant Southern Magnolia, whose dark, heavy evergreen foliage is punctuated in the spring by blossoms of pure white. In the lower elevations the shrubby Needle Palms (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) also give testament to the park's subtropical location. This plant is named for its cluster of long, sharp spines around the base, which not only protect its succulent heart from browsers, but provide refuge to a myriad of small creatures. Snakes - including venomous ones - will often coil among the needles, laying in wait for unsuspecting prey fleeing into the apparent safety of the plant's spiny array.

Autumn in the park is spectacular. The light tan leaves of the Beech, the brilliant yellow of the hickories, the dark orange of the Southern Sugar Maple, the blood-red of the Sourwood, and the yellow, red, and garnet of the Sweetgums all combine to make the park Florida's most scenic site for fall foliage. The latter three weeks of November and first week of December is the peak period for viewing.

Spring brings wildflowers - hundreds of species, millions of blossoms. The hardwood forest has them at every level, with orange-and-yellow tulip-shaped blossoms decorating 130-foot Yellow Poplars, and, somewhat lower, the delicate white flowers of Basswoods, each tiny cluster shaded by a strange narrow leaf shaped completely unlike those comprising the balance of the tree's foliage. Yellow Jessamine winds its way through the trees, seeking the abundance of light lacking under the forest's canopy. In the lower tier of trees, Redbud, Dogwood, Carolina Silverbell and Ashe Magnolia in turn furnish color to this layer from February through May. Shrubs and small trees such as Red Buckeye and many azalea and rhododendrons abound within this area. The azalea usually bloom during the spring season and appear in many colors. Their sizes from range from shrub to tree sizes. Waxmyrtle and Sparkleberry draw your gaze lower still.

At the ground level, early spring witnesses the ephemeral Bloodroot and Wake-Robin, the latter featuring three weird little saber-shaped petals of deep garnet. These are followed by violets, Indian Pink, Jack-in-the-Pulpit and numerous others, until the deepening gloom of late spring discourages ground dwelling plants from investing energy in blossom production.

In the uplands of the park are open stands of Longleaf Pine, a habitat which features two wildflower seasons, one in the spring and a second one from mid-September through October.

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