Home > Floripedia > Trees and Plants
Site Map

Trees and Plants

Highways and Byways of Florida


In many parts of Florida are interminable stretches of long-leaved pine forests. The rough-barked tapering trunks rise straight as arrows, and lift their plumed tops sixty to a hundred feet in the air. Rarely is there a limb in the first two thirds of the height. The needles are from twelve to eighteen inches long, and when the wind blows through the foliage it makes music worth listening to. The carpet of fallen needles underfoot is appropriately called pine straw. The woodland is characterized by a singular silence and a bewildering sameness. So scattering do the trees stand that you can look between their straight trunks for seemingly endless miles before they draw together in the gray distance and shut off the view. They cast little shade, and down below is calm sunshine which is very grateful in winter. Even when there is a brisk wind, the depth of the pine woods is serene and still.

One of these woods' peculiarities is the apparent difficulty of getting into them. As you advance they recede. You seem always to be at the beginning of a wood. The near trees are far apart, and though those at a distance seem to stand thicker, you find them scattered just the same, as you go on. Such woods do not afford much stimulus to the imagination. Beyond and behind and on either side they present no variation. Yet after all they have a certain open sunny park-like charm. One writer in recording his impressions has sighed for a hill, and adds, "An impossible country to live in, but most pleasant for a half-day winter stroll."

The monotony of the "flat woods," as those low-lying dry level pine lands are called, and the utter absence of landmarks make it unsafe for the stranger to wander from the beaten track. You easily get lost, and then it is hard to find yourself and to avoid spending your days in endless circuit. A compass is almost indispensable if you have a fancy for rambling in the "piney" woods, for when the weather is cloudy there is nothing to steer by, and the watercourses with their tortuous windings are very confusing. It is amazing what dreary miles there are of these pine barrens-arid level wastes with an undergrowth of palmetto scrub, and here and there patches of coarse grass or sedge, and stretches of shallow bog pools.

The roads are often under water in places, and are deep sand most of the rest of the way. Loads of wood drawn over them to the towns are ridiculously small more like wheelbarrow loads than wagon loads; and yet the driver will claim his load is pretty heavy to drag seven or eight miles in such going. It probably does not sell for over a dollar.

The longleaf pine makes the finest timber of any of the Southern pines, and grows to a greater height. It attains a diameter of sixteen inches breast-high, and a height of one hundred feet in somewhat more than a century. As a structural timber in the erection of bridges and factories it is unsurpassed, and it is excellent for spars and masts. Its hardness and wearing qualities cause it to be employed to a large extent for flooring.

The turpentine men are buying or leasing all the pines possible, and Florida is now the center of turpentine production in the United States. The old crude method was to "box" the tree near the ground. A deep downward-slanting cavity was chopped in the trunk, and in this the sap collected. Above this cavity was cut a wide scarf that went just beneath the bark into the sapwood, and the gash was so shaped that it conducted the sap to the box. The pitch sweats from the wood in curdy white cream that flows imperceptibly downward. Heat and cold affect the flow of the pine sap to a marked degree. Very little pitch is collected in winter, and the flow is most copious in late spring and early summer. Stalwart negroes go about dipping the accumulated pitch into buckets and filling casks on a creaking wagon that is drawn by mules. Often you hear them in the distance singing some old racial folk-song that has neither beginning nor end , but which, in its strange cadences, chimes in with the music of the wind in the tree-tops.

Boxing the trees for turpentine is rapidly being abandoned. Instead of the big cavity cut for the sap to dribble into, flowerpot-like receptacles are hung on the trunks. This results in a cleaner product and longer-lived trees; and when fire sweeps through the barrens the blaze is far less apt to get at the heart of the trees and destroy them.

The mule teams convey the casks of pitch to the still. Scores of barrels of pitch from thousands of trees are required for one run. When boxed trees were the rule the turpentine was a dark, viscid fluid which soon hardened in cooling into a brittle mass known as rosin. But by modern methods the fluid is pellucid and amber colored and hardens into the "water white" rosin of the trade. Twelve grades are commonly listed, ending with the old-fashioned opaque dark red rosin. More than three-fourths of a million casks of turpentine have been shipped from Southern ports to the markets of the world in a single year.

The time seems not far distant when the Florida turpentine camps will be things of the past, and the smoke of the last still will have vanished. But there are persons who declare that the end of this industry is like the end of the world, the date for which has been so often set. At any rate you can find within a few miles of some of the state's important population centers turpentining carried on with as much energy as ever. Young trees grow where old ones have been exhausted of their amber resin tears and dragged away to the sawmill) and in many a former plowed field there stands today a grove of pines that will soon be big enough to yield turpentine. When conditions are favorable, fifteen years suffice for a tree to attain a size that makes it profitable for such use. Only the mature trees used to be tapped, but now those no more than four or five inches through are subjected to the process.

By making fresh wounds higher and higher up, the sap is induced to keep on flowing. Eventually the bark will be cut off up to a height of five or six feet in a space from eight to twelve inches wide, if the size of the trunk permits. The same may be done on two or three sides of a large tree. A half or more of the base is sometimes cut away, and the tree becomes so weakened that it is likely to blow down in a gale. After a tree has been bled for several years it is abandoned. If left undisturbed, the sun scars the scars with hardened pitch, and the tree regains to some degree its natural vigor. Then new wounds may be made through the yet untouched bark and more turpentine gathered.

Usually, as soon as a grove has ceased to yield turpentine, the woodsmen cut the trees for the second quality lumber which the bleeding process has left behind. However, the gum comes front the sapwood only, and the heartwood is as strong as unbled.

Cattle and horses range freely in the wood all the twelve months of the year. Even in the winter the cows can be seen roaming the barrens picking up living, and a that time are likely to be wild-eyed and hungry-looking. The people who own the cattle set fires every winter to burn the dry grass and weeds and curb the undergrowth and improve the pasturage. The long, low lines of flame sweep through the forests, and the air is full of soft blue haze that makes delicate every landscape and gives the distance a touch of romance and mystery. By day pitchy smoke drifting heavenward shows where the fire has got into thick young growths of pines. By night the woodland is weird with flickering light. It is necessary to plow fire lines eight or ten feet wide around homesteads and orchards in order to keep out the flames. Occasionally a tree that has a weak spot catches the fire and becomes a blazing column that presently crashes to the ground. Millions of young Pines that are just starting are destroyed, and, worse still, all the accumulation of vegetation which should be preserved to add humus to the soil is consumed. After the moving lines of fire have passed, the flames linger for days in pine stumps, eating away at the resinous wood. Some of the stumps stand fifty feet high, and are a foot or two in diameter. The bark has fallen, and the sapwood soon begins to decay, at the heart remains firm year after year. Farmers use this heartwood for fence posts, and it is fabled to last in the ground for a century.

Large areas in Florida are covered with dense growths of the saw-palmetto, so named because of its spiny toothed leafstalks. This palmetto scrub, as it is commonly called, creeps over the surface like huge caterpillars. Each caterpillar bears a bunch of fan-like leaves, and in moist rich land it rears a high head and looks as if it were trying to become a tree, but it never does. The lustrous green leaves catch the sun-gleams, and their bristling clusters make a curious and tropical scenery. The stems and the leaves are both very stiff, and ones progress through the scrub is accompanied by the noisy wooden clatter of the resisting foliage. If the growth is thick and rank you will prefer not to force a passage, for the spinelets of the leafstems scratch viciously. If the land is to be cultivated, the scrub has to be laboriously rooted out.

A Northern man with an ambition to be a Florida farmer says of the process of clearing a patch of land on his place: "We contracted with certain of our neighbors-locally called Crackers—to grub away the saw-palmettos. This was a taxing work for the back and the patience, and the Crackers were of a convivial turn and averse to monotonous exertion. They encamped at hand in a picturesque and roystering style, played cards, discharged revolvers, came and went, and tippled about a flaring night-fire. Sometimes they disappeared for days, and we heard of them vaguely as recuperating from their labors. Now and then they did a little grubbing.

"When this occurred I made a point of going out to encourage them with tales of Northern snow and frozen streams, of great towns in which were buildings taller than the tallest Florida pines, interspersing my remarks with reflections on Northern persistence. I cannot say that this forwarded the grubbing, but it seemed to give the Crackers a great conceit of my inventive powers. There sprang up between us a very genial relation. The Crackers called me by my first name with a pleasant scriptural simplicity; they leaned on their grubbinghoes and gathered matter for camp fables; and when they had listened for a while they perceived themselves to be exhausted with toll, and retired to mind the fire for dinner. After several weeks of campaigning in this manner they confessed themselves worsted, and the encampment broke up.

"Then I employed a vagrant Irishman to finish the job. He professed a fine Hibernian 'contimpt' for the Cracker, assuming himself and me to be apart in a common superiority. He had a thick hairy forearm and a muscular back. He spat on his palms and plied the grub-hoe manfully and steadily till the ground was cleared."

The scrub palmetto sprawls about on the ground and rears up only its head, but the cabbage palmetto is a beautiful tree with a columnar trunk. The tree at first looks like a fountain of great green leaves bursting from the earth. This sphere of foliage is ten or twelve feet in diameter. New leaves develop with wonderful rapidity. They stand erect at first, but gradually arch outward as they expand their blades and lengthen their stems.

A full-grown leaf is often four or five feet across and is curiously plaited and folded. The outside lower leaves gradually become yellow, wither, and break off a few inches from where the stem joins the trunk. This trunk is as large when the tree begins to rise from the ground as it ever will be. As the tree grows taller the trunk changes little except that the rough dry leafstems fall off after clasping it for a number of years. They leave a clean barkless trunk from six to twelve inches in diameter of equal thickness from top to bottom. The trunks of the younger trees, which seem to present a regular criss-cross of basket-work formed by the scales whence the old leaves have decayed and dropped away, are frequently adorned with clinging ferns, wild flowers, and vines that hang in fantastic draperies down their sides making leafy blossom-decorated pillars. When mature, the tree raises its fan crown fifty or sixty feet in the air. The trunk is gradually worn away by wind and weather till at last it gets too frail to support the heavy tuft of leafage. After the wind has felled it, decay begins at the heart, and many seasons pass before the tough outer part softens. These hollow palmettos make ideal resorts for the wild creatures.

The palmettos are not accounted of much value. However, the leaves are useful for thatching roofs and for making hats, mats, fans, baskets, and other articles; and the trunks are occasionally cut into lengths for fence posts, or are set up for telegraph poles; and they make specially good wharf piles, as the borers do not attack them as they do most woods. The soft enfolding leaves that surround the central bud somewhat resemble a cabbage in quality, whence comes the tree's name.

Palmettos will bear more cold than any other member of the palm family, as they are found as far north as Cape Hatteras. But you do not see them at their best till you get down to Palatka. There the swamps have a real tropical picturesqueness, and the jungle has a touch of stateliness, due chiefly to the presence of the palmettos. They lean together in groups and lend grace to every landscape. Along the banks of streams their plumed heads reach far out over the water and make the muddiest creek a place of enchantment. No other Southern tree has so striking a personality.

In the regions where sand prevails, the finest trees and shrubbery grow on the banks of the "branches," as brooks are called in the South. You can look through the lofty open pillars of the pines and trace the course of a branch half a mile away by the vigorous vegetation that borders it. There you are likely to find magnolias, big and stately, with large leaves of a glossy varnished green that remain on the trees the year round. In May they are covered with great white blossoms something like pond lilies, and with much the same odor. The size of the trees, their splendid foliage, and wealth of bloom make them seem worthy to be trees of heaven.

Oak trees are common, especially the live oak, water oak, and blackjack. Prickly ash with its queerly knobbed and pointed branches and its graceful feathery leaves is often a feature of the scene. The live oaks are evergreens that drop their leaves grudgingly and put on new ones in the same way. The leaf is oval, about two inches long and three-fourths of an inch wide, glossy and dark green above, and pale beneath. The trunk of the tree is usually much divided. Often the upper side of the main spreading branches is thickly planted with ferns, grasses, and small saw palmettos; and the Spanish moss grows luxuriantly on the trees whether they are living or dead. To most people the moss draperies have a mysterious beauty that is fascinating, but one woman tourist from New England has protested: "I don't like that ragged moss over everything. It reminds me of untidy housekeeping."

One singular and beautiful feature of the woods is the cypress. It attains a great age and immense size. In form the cypress is straight stemmed, with a base that is often big and high and remarkably buttressed or ridged. Its shaft is topped by a wide-spreading head of giant limbs with very numerous branchlets. The prevailing size of mature trees above the basal swell is three to five feet, but some grow much larger. About twelve feet is the maximum. A height of one hundred and fifty feet is sometimes reached, though always the culmination in height comes long before the greatest diameter is attained. Few cypress trees are large enough for lumber at an age of less than two centuries, and those that are twice or thrice that age are very common. Old trees die backward or downward during a period of one to four centuries. The heart decays, and the last stage is usually a hollow cylinder. These hollow veterans are probably from one thousand to two thousand years in age. In a Mexico churchyard is a cypress that is declared on the authority of scientists to be over five thousand years old. It is a punishable offense to touch a knife to its bark or pick a leaf.

The trunk and branches of an old cypress are smooth and white, while its feathery foliage is a dazzling golden-green. When it rises, as it often does, amid clumps of dark evergreens, such as bay, magnolia, and myrtle, the effect is very striking. It is one of the few conifers which successfully sprouts from the stump as well as propagates itself by seeds. It grows naturally only in deep rich swamp lands. In locations where water covers the surface for long periods the cypress develops peculiar knees or upright conic portions of the root system, which seem to serve the double purpose of organs for breathing and anchorage. Occasionally these knees reach heights of from eight to ten feet above low-water mark. The wood in them is light in weight, but peculiarly gnarled and twisted in structure. Except in their early stages the knees are apt to be hollow, and they were formerly much valued by the negroes for beehives.

Although cypress grows chiefly on very unstable and treacherous soils, it is one of the most windfirm of trees. Rarely, if ever, is a living cypress overthrown by the wind. When a severe tropical hurricane swept along the Savannah River in 1892, not a single cypress was seen to have yielded to the fury of the storm, whereas the pines were mowed down like grain before the reaper, and the sturdy live oaks were uprooted.

Cypress is found in commercial quantities in all the Southern states that border on the coast or the Mississippi River. The variety that grows in this region is known among botanists as "bald" cypress because it sheds its leaves annually. Louisiana has about forty per cent of all the standing cypress, and Florida comes next with one-quarter.

For many years only the timber accessible to streams subject to flooding was taken. The soft nature of the soil and the great weight of the logs made impossible moving the timber with oxen or mules. So cypress swamps, on account of their apparent inaccessibility, were regarded by the settler as of little value. Large tracts of overflow lands in Louisiana and Florida that were acquired by speculators for from twenty-five cents to one dollar an acre are now worth over one hundred dollars an acre for the standing cypress alone.

Until after 1880 the wealth of cypress remained practically untouched. The logging is attended by difficulties of a kind unknown in handling any other commercial timber. The bulk of the cypress is now logged by massive steam machinery moved from place to place on railroads built into the deepest part of the swamps. The butt cuts of large cypress trees will not float when green, and to overcome this difficulty it is the general practice to girdle the trees six months to a year in advance of logging. This results in the sap's drying out of the wood so that about ninety-five per cent of the logs float instead of twenty per cent. Many lumbermen leave stumps from five to nine feet high, but the most efficient companies cut the trees at a height of two or three feet. Logs are rafted to the mills through lakes, bayous, and sometimes canals for distances from fifty to one hundred and twenty-five miles.

The wood is used in a multitude of ways, and is especially valuable for liquid containers and for purposes where the resistance of decay by exposure to the weather or contact with the earth is important. Cypress shingles were regarded as so much superior to any others that they were used at a very early period. An instance is cited of a roof of such shingles serving well two hundred and fifty years after it was laid. New Orleans cypress water-mains remained sound nearly a century, and a cypress headboard marking a grave in South Carolina was so well preserved after one hundred and forty years that the letters on it were easily read. Marble and sandstone gravestones often decay and crumble in less time. Cypress coffins have been found in fair condition after an interment of two centuries. The best canoe wood in early times in the far South was cypress. Dugouts were almost the only kind of canoe made in the region. An observer writing in 1714 says that the cypress dugouts on the Carolina rivers had a capacity of thirty barrels and were freighted with flour, lumber, and other commodities. These canoes even ventured on the open sea. Truly cypress is "the wood eternal."

Excerpt from Johnson, Clifton, "Pines, Palmettos, and Other Trees" Highways and Byways of Florida, published by The Macmillan Company, 1918.


Home > Floripedia > Trees and Plants
Site Map

Exploring Florida: A Social Studies Resource for Students and Teachers
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 2005.