Photo essay: The goliaths

Cypress and ancient oaks among the vast wonders of nature to be found in Highlands Hammock State Park

Iris Ingram revels in the beauty and power of a 1,000-year-old oak. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In late winter Iris Ingram and I walk a boardwalk that runs through the swamp at Highlands Hammock State Park. The architecture of the place is startling. Huge cypress tilt this way and that, their trunks extending like buttresses, while knobby “knees” stick up through the muck.

Bits of blue sky are mirrored in the murky waters that rise and fall with the seasons.

Layer upon layer of densely packed vegetation stretches as far as the eye can see. It is like being in a huge terrarium where some crazy-for-green giant has come along with his paint can, plastering everything in his path. Chartreuse duckweed carpets the water and clumps of arrowroot stick up here and there. Jade-green ferns seem right at home, but huge alligator flag looks as if it would prefer being in a proper garden or someone’s living room.

This is February. Spring is well underway. Responding to a sun climbing higher in the sky, maples take the lead, their leaves unfurling on bright red stems. The cypress hold back, their leaves still hints of green against an azure sky swirled with thin white clouds served up like some creamy concoction.

Maples are keying out, adding a flash of red to the treetops. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

We sit on a bench, craning our necks to see the tops of these ancient trees.

“What would it be like to be here when the place is being buffeted by a hurricane with leaves and branches flying all about?” Iris wonders. Now in her 103rd year, she is the adventurous type, having traveled in Africa by herself when she was in her 80s.

Then we hang over the railing, trying to make sense of what is real and what is reflection. In the looking glass swamp, the cypress can be seen more clearly except when disturbed by an occasional ripple from some small creature on the surface. Iris imagines water fathoms deep; I see only the muck of hundreds of years of leaf drop.

“Mama Gator” and her young ones slide by, camouflaged by duckweed. With one dark eye vigilant for any unwise visitor treading too near, she goes on her way.

Iridescent dragonflies wing over the water to light on half-submerged logs.

Shrill calls of a pileated woodpecker interrupt our reverie. A birder’s delight, the park is listed on the “Great Florida Birding Trail.” More than 150 species of birds have been seen here. Herons, wild turkeys, tree swallows, red shouldered hawks, barred owls, eastern phoebes and Florida scrub jays are often around, but there are many rarer species — wood ducks, eastern bluebirds, indigo buntings and bald eagles — to look for. In 1968, one of the last sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker was in this park.

Iris and I agree that if we spent the rest of our days poking around the peninsula we would never tire of the place. She has been in Florida since the 1920s, when her family settled in Bradenton. Back then, the locals reveled in the timeless beauty of this place.

‘Who cooks for YOU?’ The call of a barred owl is often heard in the park. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Margaret Roebling, daughter-in-law of the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, donated the land to be used as Highlands Hammock State park. It opened in 1931 but almost closed down during the Depression. In 1933, President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of the most popular New Deal agencies, saved the day. Young men under the direction of experienced craftsmen got to work building roads, bridges, the concession building and a visitor’s center. In 1935, when the Florida Park Service was established, Highlands Hammock became one of Florida’s first state parks. The CCC Museum is now part of the park.

The Florida Natural Areas Inventory lists 69 ecosystems throughout the state. The state’s foundation — porous limestone — lends itself to all kinds of interesting habitats —springs, dry and wet prairies, and swamps. This park has 18 natural communities, including sandhill, scrub, flatwoods, wet prairie/cutthroat seep, baygall, basin swamp and a large tract of hydric hammock, which we are sitting in.

A catwalk leads into a cypress swamp now in its 90th year of regrowth after the big trees were logged out. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Highlands Hammock State Park is the Holy Grail for tree lovers. The thousand-year-old oaks are what Iris and I came to see. They were saplings when Europe was in the grip of the Dark Ages and America would not be “discovered” for another 500 years. The oak on the Alexander Blair Trail is 36 feet in circumference, its bark burnished by a millennium of brutal summer suns and untold numbers of storms.

At the entrance to the Richard Lieber Memorial Trail, the other oak — an ancient presence with gnarled feet — lists a bit as if it would like to lie down for a long, long nap. Iris places her palms on a tree 10 times her age to take in its energy.

Nine trails off Park Loop Drive are well laid out, and most are only about half-a-mile long. Each has distinctive features.

Sky and cypress trees are reflected in the still waters of the swamp. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In the “Ancient Hammock,” treetops are silhouetted like cathedral spires against a far-off sky that is almost an afterthought. Huge decaying trunks of fallen trees line the paths. They provide food and shelter for creatures such as snakes, skinks, woodpeckers and other birds.

The “Young Hammock” trail is more open. It demonstrates the importance of fire. These ecosystems are dependent on the prescribed burns set by rangers. When the park opened in 1935 (one of nine public recreation areas established under the New Deal), CCC volunteers put out fires. Back then the importance of fire to Florida habitat was little understood.

The top of the ancient oak on the Alexander Trail blew out during a recent storm. The Big Oak still standing after more than 1,000 years is at the beginning of the Richard Lieber Trail. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Trees are not the only story in this park. Its 9,250 acres support a wide variety of wildlife, including the Florida panther and scrub lizard. Deer, alligators, foxes and gopher tortoises are common; bobcats, black bear and bald eagles are seen on occasion. Florida goldenaster, another Florida endemic, can be found here.

A Florida swamp without alligators? Hardly! Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

It is a trip back in time. Located 4 miles east of Sebring in Highlands and Hardee counties, the park is on the Lake Wales Ridge, which goes back millions of years, a relict shoreline of ancient seas. While most of Florida was underwater, plants and animals thrived on islands in the center of the peninsula.

Cypress knees are a fixture in the swamp. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

We feel at home driving the canopied Loop Road, walking the trails and relaxing at the café. We stop into the museum for a few minutes, and before we leave, we stop by the old orange grove to pick an orange off a tree.

Pickerelweed adds a touch of color to the surrounds. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Editor’s note: This is an essay from Fran Palmeri’s new book “Florida Lost and Found: Nature in the Changing Landscape,” which is available at bookstores and on Amazon. She may be reached on her website:

Treetops are silhouetted like cathedral spires against a far-off sky. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri