Friday, July 5, 2013

Behind A Garden Wall: Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park

Gold Head Branch with Needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix)
My son suggested we go to Florida for a garden excursion. We camped at Mike Roess ("Roess" is pronounced "race") Gold Head Branch State Park, one of Florida's "original State Parks" because of its history and biological diversity.

Round about getting-off-time we were caught in traffic creeping out of Jacksonville. Jacksonville was known as the largest city (measured by square miles) in the U.S. because the whole county was incorporated. Perhaps it is still. Years ago vacationers would see signs way out in the boonies marking Jacksonville's city limits. Now there are miles upon miles of commercial zones and traffic lights on FL 21.  Jacksonville has over-stuffed its boundaries.

Traffic had petered out by the time we reached Camp Blanding. It’s a large military reservation with arid sand hills surrounded by high fencing and wide security clearings, lots of scrub and saw palmettos probably full of rattlesnakes. We saw shopping malls before. Now the landscape was dotted with flowers. There were white flowers everywhere.

Arid sand hills are familiar in my neck of the woods. Acres and acres of yellow sand support turkey oaks (Quercus laevis) and longleaf pines (Pinus palustris). None grow too tall. Near them grow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), sandhill rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides), yucca (Yucca filamentosa), deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), prickly pear (Opuntia spp.), wiregrass (Aristida stricta var. beyrichiana) and much, much more. But those white flowers everywhere baffled me.

Asimina obovata
We finally arrived at Gold Head Branch State Park, checked in, found our site and set up camp. I spotted a ranger along the way and asked about the white flowers. "Those are paw paws", he said. "Several species grow here."

"Really? Those are the shortest paw paws I've ever seen."

"They're edible. Animals eat the fruit. Gopher tortoises, deer, whatever."

"Paw-paws?" my son asked.

“You know, like in The Paw Paw Patch.”

This region of Florida is known for its lakes. There are two lakes sharing a famous name in Gold Head Branch State Park: Big Johnson and Little Johnson.

Judging from internet search results, Big Johnson should be a really big thing. But it isn't. Big Johnson is dried up. The ramp leads to a bog. Way, way out there is a puddle. Check out this panorama of Big Johnson Lake. Little Johnson seems no larger than Big Johnson. I guess that's what happens with time.

Big Johnson Lake

Many lakes near Gold Head Branch and the nearest town, Keystone Heights, are dry. Opinions differ about the causes. Two were mentioned most when I asked locals: cyclical drought and Jacksonville’s thirst. An old friend we visited near Melrose said residents were used to 7-year cycles of lake levels rising and falling, but they're way overdue. The last high was about 20 years ago. Lakefront landscapes looked arid, and future prospects bleak.

We found respite by descending into the Gold Head Branch ravine. It resembled a rain forest.

Needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix)
Crystal clear water emerges from springs or “seeps” flowing into the bottom of the ravine at rates of 43, 200 gallons per hour and more. The moist environment supports many species very different from those above. They include Creeping Bramble fern (Hypolepis repens), Netted Chain fern (Woodwardia areolata), Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens), Southern Wood fern (Dryopteris ludoviciana), Florida Leucothoe (Agarista populifolia), Citrus spp., Needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix), Blue palm (Sabal minor), Red Bay (Persea borbonia), muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia), Drooping leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana), Gallberry (Ilex glabra), Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora), Devil's Walkingstick (Aralia spinosa) and much more. The ravine was once the home of Florida’s champion sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) which was 102 feet tall and 13.5 feet diameter. Alas, it no longer exists.

Gold Head Branch

Where there's water there's life. A grist mill existed in the ravine around the turn of the century, and a general store before that. A Baptist church served nearby. A kiosk displays brief records of their histories.

Gold Head Branch State Park is home to many imperiled plants, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles and birds.

Among features named on a park map, Devil’s Washbasin and Sheeler Lake are well worth exploring. Sheeler Lake, a pristine deep water lake, is said to be over 23,900 years old. It was once measured 72 feet deep. Devil’s Washbasin has been measured over 60 feet deep. Though not surrounded by such verdant flora as the ravine, plant species around the lakes are every bit as interesting.

Devil's Washbasin

Gold Head Branch State Park is not a planned botanical garden, but gardeners will enjoy visits. Studying plant communities helps us understand which species thrive together, why and how. Such information is invaluable to plant lovers.

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