This time it isn’t majestic mountain peaks or an endless expanse of red desert. It’s not a bustling urban center teeming with busybodies, or even the deep blue waters of a great ocean. What’s struck me most about this week’s travel through coastal Georgia and South Carolina is the broad, impenetrable drapery of foliage shading this journey and the verdant marsh grass bridging the sea to land like a thick, flowing carpet.
There are a few species in particular which have immediately jumped out at us. It’s not necessarily that you’ll only find them here in Lowcountry, rather that their communal existence creates a landscape unique to this place and provides a glorious backdrop to the history, culture, and beauty that make the area so worth visiting.
The grandfather of oaks, the southern live oak is synonymous with coastal culture and ubiquitous in nearly every illustration of the Old South. It can be found anchoring landscapes from Virginia to Florida and across the gulf to Texas, and is one of the few evergreen oaks which exist in the world today. (It actually gets its name from the fact that it remains “live” through winter.) Live oaks are favored in urban areas for their ability to shade large areas and their resistance to air and water pollutants. Some specimens live for many centuries.
Descending from the limbs of almost every tree in sight like the graying beard of an arboreal Rip Van Winkle, Spanish moss is a fixture of the Lowcountry. Contrary to its moniker, Spanish moss is neither from Spain nor a moss – it is indigenous to humid, coastal regions of the Americas and is more closely related to the pineapple than to any lichen. Although it always grows on other plants, it is non-parasitic and gleans its nourishment directly from the air.
Standing noble and proud, this state tree of South Carolina can be found guarding over the coastal region like a sentinel on watch. Resilient enough to persevere through the most brutal of hurricanes, the “cabbage palm” has also proven itself highly drought-tolerant and capable of surviving short, hard freezes. The Sabal provides edible hearts of palm, water-resistant pilings for wharfs and piers, and its young, bristly leaves have long been used for scrubbing and sweeping.
Blanketing the muddy marsh as far as the eye can see are the flowing stalks of the native cord grass spartina. Fast growing and highly dense, spartina forms broad, nearly level meadows within estuaries of the Atlantic coast which become home to a rich diversity of wildlife. Spartina grass marshes also serve as a natural defense against storm surges, and are often protected as conservation districts for this reason. A bit of trivia: densely woven spartina is used in archery targets due its ability to stop an arrow quickly without damaging its point.