Native salt marsh grasses and pines. (All photos taken with iPhone XS.)
Beauty exists in Earth’s harshest places. On the Florida coast it’s easy to opt for a leisurely seashore walk and pass up a salt barren. Even the name sounds harsh, but these salt marshes, or salterns, along Florida’s West-Central Gulf Coast present their own simple beauty.
At first glance, I notice the Florida slash pines, longleaf pines and native grasses flowing low beneath an open sky. Closer to the water, seagrape, black mangrove and red mangrove grow. Songs of mockingbirds, mourning doves and northern cardinals blend with the swish of grass and pine needles. Delicate Spanish moss drapes many trees and billows in the unceasing wind. The birds quiet down in the late afternoon and leave a stillness so complete that I feel its weight — and relish it in these unsettling days.
Seagrapes (Coccoloba uvifera) anchor the soil and produce a sweet fruit that makes a fine jelly.
Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is an epiphyte, or air plant, not a true moss. It often grows on cypress and oaks for support.
Wildflowers pop up in the dry, salty sand: sea purslane, sea oxeye daisies, sweetscent, coral bean, blanket flowers, dewberry, southern beeblossom, sea purslane, and even prickly pear cactus.
Sea purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum) is highly salt tolerant and flourishes on the upper edges of salt marshes and coastal dunes. The holes visible above the blossom are fiddler crab homes.
Seaside oxeye daisies (Borrichia frutescens) are common in salt marshes and between mangrove swamps and coastal uplands.
Southern beeblossom (Gaura angustifolia) flowers open white at night and turn pink the following day.
Southern dewberry (Rubus trivialis) is a cousin to the blackberry. It grows on the ground instead of upright.
Native blankert flower (Gaillardia pulchella) prefers dry, sandy soil and tolerates salt well.
Prickly pears (Opuntia humifusa) are a major food source for gopher tortoises in the scrubland.
Sweetscent (Pluchea odorata) grows in salty habitats and attracts butterflies and bees.
Coral beans (Erythrina herbacea) attract hummingbirds and bees.)
Ospreys circle overhead, little blue herons hunt in the mangroves, flocks of ibis gobble tiny crustaceans at low tide in the bayou and pelicans lounge in the marshes. A southern black racer snake darts across the sand path. We spot skinks, anoles and marsh rabbits. My favorite sightings are the zebra longwing, gulf fritillaries and queen butterflies nectaring in the wildflowers. Here are a few other photos from recent walks in the salterns.
American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) feed in a shallow wetland near the marshes. (Watercolor by my husband.)
A little blue heron (Egrella cerulea) hunts for fish, frogs and small crustaceans in the mangroves.
The zebra longwing (Heliconius charitonius) is Florida’s state butterfly.
The queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus), a cousin to the monarch, also depends solely on milkweed for its nutrition.
Gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are active all year in south Florida.
In the late afternoon, all is quiet. There is only the sun’s heat and the fullness of silence.