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Green Swamp Preserve ...

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The Green Swamp ... A Beginners Guide

Venus Flytrap

Venus Flytrap, Green Swamp NC
- Skip Pudney

Skip Pudney | E-Mail | Posted 06-25-09

Mention "swamp" and it conjures up images of a mucky, gooey place full of quicksand, cypress knees, and blackwater. That's not the case with the Green Swamp Preserve near Wilmington, NC. One of the dominate features of the Green Swamp is the open Longleaf pine savannas. While these savannas are not per se "swampy", they are often ringed with pocosins which are indeed "swampy".

It's hard to imagine now, but at one time, much of southeastern NC and northeastern SC consisted of these vast "wastelands". Next time you ride through Myrtle Beach, try to imagine an open pine forest full of carnivorous plants, orchids, rare birds, and wire grass! Thanks to the Nature Conservancy and Federal Paper Company, at least 16,000 acres (and growing) of this unique ecosystem have been preserved. The Green Swamp Preserve is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy.

So, what makes this area unique and of interest to the naturalist or nature photographer?

The area offers a vast diversity of species including the American alligator, fox squirrel, and many rare plants. In addition to the various species of orchids, there are at least 14 known carnivorous plants that reside in the Green Swamp. Two of its more famous, though rarer, residents include the venus flytrap and the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.

Longleaf pine savanna burning

Longleaf Pine Savanna burning, Green Swamp NC
- Skip Pudney

Another unique aspect of the Green Swamp's habitat is its dependence on fire. Without it, many of the native plants, grasses, and trees would disappear because of competition from faster-growing flora.

Longleaf pines are dependent on periodic fires to prevent invasion of hardwoods. In addition, the pinecones of the longleaf pine depend on fire for seed dispersal. Fire causes the longleaf pinecones to burst open and release their seeds.

Fires once occurred naturally and regularly in North Carolina's coastal plain. But in the first half of the last century emphasis was placed on fire suppression, thereby promoting longleaf pine savanna transition to mixed forest communities. This philosophy has since changed to that of fire management with controlled burns.

The Nature Conservancy has an entire program dedicated to prescribed burning which mimics the effects of naturally occurring wildfires ... but in a controlled fashion. These burns are carefully planned and conducted. Ecological goals are set prior to initializing a prescribed burn. The burned area is then periodically monitored to see if the specific goals were achieved.

Not only do these controlled fires help the open pine savannas and native plants, they reduce the "fuel" which in turn helps prevent a wildfire that can quickly get out of control ... much like the Carolina Bays fire in Horry County in 2009. While not often thought of as beneficial, fire is critical to the survival of the Green Swamp and its longleaf pine savannas.

Finding the Green Swamp is fairly easy. Finding some of its residents can be a little trickier. The preserve is located about 20 miles from Wilmington, NC. See our Green Swamp Driving Directions.

The best place to start is the parking area near the "borrow pit" ... a depression that is often filled with water (the borrow pit is an excellent indicator of the water table, it's fed from ground water only). To get to this more popular area of the swamp travel about 5.5 miles north of Hwy 17 on Hwy 211. There will be a small parking area on the right.

A walk around the pond's edge will reveal sundew, pitcher plants and in season, several different orchids.

Lynx Spider

Lynx Spider, Green Swamp NC
- Skip Pudney

From the pond area, follow the old road bed and take a sharp right near the back side of the pond. Several hundred yards in you will encounter what seems to be a "wall" of trees. This is a pocosin and there is a narrow, elevated boardwalk that makes for an easy walk through.

On the other side of the pocosin, you are once again in a longleaf pine savanna. To the left of the trail, venus flytraps can be found among the wiregrass.

Notice the pines with sap running down the sides. Some of these pines have "red-heart disease" which softens the center of the pine making excavation of cavities easier for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. This species of woodpecker requires living pines with red-heart disease to build their nest. Being picky may ensure that the nests survive because the sap provides a natural, sticky deterrent to predators.

Yellow Fringed Orchid

Yellow Fringed Orchid, Green Swamp NC
- Skip Pudney

For some of the native plants, knowing where to look is important, but equally critical is when to look. There are three distinctly different blooming seasons that I have found to be productive for photography.

The first blooming season is late April to Memorial Day. For flowering subjects, this is the most diverse time and the easiest to photograph. This is the flowering season for grass pink, rose pogonia, rosebud, ladies-tresses, and several other native orchids. Pitcher plants are in flower as well as other carnivorous plants including bladderwort, butterwort, and sundew. This period is less humid, often cooler, and the mosquitoes haven't begun to attack in earnest yet.

The next blooming season is late August - early September. Some of the finest orchids that occur in the swamp can be found during this time frame including several of my favorites: yellow fringed, fringless, as well as white fringed orchids. Lobelia, barbara's buttons, pinelily and the rare rush featherling are among some of the other plants that flower in this time frame. Be forewarned, it's hot, very humid, and the mosquitoes are in full attack mode.

The final blooming season is late October through early November. There is not as much variety, but some of the plants that can be found at this time are very rare and colorful. The rare and beautiful Carolina-grass-of-parnassus, pine barren gentian, snakeroot and a several varieties of ladies tresses add a finishing touch to the year. This is by no means a comprehensive list but rather a "highlight reel" of some of the plants I've found through the years.

No matter what time of year you visit, there are some precautions that you should take. Bug spray is a no-brainer. Every bit as important though is water. Even in the low 80's, this place can quickly sap your strength and create heat-related issues. Waterproof boots are helpful as some areas can be very wet. I don't recommend visiting the area alone.

Skip Pudney

Few-flower Milkweed

Few-flower Milkweed, Green Swamp
- Skip Pudney

Savannah Meadow Beauty

Savannah Meadow Beauty, Green Swamp
- Skip Pudney

Nodding Ladies' - tresses

Nodding Ladies' - tresses, Green Swamp
- Skip Pudney

Location and Points of Interest

Green Swamp Preserve (Google interactive map)

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