Whitewater Floodplain Forests

Whitewater (alluvial) rivers carry clays and suspended organic matter in their waters. The forest communities within the floodplains of whitewater rivers are designated as bottomland hardwoods by the USDA Soil Conservation Service. The forests of the Appalachicola River floodplain and a few other floodplains of Florida's rivers are typical of this community, which is a critical component of the southeastern landscape.

Importance: the Flow-through System

bottomland hardwoods, photo by Larry KorhnakThe unique traits of these forests set them apart from other forests and make them very important to the southeastern U.S. Bottomland hardwoods are part of a larger landscape system that starts at the river's headwaters and ends in a bay, or estuary, at the ocean.

As the water flows through the flat land of the coastal plain it seasonally overflows the normal channels and spreads out to form a shallow layer throughout the bottomland forest. As it overflows and recedes, silt, nutrients, organisms and impurities flow back and forth between the river and forest. The landscape is shaped by the constant flux of water by way of new channels, deserted channels, deposited sediments and the build-up of levees and deltas.

bald cypress, photo by Larry KorhnakThese forests act as "safety valves", detaining flood waters when the rivers overflow the main channel. A diverse network of trees, shrubs and vines holds the soil in place and protect it from being eroded by the moving water. Without these forests to detain the floodwaters both the soil and the large pulse of water could have adverse effects on downstream bays, which are adapted to periodic and gradual increases in fresh water and silt. Too much at once can kill many of the plants and animals in the estuary, harming important fishing industries.

Nature's Water Treatment System

Bottomland forests forests improve water quality by filtering and flushing nutrients, processing organic wastes, and reducing sediment before it reaches open water.

Vegetation

The vegetation of bottomland hardwoods is extremely diverse. Shrubs, vines, grasses, and herbaceous plants grow vigorously where sunlight reaches the forest floor. As the forest matures, and competition for light, nutrients, and space increases, this community begins to take on an open, park-like appearance. Plants found in bottomland hardwoods include:

Trees:

  • American elm (Ulmus americana)
  • American hornbeam (musclewood, ironwood) (Carpinus caroliniana)
  • black willow (Salix nigra)
  • sugarberry (Celtis laevigata)
  • hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
  • green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)
  • overcup oak (Quercus lyrata)
  • swamp chestnut oak (Q. michauxii)
  • Shumard oak (Q. shumardii)
  • water oak (Q. nigra)
  • willow oak (Q. phellos)
  • river birch (Betula nigra)
  • sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
  • water hickory (Carya aquatica)

For more information on these and other trees and shrubs, see our Trees of Florida page.

Herbaceous Vines:

  • crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)
  • greenbriars (Smilax spp.)
  • peppervine (Ampelopsis arborea)
  • poison ivy (Toxicodendrom radicans)
  • trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans)
  • wild grape (Vitus spp.)

Threatened or Endangered Plants

Trees:

  • Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia)
  • Florida yew (Taxus floridana)
  • Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternafolia)

Shrubs:

  • needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix)
  • orange azalea (Rhododendron austrinum)

Forest Types

5 forest types have been distinguished in the Apalachicola River floodplain forest based on topography, hydrology, and species diversity:

TYPE A

Type A whitewater floodplain forests occur on levees and ridges where soils are only occasionally saturated by flooding. These forests are characterized by the following tree species:

  • sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • sugarberry (Celtis laevigata)
  • water oak (Quercus nigra)

TYPE B

Type B whitewater floodplain forests occur on high flats and low ridges where flooding is more frequent. These forests are characterized by these species:

  • water hickory (Carya aquatica)
  • green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)
  • overcup oak (Quercus lyrata)
  • swamp laurel oak (Q. laurifolia)

bald cypress, photo by Larry KorhnakTYPE C

Type C whitewater floodplain forests occur in low areas where ridges or hammocks provide some drainage. These forests are characterized by these tree species:

  • water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica)
  • Ogeechee-lime (Nyssa ogeche)
  • bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)

TYPE D

Type D whitewater floodplain forests occur on low, flat, poorly drained areas where soils are clay and saturation is nearly continuous. These forests are characterized by:

  • water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica)
  • swamp tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica var. biflora)

TYPE E

Type E whitewater floodplain forests occur in the lowest areas along the river's length. These forests are characterized by:

  • water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica)
  • bald cypress (Taxodium disticum)

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Fauna

The diverse array of trees, shrubs and vines in bottomland hardwood forests provide a complex habitat that supports a large variety of wildlife. Common species include:

Mammals:

  • bobcat (Lynx rufus)
  • white-tailed deer (Odecoileus virginianus)
  • flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans)
  • gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
  • gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
  • mink (Mustela vison)
  • oppossum (Didelphis virginiana)
  • otter (Lutra canadensis)
  • raccoon (Procyon lotor)
  • swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus)

Birds:

  • turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
  • hawks
  • owls
  • songbirds
  • woodpeckers

alligator, photo by Julie Anne Ferguson DemersReptiles:

  • alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)
  • canebrake (Crotalus horridus)
  • diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)
  • water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

Threatened or Endangered Wildlife

Mammals:

  • Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus)
  • Florida panther (Felis concolor coryi)
  • gray bat (Myotis grisescens)
  • Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis)

Birds:

  • Bachman's warbler (Vermivora bachmanii)
  • ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)

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