May 13, 2015. I park this morning at the South Cedar Creek canoe landing and plan to walk Kingsnake Trail as far as Tear Pond, then cut over to Lost Lake and back to the parking lot. The luminescent lime-green foliage of early spring has now given way to the darker, lusher greens of summer. As I leave the bright, wide-open daylight of the parking lot and enter the dark floodplain forest a few steps away, I feel like I’m walking into a green cave. It’s dark in here, and made even more so by the overcast sky and lack of sun.
The mosquitoes are a little bothersome, but tolerable, this morning; I am eventually forced to rub some bug juice on me. With all the flooding we had in April, I expected the little blood suckers to be worse.
Pig rootings are extensive and everywhere along the trail. The oinkers have benefited from the wet and softened ground produced by the flooding. There are also abundant piles of leaves, twigs, rafts of dead wood, and other debris washed in by the flood – heaped up everywhere on the floodplain floor like beach wrack from a spring tide. Pigs especially like rooting through these loose piles for earthworms, insects, and other invertebrates, as well as nuts, fruits, and other plant material brought in by flood waters.
A female hummingbird is nectaring at some Japanese honeysuckle growing on the side of the trail. Right now I don’t see much else blooming in the swamp in the way of hummingbird flowers. The crossvine has bloomed out, and it’s still early for the summer-blooming orange-red trumpet creeper.
At Summer Duck Slough I see, appropriately, a hen summer duck with a brood of six pullet-sized youngsters. The hen is unsure of my intentions and herds her charges ahead. They make a brief visit to dry land, then get back in the water and continue on their way.
By mid-morning a front has pushed the overcast out, bringing a cooling wind to keep the mosquitoes at bay a little. The downy white blooms of swamp cottonwood have begun falling, and some of the dry sloughs and backwaters are sprinkled with white cotton. Another white bloom falling belongs to tall persimmon trees.
I turn west at the right angle of Kingsnake Trail and the bridge over Summer Duck Slough. Between here and Circle Gut, a stretch of about three-fourths of a mile, there are a number of mulberries about six-to-eighteen inches in diameter and twenty-five-to-fifty feet high. They are easy to pick out during the growing season with their very large, catcher’s mitt-like leaves. Most are bearing no fruits. Red mulberry has an interesting sexual biology in that the trees can either be monoecious or dioecious, having male and female flowers on the same or different trees.
The biggest mulberry I’ve seen in the park, growing on the edge of Running Gut near its junction with Horseshoe Pond, is a barely-living specimen with a circumference of 6.6 feet, about two feet in diameter. Most of the trunk is dead (with a clump of ebony spleenwort growing out of it), with only a small upper canopy limb or two still alive and putting out leaves. This tree appears close to maximum attainable size for mulberries in the Congaree. The reddish, smooth, bark-less trunks of dead mulberry, nothing but rotten snags standing eight-to-twelve feet high, persist for many years in the swamp and show why the tree was once used for fence posts.
Mulberry fruit production in the swamp is spotty and erratic. I didn’t see a single fruit last year and not much this year, either. The sweet fruits were an important food for the Southeastern Indians, as pointed out by Hernando De Soto, John Lawson, and other early explorers. De Soto and his army of Spanish conquistadors were re-provisioned with corn and mulberries at the Indian village of Hymahi, thought to be located in the forks of the Wateree and Congaree Rivers, when they came through the area in 1540. The Spaniards also reported that the Indians grew mulberries in the open, almost like orchards, a system that guaranteed more blooms and fruit.
I sit for a spell on the natural high ridge that borders the east side of Tear Pond. In front of me a handful of grackles are foraging in the shallows of the pond, and I watch one as it catches and dismembers a small crayfish. I’m not sure why there are no herons, egrets, and ibis taking advantage of the easy pickings.
This little ridge of high ground supports a few clumps of one of my favorite wildflowers, Indian pink, now in bloom with beautiful red tubular flowers set off by yellow, star-shaped petal tips and long, exserted stamens. The sedges growing on the ridge with the Indian pink are coated with a thin layer of brown silt, still bent over and pointing east as a result of the recent flooding.
I continue walking northwest on the trail before cutting east towards Lost Lake and eventually get back to the parking lot.