Coastal Mississippi is home to some of the most spectacular spring flowers to be found anywhere, with pink and white being a common theme this time of year. Finding them is as easy as finding your way to the east side of Ocean Springs and the Fontainebleau Nature Trail. The trail is part of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. And the flowering is in full swing. If you want to view one of the most striking of our spring flowers, make your way to the edges of the bluffs overlooking Davis Bayou (about a quarter mile in) to see this year’s showing of our Pink Honeysuckle Azalea, Rhododendron canescens. Known also as Piedmont or Mountain Azalea, this species is the first of our three native azaleas to bloom.
Along the way to these bluffs and along the rest of the trail it is hard to miss the numerous white blossoms of Red Chokecherry, Aronia arbutifolia. This plant stands two to three feet in height and is best noticed this time of the year because of its flowers – another example of aspect dominance (a characteristic of an organism that makes it stand out in the landscape). As you make your way back toward the trailhead, look also for the white and pink blossoms of Buckwheat Tree, Cliftonia monophyla. The pink-flowered plants are locally known as “Vancleave” because of where this color variant was first reported. And this is just the beginning of the flowering season that will explode in the coming weeks as pitcher plants, orchids, and many other species that are found here make their appearance.
Of all of our great nature trails in this area, the Fontainebleau Trail runs through habitats that are among the most biologically diverse in the country. Key among these are Wet Pine Savannas, that most of us know as pitcher plant bogs. Yet the Yellow-Top Pitcher Plant is one of over 350 species of plants that can be found here. Adjacent and dryer Longleaf Forest can support upwards of 200 species of plants, but this level of diversity, as in savannas, is only possible under natural conditions that involve periodic, low-intensity fires that keep shrubs and trees at bay and encouraged herbaceous plants to thrive. The Fontainebleau Trail has great examples of both of these fire-adapted habitats along with Bayhead Swamps and Tidal Marshes that line Davis Bayou. The refuge is excited to celebrate the reopening of a portion of the trail where a new wooden walkway gives us full access. The fire crew from the refuge also recently conducted a prescribed burn in a portion of the site and mechanical treatment in other areas that are not as easily burned. This work will make this year’s renewal of these important habitats that much more spectacular. As if that is not enough, a new loop trail will be open in the coming weeks that will give visitors an even better experience across the Wet Pine Savanna portion of the trail. In partnership with the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society, the refuge will also soon sponsor monthly, guided excursions by me and other Naturalists so that we can all enjoy the year-round beauty of this important natural asset.
And this is but one of many of my “favorite” trails in south Mississippi. Stay tuned!
Hope to see you all in our great outdoors!!!