What began 3 years ago as just an idea — to make a hiking trail through the wooded area of the “Old Nursery” in Jungle Gardens on Avery Island — saw some serious advancement last summer. Lisa Osborn, Herbert Leavitt, and I marked the proposed path of this trail by walking through the forested area of the Jungle Gardens’ Old Nursery (where E. A. McIlhenny grew plants for wholesale). We chose a potential route beginning at the edge of the woods not far from the Jungle Gardens parking lot and walked from that point all the way to the opposite forest edge ending at the Yellow Timber Bamboo.
Bernard Patout, head grounds keeper for Avery Island, then came to our assistance with his heavy equipment. He followed our yellow flagging and cut a spectacular serpentine trail through the forest. The trail is particularly attractive because it winds left and right, up and down, so that at any one point you cannot see the path behind you or in front of you.
This route eventually met and crossed a deep ravine (gully), which is also a wonderful sight to see. On March 12th and 13th, 2020, the Avery Island work force built a bridge over this ravine and it, too, is an amazing accomplishment. The bridge is both wide and strong enough so that service vehicles will be able to use it for trail maintenance.
This hiking trail will be marked and open to the pubic very soon.
Its not every day that you discover a garden hidden from view for over 70 years.
A “new” OLD CAMELLIA GARDEN which was discovered last year, hidden in plain sight (almost) in Jungle Gardens. Today, January 10th, it has been revealed for all to see. It was late in the blooming season of last year when we first noticed a few camellias inside a thick bamboo grove. At that time, a casual inspection of the plants nearest to the road suggested there might be about a half dozen large camellias. The bamboo was so thick that venturing far into the grove was not possible. Essentially nothing more was visible beyond the first few camellias due to the density of the bamboo.
Last week Bernard Patout and his team cleared the bamboo from the entire area where the camellias are growing. What materialized was not just a handful of camellias but no less than 43 camellias, planted in rows covering a substantial area. Some of these camellias are over 25 feet tall, no doubt because they struggled to reach the sun while competing with bamboo. It seems this grove of camellias was consumed by the adjacent bamboo during the last 70+ years and essentially vanished right before our eyes.
This is an exciting discovery because these camellias are some of the originals planted in the gardens over 70 years ago and that they have not been seen nor studied since that time. It is even possible that this group many contain some of the rarest camellias, known to have been in Jungle Gardens but never found!
It will be a fascinating group of plants for camellia enthusiast to study and identify. I tried photographing some of the flowers but many are so high up in the tall trees that my camera lens would not permit decent photos.
Now with the bamboo in its proper place these newly discovered camellias will be able to thrive and flourish. The plants looks surprisingly good and all of them have great color and appear to be very healthy. This newly discovered grove of Camellias is located not far from the Buddha parking circle as indicated on the map.
There is likely no other native bird in North America that remains so fascinating, so mesmerizing, as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (IBW). To many it is an almost magical bird. A bird so bewitching that even a reported 2005 sighting by experienced ornithologists eludes verification. Considered extinct by many and extant by others, the IBW captivates the imagination of many in the birding world. The only treatise of the species, The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker by James Tanner (1942), was the culmination of Tanner’s research and observations of IBWs in northern Louisiana in the 1930s. Yet since the reported sighting in 2005 no fewer than a dozen new books have been written about this hypnotic bird.
We knew that the IBW had been observed in the past on Avery Island and that E. A. McIlhenny wrote about these sightings on several occasions. There are references in James Tanners book “The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker” (1942) to both Avery Island and McIlhenny.
What we did not know until very recently is that two IBW specimens from Avery Island (male and female) exist in the collection of Cornell University in Ithaca NY. The specimens were brought to our attention by a Louisiana native, Matt Courtman, an IBW researcher who, while visiting Cornell, made the discovery. The two specimens are spectacular, some of the best IBW’s Matt has ever seen. Matt has had a long fascination with IBWs and will provide more information about the provenance of those two specimens. Currently all that is known is that the birds were collected by McIlhenny on April 7, 1895.
McIlhenny apparently closely watched the Avery Island IBWs throughout the 1890s. I have found his detailed accounts of nesting activities observed between 1892 and 1894. He reported on several active nests he monitored in great detail in the “Avery Swamp.” During that time he recorded the number of eggs laid, how many eggs per nest, and how many young per nest. There is no doubt he spent a considerable amount of time observing the nesting habits of Avery Island IBW pairs, commenting on them excavating nest cavities.
The common Pileated Woodpecker is regularly confused with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBW). The average non-birdwatching individual often assumes that just about any large black-and-white woodpecker could be or is an Ivory-billed.
If one brings up the subject of the IBW, a common response is “they are common around here today”. So without much thought many people simply assume the two birds are one and the same. This widespread inability to distinguish the Pileated Woodpecker from the IBW only serves to make skeptics out of those most able to distinguish between the two species.
The two old Chinese Oak trees located on the grassy hill near the Buddha Circle are producing acorns for the first time in three years.
I have watched these two exotic oak trees growing in Jungle Gardens now for 3 consecutive years and this is the only year during in which both trees show some serious acorn production.
Last year one of the trees, the Red Bark Oak, (Quercus gilva) did have small acorns but they never fully developed and all of them eventually aborted at a very small size. The failure to grow to any appreciable size suggested the flowers had not been suitably pollinated. That same season the nearby Bamboo Oak (Quercus myrsinifolia) showed no signs of any acorn production.
Yesterday I visited both trees and much to my surprise there is a considerable number of acorns on both trees and they are large. The acorns I saw yesterday are much larger and more numerous than any I saw last year. I don’t know what conditions might have prompted pollination but it appears both might produce a crop of nuts this year.
For decades I have known about the rarest of all native plants ever discovered on Avery Island, and for decades I have searched for and yet still not relocated three of these rarest species. Each was collected only once back in the 1930s and then never seen again. The plants have always intrigued me, and I have spent countless hours exploring deep ravines on the Island in hopes of locating them again. My searches have not been in vain, for I have made numerous discoveries of other rare plants, several of which had never been reported for Avery Island. But my hopes of relocating these three original discoveries have not yet materialized. This month, however, I made a special effort to track down the location of the actual herbarium specimens of these rare plants. My first search led me to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences (PANS) where famous botanist Edgar T. Wherry (1885–1982) deposited specimens he collected from Avery Island in 1936. Wherry found two species of North American ferns new to Avery Island, the Adiantum pedatum (“northern maidenhair”) and the Diplazium pycnocarpon (“narrow-leaved glade fern”).
Both species occur elsewhere in eastern North America, including Louisiana, but are considered extremely rare throughout the southern part of their range. Their discovery on Avery Island represents the southernmost location for both species in the United States and was a range extension of about 150 miles from the nearest known locality in the Tunica Hills north of St. Francisville, Louisiana. The topography of Tunica is remarkably similar to that of the largest salt domes along the Gulf Coast: Avery Island, Weeks Island, and CÔte Blanche Island. All of these areas are riddled with deep ravines that offer a unique habitat for some of North America’s rarest native flora. After contacting the PANS herbarium curator, I was able to acquire high-resolution images of the very specimens that Wherry collected on Avery Island. I was eager to see what notes about their discovery might be included on the label data.
Much to my surprise there are two specimens of the Adiantum. Both are mature fronds that were very fertile. This indicates that the species was apparently thriving in this location at the time it was collected. Unfortunately, the collection data is insufficient, and as such the original area where these specimens were found remains a mystery. The single specimen of Diplazium pycnocarpon is equally interesting: it is a rather large plant, though sterile. Wherry clearly indicates on the collection label that he only observed a single plant of this species. Again, the locality data on the label is quite vague: “north facing gully cooled by moving air.” Too vague to determine where he found them. Since all three specimens have the same collection date of September 9, 1936, and similarly vague habitat descriptions, I think it is likely all three came from the same location. It is equally interesting that there are no subsequent records of either species ever being collected again on Avery Island, despite the fact that other botanists are known to have collected on Avery Island in 1938, only two years after Wherry. They did not report either of these plants in their collections.
One of those other botanist who visited Avery Island in 1938 was Donovan S. Correll (1908-1983). He collected a specimen of Diplazium loncophyllum (“lanced leaved glade fern”). At that time it was the first and only record known from North America. It is a tropical species occurring in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. Its occurrence on Avery Island is likely due to Gulf winds or storms that transported the spores. Correll made a single collection of this species that is on deposit in the herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden. Once again, the collection data is quite vague: “deep heavily wooded ravine, south side of Avery Island.” He does indicate that the plant is “rather abundant.” This is the only collection of this species known from Avery Island.
I located a small but thriving population of Diplazium loncophyllum on Weeks Island in the 1970s. Subsequent trips were made to this location many years later, and the plants were still thriving. In the late 1980s I finally had the opportunity to explore CÔte Blanche Island. Much to my delight on that trip I located a single small plant of D. loncophyllum. The specimen resides at the UL Herbarium (LAF).
I have searched Avery Island ravines and gullies for 45 years and have failed to relocate these three species. Nevertheless, I still have hopes of rediscovering these elusive ferns, because there are potentially many of these ravines on the Island yet to explore.
Photo taken April 2013. Copyright Courtney Williams.
TREE IN JUNGLE GARDENS TO BE ADDED TO THE LIST OF STATE CHAMPION TREES FOR LOUISIANA
The common Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is scattered throughout the southeastern United States from Texas to Florida and northward to Illinois and Virginia. It is most often a shrub or small tree. While large trees of this species are rare, they have been reported on a few occasions, and I personally have found a few very large ones.
One Red Buckeye in Jungle Gardens on Avery Island stands out as being exceptional. When Mike Richard Sr. of Jefferson Island showed this tree to me three years ago, I could not believe how large it was. Since that time I have searched the literature and internet for other record-size Red Buckeye trees in the United States and have not found any reported.
Because of this tree’s size and location, I believe it is unlikely a cultivated plant but instead a naturally occurring one. The species is frequent in the forest throughout Avery Island and even occurs in woods along the island’s outer edge near surrounding cypress swamp forest.
I contacted the state’s Forestry Service and described the tree, telling them what I thought we had on Avery Island. On February 26, 2019, Dr. Rick Williams of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a section of USDA, came to Avery Island to check out the tree and take the required measurements.
This Red Buckeye is 40 feet tall and has a canopy of 40 feet across and a circumference of 41 inches. Dr. Williams said unquestionably it is the largest one he has ever seen, and there are none of similar size recorded in Louisiana. He is confident the State Forestry Commission will approve its listing as the State Champion Red Buckeye. Furthermore, he went on to say that since no other large ones are listed on the National Registry, he thinks it is an excellent candidate as a National Champion tree.
Torreya taxifolia, commonly known as the Florida nutmeg, Florida Torreya, gopher wood, stinking yew, or stinking cedar (although not a true yew or cedar), is a very rare and endangered conifer in the yew family found in the Southeastern United States, at the state border region of northern Florida and southwestern Georgia.
The first plantings of Torreya taxifolia are now in Jungle Gardens.
Torreya taxifolia has one of the most restricted natural ranges of any native tree. It is only known from a very small area of bluffs and ravines within Torreya State Park and at the Nature Conservancy Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, located along the east bank of the Apalachicola River in the northern Florida Panhandle and immediately adjacent southernmost Georgia. It is for all practical purposes nearly extinct in its natural habitat.
The population decline is attributed to a Fusarium fungal pathogen that prevents trees from reaching a mature size, thus preventing them from producing viable seeds and may ultimately kill the tree. The population of mature trees declined swiftly after the 1950s. Most trees found are immature and less than 6 feet tall. Fewer than 10 mature trees producing male or female cones are known to exist.
Fungicide treatment has been shown to be effective for fungal infection, with plants showing renewed growth after treatment. Recovery of the species may be hindered by global warming. It appears to be best adapted to the cooler, moister climates. Botanist believe this tree originate much further north and was forced south in advance of the last glaciers. Torreya produces a very large cone containing a single seed that resembles green plum. Chances are once it arrived at its southern destination it was unable to return north in the postglacial warming, due to poor dispersal abilities of the heavy seed.
Some biologists have even suggested that Torreya taxifolia is an evolutionary oddity similar to the Avocado and Osage orange, all of which are thought to have been dispersed by now-extinct animals. The seeds of Torreya taxifolia are extremely hard and require scarification to germinate, which may have been performed by the process of passing through an animal’s digestive tract. The terpene content of the berries and the thinness of the seed’s shell imply that the extinct ecological partner may have been a large tortoise.
Torreya thrives in cultivation and is now being produced commercially by nurseries in several southeastern states. Successful plantings of this species have been on going for many decades at botanical gardens and private estates and now there are mature trees producing seed in several locations including one at the Caroline Dorman Briarwood Nature Perserve in north Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. The elevated lands of Avery Island appear to be an ideal place for establishing a grove of this rare native cone bearing tree.