Wetlands — prairies, cypress ponds, river swamps, hammocks, freshwater and saltwater marshes, and mangrove swamps–cover a large area of Coastal Florida. Cypress ponds stay wet throughout the year. Here, Mother Nature maintains a delicate balance between the wetlands, and the animal and plant life that survive within them.
Within the wetlands, you'll see tropical hardwood hammocks, home to much of Florida's wildlife, dotting the monotonous landscape. More jungle-like than their northern neighbors, they grow as “tree islands” surrounded by tall grasses. In fact, hammock is a Seminole word meaning jungle. Because the soil is so rich, it supports a thick tangle of vegetation, including cypress, live oaks, hickory, and magnolia trees intertwined with vines and ferns, topped off with colorful orchids. Coastal hammocks, with cabbage palms, red cedars, and oaks, lie near the shore. Hammocks containing live oaks, draped with Spanish moss, grow throughout the state. And in tropical hammocks in southern Florida grow magnificent royal and pigeon palms and mahogany and gumbo-limbo trees interspersed with ferns, forming dense thickets. The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples and the Fakahatchee Strand near Sarasota, both diffused streams known as cypress strands, contain trees soaring over 100 feet tall. Wet prairies or mangroves surround the hammocks.
Florida swamps also have many species of insectivorous plants, with sticky pads or liquid-filled funnels that trap small insects, which are then digested by the nitrogen-hungry plant. The highest diversity of carnivorous plants, including bladderworts and pitcher plants, grows around the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida's Panhandle.
The Everglades consists mostly of freshwater marsh or wetlands with few trees. During the winter months, the sawgrass, a favorite haunt of alligators and water birds, turns brown from lack of rain, but once rainfall begins in the spring, it returns to a brilliant green. White-tailed deer mingle with bullfrogs, egrets, herons, and panthers. Unfortunately, the numbers of all of these have diminished following the draining of marshes for farming and flood control. So far, 65 percent of the Everglades has been irreversibly drained.
From June to November, mosquitoes are virtually unavoidable in any area close to fresh water. Through these months, it's absolutely necessary for you to wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers, plus wear insect repellent.
Salt marshes, on the other hand, are coastal wetlands rich in marine life. Also known as tidal marshes, they form along what's called “low-energy” shorelines — that is, shorelines lacking significant wave action — such as you'll find in the Big Bend area between Apalachee Bay and Cedar Key. Like the mangrove swamp, the salt marsh provides a nursery for many types of fish, which provide food for larger fish, as well as water birds like egrets and herons. In a few southern Florida salt marshes, you might even see a rare great white heron.
Where fresh water from springs and salt water from the ocean combine is known as an estuary. As the spring water flows toward the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean, it becomes saltier, forming different habitats for a variety of wildlife. While frogs and water insects prefer fresh water, jellyfish and barnacles prefer salt water. When the water achieves a half-salt and half-fresh ratio, it's termed “brackish.” It's here that you'll likely see turtles and crabs, as well as egrets standing in the tall grasses.