Burned last spring, the bogs of Splinter Hill are in their glory right now, a last burst of wild color before sinking into their winter dress.
This burst of yellows and greens, purples and blues is part of the great fall nectaring, when all manner of flowering plants pop their buds to entice millions of migrating birds, butterflies and other creatures for a last feast before the first frost. Walk the bog now, and you’re in for a spectacle once common, but almost lost.
Welcome to Splinter Hill, a glimpse of what Alabama, and much of the South, used to be.
Carnivorous white-topped pitcher plants, which sport blood-red flowers in the spring, spear through a yellow-green prairie of knee-high grasses. Longleaf pines – growing twice as far apart as a squirrel can leap – tower above, their foot-long needles casting only the sparest of shadows on the meadows below. There are more species of flowering plants at your feet than anywhere else in the nation. Orchids, asters, lilies, and more. And then the butterflies: sulphurs and frittilaries, painted ladies and the giant Spicebush swallowtails — a slash of pumpkin-colored spots on their midnight blue wings — flit past as a forestful of birds sing their Alabama song.
This is old Alabama, broad vistas of tall trees and low grasses, sandy hills and endless seeping bogs. This is the Alabama our great-great-grandparents would recognize, before the last few generations had their way. This is our state as it once was, not as most of it is today, all covered up in thickets of lesser oaks and holly and Chinese privet so dense that light no longer reaches the ground. Splinter Hill is all big skies and open vistas, with rolling, flower-covered sand hills draining into swampy, snaky bottoms.
These longleaf forests of your great-granddaddy’s Alabama likely have more living things per square foot any than other place in North America, scientists say, and more than almost any place in the world.
There are just a few pieces of this Alabama left, scattered across the state like tiny islands.
One of the biggest pieces left lies just east of Rabun, about 30 miles north of Mobile, part of what was once a vast longleaf pine forest and wetland area spreading out from a sandy ridge called Splinter Hill. If you have occasion to travel up or down I-65 this month, stop in for a moment, an hour, a day. From the first glance, it will impress, even if you barely get out of the car. It’s a mile off the interstate at the Rabun-Perdido exit between Montgomery and Mobile. You’ll find two giant tracts, better than 1,500 acres, managed by Forever Wild and the Alabama chapter of the Nature Conservancy. It’s worth the trip.
Set against today’s Alabama, all covered up in thickets of oak and holly and scrub so dense and unnatural that deer can’t run and quail can’t fly, what survives at Splinter Hill can just about break your heart.
Ruled by the elemental powers of fire and water, there were once hundreds of thousands of acres of these bogs, stretching across Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Few remain, biologists say.
Bobwhite quail, described by biologists as a “declining species” are thriving in the Splinter Hill area. I encountered several coveys in a day spent tromping through the grasses. These longleaf forests and bogs were the natural habitat of quail. The disappearance of Alabama’s open, meadow-like forests played a prominent role in the shrinking quail populations. If you’ve heard farmers or hunters say they’re managing their property for longleaf, or for quail, this place is what they are trying to recreate.
This is the historical landscape that early settlers would have encountered in Alabama in the 1700 and 1800s. Drive up and down I-65 and you might think Alabama has always been pine plantations and thickets of shrubs so dense you can’t walk through them, or even crawl. But that’s not true. Our forests were once open, light-filled places. The trees were far enough apart, and the undergrowth low enough, that you could ride a horse at full gallop through the forest. Just imagine that the next time you’re staring out your window as you blast down the interstate looking at the dense and unnatural wall of brush against the right of way.
But it is not just Alabama. Two hundred years ago, longleaf pine made for one of the most dominant forest types in America, covering nearly 100 million acres. Ninety-eight percent of those longleaf forests are gone, and many of the remaining stands are in sorry shape, according to biologists.
Splinter Hill, by contrast, is in pretty good shape. It has been logged before, perhaps more than once, but the unique native plant communities in the understory of the forest have managed to hang on. Scientists say the tract is large enough to protect genetic diversity and the intricate intertwining relationships between the plants and animals that live there.
And Splinter Hill is important on a global scale. These last pieces of old Alabama are one of the Earth’s crown jewels of biodiversity. Only a handful of sites in the world are as diverse as Alabama’s longleaf savannas.
Making the Splinter Hill tract even more attractive are the several distinct forest types on the property, including longleaf pine savannas, the open grassy pitcher plant bogs, the more thicket-like shrub bogs, longleaf pine sandhills and streamside swamp forests. You can walk through all those ecotones in a morning, watching the plants and animals around you change as the terrain beneath your feet shifts.
Each of those habitats serves as home to plants that are both rare and endemic – meaning they don’t live anywhere else in the world. Let’s explore them for a moment.
The streamside swamps occur in the wettest parts of Splinter Hill, gathered along pools formed in low spots where the bogs drain. The tea-colored waters are punctuated with islands of mossy, muddy earth clumped around bay and tupelo trees. Think of Degobah, where Yoda lived, and you get the idea.
The sandhills, by contrast, represent the driest parts of the Splinter Hill ecosystem. These gentle swells of sandy earth that rise above the wetlands support an array of plants and animals that simply couldn’t survive in the perpetual damp of the bogs. Tufts of increasingly rare wire grass – which blooms only after it has been burned – crown the small hills, surrounded by asters and wild peas. Bluejack oaks with turquoise leaves shade the delicate purple flowers of deer tongue, whose leaves produce a luscious vanilla odor. Gopher tortoises dig burrows that stretch up to 25 feet into the hills.
But it is in between the standing water of the bay swamps and the dry of the sandhills that you find the rarest and most precious jewels of Splinter Hill – the bogs.
These bogs are among the most diverse and most threatened places on the planet, according to botanists. Many of the plants in the bogs are endangered. Some may still be unknown to science.
It is in similar bogs in Baldwin County that George Folkerts, an Auburn University botanist, counted more than 60 species of plants within an area of roughly 3 square feet, one of the highest totals ever recorded on Earth. Scientists expect somewhere between 100 to 200 species of plants inhabit just the bog areas of Splinter Hill.
Splinter Hill is easily one of the largest wetland bog complexes left on the Gulf Coast. Among the unique plants there is the pot-of-golf lily, found only in a few dozen places on the entire globe. Think about that. Compare it to an oak tree, or a daffodil, or a buttercup, plants that live in hundreds of thousands of places on Earth, even millions of places. Then imagine a flower so rare almost no one alive has ever seen it.
And there are many other rare plants.
Scientists say there are at least 15 plants at Splinter Hill classed as extremely rare. One, the American chaffseed – a federally endangered species – occurs nowhere else in any of the remaining pitcher plant bogs in all of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
Spring-blooming pink orchids, yellow fringeless orchids, daisies, meadow beauties, bog buttons, lilies, candy root, several members of the rose gentian family, yellow-eyed grass, club mosses, and numerous sedges form a lush and soggy carpet beneath a canopy of longleaf and slash pine. Right now, the curling seed heads of toothache grass are waving above the fray. Dig up the root of a toothache plant, pop it in your mouth and chew. Within seconds, your tongue goes numb, followed by your gums. Chew a minute more, and your tongue becomes so clumsy you simply can’t talk.
During the rainy season, the ground in a pitcher plant bog is fairly firm, but submerged under a couple of inches of water. Frogs hop from grass tufts and float motionless, only their eyes above the water. Dragonflies and butterflies, including swallowtails, sulphurs and whites, are everywhere. Grasshoppers in greens and browns leap away with every footfall. Bees buzz. Praying mantis prey – and so do many of the plants. In fact, just about every family of carnivorous plant native to America is represented at Splinter Hill, save for a few notable exceptions such as the Venus fly-traps, which are restricted to the Carolinas.
Short, squat parrot-beaked pitcher plants sucker flies and ants into their deadly interiors, employing tricks of light and scent, just like their taller pitcher plant cousins at Splinter Hill, including white topped pitchers, purple pitchers and the exceedingly rare Wherry’s pitcher plant.
The leaves of the taller pitchers have evolved into water-holding flutes, long and narrow like champagne glasses. Bugs climb, fly or fall into water held in the tubular leaves, exhaust themselves trying to escape and then drown. Slowly digested inside the pitchers, the carcasses nourish the plants, which are famed for big, showy, upside down flowers that look like alien landing craft painted in vicious reds and lemon yellows.
It’s a fascinating landscape and a precarious one. One we’ve almost lost entirely.
The south was once a vast natural system held in balance by fire and water. Together, they served as nature’s gardeners, pruning, fertilizing and dictating where different kinds of plants could live. It was fire – sparked originally by the area’s frequent lightning, later by humans – that kept the old woods open enough to where a horse could run at a full gallop. Fire is the magic ingredient of a healthy longleaf forest, and a healthy pitcher plant bog. It keeps the shrubbery at bay, keeps the forest floor open so pitchers and orchids and everything else can find enough light to survive.
Before man interrupted the system, these forests thrived on this perpetual push and pull, regulated by lightning sparked burns every few years. Lording over the battle were the longleaf, one of the only woody plants in the South able to survive a forest fire. Indeed, many of the plants in the longleaf forests are so dependent on a periodic brush with fire that they will set seeds only after they’ve been burned.
But today, the once common lightning-induced fires are as rare as bogs like Splinter Hill.
Botanists say there are probably a number of long-lost bogs right under people’s noses, bogs that disappeared under heavy growth of woody shrubs including ink berry hollies and weedy broadleaf trees, such as water oaks and sweetgums, that flourished in the absence of fire. I’ve seen some of these bogs be rediscovered after an accidental fire, or an accidental bulldozing. Light got back to the ground, and seeds, sometimes decades old, sprang back to life.
There’s a little known reason Splinter Hill is in such good shape. A group of old timers kept burning it every few years, on purpose, even though it wasn’t their land. This troop of secretive locals burned the area to promote the pitcher plants, which they used to gather and sell to florists as far away as New York City. The old-timers knew that without fire, the pitchers would get choked out by the undergrowth.
It is ironic, in every way, that the thing that preserved this last piece of old, magnificent Alabama, was a steady demand for its weird and beautiful plants in faraway New York.
Jump in your car today. Go see our incredible natural heritage. I promise it is worth the trip.