Walking the “Back Forty” . . . one way to get healthy!


Continuing to follow the Trail Map at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve in Simmons Bayou, we are looking at Water Street. You most likely know how it got its name. That’s right – it’s usually underwater. When this article was started last week, it was dry as a bone on almost the entire road. Pigs did find 2 small wet areas to waller in for relief from the heat. This week it is a lot wetter. 

Pigs have no sweat glands, so they need the wet soil to coat their skins and help them regulate their body temperatures. This helps to keep insects away also. They use mud baths to scrape off parasites such as ticks and lice. Wild pigs, to mark their territory, rub their scent glands in wallering areas. Who knew? 

Water street runs along the property line of the preserve. There is a fence which marks the boundary so there’s no chance to wander onto our neighbor’s land. Beyond the neighbor’s property is Depot Creek.  

When you walk the trails, you will notice small ponds. Staff was informed these ponds were probably created when a group was brought in to dynamite areas to look for treasure. As the area is named Treasure Shores and there are tales of long-lost treasures and lost payrolls – it is believable.  

As you hike along Water Street you notice different kinds of trees such as, longleaf, short leaf, loblolly pines, cypress trees and other trees as well. 

There are a lot of Longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) in the preserve. They are majestic looking and grow 60 to 80 feet high. In the spring you will see purple flowers clustered at the ends of branches. They produce large, brown cones which are 6 – 10 inches long. 

The leaves of the Longleaf pine are called needles. They have long, glossy and drooping needles. The needles grow in groups of three, making them easier to distinguish from other pines. Their needles are used in landscaping. 

The trunk of the longleaf pine is tall, straight and brown. There are branches and foliage at the top of the tree. Its brown bark is very thick, protecting it from the periodic fires of its dry habitat. 

You will find most of the longleaf pines in dry, sandy sites. They are fire dependent and need fire to prosper and grow.   

The Slash pine or Pinus elliottii, can be seen on many of the trails. They grow 70 to 80 feet in height. They need full sun, and, in the spring, they have insignificant brown flowers. They produce shiny dark green needles which grow 8 to 12 inches long. The needles are in bundles of two or three. The cones of the slash pine are 3 to 5 inches in length and have spiny scales.  

The Slash pine is tall and has branches only at the top of the tree. Its bark is plated and is dark brown. The Slash pine likes open woodlands and fields.  

Slash pine is the dominate tree seen in pine flatwoods today. It was planted when longleaf pines were harvested because it grows so much faster than longleaf pines.  

Slash pines are drought-tolerant and likes different types of soils.  

Sophia Fonseca, Environmental Specialist at the Buffer Preserve, leads the TRAM Tours and points out the different trees, needles, and cones of the different pines on the preserve. “Looking at each tree in the wild is exciting. They each have their distinctive characteristics. The seeds from these pines provide food for birds and small animals”, she points out. 

You might also see the Pinus taeda or Loblolly pine. These pines were also planted to replace longleaf pines in the past.  

Loblolly pines grow to 50 to 80 feet tall. They like sun and in the spring have small yellow-brown flowers at the ends of their branches. The cones of the Loblolly pine are medium sized, brown in color, and have a sharp spine on each scale. 

The needles of the Loblolly are yellow-green and grow 6 to 10 inches long. Their needles are in a bunch of three. 

The Loblolly’s bark stands out as it is rough and reddish gray on its straight trunk. It is an adaptable species and is found in woodlands. They prefer acid soil. Loblolly pines are important sources of valuable lumber. 

There are other kinds of pine trees in the preserve such as the Pinus clausa, or Sand pine. The sandy, well-drained ridges and hills are their preferred habitat. They are native in Florida and extreme southern Alabama.  

Sand pines grow 30 to 40 feet tall. They also need sun. The cones of the Sand pine are clustered and brown, growing 2 to 4 inches long.  It takes four years for the cones to open. When they do open, they release flat brown, winged seeds. 

The needles of the Sand pine are dark green, growing 2 to 3 1/2 inches long. The needles are soft and flexible and grouped in bundles of two. 

Why are Sand pines important on the Buffer Preserve? It is one of the major components in the sand scrub habitat which is favored by the gopher tortoise and other endangered species.  

The Choctawhachee pine, (Pinus clause var. immuginata) is a variety of sand pine found mainly on Florida’s west coast. 

A great reference book is Native Florida Plants by Robert G. Haehle and Joan Brookwell. It can be checked out of a library, or you might pick one up in a book sale or yard sale. It is handy to have on hand to identify Florida’s magnificent native trees and plants.   

We had an unexpected treat when taking pictures of Water Street for this article. On the way back we spotted an American eagle just sitting in a tree. We watched for a few minutes as we figured he was looking for a morning snack or lunch. Such a beautiful sight. He flew off after a few minutes, but it was delightful to watch him. 

In my haste to get these articles done some weeks, I forget to thank those folks nice enough to drive me around on an ATV so I can take pictures and see what I am writing about. They have even taken pictures for me on occasion when I could not go myself. Thanks to Site Volunteer Jeff Loschiavo and Staff Maintenance Specialist Tony Cole. I think they are concerned that I might get lost if by myself and they might just be right. What a great place to get lost for a few hours though! 

There’s talk of trying to plan a series of programs (when it is cooler and hurricanes are not to be considered) for taking a different road, trail, or street each week and traveling to them by tram then walking them. Seasoned and serious hikers probably would not be interested however there are those of us who would jump at the chance. We will let you know when that happens.  

Get outside every chance you have and get healthy while you enjoy the outdoors! I found that I noticed something different each trip and saw things I had forgotten from past trips in the Uplands. So, if you only start out with the trails closer to the entrances, that’s OK. We will figure out a way to make it to the roads . . . in the back forty!  

This article originally appeared on The Star: Walking the “Back Forty” . . . one way to get healthy!


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