With so many different ecosystems on Hunting Island, a great variety of plant life has been able to thrive. In the Maritime Forest, trees include cabbage palmettos, live oaks, yaupon hollies, red bays, and southern red cedars. The primary dunes are ideal for sea oats and dune panic grass because they can withstand the onslaught of salt water and waves. The secondary dunes, which are more protected from the salt spray and storms can support southern red cedar, wax myrtle, yaupon holly, and saw palmetto. The primary grass of the salt marsh is Spartina, but other grasses grow here as well. At the freshwater lagoon, you may see dune pennywort, common cattail, saw grass, and sea mallow.
Cabbage Palmetto, Sabal Palmetto
Description: The state tree of South Carolina, the Cabbage or Sabal Palmetto grows up to 65 feet with some as high as 90 feet. It is a type of fan palm. It has yellowish-white flowers that are .2 inches across, occurring in large clusters up to 8 feet across. Its fruit is a black drupe about a half inch long with a single seed. The tree is tolerant of salt, drought, and cold, and it is resistant to fire, floods, and high winds. Its terminal bud has been eaten as hearts of palm, although extraction kills the tree; the bristles of young leaves have been made into scrub brushes, and the trunks have been used for wharf piles.
Range: Sabal Palmetto is native to the subtropical Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the US as well as Cuba and the Bahamas.
Photo courtesy of Linda Miller
Prickly Pear Cactus
Description: The name Opuntia comes from the Ancient Greek city of Opus where an edible plant grew that could be propagated by rooting its leaves. The “leaves” of the cactus are called cladodes or platyclades and are usually covered in spines or barbed bristles that can penetrate the skin. Some plants can grow into large tangled structures. They are intolerant of shade and thrive in full, hot sun with well-drained soil. They bloom in the late spring with waxy yellow-gold flowers with red centers. The red fruits are edible. The Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus is also known as the devil’s tongue.
Range: The Eastern Prickly Pear cactus ranges from Montana south to New Mexico and from the lower Great Lakes to the eastern seaboard between New York and the Florida Keys. It prefers coastal scrub habitats like Hunting Island.
Prickly Pear Cactus
Description: This tall, subtropical grass is a major component of sand dunes on Hunting Island and the southeast US barrier islands. The large seed heads, which are wind pollinated, give the plant its common name. Its tall leaves help trap blowing sand and promote dune growth and stability. Its dense surface root systems help stabilize dune environments and build barrier islands. It also provides food and habitat for beach animals. Reproduction occurs mainly through buds around stem bases. It grows under harsh conditions primarily on dune crests where it has little competition. It needs salt spray but does not tolerate waterlogging.
Range: Seen on dunes and beaches from Virginia to Florida, the Gulf Coast, Mexico, and the Bahamas. It is protected by the state of South Carolina.
Southern Live Oak
Description: If the pine and palm trees are the tall straight soldiers of the maritime forest, the live oaks are the graceful dancers with limbs outstretched, dipping close to the earth then curving up to the sky. Live oaks can live to 1000 years but they grow quickly and reach their maximum trunk size in just 70 years. Although rarely used for construction anymore, live oak wood is very hard, and Old Ironsides was built from live oak. Live oaks whose limbs dip far enough to touch the earth are called Angel Oaks. Sometimes their limbs are propped up to allow cars to drive under them. The most famous Angel Oak is outside of Charleston on John’s Island. It is considered the most often visited tree in America. Live oaks have deep taproots and a widespread root system which makes them able to withstand strong winds and hurricanes. That’s why they do well on Hunting Island until the beach actually washesaway.
Range: Live oaks range from southeastern Virginia to Florida including the Keys and as far west as Texas.
Southern Live Oak
Description: There are 40-50 species of the yucca plant, and all are notable for their rosettes of tough sword-like evergreen leaves and white panicles of flowers growing from the center. They were once mistaken for a type of cassava. Yuccas are pollinated by yucca moths which lay their eggs in the flowers. The larva then feeds on the yucca seeds. Yuccas also host three kinds of giant-skipper caterpillars. Some varieties of yucca roots are high in saponins and used in shampoos in Native American rituals. The dried leaves provide good firestarters. Primarily yuccas are used for ornamental purposes because they tolerate a wide range of conditions.
Range: Native to hot, dry parts of the Americas and the Caribbean as well as the lowlands and dry beach scrub areas of the South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, as far north as Virginia.
All photos taken by Carl Berube on Hunting Island, 2012-2015.