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The strange and beautiful flora of Louisiana’s Barataria Preserve

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,

All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,

Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,

And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself…

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1892

This week, I’ve been visiting my daughter and celebrating my birthday in New Orleans, a city I fell in love with during the 10 years Jerry and I made our home here.

We moved away just two months before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and this is the first time we’ve had a chance to come back.

Yesterday, we hiked a portion of the Barataria Preserve Trails, which is part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. Named after the famous French privateer and smuggler who operated in the area in the early 1800s, the park’s preserve is about 30 miles southwest of New Orleans and consists of 23,000 acres of bayous, swamps and wetlands.

One of the most striking features of the preserve is the southern live oak trees (Quercus virginiana), which unlike the solitary oak of Walt Whitman’s poem, have innumerable companions all along the trails. In contrast to Southern Oregon’s native white oaks (Quercus garryana), live oaks are evergreen and have the broadest spreading canopy of any oak tree species. When mature, they can draw up to 50 gallons of water per day through their massive roots.

City Park in New Orleans is home to the oldest grove of live oaks in the world, some of which are 750 to 900 years old. Here stands the Dueling Oak, a 300-year-old live oak that is 70 feet tall with a girth of 20 feet. In the 19th century, the Dueling Oaks (one was felled by a hurricane in 1949) was the favorite place for Creole gentlemen to resolve their “affairs d’honneur” with pistols and swords, a practice that was not outlawed until 1890.

Many live oaks throughout the city and in the Barataria Preserve are luxuriously draped with Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), which surprisingly is kin to pineapples and other bromeliads. Unlike the mistletoe commonly found among the branches of the Rogue Valley’s oak trees, Spanish moss does not invade the living tissue of its host, using the tree limbs only for support. With no root system, the moss absorbs moisture and nutrients from the air through its gray scales, a distinctive feature that camouflages the fact that Spanish moss is really a green plant.

In bloom all along the Barataria trails right now is the giant blue iris (Iris giganticaerulea), a rhizomatous perennial that is the largest species of Louisiana native irises. Its bright purple flowers with yellow markings and a musky scent span 5-6 inches and sit atop the plant’s 2- 4-foot-tall stems.

For many years, Louisiana citizens debated whether the state flower should be the Southern magnolia or the giant blue iris. The argument was finally settled in 1990 with a compromise: the state flower would be the magnolia and the state wildflower would be the giant blue iris.

In contrast to the beloved blue iris in Louisiana, the yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus), a European native commonly found in Oregon wetlands, is an invasive species.

However, the Barataria Preserve has its own share of invasive plants. Two such species are salvinia molesta and salvinia minima, aquatic floating ferns that form expansive mats on the surface of still and slow-moving bodies of freshwater. These natives of Latin America and the West Indies outcompete native plants and threaten fish and wildlife that feed on fish by blocking sunlight from penetrating the water’s surface.

One of the most iconic features of Louisiana swamplands is the semi-submerged bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum), a relative of Oregon’s coast redwoods and giant sequoias. Unlike these evergreen cypresses, bald cypress trees are deciduous (thus their name). They are some of the most ancient trees, dating back 150 million years. These wading giants can grow up to 120 feet tall with slender girths of 3 to 6 feet.

Contributing to the primordial and eerily beautiful quality of the swamps are the bald cypress knees, short, conical protuberances that rise out of the water around the main trunks of the cypress trees. Some say cypress knees are meant to stabilize the root system of the trees; others claim they provide oxygen so the tree roots don’t drown. However, scientists don’t really know the purpose of the cypress knees, which adds to the mystery and thrill of visiting the Louisiana swamplands.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For pictures and more about the flora and fauna of the Barataria Preserve, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.