Most swamps in South Carolina are found on the coastal plain, a region covering 20,000 square miles between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sandhills. A common type of swamp in this area are known as Cypress-tupelo or “Blackwater Swamps”. As their name suggests, blackwater swamps are flooded in a dark-colored, tea-like water. This is caused by vegetation decay, typically from one of the common trees here, the Tupelo. When Tupelo leaves fall into the water, biomolecules known as tannins are released giving the swamp its murky appearance. Tannic water also serves as a natural pesticide against mosquitos because of its acidic properties. However, not all insects are affected this same way. Honeybees in the swamplands produce a very special kind of honey only found here. Also known as “Swamp Honey”, Tupelo Honey is made exclusively from the nectar producing blossoms of Tupelo flowers. Because of its distinct fruity-floral taste, smooth texture, and high fructose to glucose content, Tupelo Honey is considered to be a delicacy and is famous throughout the world.
The other predominant tree species found in blackwater swamps is the Bald Cypress. Able to survive for centuries, these trees are amongst the oldest living organisms on Earth. Highly adaptable, cypress trees have few disease problems and can grow in a variety of soil types. One unusual characteristic about this tree is that it is both coniferous and deciduous. Typically, coniferous or “cone-bearing” trees are evergreen trees whose needle-like leaves are retained year-round. Deciduous trees, however, have leaves that fall seasonally. The name “bald cypress” comes from the appearance of the tree when its leaves fall in the early autumn months. Another peculiar feature of the cypress tree is that it has woody growths around its trunk called “knees”. Protruding above the ground or water, Cypress Knees are part of the tree’s root system that grow vertically. Originally, it was believed that the knees provided the tree with oxygen, almost like a snorkel for the water-saturated environment. But in fact, their function is unknown since trees with their knees removed do not decrease in oxygen content. Possible explanations for this phenomenon could be that they help the trees stabilization or gather sediment to prevent erosion but none-the-less, these knees remain a mystery of the swamp.
Aside from being a sanctuary and refuge for wildlife in the wetlands, swamps were also used in military tactics during the Revolutionary War. The terrain proved cumbersome for well-supplied British troops to navigate while light-footed militia patriots, who knew the area well, had less difficulty. War heroes like Francis Marion, also known as the "Swamp Fox", would use paths along swamplands to elude the British and use guerilla warfare to disrupt enemy advancement.
As equally as important as South Carolina history, swamps and wetlands play a vital role in the state’s environment. Swamps operate as filters, removing sediments and pollutants from the water, improving its quality naturally. When heavy rains induce floods, swamps absorb the extra water, reducing flood damage and help protect coastal regions from storm surges, which can erode the shoreline. Sadly, the value of the wetlands goes unseen and has been taken for granted. As of today, development and farming have drained over half of the wetlands that once existed in the United States. Hopefully with conservation and appreciation we can continue to experience these integral and misunderstood ecosystems... From the Sky!