Undoubtedly the most iconic plant life of the coastal region is the Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), the official state tree of Georgia. Named because of its evergreen nature, a live oak is technically any one of a number of evergreens in the Quercus genus, many of which reside on the Georgia and South Carolina coast, but in local practice almost always refers to the Southern live oak. Capable of living over 1,000 years and possessing wood of legendary resilience, the Southern live oak is one of nature’s most magnificent creations. Though the timber value of live oaks has been well known since the earliest days of the American shipbuilding industry—when the oak dominated the entire coast inland of the marsh—their value as a canopy tree has finally been widely recognized by local and state governments.
Fittingly, the other iconic plant life of the coastal region grows on the branches of the live oak. Contrary to popular opinion, Spanish moss (Tillandsia usnesides) is neither Spanish nor moss. It’s an air plant, a wholly indigenous cousin to the pineapple. Also contrary to folklore, Spanish moss is not a parasite nor does it harbor parasites while living on an oak tree—though it can after it has already fallen to the ground.
Also growing on the bark of a live oak, especially right after a rain shower, is the resurrection fern (Polypodium polypodioides), which can stay dormant for amazingly long periods of time, only to spring back to life with the introduction of a little water.
You can find live oak, Spanish moss, and resurrection fern anywhere in the maritime forest ecosystem of coastal Georgia and South Carolina, a zone generally behind the interdune meadows, which is itself right behind the beach zone.
The oak may be Georgia’s state tree, but far and away its most important commercial tree is the pine, used for paper, lumber, and turpentine. Rarely seen in the wild today due to tree farming, which has covered most of southern Georgia, the dominant species is now the slash pine (Pinus elliottii), often seen in long rows on either side of rural highways. Before the introduction of large-scale monoculture tree farming, however, a rich variety of native pines flourished in the upland forest inland from the maritime forest, including longleaf (Pinus palustris) and loblolly (Pinus taeda) pines.
Right up there with live oaks and Spanish moss in terms of instant recognition would have to be the colorful, ubiquitous azalea, a flowering shrub of the Rhododendron genus. Over 10,000 varieties have been cultivated through the centuries, with quite a wide range of them on display during blooming season, March–April, on the Georgia and South Carolina coast (slightly earlier farther south, slightly later farther north).
The area’s other great floral display comes from the camellia (Camellia japonica), a large, cold-hardy evergreen shrub that flowers that generally bloom in late winter (January–March). An import from Asia, the southeastern coast’s camellias are close cousins to Camellia sinensis, from which tea is made (and also an import).
Other colorful ornamentals of the area include the ancient and beautiful Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), a native plant with distinctive large white flowers (evolved before the advent of bees); and the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), which for its very hard wood—great for daggers, hence its original name “dagwood”—is actually quite fragile.
An ornamental imported from Asia that has now become quite obnoxious in its aggressive invasiveness is the mimosa (Albrizia julibrissin), which blooms March–August.
An indigenous bush with an interesting history is the yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), from which coastal Native Americans made the famous “black drink.” (Indeed, Ossabaw Island, Georgia, gets its name from a Native American phrase meaning “yaupon holly bushes place.”) This bitter, caffeinated tea not only gave the tribes a buzz that helped them in spiritual quests, it was used for ritual purification and cleansing because it made them vomit copiously and loosened their bowels. However, holly tea in moderate amounts will have no noticeable effect other than a little caffeine boost, and the drink is still quaffed today in some rural areas of the coast.
Moving into watery areas, you’ll find the remarkable bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), a flood-resistant conifer recognizable by its tufted top, its great height (up to 130 feet), and its distinctive “knees,” parts of the root that project above the waterline and which are believed to help stabilize the tree in lowland areas. Much prized for its beautiful, pest-resistant wood, great stands of ancient cypress once dominated the marsh along the coast; sadly, overharvesting and destruction of wetlands has made the magnificent sight of this ancient, dignified species much less common.
The acres of smooth cordgrass for which the Golden Isles are named are plants of the Spartina alternaflora species. (A cultivated cousin, Spartina anglica, is considered invasive.) Besides its simple natural beauty, Spartina is also a key food source for marsh denizens.
Playing a key environmental role on the coast are sea oats (Uniola paniculata). This wispy, fast-growing perennial grass anchors sand dunes and hence is a protected species on the Georgia coast (it’s a misdemeanor to pick them).
South Carolina isn’t called the “Palmetto State” for nothing. Though palm varieties are not as common up here as in Florida, you’ll definitely encounter several types along the Georgia and South Carolina coast. The cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), for which South Carolina is named, is the largest variety, up to 50–60 feet tall. Its “heart of palm” is an edible delicacy, which coastal Native Americans boiled in bear fat as porridge. In dunes and sand hills you’ll find clumps of the low-lying saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). The bush palmetto (Sabal minor) has distinctive fan-shaped branches. The common Spanish bayonet (Yucca aloifolia) looks like a palm, but it’s actually a member of the agave family.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition