Maritime Hammock

Image of trail through maritime forest with trees and green vegetation
A trail winds through a maritime hammock

R. Rasmussen Photo

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The maritime hammock and the species that thrive there are often the subject of some of the most iconic images of Florida and America’s southern states. There are now countless images of the twisting and turning branches of live oak trees covered in cascades of Spanish moss.

These hardwood forests are found throughout the preserve and throughout the southern coastal United States. They may seem unassuming at first, as they are dominated by shades of green and are relatively quiet and motionless at first glance. Standing still in a maritime forest can change your perception of this. A closer look reveals layers of the forest, a flurry of activity, and countless signs of life.

Layers of the Forest

As you walk through a maritime hammock, take note of the distinct layers of the forest. The canopy, or highest section of the forest, is dominated by live oaks. Their branches are often covered in Spanish moss and resurrection fern. Live oak lumber is incredibly sturdy, which made it ideal for shipbuilding in the 18th and 19th centuries. Live oaks in Timucuan Preserve are protected, and they provide habitat for various migratory birds.

Image of saw palmetto
Saw palmetto is found throughout the understory, and its roots snake across trails.

NPS Photo

The canopy transitions gracefully into the understory through vines like muscadine grape and Virginia creeper. Shade-tolerant species like hollies and saw palmetto thrive in the understory, as sunlight is often blocked out by the dense canopy above. These plants provide an abundant source of food for animals like white-tailed deer and raccoons. Be sure to look, listen, and tread carefully while searching for these animals, as they often flee when they hear loud sounds, disappearing into the dense understory right before you. They may also leave signs of their presence along the trails, most often in the form of scat and tracks.

The lowest section of the forest is called the groundfloor. The groundfloor supports the two layers above, and also helps to recycle forest nutrients. Fallen branches and dead wood are decomposed by fungi and insects, and bacteria and mold break down leaf litter and dead animals. Animals like armadillos help to overturn soil while searching for insects, allowing decomposers to work more efficiently. Nutrients are returned to the soil where plants will utilize them, perpetuating the nutrient cycle.

You can experience the wonder of the maritime forest on a hike through Theodore Roosevelt Area.

Last updated: October 1, 2021

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