By: Jerry Patee, Florida Master Naturalist
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
There are few places along the Gulf Coast like the 0.32-mile nature trail called “the Way”, where you find three distinct ecosystems in such a compact setting. Migratory birds and butterflies need a large variety of plants, trees, and bushes to provide food and shelter during their spring and fall migrations. The native plants and animals living along the Gulf Coast year round especially count on us to preserve this habitat…they call home. In addition, you will find four meditation decks on the wooden boardwalk to sit and discover the still quiet beauty of nature all around you.
As the land gradually drops in elevation before entering “the Way” at the edge of the PBUMC parking lot, it ends at the tidal flats of Garcon Bayou. Upon entering “The Way”, you will find plants adapted to three different ecosystems; defined as (1) Upland, (2) Wetland, or (3) Coastal Systems. The differences of where and why plants grow here are determined by a very small change in “elevation” along the trail, measured in inches; such as the iconic Palmetto, an upland plant. As the trail transitions into a wetland environment, White Top Pitcher Plants begin to appear, where the nutrient-poor soil and wet conditions provide a perfect habitat. As the mudflats meet Bayou Garcon, Black Needle Rush and other salt marsh grasses become part of the Coastal Ecosystem that has adapted to the brackish waters and daily variations in the tide.
The entire system depends on vegetation such as smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), growing closest to the water, black needle rush (Juncus roemericanus), found between the low and high tide line, and marsh hay (Spartina patens) which inhabits the high tide line. Marsh grasses slow coastal erosion by reducing wave energy and saving coastal properties important to humans. Research has found these grasses act much like our kidneys and help filter and clean a significant amount of stormwater pollutants, such as fertilizers, that are known to triggerfish kills and bacteria blooms. Despite the benefits of marshes many coastal communities have dredged and filled them for development, in some communities up to 40% of marsh habitat have been removed.
Along with tropical rainforest and coral reefs, salt marshes are one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on our planet. North Florida salt marshes provide needed habitat for 70% of our commercially valuable seafood species such as shrimp, crab, and fish. It is also home to a variety of species such as fiddler crabs, periwinkle snails, wading birds, and diamondback terrapins, which are not directly valuable commercially but provide value to a growing ecotourism industry. Together these less iconic animals and plants represent a healthy ecosystem needed for clean water and provide the food chain to keep nature in balance.
Take time during your walk but tread lightly as you take in all the wonderful surprises found along the Way. Don’t be surprised to see nature come alive in the form of beautiful butterflies floating among the Sweet Bay Magnolia to majestic Bald Eagles soaring high above, reminding you what true freedom must be like. Observe a wide variety of wetland plants that take turns blooming all year to include three carnivorous plants such as White Top Pitcher Plants, Sundews, and Bladderworts…true gifts from God.
To find out more information along the Way, go to our website at thewayperdido.com