A pine flatwoods can be most easily recognized by pine trees forming a canopy which is more open than, for example, the canopy in a cypress slough. A common species association in this ecosystem is pine-gallberry-saw palmetto. Common to southwest Florida and the FGCU campus is south Florida slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa): other pines that may be present in this system include slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. elliottii), longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), and pond pine (Pinus serotina).
Areas considered upland or high pine are found from the Carolinas sweeping down into the peninsula of Florida. In northern parts of the state long leaf pine may appear more often than in the southern and southwestern parts of Florida. In the southern and southwest portions of the state the upland pines are dominated by slash pine.
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is a typical understory species easily identified by large, fan-shaped leaves and trunks that tend to grow horizontally along the ground. Other common understory and groundcover species include wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), tarflower (Befaria racemosa), gallberry (Ilex glabra), and a wide variety of grasses and herbs. Generally wiregrass (Aristida spp.) and runner oak dominate longleaf pine sites, fetterbush (Lyonia lucida) and bay trees are found in pond pine areas, while saw palmetto, gallberry, and rusty lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea) occupy slash pine flatwoods sites.
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Pine flatwoods are the "high and dry" ecosystem in Southwest Florida, referring to their relatively high elevation and the fact that these systems are less likely to be inundated than other area ecosystems. Cap rock is often visible upon casual inspection and becomes conspicuous following the frequent fires common to this system. Limestone or sandstone cap rock is permeable and porous, usually resulting in xeric (dry) conditions. Due to the quick drainage properties of this cap rock it is necessary for plants to be adapted to short or virtually nonexistent hydroperiods.
As southwest Florida is an ancient sand bar, soils tend to be porous, acidic, and low in major plant nutrients. The soils are derived mainly from coastal plain sediments ranging from heavy clay to gravel, with sandy materials predominant. Silty soils occur mainly on level expanses. Sands are prevalent in hilly areas, but they also cover broad flats in central Florida.
While there may be prolonged seasonal rains, the porosity of the soils and the rapid tropical evapotranspiration process tend to prevent any type of long-term hydroperiod. Nutrient cycling is rapid and accounts for the rapid recovery of burned areas. As soon as the nutrients become available to new growth, the fire-induced reproduction begins immediately.
The flora of the upland pine systems varies a great deal from location to location and depends on many factors such as: soil type, moisture content, nutrient cycle, and temperature gradient.
Often ecotonal systems, upland pine sites offer a melding of the surrounding ecosystems as well as provide unique qualities that some species have adapted specifically for. Pine uplands provide habitat for a wide variety of animals. Except for a few isolated areas where black bear or the endangered Florida panther are found in small numbers, the whitetail deer is the only large indigenous mammal. Common small mammals include raccoons, opossums, flying squirrels, rabbits, and numerous species of ground-dwelling rodents. http://www.fs.fed.us/colorimagemap/images/232.html
"In addition to the wide variety of species common in many of the states upland habitats, a few species are more or less restricted to the high pine. There are some reptiles and amphibians which require the loose, open sand for movement and burrowing, as well as the species dependent on the burrows of the endangered gopher tortoise. There are also numerous bird species common (although not restricted) to the high pine, including: the red-cockaded woodpecker, common ground dove, eastern kingbird, eastern bluebird, pine warbler, and hairy woodpecker, among others." http://www.ficus.usf.edu/docs/fl_ecosystem/upland/up-scrub.htm
Fire is a common characteristic of pine flatwoods ecosystems, with fires historically occurring as often as every one to eight years. Plant species within pine flatwoods are generally well-adapted to fire, and the frequency of fires in this system tends to prevent other species from becoming established.
Upland pine areas are distinctly independent ecosystems. However, they may also be common ecotonal areas (transition zones) between low lying grassy or marshy ecosystems and elevated systems such as the highly xeric ridge systems and scrub areas.
Pine flatwoods are important ecosystems, but they were historically overlooked as wastelands good only for the pines that grew on them. These systems may be evolving due to the low intensity of prescribed burns that have become standard in southwest Florida. This management system may well be ineffective due to the lack of infrequent intense burns that these areas have evolved to accommodate.