What is a hammock?

By Rhonda M. Brewer

The Aucilla River is a beautiful place to work and to learn. The river and its surrounding flora and fauna are good for the soul; a "classroom" backdrop such as this is conducive to learning, and hard work is never dreary, simply because of the beautiful environment.

The crew is always on the lookout for birds to watch and plants to identify. Having grown up in the city and suburbs of Cleveland my notion of wildlife consisted of the occasional squirrel and artificial deer lawn ornaments. I quickly became aware of my ignorance concerning nature, especially Florida wildlife, which was a constant source of amazement to me (I was astounded by the size of the insects, not to mention the size of the bites they left on my body).

Many lively discussions take place after dinner when the work is done; topics vary from the intellectual to the inane (a result of hard work). One night I was thumbing through a wildlife book as talk surrounded a bird we had seen cruising over the boats earlier that day; I came across the word "hammock." In an effort to get a quick answer, I asked the crew what a hammock was and received two different definitions.

In order to clarify the meaning I did a little research and this is what I found.

According to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the word hammock is derived from hummock, but the exact origin is unknown. It is defined as "a fertile area in the southern U.S. and esp. Florida that is usually higher than its surroundings and that is characterized by hardwood vegetation and deep humus-rich soil."

Victor Shelford echoes this definition in The Ecology of North America (1963) and adds a list of important trees typically found in hammocks which include southern magnolia, American holly, redbay, laurel oak, American beech, and live oak. Shelford also lists a number of trees, shrubs, vines and herbs that comprise typical understory.

In his book, A Naturalist in Florida (1994), Archie Carr, zoology professor and naturalist, states that in Florida a hammock refers to any hardwood forest, although the definition varies slightly depending on geographical area. In coastal Georgia the term refers to "a little island in the salt marsh, usually with red cedar, small live oaks, and saltbush growing on it" (Carr 1994:171).

In the Everglades a hammock refers to "isolated patches of small broadleaf trees, many of them West Indian species, in the sawgrass or maidencane marsh or limestone pinelands" (Carr 1994:171).

In the remaining area of the south where the term applies, a hammock is "any predominantly evergreen woods that is composed of nonconiferous trees" (Carr 1994:171). Because coniferous woods such as pinelands and cypress swamps are so prevalent in the south, the term hammock is useful for distinguishing between these forests and the hardwoods; however, the term is less useful nowadays because so many of the hammocks are gone. Hammock soil is some of the most fertile in Florida; as a consequence, most were cut down long ago so that fan-farmers could use the rich soil, and trees could be used for lumber.

Hammocks are not extensive, and typically occur in narrow bands only a few hundred meters wide. The hammocks found in northern Florida contain "the largest numbers of species of trees and shrubs per unit area in the continental United States" (Platt and Schwartz 1990:194).

According to the article by Platt and Schwartz in Ecosystems of Florida (1990), although hammocks are typically designated as xeric, mesic, or hydric (which refers to low, medium, and high soil moisture respectively) these forests are more frequently defined by their location and vegetation than by moisture zone. Platt and Schwartz thus describe hammocks by their location along the topographic gradient: high (xeric), midslope (mesic) and low (hydric). All three have typical overstory and understory associated with them.

Thomas Barbour, naturalist at large, describes hammocks this way, "I love hammocks ... in the early spring, when the yellow jasmine festoons the forest trees and when the redbud and giant dogwoods and the maples are putting forth their vivid crimson foliage, I do not know of lovelier spots to sit listening to birds and resting in the heat of the day" (Barbour 1944:165).

I anticipate my return to the Aucilla River where I may once again enjoy the natural splendors that pristine Florida has to offer.