Baygalls By Charles Allen

This article is dedicated to the late Robert Murry and from whom a lot of this information comes.   “What is a ‘baygall’? Webster’s doesn’t tell us. We do learn that one use of the word “bay” means – “any of the various terrestrial formations resembling a bay of the sea”. The word bay alone is used to describe a smaller aggregation of plants and the habitat they occupy in other parts of the south. Also used is “green-head” and “titi”.  But to most people in southeastern  and west central Louisiana the word “green-head” means the poorly drained sump area in the pine flatwoods that is dominated by mature oaks – usually obtusa, water or willow oak.  Baygall is apparently used from East Texas through southwest and southeast Louisiana and then eastward through south Mississippi and south Alabama into northwest Florida.  A term that is sometimes used through the area is “As tough as a baygall” perhaps referring to how tough it is to get through a baygall due to the dense growth plus the presence of sawbriars.  The origin of the word baygall is not known; sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night trying to figure out if the plants with bay (red bay, white bay) in their names or gall (large gallberry) get their names from baygall or is baygall named for these plants?

Baygalls are developed along sandy bottom small streams and the term could refer to the stream itself or the vegetation or to both. I lean more toward the latter application of the term since the vegetation that develops seems to be directly related to the stream.  The predominance of broadleaf, mostly evergreen shrubs makes the baygall contrast greatly with the needle leaved evergreen forests of pines through which the streams run.  The strips of baygall vegetation along the streams are always narrow since it seems that the larger stream bottoms would develop swamp vegetation. If you move upslope from a baygall, the vegetation change may be to a pitcher plant or other type bog, especially in open areas.  The bogs are open areas dominated by gramninoids and often carnivorous plants including pitcher plants (Sarracenia).  In some areas, the change upslope is to savannah vegetation; this is especially the case in baygalls that occur in flat terrain.  In more hilly areas, the change upslope is usually to a longleaf or other pine forest but in some areas will change to sandy woodland.  And, in some hardwood forested areas, the baygall may change upslope to an upland hardwood forest.  As you move upstream, the baygall gets narrower and narrower and eventually will end as a seepage area in the pine forest and this area is often a small bog.  Downstream, the baygall often changes into an upland hardwood forest.  As is the case with all vegetation types, the baygall is not homogeneous with patches within of lower and wetter areas that could be called a swamp and higher and drier areas with pines and open areas that are more like bogs.

The soils of baygalls are acid, often sandy, and moist. Fuel moisture is usually high within the zone of woody vegetation in a baygall. This is due to moist “seepy” ground, predominance of evergreens, and the fact that leaves that are shed tend to lie flat on the ground, preserving moisture and reducing the surface exposed to the air during combustion. A major contribution to the retardation of fire in a baygall is relative absence of grasses and other highly flammable fuels due to the history of shading by the overstory.  On rare occasions, with the right combination of conditions, fires do penetrate or even burn across baygalls. A long dry spell during the dormant season followed by low humidity and high winds sets the stage for wildfire from the surrounding pinelands to invade a baygall. Most woody vegetation in a baygall is very sensitive to fire so a moderately intense burn results in a great deal of mortality for the above-ground parts of the baygall shrubs, vines and trees. Grasses and other good fuel producers invade the new openings and greatly increase the vulnerability to fires the following season. Without follow-up fires, the broad-leaved woody plants spread back into the zone of their former occupancy.”

Baygall vegetation is mostly a short tree or tall shrub type but in some baygalls, a taller canopy is found. The most common large tree is swamp black gum (Nyssa biflora or Nyssa sylvatica var biflora) with other larger trees including swamp red maple (Acer drummondii), American Holly (Ilex opaca), and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).   Most of the small trees or shrubs are evergreen with the three most common including red bay (Persea palustris), white bay (Magnolia virginiana), and large gall berry (Ilex coriacea).  Other shrubs include fetterbush (Lyonia lucida), poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), possum haw (Viburnum nudum and cassinoides), baygall waxmyrtle (Myrica heterophylla), waxmyrtle (Myrica cerifera), baygall blueberry (Vaccinium arkansanum), white titi (Cyrilla racemiflora) and alder (Alnus serrulata).  Alder is more common in open areas in the baygall and is often an indicator of recent disturbance.  Other less common shrubs include red chokecherry (Aronia arbutifolia), silverbell (Halesia diptera), fringetree (Chionanthus virginica), summer huckleberry (Vaccinium elliottii), winter huckleberry (Vaccinium arboretum), arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), Virginia willow (Itea virginica), horsesugar (Symplocos tinctoria), and several species of Hypericum.  The genus Rhododendron (wild azalea or honeysuckle) includes at least three species in Louisiana with all three somewhat connected to baygalls.  The most common and widespread species is sweet azalea (Rhododendron canescens) which flowers in late March to early April before the leaves appear and has pinkish flowers.  This species prefers the well drained soils of creek banks in the pine forest region and if in baygalls is on the natural levee of the baygall stream and not in the moist areas. It is notably absent from the Mississippi River and other large stream floodplains. The other two species of Rhododendron (white azalea and late azalea) both have white flowers and produce flowers later in the year when the plant is fully leaved out.  White azalea (Rhododendron oblongifolium) flowers in May and June and is a low growing shrub with white flowers that are very sticky on the back due to the presence of glandular hairs.  It is an inhabitant of the upper or outer edge of the baygall and often forms dense thickets.  Late azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) flowers in July to September and also has the sticky white flowers like white azalea.  Late azalea is a taller shrub that is usually found along the edge of the baygall stream.  Lowland bamboo vine (Smilax laurifolia) is found in almost all baygalls with other species of Smilax, especially Smilax glauca in the drier sites, sometimes present and yellow jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens) often along the drier edge of the baygall.

. The most common herbaceous plants are ferns including royal (Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis), cinnamon (Osmunda cinnamomea), southern lady (Athyrium felix-femina), sensitive (Onoclea sensibilis), netted chain (Woodwardia areolata), and Virginia Chain (Woodwardia virginica). Peat moss (Sphagnum) is found in scattered patches on the floor of most baygalls. The herbaceous species list includes a few flowering plants including members of the Asteraceae: Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum); sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa); and Sabine blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia scabrifolia).  Sabine blackeyed Susan inhabits the wetter spots while sweet coneflower tends toward the drier sites.  The red (should be pink) milkweed (Asclepias rubra) is in the edge of the baygall and often moves into the adjacent bog.  There are three members of the Liliaceae; deathcamasa (Zigadenus densus); bunch flower (Melanthium virginicum); and feather bells (Stenanthium gramineum) and each seem to have their own habitat preference.  Feather bells is a well drained forest inhabitant and not a part of the baygall while death camasa is usually found on the somewhat better drained natural levee of the baygall stream but bunch flower is in the wetter sites within the baygall and often has wet feet.  The latter two have a tendency to extend into bogs.   .Many orchids are in the bog-baygall complex with many preferring the open areas of the bogs.  A few orchids (Small Green Wood Orchid (Platanthera clavellata) and Palegreen or Southern Rein Orchid (Platanthera flava)) prefer the shaded baygall.  The very interesting nodding nixie (Aptera aphylla) is an orchid-like inhabitant of baygalls.

In 1991, the late Robert Murry started a tour of baygalls that he called Bogs, Baygalls and Birds.  This annual event has continued since and is now called the BBBBB with other “B” words like butterflies, boletes, brown bag etc added.  It is scheduled every year in mid to late May one year and late March to early April the following year.  In 2006, it is scheduled for April 6-9.  Another baygall event is also scheduled for late July to mid August each year and is on the calendar for August 11-13 in 2006.  This tour will allow you to see the baygall in its summer plumage and in particular to see the large summer orchids.  Some pictures of baygalls and baygall plants will be posted under photos at Native Ventures.