Donovan Slough on Natchez Trace Parkway is a Plant and Tree Lover’s Bonanza

June 12, 2012 · 0 comments

in Best Road Trips, The Natchez Trace Parkway

Donovan’s Slough is not your average rest stop.

Greetings again friends, this is Bill Taylor writing about a road trip we enjoyed. Donovan’s Slough is a remarkable collection of almost exotic trees and plants. In various seasons it can be a bird-watchers retreat, but it is always a delight to folks who love trees and plants. Park managers make interesting choices for travelers on the Natchez Trace Parkway. A horticulturalist or Dendrologist would be equally interested to a hobbyist in the unusual collection found here.

Black Willow Tree

One of our favorite pass-times while driving the Natchez Trace Parkway is to make short stops at scenic areas. We were in north Mississippi when I spotted Donovan Slough. Slough (pronounced slue) is an archaic name that I vaguely recognized to have something to do with water. Actually, each slough is distinctly different from other sloughs. They vary according to the climate of their area. In other words … if you’ve seen one slough … you haven’t seen them all! Sloughs are marshy depressions surrounded by dry land which drains into the depression.

When you step out of your car to head to the slough, you are greeted by a beautiful farm field. This is a well-tended field under private cultivation. I don’t know what the crop will be, but the dirt was rich and ready.

There is a well-constructed stairway down the gradual incline which takes you effortlessly to the slough and its surrounding foliage of trees, flowers and plants.

Soon after you reach the bottom of the steps, you come to the main attraction there is a bridge which crosses over the slough. The water is not attractive, but that isn’t the feature which lures people to view a slough. (The rhyme was an accident.) The slough develops deep into the edge of the field and continues until it crosses under the Natchez Trace. Although the water is not the attractive element of the slough, it would not be a slough without water being present at times.

During the rainy season, this slough can overrun its banks. During hot summer months, if rain is light, the slough may dry completely and the muddy bottom becomes so dry that it develops cracks. There is a pictorial legend which shows the dried, cracked slough bottom, but the slough was full of water when we visited.

Here’s a word of warning or advice. There is plenty of Poison Ivy growing along the edges of the trail and some of the small bushes have Ivy clinging to them. You are in no danger unless you handle one of the plants … so stay on the trail and don’t fondle any plant you aren’t familiar with.

People most interested in Donovan’s Slough will be those who have an interest in trees and plants. There are some plants of particular interest to be found here. The Buttonbush is a shrub which grows all along the Trace and provides nectar for bees and provides seed to feed migrating birds in other seasons.

Bald Cypress Knees

The Park Service has constructed a trail through this natural lowland which is inviting to water tolerant trees such as Tulip Poplar, sycamore and water oak. Bald Cypress thrive in this environment. Donovans Slough can be viewed in a comfortable 20 minute walk. This slough, named after an early settler,  generally stays wet year around.

This slough is unusually productive of large trees. The constant wetness is credited with this phenomenon. There is an abundance of spring flowers and the vegetation is as thick as some tropical rain forests. Small plants which grow here include False Solomon’s Seal, Trout Lily and Red Trilium.

The heavy vegetation of the trees and the moisture they help retain in the air provide a slightly cooler, more comfortable mini-climate during hot weather.

The River Birch ranges far into the south and is found here.

The Black Willow is always found near water whether here or as a shrub in Cape Hatteras. The Black Willow Tree reaches its largest size in marshy areas like Donovan’s Slough. You can identify it easily as they usually fork near the base.

The Water Tupelo thrives here because it can survive in lowlands and swamps with its roots completely submerged in water. The American Beech tree is also found here. This tree is semi-rare since early settlers found them easy cutting and used their wood for a large variety of tasks.

Steps from Parking toward Donovan’s Slough

The most attractive tree in areas like this is possibly the Bald Cypress. It only grows in marshy areas and has a shallow but broad rood base. The trunks of these trees have a swollen appearance which gives them a broader stance in the soggy environment they cherish. Cypress “Knees” protrude from the roots of Bald Cypress trees. These interesting looking roots are from a few inches to five or six feet in length, and are a favorite medium for many folk artists. They make unusual figures and designs which are incorporated into cuttings of Cypress knees.

Water levels can fluctuate as much as three feet in Donovan’s Slough. Depending on the water level, and seasonal variations, at the time of your visit, you may see things which we didn’t see on our visit.

From time to time, the shape and size of the slough will vary depending on the flow of water into the slough. Some plants and trees are sun tolerant and others are shade tolerant while others are also water tolerant.  If a plant, which is not shade tolerant,  happens to begin growth in this area it will probably die as the trees block the sunlight’s entrance to the floor of the slough.

More kinds of Oak are found on the Parkway than any other tree. The Swamp Chestnut Oak found here grows in bottom lands, swamps and along streams.

I have yet to see one, but this is a favorite haunt of the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker. This bird (a woodpecker) drills holes in tree limbs, then comes back later to drink the sap which accumulates in the holes it has drilled.

The Christmas Fern stays green all winter long and is seen on many of the banks and low areas of the slough. People can’t resist carving their initials into a tree bark. It isn’t a recognized art form, but it possibly has more participants than all other forms of art combined.

Never miss a chance to take a ride on the Natchez Trace Parkway. In its 444 miles, it goes from a near-coastal environment to a mountainous region in Tennessee. This covers three very different cultural and climatological regions.

We enjoyed the drive on this trip. I think you will too. It’s a great drive to run up miles and dial up smiles. That’s good for us, because we don’t count the miles, we count the smiles.

See you next time,

Bill

Trees in Donovan’s Slough Field at entrance to Donovan’s Slough

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