While the official state tree of Florida is the stately Sabal palm, many would argue that the official tree of the coastline must be the mangrove. This salt-tolerant wetland species is characterized by densely netted aerial roots that rise in a tangled tapestry from the mud along the shoreline of bays, rivers, and estuaries. Florida boasts three native mangrove species—red, black, and white— each identified by the shape of their leaves. Mangroves are exceptionally tough and capable of growing successfully in muddy soil, sand, or among coral rock. They thrive in water up to 100 times saltier than most other plants can withstand. Because they live where land and water meet, mangroves endure severe storms and hurricanes, and their roots are flooded twice a day due to ocean tides. Any one of those scenarios is enough to kill most species, but the mangrove forests persist.
Tough Trees for Hostile Environments
Mangroves survive under seemingly impossible conditions due to a unique set of evolutionary adaptations. Mangroves have the ability to:
- Process and filter large amounts of salt: Saltwater can destroy plants, so mangroves have adapted to extract freshwater from the surrounding saltwater. Some mangrove species have the ability to filter out as much as 90 percent of the salt in the water as their roots absorb it. Several mangrove species get rid of salt via glands in their leaves. Other mangrove species store the excess salt in older leaves or bark. When the leaves fall or the bark sheds, the accumulated salt falls away with them.
- Save and store available freshwater: Like plants that thrive in desert conditions, mangroves can hoard fresh water in thick succulent leaves. The leaves are coated with a waxy substance that minimizes evaporation and retains water repositories.
- Breathe via several methods: Some mangroves cultivate pencil-like roots or tubes that protrude from the wet ground like mini-snorkels. These breathing tubes, called pneumatophores, allow mangroves to survive the daily flooding, by taking in oxygen from the air when the tide is out.
Some mangrove root systems are aerial, growing and arching over the waterway. Kayaking through Sarasota and Siesta Key mangroves is a wonderful way to explore this natural phenomenon. Aerial roots take several forms, but all broaden the tree’s base. They resemble the architectural design of flying buttresses on centuries-old buildings, working to shore up and stabilize the shallow root system in the soft, wet soil. But these roots provide more than structural stability – aerial roots are vital in delivering oxygen to the tree. Mangrove bark and roots feature thousands of lenticels, cell-sized breathing pores that close up tightly during high tide, providing a seal against the water to prevent drowning.
Mangroves are Integral to Sarasota’s Ecosystem
Beyond their beauty and iconic coastline aesthetic, mangrove trees are critical in protecting healthy waters and fisheries in our region. A 2019 study from The Nature Conservancy found that during Hurricane Irma in 2017, mangroves likely prevented more than $1.5 billion in surge-related flood damages to properties and protected more than 626,000 people across Florida. The trees excel at preventing erosion, and naturally disperse wave energy to minimize the intensity of tidal surges associated with severe storms.
Mangroves also provide vital natural habitat for birds such as ibis and herons, which roost and nest in the canopies. They nurture countless fish species, shellfish, crabs, and microorganisms needed for healthy coastal life. Because of their importance in sustaining our estuaries, mangroves are legally protected in Florida. A permit is required to cut, trim, or remove mangroves, even along the banks of private property.
Explore Sarasota’s Mangroves by Kayak
Whether you are a resident or a tourist, kayaking the mangroves is a fantastic experience not to be missed. Consistently rated as one of the best ways to immerse oneself in Florida wildlife and beauty, kayaking allows you to safely explore the mangrove ecosystem without leaving a footprint. To learn more about where to put your kayak in for the best mangrove experience – or to schedule a guided tour – call Ride and Paddle today.