Mississippi has a diverse native flora of more than 2,700 plant species, including approximately 217 nonvascular plants, 72 ferns and fern allies, 11 conifers, and more than 2,400 flowering plants.
Forests dominate the natural landscape in much of Mississippi and include approximately 200 native tree species. Of these, the pines are among the most familiar and abundant. Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) can be found in northeastern Mississippi. Loblolly (P. taeda) and shortleaf pines (P. echinata) are common in central Mississippi, while longleaf (P. palustris) and slash pines (P. elliotii) are more common in the south. Sand pine (P. clausa) is found in well-drained, sandy soils near the coast. The spruce pine (P. glabra) is relatively shade-tolerant, grows in moist soils, and is often scattered among hardwoods.
The hardwood forests of the northern and central part of the state include many species of oaks and hickories. Common oak species include the white (Quercus alba), northern red (Q. rubra), post (Q. stellata), southern red (Q. falcata), cherrybark (Q. pagoda), water (Q. nigra), and willow oaks (Q. phellos). These trees share the canopy with various species of hickory, including mockernut (C. alba), pignut (C. glabra), and sand hickories (C. pallida), as well as other hardwoods such as the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), red maple (Acer rubrum), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), and American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). Common understory trees of the deciduous forests include the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and common pawpaw (Asimina triloba).
Along the coast the southern live oak (Q. virginiana) is a dominant feature of the landscape. These evergreen oaks have wide-spreading branches that often sweep close to the ground before curving upward again. Tolerant of salt spray and able to resist strong winds, many of these trees are centuries old, having survived countless storms.
For many people the image of swamps teeming with wildlife is emblematic of native Mississippi. Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and tupelo gum (Nyssa aquatica) dominate the swamps found in flooded areas along major river systems and in the Delta. Their branches are often draped gracefully with Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), not a true moss but rather a flowering plant of the pineapple family.
Mississippi has designated the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) as its state flower. This elegant species is, however, only one of six native magnolias, all of which bear attractive flowers. Whereas the southern magnolia is evergreen, the cucumber tree (M. acuminata), bigleaf magnolia (M. macrophylla), pyramid magnolia (M. pyramidata), and umbrella magnolia (M. tripetala) are deciduous. The sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana) retains its leaves throughout much of the winter, becoming evergreen toward the south.
Among the state’s most unusual natives are its four genera of carnivorous plants, the pitcher plants (Sarracenia), sundews (Drosera), butterworts (Pinguicula), and bladderworts (Utricularia). These carnivorous plants typically inhabit wet, acidic environments where nitrogen and other nutrients are in short supply. They obtain supplemental nutrients by capturing and digesting insects or other small organisms. Pitcher plants capture insects in fluid-filled pitchers, each of which is actually a modified leaf. Insects are attracted to nectar secreted at the rim of the pitcher, which is equipped with downward-pointing hairs that make it difficult for the insect to crawl back out. If the insect falls into the fluid at the base of the pitcher, it is decomposed by digestive enzymes. Pitcher plants native to Mississippi include yellow trumpets (Sarracenia alata) and the crimson (S. leucophylla), parrot (S. psittacina), purple (S. purpurea), and sweet pitcher plants (S. rubra).
Sundews and butterworts trap insects on sticky secretions on their leaves, which release digestive enzymes and absorb nutrients from the prey. Like the pitcher plants, they are found primarily in the Coastal Plain. The dwarf (Drosera brevifolia), pink (D. capillaris), spoonleaf (D. intermedia), roundleaf (D. rotundifolia), and Tracy’s (D. tracyi) sundews are native to Mississippi, as are the yellow (Pinguicula lutea), Chapman’s (P. planifolia), southern (P. primuliflora), and small (P. pumila) butterworts.
Bladderworts are found in aquatic habitats throughout the state. They are named for the bladderlike suction traps they use to capture and digest small aquatic organisms. The motion of an organism against hairlike projections near the mouth of the trap triggers a change in the shape of the bladder that sucks the animal inside. Species native to Mississippi include the horned (U. cornuta), leafy (U. foliosa), humped (U. gibba), swollen (U. inflata), southern (U. juncea), piedmont (U. olivacea), eastern purple (U. purpurea), little floating (U. radiata), and zigzag (U. subulata) bladderworts.
Mississippi’s rarest native plants include four species that are federally listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973: Price’s potato-bean, which is listed as threatened, and the American chaffseed, Louisiana quillwort, and pondberry, which are listed as endangered. Price’s potato-bean (Apios priceana), also known as traveler’s delight, is a scrambling vine associated with rich, calcareous forests in the Black Prairie region. It produces a large, edible tuber that may have been used by Native Americans and early settlers. The American chaffseed (Schwalbea americana) is an upright perennial herb with purple to yellow flowers that produce slender seeds with a loose chafflike coat. Partially parasitic, the chaffseed taps into the roots of various other plant species. It is adapted to live in acidic, sandy, or peaty soil in areas that are kept open by fires. The Louisiana quillwort (Isoetes louisianensis) is an aquatic fern ally. It lives along streams, where it roots under water in sand or gravel. Pondberry (Lindera melissifolia) is a small deciduous shrub that grows along pond margins or seasonally flooded wetlands. The name refers to the bright red fruits that are produced in the fall. In addition to reproducing by seeds, the pondberry frequently reproduces vegetatively, sending up new shoots from underground stolons.
Discovered in 2004, the big-leaf witch-hazel (Hamamelis ovalis) apparently exists only in a small area in southern Mississippi. Its large ovate leaves and red flower color distinguish it from the more widely distributed witch-hazel, H. virginiana.
- S. W. Leonard, Sida (2006); Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks website, www.mdwfp.com
- NatureServe Explorer: An Online Encyclopedia of Life, www.natureserve.org/explorer; US Department of Agriculture, National Plant Data Center website, http://plants.usda.gov
- US Department of Agriculture, National Forest Service website, www.fs.fed.us