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Florida Land Steward

Florida Land Steward

« Upland Forest Ecosystems

Pine Flatwoods

River swamps have a shorter hydroperiod than stillwater swamps and a perceptible flow rate for at least a part of each year.

These wetlands constitute about one-third of Florida's swampland and are found primarily in north Florida. Reduced topography and abrupt changes in soil type in Florida river swamps may "blur" individual vegetation zones. This ecological diversity likely makes river swamps the most diverse of Florida swamps.

River swamps may occupy the floodplains of:

The most extensive terrestrial ecosystem in Florida is the pine flatwoods. This community evolved under frequent lightning and human-caused fire, and seasonal drought and flooded soil conditions. Pine flatwoods are characterized by:

  • low, flat topography
  • relatively poorly drained, acidic, sandy soil
  • and in the past, by open pine woodlands with frequent fires.

The USDA Soil Conservation Service classification system divides the pine flatwoods into two distinct groups: 

North Florida flatwoods are typically open woodlands dominated by pines.  This ecosystem is most commonly used as woodlands (timber, wildlife, recreation, etc.). 

South Florida flatwoods are typically savannas, a type of vegetation community intermediate between grassland and forest.  This ecosystem is used extensively for range (cattle grazing). 

  • Area Coverage, Distribution & Change Since European Settlement

    Flatwoods occur throughout the southeastern coastal plain and cover approximately 50% of the land area of Florida.  Individual stands may comprise thousands of hectares, often forming a matrix interspersed with isolated cypress heads, bay heads, hammocks, marshes, wet prairies, or upland sand hill or sand pine scrub. 

    Change Since European Settlement

    The following changes in the pine flatwoods ecosystem of Florida are evident since European settlement:

    1. Early Spanish settlers attempted agriculture and introduced livestock
    2. Extensive areas of virgin pine were cleared during the Civil War
    3. Construction of roads and other fire barriers
    4. Conversion to numerous other land uses
    5. Non native species established
    6. Present stands have: lower fire frequency, more even-aged structure, and denser understory with greater shrub cover and less herbaceous cover.

    Some early writers described pine flatwoods as, "open enough to drive wagons through easily.".

  • Vegetation Structure & Species Composition

    Pine flatwoods are characterized by:

    • an open overstory of pines
    • an extensive shrub layer
    • and a variable and often sparse herbaceous layer

    Four Dominant Trees Characteristic of Flatwoods

    • slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. elliottii)
    • south Florida slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa)
    • pond pine (Pinus serotina)
    • longleaf pine (Pinus palustris

    For more information, read the Extension Publication, Common Pines of Florida.

    Understory Shrubs

    • saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)
    • gallberry (Ilex glabra)
    • fetterbush(Lyonia lucida)
    • wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera)
    • dwarf live oak (Quercus minima)
    • tarflower (Befaria racemosa)
    • blueberries / heath (Vaccinium spp.)

    Minor or Infrequent Hardwoods

    • live oak(Quercus virginiana)
    • water oak(Q. nigra)
    • sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
    • red maple(Acer rubrum)
    • ash (Fraxinus spp.)

    See our Trees of Florida page for more information.

    Herbaceous Plants

    These plants provide appreciable cover only when fire is frequent)

    • wiregrass (Aristida stricta)
    • beard grasses (Andropogon spp.)
    • white topped aster (Aster tortifolius)
    • Catesby's lily (Lilium catesbalaei)

    Threatened or Endangered Plants


  • Fauna

    The pine flatwoods of north and south Florida are home to a variety of animals.  Many larger animals are found where the flatwoods join other communities (ecotones), where nesting sites, den sites, food, and cover are provided.

    Animals Typically Found in Flatwoods


    • bobcat (Lynx rufus)
    • fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)
    • gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
    • armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)
    • eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus)
    • cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus)
    • white-tailed deer (Odecoileus virginianus)
    • skunk (Spilogale putorius)
    • raccoon (Procyon lotor)
    • opossum (Didelphis virginiana)


    • red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus)
    • Bachman's sparrow (Aimophila aestivalis)
    • Bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus)
    • brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)
    • meadowlark (Sturnella magna)
    • piliated woodpecker (Drycopus pilatus)
    • pine warbler (Dendroica pinus)
    • red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
    • rufus-sided towhee (Pipilo erthrophthalmus)
    • yellow-throated warbler (Dendroica demonica)


    • eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)
    • pygmy rattlesnake (Sisturis militarius)
    • yellow rattlesnake (canebrake) (Crotalus horridus)

    See the Online Guide to the Snakes of Florida for more information.


    • oak toad (Bufo quercicus)
    • chorus frog (Pseudacris nigrita)
    • pinewoods tree frog (Hyla femoralis)
    • cricket frog (Acris gryllus)
    • grass frog (Hyla ocularis)
    • flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum)

    Threatened or Endangered Wildlife


    • Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus)
    • Florida panther (Felix concolor coryi)


    • Southeastern kestrel (Falco sparverius paulus)
    • red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis)
    • Florida sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pratensis)
    • bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) (currently off the list)


    • eastern indigo snake (Drymarshon corais couperi)
  • Soils & Hydrology


    Typical flatwoods soils are moderate to poorly drained, fine sands which:

    • are generally acidic and have low reserves of available nutrients
    • have low organic matter content
    • have low clay content (often less than 2%)
    • contain a spodic (organic) horizon: formed when organic matter is translocated downward by water percolation

    Clay hardpans may result from transport and accumulation of clays.  Many of the soils supporting flatwoods are spodosols but much variation exists.

    See our Soils page for more information.


    The flat topography, soils, and seasonal precipitation of the pine flatwoods strongly influence hydrology. Some hydrological characteristics of flatwoods:

    Rainy Season - minimal water runoff results in waterlogged and poorly aerated (not exposed to air) soils during the rainy season and there may be standing water for varying periods of time.

    Dry Season - high evapotranspiration draws much water from upper soil horizons.  Water often cannot move upward from lower horizons where there is an impermeable hardpan - therefore, droughty conditions result. 

  • Scrubby Flatwoods

    Scrubby flatwoods occur on sites slightly higher and better drained than flatwoods, but lower than scrub or sand hills.



    • slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. elliottii)
    • south Florida slash pine(Pinus elliottii var. densa)
    • longleaf pine(Pinus palustris)


    • scrub oak(Quercus inopina)
    • Chapman oak(Q. chapmanii)
    • sand live oak(Q. geminata)
    • saw palmetto(Serenoa repens)
    • scrub palmetto (Sabal etonia)

    See our Trees of Florida page for more information.


    Soils of scrubby flatwoods are sufficiently well-drained so there is typically no standing water, even under wet conditions.  Scrubby flatwoods represent an ecotone (a boundary between plant communities) between flatwoods and scrub habitats.