The word pocosin comes from the Algonquin Native American word for "swamp on a hill". These evergreen shrub- and tree-dominated landscapes are found on the Atlantic Coastal Plain from Virginia to northern Florida, though most are found in North Carolina. Usually, there is no standing water present in pocosins, but a shallow water table leaves the soil saturated for much of the year. They range in size from less than an acre to several thousand acres located between and isolated from old or existing stream systems in most instances.
There are two types of pocosins, short and tall. Short pocosins have tress that are less than 20 feet tall. Tall pocosins have trees that are over 20 feet tall.
Because pocosins are found in broad, flat, upland areas far from large streams, they are ombrotrophic like northern bogs, meaning rain provides most of their water. Also like the bogs of the far north, pocosins are found on waterlogged, nutrient-poor, acid soils. The soil itself is a mixture of peat and sand containing large amounts of charcoal from periodic burnings. These natural fires occur because pocosins periodically become very dry in the spring or summer. The fires are ecologically important because they increase the biodiversity of shrub types in pocosins.
The most common plants are evergreen trees (loblolly bay, red bay, and sweet bay), and evergreen shrubs (titi, fetterbush, and zenobia). Pocosins provide important habitat for many animals, including some endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker. They are especially important as the last refuge for black bears in coastal Virginia and North Carolina, and the red wolf has recently been reintroduced in North Carolina pocosins.
Functions and values
Habitat is the most valuable function of pocosins. Some pocosins are very large and difficult to develop, and so they remain largely undisturbed. As a result, they are a haven for species adapted to living in unaltered forests. As more and more land is developed in the Eastern United States, pocosins are becoming ever more valuable refuges for wildlife.
The slow movement of water through the dense organic matter in pocosins removes excess nutrients deposited by rainwater. The same organic matter also acidifies the water. This very pure water is slowly released to estuaries, where it helps to maintain the proper salinity, nutrients, and acidity. This process is important to help maintain healthy fish populations important to both commerce and recreation. Pocosins are also sources of valuable timber and fuel, but these uses can harm or destroy pocosins if they are not carried out responsibly.
About 1,400 square miles of undisturbed pocosins remain today. By comparison, more than 3,000 square miles were drained between 1962 and 1979. Historically, pocosins were mostly threatened by agriculture. Today, timber harvesting, peat mining, and phosphate mining join agriculture as the biggest threats to the remaining undisturbed pocosins.
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