Ancient Wetlands of the Ozarks

Cupola PondBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

One of the things I love about living the Ozarks is discovering places of exquisite natural beauty.  Over millions of years this entire region was submerged in the warm shallow seas of the Paleozoic era before being uplifted by tectonic and volcanic forces.  This cycle repeated itself many times over the course of thousands of years, carving out the hills and hollers we call the Ozark Mountains.  Over the course of time, many of the plants and animals that once lived here became little more than geologic memories etched into stone.  Yet, a few remnants of ancient wetlands still exist within the relatively dry and rocky Ozark highlands.  They are known as Tupelo Gum Pond and Cupola Pond.

Both of these “ponds” are actually ancient sinkholes.   Over thousands of years the conduits, which normally allow sinkholes like these to drain, became obstructed and the depression left behind slowly filled with water and sediments.  During one of the long wet periods in the geologic history of the Ozarks, the sinkholes became populated by water-loving tupelo gum trees, which were common in the area thousands of years ago.

Over time the wetlands drained away, but a few precious and isolated wetlands remained – and with them, the water tupelos.

In modern times, water tupelos are almost exclusively found growing in the Mississippi Lowlands region alongside other water-loving trees such as bald cypress.  In Missouri, the nearest tupelo swamps are found roughly 100 miles to the southeast of the Ozarks.

There are only two ancient tupelo ponds in Missouri.  Both are in the sprawling and segmented Mark Twain National Forest and both are managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

tupelo gum pondThe first of these is known as Tupelo Gum Pond, a Natural Area found deep in the backwoods of the Mark Twain National Forest of Oregon County, Missouri.

“In wet years look for the blooms of American lotus in the center of the pond and rose mallow along the pond’s fringe.  This water source in an otherwise dry landscape is important for a variety of wildlife from deer to salamanders.  Another interesting facet to the pond is that over thousands of years tree pollen has collected and been preserved in the pond’s sediments.  Scientists have taken core samples from the pond’s sediments and determined that the trees growing around this pond between 12,000 to 20,000 years ago were mainly jack pine, a species now found native 500 miles to the north of here.  The pollen record from 3,000 to 12,000 years ago was poorly preserved.  Water tupelo and buttonbush pollen were common in the past three thousand years.”  Missouri Department of Conservation.

If you decide to make your way to this isolated spot, you will find many of the trees severely girdled by heavy beaver activity in recent years.  Steps have been taken to protect the remaining trees in the pond and conservation of this critical ecological anomaly is paramount to its survival.  But take heart.  Not all the trees are affected and this ancient remnant of earth’s history lives on.

Read more about Tupelo Gum Pond and find maps and directions to the area by visiting the MDC website.

The second example of a rare Ozark tupelo pond is Cupola Pond.  While still Managed by the MDC and found in the Mark Twain, this pond has been designated a National Natural Landmark.  It can be found in nearby Ripley County, Missouri.

Cupola Pond is thought to be a much older example of a remnant sinkhole swamp.  After identifying pollen deposited in the layers of sediments deep within the sinkhole, researchers estimate the age of the pond to be approximately 23,000 years.

Cupola PondAccording to the MDC, “Cupola Pond is a mysterious place where century old water tupelos form a canopy over a shallow wetland with scattered patches of buttonbush, sedges, and mosses. …Also unusual is the rare epiphytic sedge that grows on old logs and hummocks that stick out of the pond’s water. This sedge is typically found growing in the coastal plain swamps of the southeast. Fishless ponds such as this are very important breeding habitat for amphibians. At least seven amphibian species use the area including the rare wood frog, the marbled salamander, and the spotted salamander. In the spring the chorus of frogs and toads can be deafening.”

The website goes on to say “Researchers have probed the depths of the sediments below Cupola Pond and have cored down nearly 40 feet… [and] found sediments below the pond dating back 23,000 years.  The sediments… have been gathering pollen grains from surrounding vegetation for thousands of years…[which] allowed researchers to determine the types of vegetation growing around Cupola Pond…

“18,000 years ago the area around the pond was dominated by spruce and fir trees. This occurred when much of the upper Midwest was covered by glaciers. At around 12,000 years ago the trees growing around the pond included ash, oak, hickory, and hornbeam. 7,000 years ago the climate of Missouri warmed and dried and prairies expanded across the state. Pollen records from Cupola Pond for that time indicate oak, hickory, and grasses, sedges, and composites dominated the surrounding hills. Only in the last few thousand years have shortleaf pines become established in the uplands and tupelo gum became dominant in the pond itself.”

You can read more about Cupola Pond and how to get there by visiting the MDC’s online website.

According to the Nature Conservancy, the Ozarks are home to 407 species of plants and animals of “global conservation significance” with more than 160 endemic or native species found nowhere else on earth!  The stranded tupelo swamps found in the heart of the rugged Ozark Mountains are but two examples of the enormous wealth of ecological diversity found right here in our very own living Oz.

© 2013 Jill Henderson – feel free to share with a link back to this site.  Thanks.


AJOS-214x328[1]If you love the Ozarks or just exploring the outdoors,
you might like my book:

A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one.  Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor.  This is one journey you don’t want to miss.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.


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4 responses to “Ancient Wetlands of the Ozarks

  1. I tried planting tupelo (mdc bare-root seedlings) creekside in Douglas county years ago, and often wonder how they did there. I love the form of their trunks. Would like to visit their home ponds one day … summer season could be tough insect-wise though!

    • I’d love to know if they made it, too, Sara! I guess they take a while to grow. I’m thinking late spring would be a great time to go – frogs and new leaves and all kinds of budding things to find – and fewer bugs! We should plan a trip!

  2. going to put these wetlands on my wish list of places to visit. how interesting and beautiful.

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