Monday, December 12, 2011

Mississippi River Louisiana Creole Plantation

Laura Plantation along the Mississippi River in Southern Louisiana.  
Farms are always full of all kinds of interesting biological subjects.  For me, the traditional Midwestern farm is pretty familiar but still a very interesting place to do some “scientific” exploration.  Recently I visited the Laura Plantation on the Mississippi River in Southern Louisiana, which was a totally new experience for me.  This particular plantation is Creole, which is different from the English plantations we more traditionally think of.  English plantations have a culture like what we can see in “Gone With The Wind” with a big white house.  Creole plantations are much more colorful and are French in origin.  

All of the plantations in Southern Louisiana are located on the Mississippi River being it was a natural highway through impenetrable swampland that expanded in every direction.  The Mississippi was essential for bringing supplies into the plantation and sending products out.  Without the river there really wasn’t any reliable mode of transportation
Sugar cane field. 
The primary product of these plantations was and still is sugar cane.  Sugar cane is a tropical grass that produces a large amount of sap that is rich in sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar.  This grass can grow up to a half inch a day reaching up to 15 feet and can produce an amazing 20 pounds of plant material per square meter as long as their is plenty of sun, heat, and water available.  Unlike most crops, sugar cane only needs to be planted once every three to ten years being even after it is harvested the roots survive underground and will sprout the next season.  During the 1800’s these plantations were worked by slaves until the Civil War.  After the Civil War however, slaves were freed but plantation owners kept the African American workers through debt slavery...  And so slavery continued in another form until the chopper harvester, or combine was developed.  Once invented, the combine could do the same amount of work as about 100 slaves, thus ending the need for slavery in the sugar cane industry.  
Chili peppers 

Besides sugar cane, Creole plantations are full of all kinds of other interesting plants.  I found citrus, bananas, papyrus, and all kinds of tropical flowers.  Also common to these plantations were pecan trees which of course grow the common pecan nut found in stores.  Interestingly, pecan trees are a type of hickory tree very similar to the shagbark hickory further north.  Pecans however consistently produce large quantities of nuts making them agriculturally superior to other hickorys.  In this area of the south, pecans are cooked with sugar to make the famed praline snack.  Chili peppers are also traditional Creole plants.  There are many varieties that have their origin in Southern Louisiana, including the tabasco chili from which Tobasco Sauce is made.
Southern live oak draped in spanish moss.

Lastly, no description of the south would be complete without mentioning the southern live oak.  On these plantations, the oaks can be absolutely massive and are often hundreds of years old.  On one particular English plantation called “Oak Alley”, 300 hundred year old live oaks line the quarter-mile long sidewalk that approaches the front of the house.  These trees are strong giants with trunks over four feet in diameter and massive crowns draped with spanish moss.  It is amazing to think, many of these oaks witnessed the entire history of the plantation from before its establishment, through its growth and production, until today.
300 year old southern live oaks lining the walk up to the Oak Alley Plantation.

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