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Articles-Places: Shell Bluff, Burke County, Georgia
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picture of Spigelia, Indian Pink

Shell Bluff is an extremely scenic and noteworthy bluff overlooking the Savannah River. It is located in the inner coastal plain just south of the Fall Line in Burke County, Georgia, and has a nearly vertical face that rises over 100 feet directly above the river. This cliff-like face is chalky white (due to material weathered from limestone) and has an eastern to northeastern exposure.

If you take more than a passing glance at the white rock, you will see that it closely resembles the coquina rock used to construct such places as the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida. According to Paulk (1986), Shell Bluff is underlain by calcareous material of the McBean Formation of late Eocene age. Green fossiliferous sands and marls with a mixture of clay, chert, and limestone, including embedded oyster shells, characterize this geologic formation. The presence of oyster shell is clear evidence that the Fall Line (from Augusta to Columbus) represents an ancient coastline.

Photo: Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) © Fred Mileshenko,
Tipularia 17

I first visited Shell Bluff in May 1999, when working on a project with Tom Patrick of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to determine the status of the rare Ocmulgee skullcap (Scutellaria ocmulgee). This mint is quite large in size relative to other members of its genus and has a very restricted geographical range, almost totally confined to the Fall Line and inner coastal plain of Georgia (Morris 2000). The Shell Bluff site supports a population of Ocmulgee skullcap; and if you are lucky, you will observe the plants breading dormancy. Be sure to visit the site again in June-July to see plants with flowers.

Photo: Ocmulgee skullcap, ©Tom Patrick, Tipularia 15

The combination of the northern and northeastern exposures of the bluff, the steep topography, the limestone-derived soils, the absence of frequent fires, and the temperature buffer and humid conditions due to the Savannah River below, have led to the development of Southern mixed hardwood forest supporting a number of species characteristic of more northern lines of latitude. Species present such as green violet (Hybanthus concolor), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), sweet cicely (Osmorhiza longistylis), black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), ravine grass (Brachyelytrum erectum), starry campion (Silene stellata), tall bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum), and black walnut (Juglans nigra) are found primarily in the Ridge & Valley, Blue Ridge, and upper piedmont of Georgia. At and near the crest of the bluff, an altered longleaf pine-turkey sandhill community is present and supports a very different, fire-adapted flora when properly managed.

picture of Pawpaw, Asimina triloba

photo: Paw paw (Asimina triloba) ©Jerry Payne, Tipularia 15

Overstory trees at Shell Bluff include the following: white oak (Quercus alba), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), pignut and red hickories (Carya glabra and C. ovalis), basswood (Tilia americana), and scattered individuals of black walnut (Juglans nigra).

Understory trees and shrubs present are flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), sweet shrub (Calycanthus floridus), Carolina buckthorn (Rhamnus caroliniana), pawpaw (Asimina triloba), dwarf pawpaw (A. parviflora), fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), redbud (Cercis canadensis), and sweetleaf (Symplocos tinctoria).

Herbs occurring at Shell Bluff include bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Carolina pink (Silene caroliniana), bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata), mottled trillium (Trillium maculatum), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Atamasco lily (Zephyranthes atamasco), Walter's violet (Viola walteri), Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), alumroot (Heuchera americana), squawroot (Conopholis americana), crested coral-root orchid (Hexalectris spicata), hepatica (Hepatica nobilis), and maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), in addition to the "northern" species listed above.

Enjoy the diverse flora of Shell Bluff!


Morris, M.W., E.Van De Genachte, T. Patrick and S. Cammack. 2000. Reconnaissance for the Ocmulgee Skullcap (Scutellaria ocmulgee). Tipularia 15:27-32.

Paulk, H.L. 1986. Soil Survey of Burke County, Georgia. USDA in Coopertation with the University of Georgia. College of Agriculture: Agricultural Experiment Stations. 130 pp.

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