The Transylvania Times -

Exploring Mountain Bogs

 

April 23, 2018

Courtesy photo

Dragons Mouth is just one of the orchid species found in our local forests, it is named after a river nymph from Greek mythology. (Photos courtesy of Owen Carson)

Deep in our forests, cloaked in tangles of rhododendron and soaked by underground springs, lie some of our most amazing wetland ecosystems: mountain bogs. These isolated systems can be one-of-a-kind, supporting unique collections of flora and fauna and often harboring rare, threatened, or endangered species. Bogs offer an environment unlike most others here in the mountains. With their fresh, cold water, mucky soils, and an openness that is uncharacteristic of our generally dense forests, they offer an ideal spot for life that thrives on the fringe.

Mountain bogs, of course, vary across the landscape within which they lie, and their specific composition is dependent upon the diverse geology, hydrology and climate regimes these mountains offer. Technically, wetlands themselves are defined by three major components: hydric soils, hydrophytic vegetation and wetland hydrology – that is, soils that stay saturated, plants that prefer to be wet, and consistent moisture entering their system via surface or groundwater. When these factors align they produce a wetland – but what makes a wetland a bog?

Bogs are typically found in topographic depressions within an otherwise upland landscape; these low spots receive consistent annual water resources via groundwater and precipitation and have generally acidic soils due to the breakdown of plants with high acidity, although underlying geology also plays a major role in dictating pH at a site.

One common bog element that relies upon this acidity across is peat moss, or sphagnum. Where conditions are right, this soft moss creates extensive mats that undulate with the micro topography, forming a lush carpet with hues ranging from deep green to bright red. Another feature typical of these special wetlands is a matrix of forested and open areas that provide a diversity of light regimes and consequently, plant types. Dark, forested portions of the bog may present a more manicured feel with lots of herbaceous plants and a clear understory, whereas its sunny margins could be exploding with shrub and grass diversity.

Inundation is also quite important in the development of bogs, as it directly influences the type and location of plants that can occupy the ecosystem; environments that stay wetter longer are inherently more restrictive to diversity than those that dry out several times a year.

All of these factors and many more help to define the character of mountain bogs. Inherently rare ecosystems reflect an equally rare palette of biodiversity – numerous rare flora and fauna call mountain bogs their home. There are some truly iconic species, such as the carnivorous purple and mountain sweet pitcher plants, which are real standouts within these wetlands. Swamp pink, a fuschia-flowered tropical-looming lily, also falls in the category of utterly unforgettable. Flowering shrubs like chokeberries, unique species of blueberries and huckleberries, and the graceful racemes of fetterbush can be found.

The ground level also offers a wealth of botanical exploration – interwoven amidst the sphagnum are tiny rarities like robin runaway, one of the smallest species within the berry-forming genus Rubus. And it'd be remiss to forget the almighty sedges (they have edges), which are a dominant component along the ground; if you look close enough, you'll find numerous exceptionally rare species of this otherwise grassy-looking plant. Bogs also support a diversity of native orchids - rose pogonia, yellow, purple, and white-fringed, dragon's mouth, twayblades, grass pinks, and ladies tresses – the colors can be absolutely spectacular in summer months! We can't forget about the creatures, either. Despite its minute size the federally threatened bog turtle holds it own within these wetlands, nesting in dense clumps of special sedge and foraging for insects atop mossy mounds. Similarly, the mole salamander uses sphagnum-lined bogs as a nesting place after its emergence from open water, where it grows in larval stage.

Other important, albeit common, salamanders, utilize these habitats and the moist refuge they provide. Fresh mud at the fringe of a bog might yield tiny tracks of star-nosed mole or bog lemming – these rare mammals often remain unseen by humans save for their sign. The collection of rarities found in our mountain bogs aren't without threats, both natural and man-made. Succession is one ecological process putting pressure on bogs. As trees and shrubs like red maple and rhododendron become established in boggy openings they begin to suck up water and create shade, two factors that will negatively affect the diversity and quality of bogs; orchids and pitcher plants like high-light environments and shade can put a real damper on their reproduction and survival.

Fire suppression is inevitably linked to the loss of bog habitat, too – in the far past periodic wildfires helped keep bogs open and sunny and kept woody species at bay, bolstering floral biodiversity, but long-term social stigmas against wildfire have allowed for the homogenization of bogs. Invasive exotic species, flora and fauna alike, also threaten our special wetlands. Chinese privet and Japanese honeysuckle, their seeds unwittingly cast into bogs by birds, grow rapidly and act to suppress other plants.

Eurasian boar and feral hogs can also run rampant, creating utter chaos when rooting the mucky soil for tubers, grubs, and eggs to eat. And, of course, we humans are likely the most detrimental menace, putting bogs in peril through development, inadvertent sedimentation, mismanagement of forestlands and poaching. We do, however, possess the redeeming factor of a collective conscience, and organizations like local land trusts as well as state and federal plant protection programs work in tandem to try and protect, maintain and improve bog habitat, not only in the mountains but statewide. They enact land purchases and steward these bogs with care, using best management practices such as selective plant removal, prescribed burning and hydrologic manipulation to help these wetlands achieve and maintain peak function. Without these dedicated organizations, many of these special places would surely be lost before future generations could experience their splendor. Although the inherent isolation of mountain bogs within the landscape often confounds one's ability to easily visit them, there are public places to easily experience what I've described.

Pink Beds Loop is an excellent place to find a variety of bog habitat ranging from fully forested to fully open. There is also extensive bog habitat throughout the lowlands of Panthertown Valley, where networks of small creeks provide abundant groundwater that flows over shallow granite bedrock. And if you've got a green thumb you can even establish your own miniature bog garden at home! Plenty of local and regional native plant nurseries grow a host of bog plants, from swamp azaleas to pitcher plants, cinnamon fern to orchids. Establishing the perfect pH is essential, as is finding the right spot in your garden. But, if you take steps to plan, then carefully maintain, your efforts can be greatly rewarded.

Courtesy photo

The bog turtle is one of many local endangered species that are found in Transylvania County. These tiny turtles once thrived in the hoof prints that elk left in local bogs, now, their habitat is threatened and is shrinking.

Our mountain bogs are incredible things, packed with oddities, rarities, and natural history. We are lucky to have some of these treasures within our local landscape, both those that are protected and sheltered from the public but also those that are open for experience. It's really the experience that drives home their importance: you'll never forget the vibrancy of swamp pink, or the tininess of robin runaway, the sticky glue on the sundews, or the spicy scent of clammy azalea. I encourage you to explore, learn, and teach others about the importance of our wetlands – they are few and far between, and ever under duress from natural and artificial forces. The more our collective understanding of bogs and wetlands in general grows, the better chance we have of preserving them, protecting our natural heritage, and setting a precedent for future generations to commit to bog stewardship.

Carson is a botanist at Equinox Environmental in Asheville. He and his family live in Brevard.

 
 

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