Bog Walk

Northern pitcher plant

Yesterday was a bit chilly but gloriously sunny; so I took the opportunity to go to my “secret” boggy lake in Michigan’s Yankee Springs Recreation Area (Barry County) to take photos of some of the typical bog plants that most folks rarely see. I was hoping to see the striking flowers of our northern pitcher plant, but because of the cold spring, they were just starting to bud.

[Click on the photos to see them in a larger size. The ones that enlarge are my photos. The ones that don’t are usually gotten from the Web—mostly from Wikipedia.]

Bogs are wonderful places, and rather rare in the US—found mostly in the northern and northeastern states from Minnesota to Maine. They were formed by the retreating glaciers, and some have been around

Blueberry blossoms

for thousands of years, having trapped water in hollows in areas where there is not a large inflow of fresh water. This creates a good habitat for the prime creator and maintainer of a bog: sphagnum moss that leaches hydrogen atoms into the water to create acidic conditions, which in turn sets the stage for bog plants like the pitcher plant, sundew (both carnivorous plants), cranberry, blueberry, Labrador tea, cotton grass, some rare orchids, and poison sumac, the relatively uncommon plant that has given a bad name to our very common smooth and staghorn sumac that you see along the roadside.

These ubiquitous sumacs sporting their flame-shaped ruby red seed clusters at the top of each branch are not poisonous. In fact, throughout the summer those fresh seed heads can be soaked in water to create a tangy lemonade-like drink call “rhus tea” to which you will want to add sugar! Sometimes when I hike I will take a few of the seeds and pop them in my mouth (after checking for insects!) for a refreshing burst of sour—spitting them out when the flavor is gone

Fresh tamarack needles

One way to identify a bog, or at least boggy areas, is to look for the tamarack tree, that curious conifer that’s also deciduous. It looks a bit like a feathery pine tree from a distance, but in the fall the needles turn yellow and drop off. This makes them look like dead evergreens. But in the spring, the star-burst needle clusters will erupt from the branches and even the trunks along with the leaves of the surrounding non-coniferous trees. Tamaracks that grow in the most acidic part of the bog don’t grow very large and take on a dwarf-tree look without the traditional spire of their larger neighbors—but may in fact be older than a thirty-foot tree growing in less acidic conditions.

Many Cornerstone University students here in Grand Rapids who take general biology from my friend, Professor Ray Gates (known as “Gator”), often take a “bog walk”—but quite different from mine. They go to a more typical bog that has a large floating mat of sphagnum moss surrounded by a moat of brownish water that has to be crossed before they can climb up onto the floating island. Sporting grubs that can be sacrificed for the muddy experience, they wade chest to neck-deep through the moat and for their trouble end up with a great adventure identifying the plants found on the undulating central mat—taking care to look for “puddles” that are really holes in the mossy mass and into which you can drop down over your head. “If you fall through and drown and we don’t find you” Gator tells them, “you will have the good fortune of having your body well preserved for hundreds of years—because decomposing organisms don’t live in the acid water.” That usually suffices as a good warning.

Tawny cotton grass

So far Gator has not lost any students! But they do go away with a great college memory told and retold over the years.

One reminder for me of a bog walk in the Jordan River valley in Northern Michigan is a dried arrangement of tawny cotton grass that we have had in our home for perhaps ten years. It is a regular keepsake that helps to keep fresh in my mind this awesome habitat—this amazing and wonderful curiosity of God’s creation.

[For more photos of Gator’s bog walk, go to the website of Margaux Drake.]

See you outdoors!