Friday, June 17, 2011

Walking On Water at the Philbrick-Cricenti Quaking Bog: Part II - Carnivorous Plants, Trees and Shrubs

This is a continuation of my previous post on the geology, formation and establishment of a quaking bog...

On a sunny, late May afternoon, while visiting my daughter’s school in southern New Hampshire, we took a detour to visit the Philbrick-Cricenti bog in rural New London. We followed a mile-long network of trails on wooden planks through this remarkably beautiful, kettle-lake bog. The planks provide a “safe path over a floating mat of tundra plants” on which to walk.

The Philbrick-Cricenti bog is a poorly-drained, acidic, nutrient-poor, kettle-hole bog with a soft, spongy mat of Sphagnum moss, sedge and dwarf, heath shrubs floating on its surface. Beneath this buoyant carpet of mossy vegetation lies partially, decomposed remains of waterlogged, dead plant material called peat. Essentially, Sphagnum moss grows at the surface and dies at the bottom, contributing to the formation of peat.

Kettle-hole bog with floating mat of vegetation and underlying, decomposing peat growing over the open water

The plant communities that inhabit the waterlogged realm of the bog are capable of tolerating its unique and demanding environmental conditions by exhibiting an enormous capacity for adaptation and diversification. Not just the bog, but wetlands in general have the highest species diversity of all ecosystems. A perfect example is the reddish-purple, carnivorous American Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea). It grows on the nutrient-poor, acidic soil of the bog, and uses insects as a nutritional supplement.

A mature, carnivorous Pitcher Plant grows on a lush mat of sphagnum moss and sedge.
Pitcher plants take a few years to reach maturity.

The Pitcher Plant grows close to the ground and has a large, beautifully-veined lip or hood, which is covered with stiff hairs pointing inward. Nectar glands on the top surface of the lid tempt foraging insects that find themselves dining in a most precarious and dangerous place. Once inside the pitcher, the downward pointing hairs and waxy secretions make it difficult for them to escape. Its pitchers are filled with a fluid containing digestive enzymes that, for at least a portion of the first year of life, are produced by the plant itself. During the second year, digestion is aided by commensal (sharing) bacteria that live in the pitchers.

The Pitcher's ruby-red flower is harmless to insects and attractive to pollinators. Once pollination is over, its seeds produce a new crop of carnivorous pitchers, as the plant shifts its relationship with visiting insects from friendly to fiendish. Interestingly, the larvae of a particular mosquito and midge safely live in the waters of the pitcher, unbeknownst to the danger that awaits them in adulthood.

A family of flies are being drawn perilously close to the pitcher by its seductive nectars. 

This is the mysterious-looking, umbrella-like flower of the carnivorous pitcher plant.
My daughter lifts its down-turned flower for a better look
Pitcher plants are angiosperms, and therefore, flower and produce a fruit that contains seeds.
Pitcher plants aren't the only plant in the bog that practices prey-supplementation to provide its nutrients. Another group is the tiny Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). It lures, captures and digests insects with sticky secretions from glands located at the tips of its tiny tentacles, hence the resemblance to morning dew. The Sundews in the photo below are the small “star-burst” shaped-plants to the upper left and lower right of the bog mushroom.

Other carnivorous flora include Horned bladderworts (Utricularia cornuta), yellow-flowered perennials with  small leaves that are hidden in the substrate or submerged in shallow water. The leaves have small bladders that trap and digest small insects. At the time of our visit, the plants were flowerless, which makes them  difficult to locate.

Bog mushroom, Sundew and green Leatherleaf, all growing on a floating mat of Sphagnum moss and sedge

Sticky secretions of the carnivorous Sundew form tiny droplets at the tip of each tentacle that are poised to lure an unsuspecting insect.

Besides Sphagnum moss and sedge that comprise the floating carpet, numerous other plants have learned to thrive in the hostile environment of the bog. Leatherleaf of the Heath family (Chamaedaphne calyculata) is a low-growing, flowering, evergreen shrub that is at home in cooler, temperate, subarctic regions, and especially bogs. Leatherleaf is generally the first shrub to enter the bog after sphagnum has become established. Its tough, leathery, evergreen leaves are waxy which helps to retain moisture.

The bog mushroom lacks the chlorophyll that plants use to manufacture their own food and energy. The mushroom is actually the fruit of the fungal organism that produced it. Mushrooms are one of nature’s great recyclers, assisting in the process of decomposition. Bog laurel 

Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense), a perennial, evergreen shrub, is almost in bloom.

Bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia), a member of the Heath family, is an evergreen shrub of cold, acidic bogs
with waxy leaves that are curled around the edges. 
Cottongrass (Eriophorum) is a plant from the sedge family and not a grass. Sometimes referred to as bog cotton, it loves the acidic environment of the bog, being particularly abundant in Arctic tundra regions.

The long white hairs of Cottongrass help the seeds to disperse in the wind.
Black Spruce (Picea mariana) and Tamarack (Larix laricina) are common associates growing around and on the bog.

Dwarfed Black Spruce and Tamarack punctuate the open mat of the bog but are plentiful in the Tree Zone.

The Tamarack (Pinaceae) tree is also called Eastern, American, or Alaska larch, and Hackmatack. It is a small to medium-sized, deciduous conifer with a sparse, open, narrow, conical crown with flat needles that appear in spirals on spur branches. Tamarack can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, but it grows most commonly on wet to moist organic soils such as sphagnum peat. It is often found in mixed stands with Black Spruce and White Cedar. Black Spruce is Tamarack's main associate. It is generally the first forest tree to invade filled-lake bogs.

A branch of Tamarack with egg-shaped cones. Notice the flat leaves arranged in spirals.
A lichen growing on Tamarack, possibly a fruticose called Usnea. Lichens are a combination of a fungus and a photosynthetic partner, usually a green algae. This symbiotic relationship allows them to grow in extreme environments and on surfaces that other plants have difficulty with such as bare rocks and branches 
The four-sided, needle-like leaves of the Black Spruce with new cones forming

Admittedly, this was the first time that I had ever visited a bog. I was amazed at its subtle beauty and plant diversity. I hope to return to the Philbrick-Cricenti Bog soon to further my botanical studies and see many of its plants that are in bloom later in spring and into the summer.

My congratulations to the Town of New London and its Conservation Commission for both protecting this valuable resource and educating us about it.

A brochure on the Philbrick-Cricenti Bog is available at:

1 comment:

  1. Wow, beautiful pictures! I have been there a few times, but look forward to visiting the bog (which is almost in our backyard!)every three weeks or so this coming spring, summer and fall. I want to see the changes through the season.
    Ann Stout
    Newport NH