Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains
By Lynda McDaniel
The mountain bog ecosystem ranks as one of Western North Carolina's most rare and endangered habitats. These precious wetlands contain soils and plants that are very different from the communities surrounding them. Because the soil is highly acidic, low in nutrients, and saturated with water, only plants adapted to these conditions can survive here. In spite of such restrictions, however, as many as 90 species of rare, threatened, or endangered plants find a home in these mountain bogs.
North Carolina's mountain bogs are broken down into two groups: those in the northern mountains and those in the southern range. The plants in the northern type contain species typically associated with the northern United States, such as the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon). The southern bogs support plants commonly found among the southern coastal counties, such as sundew (Drosera intermedia). In keeping with nature's never-ending diversity, some bogs produce a mixture of each.
Water is the lifeblood of a bog ecosystem. Bogs, therefore, are found in depressions or among level areas within river and stream floodplains. Though the water level in a bog often varies with rainfall, it is groundwater, rather than precipitation, that influences these wetlands. Groundwater enters slowly from springs and underground seeps. Estimated to have once totaled 5,000 acres, North Carolina's mountain bogs have been drained or partially altered over the centuries. There are now only 500 acres of bogs remaining in the region.
Plants common to most bogs include cinnamon fern, horsetails (Equisetum spp.), ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum), and various species of sedges and small orchids. Showy or rare species include dragon's mouth (Arethusa bulbosa), grass pink (Calopogon pulchellus), and Gray's lily (Lilium grayi). Due to the lack of nutrients within the peaty soils, it is not unusual to find insectivorous plants in a bog setting. These plants augment their food supply with highly nutritious insects trapped on, or within, their structures. Sundew is a diminutive plant with tiny droplets of sticky nectar on its leaf surfaces. When attracted to the nectar, hapless insects become stuck and are then absorbed by the plant. The mountain sweet pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is another carnivorous variety that traps insects within its long, slender, tube-shaped leaves. This plant is so rare that it occurs in only a few sites in the world, many of which are within the mountains of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Bogs also support an interesting mix of animals, including the rare bog turtle.
Fortunately, efforts are now under way to protect many of these valuable mountain wetlands and to restore some that have been partially altered. McClure's Bog, located in Henderson County and owned by The Nature Conservancy, is currently undergoing restoration. It is hoped that as more people become aware of mountain bogs and of their ecological importance, these protective efforts can increase.
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