Beulah Bog

Bogs are old places that evoke the passage of time. Beulah Bog in SE Wisconsin consists of a series of kettle depressions formed when great boulders of ice that were mixed with the till of the Wisconsin Glacier melted. These depressions became large ponds. As boreal forests retreated northward and were replaced by hardwood forest and then oak savannas, woodlands, and prairies, the relentless annual growing and dying of floating mat-forming sedges and sphagnum moss have slowly closed over and filled these ponds.

Each depression containing a bog is surrounded by a “moat.” This is the area of tension between the bog and the surrounding uplands. When groundwater levels rise, the floating bog mat follows with it, creating a zone of separation that is often inundated early in the year or during wet times. Recent weeks have been exceptionally dry, so my entry into the bog was fairly straightforward.

This is the

This is the “moat” zone that separates the uplands from the bog. Here it is dense with arrowheads, lake sedge, and wool-grass sedge. In wetter times, this would be a thigh-deep mire of roots and muck.

There is still a small area of open water in one of the depressions, surrounded on all sides by floating-mat forming sedges and other vegetation. Left undisturbed, this will eventually be sealed over.

There is still a small area of open water in one of the depressions, surrounded on all sides by floating-mat forming sedges and other vegetation. As the mat thickens, it supports shrubs and tamaracks. Left undisturbed, this pond will be sealed over in short geological time. There is a boardwalk here. I would never be this close to open water, if I were on a floating mat!

Bogs in SE Wisconsin don’t pack as many species into a given area as some of our other natural communities, but they are among the most interesting. The water that feeds the depressions containing the bogs consists of recent rainwater that has had little opportunity to pass through mineral rich soils or glacial till, and the decaying spagnum moss acidifies the environment. This leads to the development of a plant community dominated by specialized plants, including a number sedges, ericaceous shrubs like huckleberry and leather leaf, and carnivorous plants like sundews, pitcher plant, and bladderwort.

Some open areas of the bog are absolutely covered with minute round-leaved sundews, a carnivorous plant that snares insects with the  sticky drops held on stalks from their modified leaves.

Some open areas of the bog abound with round-leaved sundew, a carnivorous plant that snares insects with the sticky drops held on stalks from its modified leaves.

A purple pitcher plant in sphagnum moss- Pitcher plants digest insects in their liquid-filled, modified leaves, which are lined with downward pointing hairs.

A purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) in sphagnum moss- Pitcher plants digest insects in their liquid-filled, modified leaves, which are lined with downward pointing hairs.

Bladderwort (here, Utricularia gibba) trap invertebrates in small bladders.

Humped bladderwort (Utricularia gibba) traps invertebrates in small bladders held on small leaves that float in shallow depressions or sit on top of recently exposed mucky or peaty shores.

Beak-rush (here, Rhyncospora alba) is not a rush at all. It's a sedge sedge that occurs in open areas of bogs and fens.

White beak-rush (Rhynchospora alba) is not a rush at all. It’s a sedge sedge that occurs in open areas of bogs and fens.

Tawny cotton grass (Eriophorum virginicum) is not a grass. It's a sedge that is extremely abundant at Beulah Bog and typical of bogs in SE Wisconsin.

Tawny cotton grass (Eriophorum virginicum) is not a grass. It’s a sedge that is extremely abundant at Beulah Bog and typical of bogs in SE Wisconsin.

Three-way sedge (Dulichium arundinaceum) reproduces mostly asexually by rhizomes, despite what the name might imply. The name refers to the three-ranked leaves that form three perfet rows when viewed from above.

Three-way sedge (Dulichium arundinaceum) reproduces mostly asexually by rhizomes, despite what the name might imply. Rather, the name refers to the three-ranked leaves that form three perfect rows when viewed from above.

Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) and tamarack (Larix laricina) dominate much of the bog interior.

Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) and tamarack (Larix laricina) dominate much of the bog interior.

The fruits of water arum (Calla palustris), which occurred throughout the bog.

The fruits of water arum (Calla palustris), which occurrs throughout the bog.

Few-seeded sedge (Carex oligosperma) is the dominant sedge at Beulah bog.

Few-seeded sedge (Carex oligosperma) is a dominant plant in the bog.

Viewed today was the result of thousands of years of slow, undending change. There is something soothing to me about that kind of change, the same kind of change, but on a different scale, as the brightening dawn or waxing moon. It certainly beats the abruptness of the change wrought by agriculture and development on the landscape or the sudden turning on of a lamp in the dark of early morning.

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Natural Areas Have Intrinsic Value

Cladium mariscoides in a SE Wisconsin calcareous fen.

Cladium mariscoides in a SE Wisconsin calcareous fen

Much of the conservation community’s current approach to conservation planning is a commodification of nature. Lands are valued according to laundry lists of the tangible services (e.g. water quality protection, forage, carbon storage) they provide. We might not assign actual dollars to such services, but we’re certainly thinking about cash for services.

…and sometimes that’s fine. When it comes to the reconstruction of destroyed ecosystems or the restoration of severely degraded ecosystems, there is much to be gained and little to be lost ecologically, so why not sell a project using ecosystem services that appeal to people as consumers? After all, ecological reconstruction and restoration do cost real money.

However, when it comes to the protection and management of our last remnant natural areas, I protest. Any service that the lone prairie in the encroaching thicket or old-growth timber in a metropolitan corridor provides fails to even remotely approach the value the remnant natural area has by its mere continued existence. Our remaining natural areas cannot be adequately considered by deconstruction into goods and services, just as a Monet cannot broken down to paint, canvas, and frame and then sold for millions of dollars. Natural areas are our windows into the past, benchmarks for scientific understanding, and loci for contemplation of our own human existence. Quite often, they are a finite resource very near exhaustion.

In the conversation over conservation priorities, then, I am loathe to consider remnant natural areas on the same plain as other forms open space.

Much of the problem is that the public doesn’t register the differences between an old field and a prairie or an oak woods and a buckthorn thicket. They live in a world where green is green, gray is gray, and brown is brown…a world that is mostly seen out the window or through a screen. Others of us live in a degraded landscape, where through determination and effort one might still find the odd hidden treasure. More of the broader public needs to share in that experience. How that happens in contemporary society is tricky, because it is a matter of perception rather than a matter of providing directions to a location. As the first step and at the very least, we can strive to ensure that remnant natural areas continue to exist, so there remains hope.

Flint Hills, KS tallgrass prairie in May.

Baptisia australis var. minor in Flint Hills, KS tallgrass prairie

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New Addition to the Southeastern Wisconsin Flora Part I

October Lady’s-tresses

Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata Catling (Orchidaceae).

Inflorescence of October lady's tresses

Inflorescence of October lady’s tresses

October lady’s-tresses is generally a more southern species, but it may be extending its range northward, or “new” populations may have been overlooked in the past, because October lady’s tresses blooms, as its name implies, after most botanists have completed their surveys for the year.

Typical plant in habitat

Typical plant in habitat

October lady’s-tresses was first discovered in far southwestern Wisconsin in 1990. It had had not been found outside of that area in Wisconsin until this last October. While visiting Jericho Woods in Waukesha County this fall, the property owner showed me a small patch of orchids. At first I was confused by them, because they did not fit the description of any of the lady’s tresses species known from SE Wisconsin. However, when I sat down with my regional floras (Swink and Wilhelm, Gleason and Cronquist, Voss and Reznicek), it became clear very quickly that the plants were Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata, the nearest known occurences of which are actually from DuPage and Kendall Counties in Northeast Illinois–still more than 100 kilometers away.

Basal and stem leaves

Basal and stem leaves

The population consisted of approximately 30 plants growing under a closed canopy of bur oak and American elm in association with a shrub layer dominated by common buckthorn and hybrid bush honeysuckle. The population was in peak flower on October 3, 2014.

October lady’s tresses is unique among the several lady’s tresses species in southern Wisconsin and the Chicago Region in having small, wholly white flowers, peak flowering in very late September / early October, a preference for shaded habitats, and an acute labellum (lower petal).

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