Jane and I just got back from a four week trip to the forests of New England. Our hikes touched on the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, central Maine, and as far north as the Bay of Fundy National Park in New Brunswick. Throughout our journeys, we were in the Hemlock-White Pine-Northern Hardwoods Region. This is an east-west belt that ranges from Minnesota on the west, through the Great Lakes region, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire until nearing the shores in Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to the east.
One of the pleasing aspects of hiking in this region is the robust carpet of groundcovers that always accompany the visitor. In addition to the profusion of mosses and ferns, the forest floor is decorated with many of my favorite herbaceous beauties, including blue bead, gold thread, bunchberry, Canada mayflower, star flower, mountain sorrel, twisted stalk, and rosy bells. My favorite, however, is the twinflower (Linnaeus borealis) named for Carl Linnaeus, who, also, found this to be perhaps the most beautiful and delicate flower of the high elevation forests.
The lower elevations of these mountains include white pine and eastern hemlock (healthy and adelgid-free!) and a large component of hardwood trees, including red and sugar maple, beech, ash, cherry and basswood trees, along with the ubiquitous yellow and paper birch. As we ascend, the majority of deciduous trees drop out, with the exception of birch and some maple, as well as the component of hemlock and white pine, while red spruce and balsam fir begin to dominate.
Another exciting habitat found in the glaciated lands of New England are the bogs. Bogs are relic ponds created from the scouring of the glacial ice, often not more than five to ten feet deep. With over 10.000 years of accumulated organic matter, these bogs are filling in with decomposing plant material. Often, the plant community of mosses and heath shrubs grow out and over the water body and quake under the footsteps of the intrepid visitor who may or may not know that he stands just a foot or so above several feet of water.. Officially, bogs are defined as having no streams leading in or out of the pond. This differs from fens, which do have surface water input and output (for the record, marshes are dominated by grasses while swamps have trees). Without the input of nutrients from surface stream drainage, bogs are nutrient poor, receiving all nutrients from groundwater and precipitation. In addition, with the anaerobic conditions normally found in bogs, the lack of oxygen severely reduces decomposition of the peat , thus further limiting the availability of nutrients to the plants. It’s not surprising, then, that this is where a great number of pitcher plants and sundew (similar to venus fly trap) can be found. The ability of these plants to capture insects is a unique method of gathering nitrogen to supplement the limited amount that can be obtained through it’s roots.
Bogs are also home to many interesting orchids. At one remote pond, I spied eight blooming rose pogonias on a small island just off shore. It was my desire to walk out to the island to confirm my siting, but once I sunk up to my knees in muck, with water lapping at my shorts, I realized there was a reason why these rose pogonias were still safe from poachers on this island while none were to be found on the shoreline.
Not only bogs, but all of the New England forests have acidic soils. Bogs have cranberries while the rocky, drier lands have blueberries. While driving through coastal Maine, north of Bar Harbor, we took a side trip to find the “Great Heath Bog”; the largest bog in New England. On our way, we found ourselves driving down miles of rocky and muddy roads through hundreds of acres of blueberry fields. Here, the native late low blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), is so dominant, that just by removing all the competing trees and very limited shrubs, this native blueberry (plus a few other native species) has completely covered all of the ground for hundreds of acres. This is the same species that is so pervasive in WV, which also accounts for the majority of picked berries in WV. It was a dramatic example supporting the fact that Maine and the Maritime Provinces of Canada supply about 95% of the low bush blueberry supply to the world. Interestingly, these low bush blueberries are handpicked and used for canning and freezing, while, down south in New Jersey, North Carolina and other states, the high bush blueberry (V. corymbosum), a native in these areas, is planted as a crop; picked by machine, and is packed in boxes for sale in grocery stores.
Certainly, one reason why I love these spruce-fir forests is because they are so rare in our mid-Atlantic region. Only when you go to West Virginia and enter the 4,000’ forests of the Monongahela National Forest, will you find samples of this forest type. Of course, unique habitats create exceptions to this generalization. Two special places to visit in our region include Ice Mountain, WV, where you can find twinflower, and Cranesville Swamp, WV, where bunchberry and gold thread can be found.