This has not been a happy summer for my domesticated garden, what with little sun, no really hot days, late blight on the tomatoes, and a woodchuck neatly pruning my cucumbers and squash. These last two were doing fine when the frost hit. At least there was no watering necessary.
But, this was the best ever summer for visiting my favorite wild gardens; totally natural and native with no hoeing, planting, weeding needed. I do get to do a little harvesting, however.
Some of them may have started forming 10,000 years ago when the last of the mile deep ice here melted. Yes, I fit in many trips taking friends and relatives to bogs using some of my five assorted solo canoes. Many of my "bog people" had no idea what these specialized wetlands are like, though they have at least visited the Adirondacks, a bog heaven, all their lives. Every one of them found them mind-bogglingly fascinating and beautiful. They also learned to be careful if you step onto a bog because parts of it will be floating, and that they are not muddy and nasty at all.
To a botanist a "real" bog is watered only by rain with no water flowing in or out to bring in nutrients, but my definition includes any open wetland created by sphagnum (peat) moss, having many heath family shrubs, usually a few kinds of orchids, small tamarack and black spruce dotted around the moss mat, and many kinds of "carnivorous plants." The latter use various tricks to trap insects and tinier animals to extract their nitrogen and other nutrients.
The most noticeable of these is the northern pitcher plant, the oddly inflated leaves of which are shaped like lop-sided vases or pitchers that collect rainwater for drowning their victims. The pitchers usually have prominent red veins, and often turn totally red by fall, though they can sometimes be all yellow. The red may attract flesh-eating flies but the yellow plants work too.
The leaves are so weird and wonderful that people often don't notice the flower stalks that stick up a foot above the leaves, the buds being dark maroon balls. These do make seeds with cooperation from bumblebees, but the plants are perennial, making up to eight new leaves every year. The most effective leaves are under 50 days old.
Bogs are too wet, acidic and cold for bacteria to thrive and break down dead material for reuse, so pitcher plants use enzymes and bacteria to "digest" the insects they attract and then trap. Lip edge producing nectar, a numbing solution and a sweet odor (hmm, maybe that is where the ever present and mysterious sweet smell of a bog comes from); veins reflecting UV light; stiff downward pointing hairs; and smooth waxy sides down below all combine to do the dirty deed. On one trip I watched a tan moth feeding excitedly around the lip, but I didn't stay to see the end of the story!
As in all nature, it's not a one way street. Fifty families of insects use pitcher plants, eating them directly as caterpillars; or in the case of many flies, their larvae (let's face it-maggots) use trapped insects in different stages of decomposition.
One mosquito larva lives in the pitcher water happily, eating the debris, using dissolved nutrients, and freezing solid in the winter. Aquatic mites use the bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, and rotifers that share the pitcher's contents. All of these of course have to be resistant to the enzymes that kill other creatures. A solitary wasp cuts a hole in the bottom of a leaf so the water drains out, stuffs it with grass in which it lays eggs, then provides sting-paralyzed caterpillars for its larvae to eat. A spider spins a web to catch insects before they fall in, but it sometimes falls in itself. Read John Eastman's Swamp and Bog for more stranger than fiction stories.
I have found through the years that on sunny days there are very few biting bugs in bogs. In researching this column I came across a study where 85% of the trapped insects were black flies. Three cheers for those pitcher plants! And for the cranberries decorating the bogs this time of year.