It’s been a long day in the field, but sitting around a kitchen table strewn with plants, bags of soil and books, N.C. State researcher Brenda Wichmann and Misty Franklin, botanist with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, still have a few bags of specimens to work through. This is the end of the daily cycle — identifying and keying out the plants, doing the paper work and getting them in the plant press.
“OK, here we go,” Wichmann says. She grabs a plant out of the bag and starts unfolding its leaves while Franklin prepares the notation on the pages it’ll be pressed between.
Wichmann’s in Boone, three-quarters of her way through a summer odyssey to visit and plot out the plant communities in roughly 70 mountain bogs in North Carolina. She’s thankful to be house-sitting this week and not in a hotel. The place has DSL, too. So the last thing on the list is to print out a set of satellite shots of the next day’s work—Sugar Mountain Bog. Franklin, up to assist with the survey work for a few days, is anxious to get a first-hand look at Sugar Mountain, which along with nearby Pineola Bog form the state’s new Mountain Bog Natural Area, a protected site established this summer by the North Carolina legislature.
It’s an indication of the growing recognition of the unique and diverse bog habitats. Because they’re relatively flat, wet areas and often at high elevations—Sugar Mountain Bog is way up at 4200 feet—southern Appalachian bogs are home to some of the mountains’ rarest plant communities. The recently passed legislation that put the two bogs under state stewardship noted that unique lilies and threatened species like the purple leaf willowherb, along with the bog rose and bog fern, are within their soggy confines.
A day in the bogs
Sugar Mountain Bog, not far from Linville and Grandfather Mountain, is actually a cluster of three bogs according to the satellite imagery, and Wichmann plans to study all three. After hiking up a dirt road passed an old homesite, Wichmann and Franklin head up to check out a seep full of little sundews, then over to the edge of the rhododendron hell that surrounds the bog. “This is a class two or three,” Franklin says—shorthand for annoying and thick, but no rough inclines. Unless you’re under 5’, though, you have to crawl for some of it and with a backpack full of tools and gear it is not an easy endeavor at all.
Then things get wet and sloshy and the hummocks and raised clumps of sphagnum become important stepping-stones. At what accounts for a clearing, the backpacks come off and the notebooks and clipboards come out. Wichmann stands on a high hummock and looks over a tall stand of spiraea alba peppered with the occasional bog rose and starts scouting out a place to lay the plot.
“This is definitely shrubby,” she says. Part of her research is to get a better handle on distinctive types of bogs. Two main types are shrub and herbaceous. Sugar Mountain is shrubby as all get out.
The two scientists grab their transect lines and start crunching through the thick stalks trying to keep lines straight and marking out a ten meter by ten meter plot. Visibility is about two feet at best and they run the lines through a tunnel in the spiraea. Once the plot is set, they start working in from the corners, logging the frequency of species in certain areas, measuring the size of the shrubs and any trees or saplings. It’s a long, painstaking process, thanks in part to the diversity of the bog, and made longer and more difficult by the terrain. They trade off note taking and plant ID work in an exchange conducted in a blend of English and botanical Latin. Plants go in the bag, then, the soil auger comes out and Wichmann heads for a central part of the plot.
“Wait till you hear this,” Franklin says.
A few minutes later Wichmann has one arm digging deep into the wet, black muck of the bog. She shouts descriptions of the soils to Franklin and, if she finds a rock, extracts it for examination making a sound suitable for a horror movie soundtrack.
“The layering is very important, I think,” Wichmann says, sifting a handful of muck through her fingers. “They’re very different in each bog. I think there’s going to be some sort of interesting correlation there.”
She takes the auger to the muck and draws her soil samples. It’s the last part of the on-site work for the day—except getting through the hell again and back to the truck.
Tater Hill’s diversity
The next bog on the agenda is a lot more well-known and a lot easier to get around in. Tater Hill Bog, managed by Appalachian State University, has more of an open pasture feel—albeit a rather wet one. It is home to the rare Gray’s lily, the northern green orchid and the only protected population of long-stalked holly in the state. Near West Jefferson, it is completely surrounded by a growing number of residential developments. While climate change may be one threat to bogs, because they are by nature flat places in the mountains, they can be desirable sites for building sites.
After surveying the area including a look over the impact a population of beavers has had in several areas, Franklin and Wichmann stake out another plot and get to work. A few hours into it, and Wichmann is amazed by the variety they’re finding.
“This may take the diversity record,” she says—a fact she all but confirms that night while pressing the specimens.
Today, Wichmann is back at N.C. State working alongside other graduate students back from a summer of fieldwork. It was an exhausting process and she put a lot of miles on her truck, but it was worth it. She’s developed a much keener eye for spotting bog sites and suspects there are many more than the few hundred so far identified. And, thanks to the plants, soils and data gathered, researchers will have a much better understanding of what lives in the rare, often hidden wetlands of the southern Appalachians.
Kirk Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org