Return to Saco Heath

On a rainy day in late June, I took the short trip from Portland to visit the Saco Heath Preserve for the first time in over a year. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently reopened the preserve to the public, so this trip was filled with anticipation to see how much has changed. Moreover, my excitement was heightened from the light rain that afternoon. While it’s true that all plants are especially vibrant when wet no matter where they grow, bog plants seem to shine a little brighter knowing their roots are receiving vital nutrients from the same drops of rain that gently wet your skin.

While visitors were away during the COVID-19 closure, the TNC used this time to make improvements to the boardwalk through the heath. Old boards were replaced and two new benches were added. A new interpretive sign is in the parking lot.

Rain and snow are a bog’s only sources of water, and aside from dust in the wind, precipitation is the most important conduit of nutrient input to a heath. Because there is no inlet or outlet, rain is even more precious to a bog than other types wetlands in the northeast. Once water drains into a bog basin or is absorbed by the peat of a raised bog, the few nutrients carried in by the water stays in the bog where they are taken up by plant roots, replenishing cells essential for growth. For these reasons, I find that visiting a bog on a rainy day is an especially intimate experience where one can witness a basic element of life revitalizing living beings before your eyes.

Below are some plants I found soaking up the rain along the boardwalk and upland trails that day.

Above are two common plants in the Ericaceae family that have almost identical leaves, but different blossoms. If pollinated, the red, tapered blossoms on the left will produce black huckleberries. True to it’s common name, the berries are a dark, almost black, purple. The bell-shaped white blossoms on the right will produce highbush blueberries which ripen to a muted blue. Both berries are edible and delicious right of the plant. If the plant is not flowering, you can decipher the two species by looking at the underside of the leaves. If the leaf has an abundance of resin dots, then you are looking at G. baccata.

Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) and Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense) also have leaves similar to each other, however, the blooms are unmistakably unique. Frilly and fragrant, white clusters of small Labrador Tea leaves bloom in late May to early June. Around the same time, mass explosions of pink erupt in lowland wetlands and swamps beginning in mid to late May. In these locales, Rhodora is more noted for the abundance of its bloom than the beauty of the individual flowers. The shear mass of color is a result of the flowers appearing prior to, or along with the emergence of the leaves. So unlike most other members of the heath family there are no leaves to interfere with our observation of the flowers (USFS).

Similar to telling the difference between huckleberries and blueberries, you can turn the leaves around of each species and easily see that the underside of one is covered in rusty wooly hairs (Labrador Tea) while the other, Rhodora, has none. Both leaves are an oval or oblong shape that roll downward at the margins. Rhodora leaves are deciduous while Labrador Tea leaves are evergreen. Labrador Tea has been long used by Native Americans as medicine to treat a long list of ailments including asthma, colds, stomachaches, and poison ivy rashes (Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, 2014).

Although common along the east coast of the United States, Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) is considered rare in Maine. As wetland obligate plant, the species hits its northern range limit in Maine and is confined to grow in bogs, swamps, and forested wetlands. C. thyoides is easily distinguished from pines and spruces because of its scaly leaves and soft, easy to peal, linear bark. Atlantic White Cedar is a critically important plant because it is the host plant to one of the only four known populations of a globally rare and state endangered butterfly, the Hessel’s hairstreak(Callophrys hesseli). The species only occurs in swamps and bogs where Atlantic White Cedar is abundant. While probably never common on the northern end of its range, Hessel’s hairstreak is now vulnerable to extinction in Maine due to the incremental loss and fragmentation of remaining cedar swamps from logging and development activity in rapid growth areas of York County (Maine Natural Areas Program – Saco Heath).

Plants in the bog are constantly changing. The next time I visit, most leaves will have faded from their brilliant emerald green to a cozy yellow/brown as the plants prepare to hunker down for a cold, dark winter. A short while later, only the evergreen shrubs and conifers will persist through the winter to contrast with the bright snow and gray clouds. Summer is almost gone and that time of year when we lose sunlight and add a few layers to stay warm is quickly approaching. Fortunately, there is always something to look forward to at the Saco Heath, even when the plants have closed a chapter on another year of growth.

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