By Griff Johnson, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Occurring in Alabama across the lower coastal plains are special habitats known as bogs. The term “bog” has been variously used and is known by other names such as moist pine barrens, savannahs pitcher plant bogs and herb-bogs. In practice, the only characteristic that bogs have in common is a foundation that causes the person walking across them to “bog down,” at least during some seasons of the year.
A bog usually occurs where underground water seeps to the surface, creating wet, spongy ground. Other bogs are created by springs occurring on slopes or hillsides. These bogs are referred to as “hang bogs.” The soil and water of a bog is extremely acid. This results from the constant leaching of nutrients from the soil, their association with pine trees, and because the plant remains cannot easily decompose in the oxygen-poor, water-saturated soils. It is this acidity that distinguishes a bog from a swamp or slough. It is also this acidity that causes them to support a different plant life.
Usually, two different types of plant communities can be found, depending on how often fire is associated with the bogs. When fire is excluded, an evergreen shrub thicket develops and it is known as a “bay” or a “pocosin.” Shrub thickets subjected to fire at regular intervals are killed, preventing accumulation of litter and promoting a build up of peat. The few pine trees left are usually so widely spaced that they provide practically no shade. These conditions result in an open community of primarily herbaceous, sun-loving plants. The community is commonly known as a pitcher plant bog.
Some of Alabama’s most beautiful and interesting plant life is found in these bogs. The more visible plants are the insectivorous pitcher plants, sun dews, dew threads and butterworts. Terrestrial orchids such as grass pinks, yellow-fringed orchids and rose pogonia orchids grow on the fibrous root masses found in the bogs. Mosses and a variety of plants such as fly poison, white-top sedge, pipewort, yellow-eyed grass, bunch lily, crow poison, red root and many more grow in these bogs.
Due to intense timber management practices, suppression of fire, and land development, the pitcher plant bogs have been greatly reduced in number and appearance. Under these conditions, the bogs rapidly revert to shrubby bays or upland pine woods. Any practice that diverts water from the bog, or excludes fire, is one that will destroy the bog. Furthermore, the water that maintains the bog comes from a large area upslope, so preservation of the bog will also require preservation of the sandy uplands around it. Protection and management of these bogs are important objectives in conservation efforts today.
If you visit a bog, observe the profusion of beautiful plants and their complicated relationship to one another. This beauty and delicate balance is found nowhere else in the state—only in the pitcher plant bogs.