April showers might bring May flowers, but so do wide open spaces and forest fires. For proof, you need go no further than the nearest pitcher plant bog. They are increasingly harder to find, however, due to land development and modern firefighting …
April showers might bring May flowers, but so do wide open spaces and forest fires. For proof, you need go no further than the nearest pitcher plant bog. They are increasingly harder to find, however, due to land development and modern firefighting techniques.
“There used to be tens of thousands of acres of pitcher plants, but their habitats have been drained by development,” said Fred Nation, a field botanist who often gives tours and conducts ecosystem classes at the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. “Fire suppression is another reason they are disappearing. They need fire to survive.” Blazes that occur naturally clear undergrowth, enabling pitcher plants to grow.
That’s why periodic controlled burns are conducted at the reserve’s pitcher plant bog on County Road 17, near Fish River. There, three species of the carnivorous plants thrive within its boundaries.
“They’ve adapted to, and are dependent on, fire in ways we don’t fully understand,” Nation said. “Quail are also fire dependent because their habitat is open fields. Pine trees, mostly slash pines, but a few longleaf, are also found in bogs,” he added.
Nation said, “Pitcher plants are actually plants that eat animals, mostly insects, but sometimes a small reptile will fall inside a plant and can’t get out.”
Our area actually has more pitcher plants than any other place in the world, according to Nation. He said, “It’s interesting that some of the most beautiful and interesting plants are right here in south Alabama.”
The plants at Weeks Bay are now blooming, providing not only a photo opportunity, but also a chance to see nature up close. Nation hopes seeing the unique plants will encourage others to consider setting aside land for their survival.
“We have a special role as stewards to protect what is here for future generations,” he said. “There are quite a few parcels around here that would be bogs if they hadn’t been fire suppressed.”
Pitcher plant bogs are wetlands, Nation said, which improve overall water quality by slowing down the flow of water and filtering it before it settles into the water table. He noted wetlands are “great sponges and great filters” that affect us all when lost.
The pitcher plants grow at Weeks Bay in very poor, acidic soil with water standing just below the surface, Nation said. Because of the lack of nutrients in such bogs, the plants adapted over the years by receiving food through the decomposition of insects.
Pitcher plants are cone-shaped tubes with downward-pointing cilia (tiny hairs) lining the inside. Once trapped, the bugs die and enzymes are secreted by the plant to break down their bodies and provide it a high protein meal.
On the regular menu are flies, mosquitoes, ants, wasps, beetles and bees. Love bugs are even a delicacy when they are in season.
Several carnivorous plants, including bladderworts and sundews, are also native to the bog, Nation said. Among the other plants found there are seven orchid species.
The primary Weeks Bay Reserve bog was established in 1996 when land near a small number of pitcher plants was mechanically cleared. The plants thin out as one walks along the Kurt G. Wintermeyer Boardwalk and Nature Trail toward Fish River, according to Nation, because the soil quality improves and there are more trees and other plants hindering their growth.
“There would be a pitcher plant bog across the road (where there is now a wooded nature trail and parking lot), but it got shaded over the years because of fire suppression,” he said, adding the area likely burned two or three times over a five-year period back when wildfires were left unchecked.
Other bogs preserved or restored in Baldwin County include the Splinter Hill Bog, located in the headwaters of the Perdido River along Dyas Creek; the Minimac Wildflower Bog, on MacCartee Lane in Silverhill; and the Biophilia Nature Center, on County Road 95 in Elberta.