It’s morning in late April, and spring is in full swing in the southwestern corner of Georgia. The air is warm without being oppressive, but summer is too impatient a season for that state to last long.
You stand in a broad, open woodland of longleaf and slash pines; a little crowded to be a proper savanna, but open enough to allow a rich mix of groundcover species. This land was clearcut in the 1940s, but unlike most of the land around it, it wasn’t converted to agriculture. In fact, roughly a square mile (barely a postage stamp on the greater landscape) around this spot is protected as a state wildlife management area. This is fortunate, for you get to see a remnant of this vanishing ecosystem in a more or less functional state.
When nature-watching, careful attentiveness to your surroundings is key. A quick sweep of this woodland, and the casual observer sees a broad expanse of grasses broken here and there by clumps of shrubs. But standing within that groundcover forces a change of perspective. One reason, of course, is that some of the more mobile denizens of the forest don’t appreciate being stepped on and will tell you so, painfully. Others, more vulnerable, are unable to defend against a boot but still worthy of recognition and protection.
Without close attention, you would have missed the fingernail-sized puff of pink on the ground between the deerberry and the wiregrass clump. The sensitive brier has bipinnately compound leaves snap shut and droop suddenly when touched. Perhaps this serves to startle herbivores or shake off leaf-munching insects, but also entertains a youth with woodwise curiosity.
The flowers rising between grass clumps host wild bees and bright butterflies as they make the rounds; less noticeable are the beetles, flies and wasps that also sip the nectar in exchange for pollen transport.
The change in elevation is too slight for a Piedmont hill-dweller to notice, but a close eye on the vegetation reveals it. Wiregrass gives way to dropseed and toothache grass, and then to rushes. In a matter of inches of height, the upland has become bog, and a new suite of plants surrounds you.
Looking down, you spot tiny reddish spots the size of a quarter, obscured by pine needles. These are sundews, which catch and digest insects on their sticky rosette leaves. Your new vantage point as you squat down to observe these tiny herbaceous carnivores allows you to notice the glistening sand. You didn’t realize how wet the soil was, but now you see your last footprint is filling with water. There is no water’s edge here, just a gradual gradient that dips and rises between “dry” land and standing water. A fallen pine provides a precarious walkway for a few yards, yet you will get wet feet soon enough.
Off to your left, you see what you came for: a cluster of meter-long yellow pitcher plants (aka Trumpets). Like sundews, pitcher plants are carnivorous, digesting insects to supplement their nutritional needs on poor, wet soils. Attracted by the scent of nectar, bugs alight within the leaf tube, where the waxy surface and downward-facing hairs slide the victim deeper in. Eventually, the insect falls into a pool of digestive fluid, where it drowns and dissolves. You also see the less lethal flowers among the pitchers; they too lure pollinators in, but allows them to escape after being dusted with pollen.
Your old-timer guide tells you he remembers, back in the 80’s, driving down the interstate and seeing fields of pitcher plant trumpets for mile upon unbroken mile. But agriculture, industrial logging, and other development made the land inhospitable for these persnickety plants. These bogs feature shallow, consistent, year-round water supply, and even a tire rut (or repeated human traffic) can alter the hydrology enough to make a spot unsuitable. This particular woodland is protected from development and burned periodically to keep it open.
Managers ran a prescribed fire through this bog last June, and already some bays, gallberry, and other shrubs are making their presence known. A few years without fire would change the plant makeup of this woodland and threaten pitcher plants, sundews, sunny bells, and most of the plant and animal diversity you find here today.
Your guide says it’s time to head out. Carefully picking your way to “higher” ground, you find a footpath and say good day to the pitcher plant bog. As you reach the dirt road you drove in on, you see the highway. Cars pass by, driven by people with no interest in places like a pitcher plant bog. It’s sad because they can’t appreciate the intricate, rich, and delicate web of life that still exists. But perhaps it is also fortunate, because places like these tend to suffer when they receive too much human attention.
Longleaf Pine Ecosystem from Wikipedia
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