In celebration of World Wetlands Day, Larson Design Group environmental experts Josh Glace, Teah Gray, and Bob Cawthern provide insights about the diversity of wetlands.
Wetlands are unique areas of land that are connected to a variety of hydrologic sources including precipitation, groundwater, and floodwaters. Wetlands naturally occur in nearly every part of the earth and can range from vast marshes and riparian woodlands to very small but very critical ephemeral pools. This diversity of habitat and the plant species unique to each wetland type determines the wetlands functionality for the survivability of other species as well as economic advantages that benefit mankind. The three common systems include:
Emergent wetland systems
Emergent wetland systems contain low herbaceous vegetation. An example of an emergent wetland system would be a wet meadow. Emergent wetland systems are good sources of food chain production, pollution prevention, sedimentation control, and natural water filtration for their surrounding areas. This type of wetland system can form relevantly quickly, sometimes in a year or less. For that reason, this wetland is the easiest to permit and restore for projects.
Scrub/shrub wetland systems
Scrub/shrub wetland systems contain brush and woody vegetation. Due to the dense vegetative community, these wetland systems are often utilized by wildlife for nesting, resting, and rearing. They form in and around fallow fields and can take five or more years to become a fully functioning wetland system. This type of wetland requires a higher level of permitting and mitigation at a ratio of 2– or 3–to–1 is normally required.
Forested wetland systems
Forested wetland systems are vegetated with mature trees located throughout the system. These systems can take 20-50 years to form and function. Forested wetlands are some of the highest functioning wetlands and are utilized by dozens of different species of wildlife. Therefore, these wetlands are highly projected and permitting and mitigation is very difficult. Avoidance is always the best option for this type of wetland.
Wetlands are fundamental resources for a wide variety of plant species which can result in very diverse natural habitats. Take a closer look at the LDG Environmental team’s favorite plants.
Jewelweed has very distinct orange flowers with hanging seed pods, which explode when touched or bothered, hence giving it the nickname Touch-Me-Not. The plant usually grows from early summer to the first frost in saturated, shaded areas in wetlands and along stream banks. Wetland indicator status is FACW. Jewelweed sap is used for medicinal purposes to reduce the rash caused by poison ivy as well as the burning sensation from stinging nettle. Popular food source and attraction for deer, mice, bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies.
Skunk Cabbage is mostly known for its pungent smell and is seen in wetland areas and moist hill slopes. It flowers in the early spring and the smell attracts pollinators such as gnats, flies and bees. The plant is one of the few plants capable generating temperatures of 55-95 degrees through a process called thermogenesis. This allows the plant to grow through frozen ground. It was widely used by various Native Americans as a medicinal plant and seasoning. The plant contains calcium oxalate crystals, which can cause an intense burning sensation in the mouth if eaten raw.
White Turtlehead is an herbaceous wetland plant that grows 2-3 feet in height. This plant gets its name from its distinct white flowers that resemble a turtle skull. This plant blooms in late summer and has a Wetland Indicator of obligate. This means that hydrology is obligatory for this species to grow. Following the growing season, this plant germinates by seed dispersal. This species is native to North America and ranges from Georgia to Newfoundland, and Mississippi to Manitoba. Although they cover a vast area, this species is listed as Exploitably Vulnerable in New York state. White Turtlehead provides a great source of food for a variety of pollinators and hummingbirds within a wetland community but provides special benefit to the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly. Similar to how the Monarch butterfly relies on Milkweed to complete its life cycle, the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly relies on White Turtlehead as its primary larval host plant.
Gray Dogwood is a medium sized shrub that can be found throughout the northeast and central United States. The shrub ranges in 4 to 10 feet tall and often grows is large clusters forming thickets creating excellent wildlife habitat. It is easily identified by the bright red pedicels, or the stems the small white fruits form on and the white pith observed when you break a branch. This species flowers in May thru July with clusters of small white flowers. The small white fruit that is produced is a food sources for numerous birds and whitetail use this as a food source over winter browsing on the soft stems.
Cranberry is a low-growing, evergreen trailing shrub that often form low dense masses over peaty, boggy areas and suitable wetlands. Cranberry is native to central and eastern Canada, the northeastern and north-central United States and as far south as North Carolina and Tennessee. It produces small white or pink flowers in the spring which then produce a sour tasting red berry in the fall. The berries are eaten by birds and small mammals and it also attracts insects that pollinate the flowers. Cultivated cranberry varieties developed from this native species are grown extensively in Wisconsin, Cape Cod and in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and have both culinary and naturopathic uses.
Bulrush is a perennial wetland species that is native in North and South America. Probably the most known wetland plant, bulrush is a stout-stemmed perennial that grows between 4 and 8 feet in height. It has broad linear leaf blades and produces a dense, brown, cylindrical flowering spike through the Autumn months before becoming a downy mass of white. Bulrush is often found in dense clumps, by its creeping rootstocks where it provides a favorable habitat for marsh birds and muskrats. These species, and others, consume the plant by eating the leaves and rhizomes. It is also eaten by man; Native Americans and early colonists would grind the rootstock into meal and the younger shoots can be served as greens or used in a salad. Passive treatment systems designed for the treatment of acid mine drainage (AMD) are mostly comprised of emergent plant species like bulrush. Bulrush promotes the adsorption to the substrate while improving the removal of metals by uptake and retention over its tissues, thereby lessening the amount of metals, such as iron, manganese, and aluminum in the associated waters.
World Wetlands Day is celebrated annually to raise global awareness about the value of wetlands. Visit https://www.worldwetlandsday.org to find more resources or ways to get involved.
Founded in 1986, Larson Design Group is an award-winning national architecture, engineering, and planning firm with 11 offices in four states and a vision to elevate client relationships, enrich the careers and lives of its employee-owners, and enhance the communities in which it operates. For more information, visit www.larsondesigngroup.com.