Today’s post comes from Maya Oversby, a natural heritage education student at Blue Lake Provincial Park.
As human beings, we master many things. Because of our height, we often miss some of the most magnificent parts of the boreal forest, specifically, its wetland ecology.
Here at Blue Lake, the spruce swamp is one of the most traveled trails and is home to some of our most notable creatures and fantastic flora. Unfortunately, many go unnoticed due to their small size.
A swamp is a type of wetland that tends to support unique and well-adapted species. The plants and animals found within our Black Spruce Fen Trail are some of the toughest and most resilient beings in our ecosystem.
Because of the spruce swamp’s highly acidic soil, it takes something special for plants and animals to call it home. Some of the plants that thrive in this environment have certain medicinal properties that have been very useful to the first inhabitants of this land.
Here are four of the most spectacular plants on our Black Spruce Fen Trail:
round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
You’ll have to get close to the ground to see this little plant!
The round-leaved sundew is one of the most feisty in the swamp. This seemingly innocent plant is a ferocious carnivore that lures insects to their death.
These deceptive plants attract insects of all shapes and sizes to their colorful, pinkish-red leaves, which are covered in a sweet, sticky substance.
Once the insect is trapped, the sundew’s digestive enzymes work to break it down so the plant can use it as nutrients. It is believed that sundews were not always killers, but evolved to survive. Because the highly acidic soil they live in lacks nutrients, they adapted to killing insects.
These small but powerful species have traditionally been used to treat lung diseases or applied topically to treat minor skin problems such as pimples.
Who knew that such a small plant could play an important role in the history of medicine?
The pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea)
The sundew also shares its home and prey with the neighboring Pitcher Plants, our second carnivorous plant here in Blue Lake.
The pitcher plant
The carnivorous plant kills by attracting insects to its cup-shaped leaves.
Small insects are attracted to the musky smell of the plant’s juices. When they investigate, they fall into the small puddle of digestive enzymes. It is impossible to escape from the pitcher plant because of the small downward-pointing hairs inside the cup, which prevents insects from gaining traction. It is truly a ferocious swamp predator.
Although not friendly to flies, this plant was used to treat smallpox in the 18th century by Dr. Sarrazin of Quebec, saving many lives. Carl Linnaeus took into account the hard work of Dr. Sarrazin and selected the scientific name of the Pitcher Plant. Sarracenia purpurea as a nod to Dr. Sarrazin’s efforts.
indian pipe (Monotropa Uniflora)
Indian Pipe is often referred to as the ghost of the swamp. This eerie white flower lacks chlorophyll, the pigments that make plants green and help them gain energy from the sun.
To obtain adequate nutrients and minerals to survive, Indian Pipe takes advantage of the neighboring symbiotic relationships of the tree and fungi. Both trees and mushrooms benefit each other; The fungi give minerals to the tree and the tree gives sugars and carbohydrates to the fungi.
Indian Pipe, however, is the pirate of the swamp. Its intercut root system robs both trees and fungi, and does not return the favor. This makes Indian Pipe’s relationships parasitic, as it only benefits the plant itself.
Although Indian Pipe is not the most “friendly” in the swamp, he has been quite generous with humans. It is not clear whether this plant is poisonous or not, but in the past it was used as a sedative, muscle relaxant, and treatment for eye infections.
This ghostly plant can be found thriving next to trees anywhere in the swamp. Even in the shadiest places, because the sun doesn’t hit them at all!
Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenladicum)
Labrador tea is possibly the most huggable shrub that has ever existed. Beneath, its folded lower leaf is a soft layer of beautiful rusty orange fluff.
Since this shrub is evergreen, it peeks through the snow during our long winters here in Blue Lake and adds a little more color to the blindingly white canvas. In addition to the strong fragrance of its leaves, the crushed leaves are said to repel insects.
Labrador tea, as its name suggests, has been used for generations by indigenous people across Canada to make hot drinks. Taken in tea form, it is extremely useful for coughs and colds, and is also used as a kidney tonic.
This special plant is basically a panacea, but don’t go into the bush and start making tea! There are strict guidelines to follow when it comes to Labrador tea dosage due to its potency and possible drug interactions.
This abundant plant that inhabits our acidic soil here in the swamp is also a tasty treat for deer during all seasons. What a versatile plant!
Look but don’t touch
It’s fun to learn about the traditional uses of these plants, but remember: Picking plants is strictly prohibited in provincial parks.
We encourage you to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of these plants and understand their important role in history without having to choose them for personal use.
Come hike the Spruce Fen Trail yourself!
The Spruce Swamp is a special place that we appreciate very much here at Blue Lake. It is home to a wide range of unique plant species that would otherwise be unknown to the average camper.
Next time you take a walk along our Spruce Fen Trail, we challenge you to take a closer look at species that may go unnoticed at first glance. Try to find some of these plants and remember their traditional and medicinal functions.
Just remember: discoveries in nature are encouraged, but be sure to leave nature as you found it.