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Exploring the Hawley Bog: Lilies, Orchids, and Pitcher Plants

Canada lilies

Canada lilies in the Hawley Bog woodland  photo by Will Draxler

Years ago I tried visiting the Hawley bog, but gave up when the walkway gave out.  I had to wait to really see the bog until Sue Draxler offered to be my guide.

Sue Draxler was my neighbor when we lived in Heath. She was a very special neighbor because she loved the natural world and generously shared her knowledge of the world around us. Her love of nature showed itself in many ways, in her art works, and in exhibits of wood or insects created by her sons, Will and Alex, for display at the Heath Fair. Not only were those exhibits informative, they were beautifully arranged and labeled. This was a reflection of Draxler’s 20 years of working as a naturalist for an environmental center in New Jersey, and volunteering with other groups.

Draxler told me “Even as a child I enjoyed exploring the natural world. I would try to identify and make lists of the birds, bugs, and plants that I found. I think I told you that it was in the New Jersey Pinelands that I became enamored of bogs so I was delighted to discover the Hawley bog so nearby when we moved to Heath.”

Last week Draxler invited me to walk through the Hawley Bog with her, and her son. Will is 16 and a student at the Academy at Charlemont where he has been gaining greater and greater skills with a camera. Draxler said this was a good time to visit the Bog because the orchids would be in bloom.

Hawley Bog orchid

Rose Pogonia – Hawley bog orchid  photo by Will Draxler

I didn’t know much about bogs beyond the fact that they were perpetually wet places. I certainly didn’t know I could find orchids in a bog.

Neither did I know that the Hawley Bog is considered one of the best examples of a natural New England Bog. It covers an area of 65 acres; 25 of those acres are cared for by the Nature Conservancy and the Five Colleges, Inc. The colleges use the bog as a living classroom and laboratory for research. This fragile wetland includes a mat of peat moss 30 feet thick that floats on the open water of a glacial lake. A 700 foot walkway through the Bog was renovated a few years ago to make it available to students and to interested nature lovers.

Draxler, son Will, and I met early in the morning to drive to the Bog. We parked at the well marked entrance to the woods and began to walk. Within very few minutes we stopped admire bright and dainty Canada lilies, and to sign in at a weather proof box nailed to a tree. The Nature Conservancy likes to keep a tally of visitors and where they come from. We had not far to go through the woods to step on the walkway.

Witches broom

Witches broom is a fungus that can grow on trees and shrubs

Draxler explained that this first section was really a wet meadow. As we walked we could see that the land beneath the walkway getting wetter and wetter. It all looked very green. I did recognize the mountain laurels, but Draxler had to point out the odd collection of brown and green sticks growing on a branch. “Do you know about witches’ brooms?” she asked. No, I did not. She had to explain that this deformity was caused by fungus or viruses and it could attack trees or shrubs. I noticed many more witches’ brooms on trees and shrubs as we walked.

Then Draxler pointed out a pink orchid. This is when I learned about how to look carefully. These pink orchids were no bigger than my thumbnail. That day we only saw Rose Pogonia with its pink crest and fringed lip. Later I learned that there are about 30,000 species of orchids around the world. Large and small. As we walked we saw more and more of these tiny pink orchids. It was very exciting. Draxler said there had not been so many in bloom the previous week.

Yellow loosestrife

Yellow loosestrife, only 8-10 inches tall  photo by Will Draxler

I did recognize meadowsweet with its dainty white panicles, but Draxler patiently pointed out the Royal fern and Ostrich fern by name, as well as the delicate little yellow loosestrife, and the heart-shaped leaf of water arum. I pointed out the odd grass with little fluffy tips but it was Draxler who provided the name – cotton grass. We also saw a small meadow rue which was actually a tall meadow rue, Thalictrum polygamum,  which has no petals, but starry bursts of while threadlike stamens.

Meadow rue - photo taken by Will Draxler

Meadow rue – photo taken by Will Draxler  Very different from the meadow rue in my own garden.

As we walked there were fewer trees and shrubs, Will silently following, stopping to take photographs of the varied plants. We had to look very carefully to see the tiny sundews that were sending up tiny flowers. The pitcher plants were bigger and more familiar. Bogs don’t grow many plants because the bog soil is very acidic and has little nutrition. Carnivorous plants can happily grow in a bog because they get nutrition from their prey.

Hawley bog Pitcher plant

Hawley Bog Pitcher Plant – Sarracenia purpuria   photo by Will Draxler

We came to the end of the walkway, where it turns around and returns. From here the view is of a vast expanse of some low greenery. It was hard not to think about the thousands of years that it took to make this bog. Layer after layer of sphagnum moss grows and dies, but it does not completely decay.

We began to walk back. There was lots of greenery, grass-like plants that we did not name. However, Draxler did give me a rhyme that might help me identify the species. “Sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses have knees that bend to the ground” referring to their jointed nodes.  I loved the rhyme in all its versions, but alas, we did not classify any of the ‘grasses’ we found.

It was two hours later that we returned to the car with a plan to return in August and in the fall, so we can both see the progression of the seasons. I cannot have a more congenial guide and teacher than Sue Draxler. Eventually, I will share those visits and  lessons some time in the future. ###

Between the Rows  July 20, 2019