Heaven on Heath

When Alanna Doughty, of Lakes Environmental Association fame, and I pulled into the parking lot of Saco Heath this morning, we had no idea what to expect. It is described as the southern-most coalesced domed bog in Maine. I have to admit, I need to learn so much more to understand the real meaning of that. According to The Nature Conservancy, for this is one of their preserves, “the heath formed when two adjacent ponds filled with decaying plant material called peat. Eventually, the two ponds filled completely and grew together to form a raised coalesced bog, where the surface of the peat is perched above the level of the groundwater.”

Our first steps found us walking through a forested bog rich with wetland plants including Cinnamon and Royal Ferns.

And then we entered the peatland through the pearly gates.

It was a place where one could disappear for a few lifetimes and eventually emerge completely preserved. With Pitch Pines and Black Spruce towering above, the colors gave us our first pause for the Rhodora was in full bloom and neither of us could remember ever seeing so much of it before.

As it was, we seemed to have been transported into a still-life painting of spring where even the toppled Gray Birch might have been intentionally placed for such a contrast it provided.

Taking a closer look, it was suddenly obvious that life was not still at all and the flower drew our eyes in and out and in and out again with all of its lines.

We even found a few with brand new hairy leaves complementing the presentation.

This was a place where old friends live and greeting them again with a friendly handshake seemed only natural.

The Tamarack’s needles so soft and bright green graced the tree with a feathery appearance.

The flowers of the Black Chokeberry gave us pause for a few minutes for we had to get our shrub eyes adjusted to the brightness that surrounded us.

We weren’t the only ones with large eyes noticing all the goodness in our midst.

Being in a heath, members of the heath family made their presence known, such as the Bog Laurel. Some of the flowers had fallen to the sphagnum moss floor below the boardwalk, so we sat down to take a closer look at the flower, its petals fused into a shallow, five-lobed bowl. The interior of the bowl was interrupted by ten indentations where the pollen-bearing anthers snuggled as if in individual pockets. Each awaited a pollinator to trigger the spring-like tension and thus get showered with pollen. We may have unintentionally aided in sharing the goodness.

Because we were looking and trying to gain a better understanding, Alanna ran her fingers down the Bog Laurel’s stem, reveling in the recognition of the longitudinal ridges between each pair of leaves. From one set of leaves to the next, the ridge orientation and next set of leaves shifted 90˚. In the land of wonder, we were definitely wallowing in awe.

Another member of the heath family stumped us for a few minutes until it reminded us that its “pineapple” form atop the rhododendrum-like leaves was not the fruit, but rather the start of the flower.

It was a few plants later, that we noticed the flowers beginning to burst.

While we watched, a male Painted Lady paused atop one of the laurels as if it was a pedestal, the better place from which to possibly entice a mate.

Shortly thereafter we made a new acquaintance. By its shiny, parallel-veined leaves we thought we knew it, but then we spied the tiny white flowers. We know False Solomon’s Seal, but join us in greeting Three-leaved False Solomon’s Seal. Ronald B. Davis writes in Bog & Fens, “In bogs, it commonly occurs on a peat moss mat at the transition between a mineorotrophic black-spruce wooded area and a more open ombrotrophic area.”

Indeed, I have a lot to learn, but the natural community was transitioning again.

And within the transition zone, we met another new friend: Mountain Holly. In retrospect, we may have met in a past life, but it’s always good to spend some time getting reacquainted with the finer details such as the tiny flowers at the end of long, fine petioles.

At the end of the boardwalk, the trail loops around through a forest of pines and oaks.

At the shrub level, Bumblebees acted as bell ringers while they flew from one flower of the Highbush Blueberry to the next, making sure that all were in tune.

It was in this same neighborhood that we met another for the first time. Velvet-leaved Blueberry’s leaves and stems were as soft as any robe an angel might wear.

Below, her bell-shaped skirts dangled.

A surprise along the loop trail was a spur to an outlook where a sturdy bench offered time for contemplation and meditation.

Several signs beyond our reach warned us not to step off the platform and into the bog, but . . . it was soooo tempting. And weren’t we in the garden?

As we stood and wondered about what we might be missing, we spied several Pitcher Plants with their urn-like leaves.

And directly behind the bench stood one of the rare species for which this place is known: Atlantic White Cedar

Though we never did see the Hessel’s Hairstreak Butterfly, another rare species associated with Atlantic White Cedar, we honored the tree by taking a closer look at its foliage.

And then it was time to return back across the boardwalk, upon which we immediately noticed a huge Pitcher Plant we’d missed on our previous pass. In its center the bulbous red flowers posed as cranberries.

We also spotted a couple of Pink Lady’s Slippers in bloom that we’d previously walked past, giving thanks that we’d had to follow the same route and because of that made some new observations.

At the end of our time we knew we’d visited a very special place that allowed us to come to a better understanding of old friends and make new acquaintances. It certainly felt like we’d spent the morning at Heaven on Heath.

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