The Rich Harvest of Wetlands

The brilliant red leaves of a swamp maple on a bright fall morning. The last bees slowly collecting pollen from wild asters along a river. The salt marsh hay harvest. Ripe cranberries in rock crevice and small depression bogs. These are signs that another autumn has come to Massachusetts. And they are reminders of the wonderful harvest wetlands provide - for wildlife and people - now and throughout the year.

Wetlands bring us many benefits. They control flooding, storm damage, and water pollution. Wetlands are critical nursery areas for our inland and coastal fisheries, and provide food, shelter and breeding sites for wildlife. Through the centuries our marshes, swamps, and bogs have also provided food and medicine to the inhabitants of Massachusetts.

Wetland Plants as Food for Wildlife. The flowers, fruits, seeds, leaves, twigs, bark and roots of plants which grow in our wetlands all provide food for animals.

A hummingbird hovering at a cardinal flower is a reminder that the nectar and pollen produced by flowers are critical food sources, for bees and other insects as well as hummingbirds. Nectar is high in carbohydrates and pollen is an important protein source. It is animals' use of these floral foods which incidentally leads to the pollination of plants, and the production of fruits and seeds.

Fruits are valuable to birds and mammals which spend all or some of their time in wetlands, for example deer, fox, muskrats and geese. Fleshy fruits like highbush blueberries and elderberries, available in the summer, are high in sugars and vitamins. At this time other foods like insects, provide the fat and protein they need.

Some wetland fruits such as black alder and multiflora rose ripen in fall and remain on the plants much of the winter. These fruits are high in fat - and a compact energy source for animals in cold weather. Nuts, which are hard dry fruits, are rich in both fats and proteins.

The most important seeds eaten by animals are from common plants like maples and oaks. The swamp maples which dominate our forested wetlands, as well as river maple and swamp white oak, are major wetland foods for birds and small mammals. Grains from wetland grasses, like reed canary grass and wild rice are widely eaten. Leaves, stems and roots of plants are consumed by insects, browsing and grazing mammals, some rodents, and a few game birds.

Food and Medicinal Use of Wetland Plants. Native Americans were experts at gathering and using plants. They passed this knowledge on to the European settlers, who integrated it with plant information and herbal lore of their own.

Many plants were valuable food sources. For example, the fruits of highbush blueberry, elderberry and swamp dewberry were eaten fresh in summer and dried for winter. Cattail tubers were dried and ground into flour, and the bases of leaves eaten fresh in spring (they taste very much like cucumber).

When the maples turn red they are shutting down for the winter, storing their energy in sweet sap which was harvested by tapping the trees in early spring. Swamp maple and silver maple produce a sweet sap similar to sugar maple. This sap and syrup were used to sweeten corn, dried blueberries and other foods. Syrup was sometimes carried in duck or quail eggs while traveling. The large maple seeds were boiled, and seedlings pulled up whole and eaten as a green.

The tubers of arrowhead, which grows at the edges of ponds and rivers, was eaten like potato. People stood in the water and wiggled their toes in the mud around to find the tubers. Wild rice in shallow ponds and along the marshy borders of streams was gathered in autumn, boiled, eaten with maple syrup or blueberries and used for thickening soup. Like cultivated rice it swells to 3-4 times its size when cooked.

Most of the foods we eat today are from intensely cultivated varieties of plants. But there are two wetland plants native to Massachusetts which were used historically and have also become important in the modern diet - the highbush blueberry and the cranberry. The wild forms still grow in the state and are quite similar to the cultivated varieties bred from them.

Many wetland plants also had medicinal and herbal uses to earlier residents of Massachusetts. Various parts of the elderberry were used to reduce inflammation, and to treat wounds and colic in babies. Tea made from the inner bark of willows was used to reduce fever and relieve pain. Willow contains salicin which converts to a compound similar to the active ingredient in aspirin.

Early settlers used skunk cabbage to treat respiratory and nervous disorders, the needles of the eastern hemlock tree to relieve symptoms of flu, and dogwood to reduce fever. Goldthread was employed to cure sores and inflammation in the mouth until well into this century, and green hellebore was used as late as the 1960s to reduce blood pressure - when it was replaced by synthetics. Cardinal flower and joe-pye weed were used as aphrodisiacs!

Wetland Use and Wetland Loss. The plants of swamps and other low wet areas have been used throughout the ages by peoples around the world. The Russians and Irish mined peat from bogs for fuel. Salt marshes in northern Europe, the British Isles and the U.S. were used for hay, grazing animals and thatching houses. Whole cultures have lived in and depended on wetland areas, for example the Louisiana Cajuns and the Native Americans of the Florida Everglades.

Historically wetlands were utilized sometimes in sustainable and sometimes in destructive ways. Native Americans valued wetlands. They gathered plants and their products and hunted wetland animals for food and clothing, but didn't otherwise change the land. But as Europeans arrives and settlements occurred, wetlands began to be seen as mosquito - breeding wastelands to be drained for agriculture or to control disease and mosquitoes. Because of this much of the original wetland in the United States has been lost over the past several hundred years. Massachusetts has lost about 28 percent of its wetlands since Colonial times. The important functions and social values of these areas have only been recognized and protected in the past few decades.

This fall take a walk through or near a swamp, marsh or bog.  And thank wetlands for their bountiful harvest!