No Longer the Understory

The weather had changed. When we arrived at this lake in the boreal forest of Quebec the temperature soared past 90 degrees. Only four days later, at 5 AM in the morning, it was 37 degrees. This sharp drop in temperatures is not unusual in these far northern climates. The weather is fickle. And there is nothing one can do about it except to be prepared.

Maureen and I hiked along an old trail that intercepted an area that had been burned off in a fire about eighteen years ago. It was a terrible forest fire that burned hundreds of square miles. Once fires get going in these dense woods there is little that can be done about it accept to let it burn out. It can takes weeks and weeks. Although the forest had been burned to the ground the recovery since then was remarkable. The area held dense vegetation, much of it normally an understory strata that would be found around the perimeter of a thick boreal forest or in pockets of light where wind thrown trees left an opening in the canopy. But in this set of circumstances, where vegetation was needed to hold the thin layer of topsoil from which trees get their nutrients, these small plants thrived.

The most predominant plant that has taken hold on this altered landscape is Labrador Tea. This shrub is typically found in wet and cool soils. Although much of this landscape is on a shallow hillside it still holds peat moss. Sphagnum (peat) moss can alter a landscape by a process known as paludification. In this process peat moss, which can hold many times its own weight in water, wicks water into uplands as the peat moss spreads. It can change a plant community from upland to wetland as the peat settles in new terrain. This area of peat forms a relatively thin (only one to two feet thick) layer over sand and gravel-glacial deposition placed 12,000 years ago by the retreating ice sheet. Wetland plants thrive in the peat because of the available water. If one digs into the peat they will find the shallow roots of shrubs and plants growing along the bottom of the peat layer. Labrador tea typically grows in bogs but this thick peat layer that holds ample water supports this wetland shrub with ease.

Labrador tea is unique to colder climates and boggy conditions. Like other plants of the boreal forest it must be able to handle temperatures that reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 50 degrees below zero in the winter. Labrador tea has a thick waxy coating on its leaf that conserves moisture and protects from the terribly cold winters found in the boreal forest. The under side of the leaf is fuzzy, starting out yellow in June and turning to a rusty color in the early autumn.

The Labrador Tea plant has many medicinal uses. Native Americans used the tea in many remedies. It was a staple in Algonquian medicine. More recently it has been discovered to be a natural remedy to Lyme disease and has been proven to be effective in veterinary use for this purpose.

Bunchberry, a member of the widely varied Dogwood family, can be found in temperate and frigid climates. It is well adapted to a variety of habitats. It can be found along shorelines, river banks, and within bogs. It is a low ground cover that displays distinct veining in the leaf and supports a four petal white flower in the spring and bright red berries in the summer. The fruit is highly prized by many animal species from mammals to birds. Both Spruce Grouse and Ruffed Grouse use this plant and may gravitate towards its locations when the fruit is ripe. Spruce Grouse are common in the boreal forest of Quebec and can often be seen feeding in areas where bunch berry is found. There are many rodents including red squirrels, chipmunks, and voles that utilize the berries of bunchberry as well.

Visually bunch berry provides a contrast in the landscape providing little patches of bright red and orange amongst a sea of otherwise green vegetation and white lichens. With each group of bunchberry that I observe my heart soars. Beyond any art, the beauty of this plant is spectacular.

Fireweed is another plant that provides a visual contrast within the boreal forest. This herbaceous plant grows tall and can stand above much of the early recovering understory. Large islands of pink and red seem to float within a ocean of green. Many pollinators utilize this plant for its wonderful supply of nectar. Butterflies, wild bees, and others are dependent on this wildflower of the boreal forest.

One of the surprises of the recovering understory in the boreal forest of Quebec is the presence of bristly sarspirilla. This plant is hardy and cousins to the much more common common sarspirilla found to the south in southern Quebec and New England. And yes, the root has been used for generations to make both root beer and sarspirilla soft drinks (its too bad now that almost all root beer is made from chemical copies and bears little resemblance in taste to the original drink). The plant is tall, has serrated leaves, and a white globe flower that stands above the top part of the green plant. Common sarspirilla is shorter and has a white globe flower that stands alone beneath the body of the plant. It tends to grow in groups, and flowers for only a week or two at a time in northern Quebec. The wild bees focus on this plant when it is in bloom and take full advantage of the short duration it is available.

Another plant that has a very wide continental distribution and has its northern reaches within the boreal forest is Sheep Laurel. This plant has a small waxy leaf that is adapted to freakishly cold weather. It produces a cluster of beautiful pink flowers that stand out throughout their bloom. The plant can grown in rather large groups but is also found as scattered individuals hanging out around the base of the the Labrador Tea plants within the understory plant community in areas recovering form fires and/or pulp logging. It holds a simple beauty that is somewhat breathtaking. Sometimes looking down at your feet when the wild north has such expansive and wide open views is difficult but doing so can provide a glimpse of another, more discreet world that holds the secrets of the northern boreal forest.

There are two members of the genus Vaccinium that make up part of this plant community that holds the earth in place while the boreal forest recovers after a major disturbance. The first is small-leaved cranberry. This plant is similar to the more common cranberry but has tiny leaves. The fruits are less prolific on the small-leaved cranberry than on common cranberry. The plant also does not grow in the monocultures that can happen with common cranberry but rather integrates with the rest of the natural plant community. It is often found in harmony with peat moss which can supply a steady supply of water-so necessary for this water loving plant. The second member of this group is the lowbush blueberry. This plant is the low, ground cover variety of blueberry. It prefers dry soils but will grow in modestly wet areas, usually on top of another ground cover. Both plants provide gobs of useful forage for wildlife. On our most recent visit Maureen was nominated as camp hero for her foraging skills of the wild blueberries found along the trail. She showed no reservation in competing for the wild fruit despite the sign of black bears which are dependent on this this berry.

No conversation or description of a recovering boreal forest would be complete without a discussion of lichen. Lichen grows in sevral different forms; crusotose, foliose, fruticose. Lichen is not a plant but rather a perfect symbiotic union of fungus and algae (and occasionally cyanobacteria). The fungus provides the structure rooting itself to bark, rock, soil, and other substrates. The algae provides food through its utilization of photosynthesis. The result is a beautiful organism that can cover the most destitute conditions. Large areas of ledge can be covered with a beautiful white and pale green weave of threads. Tree bark can have additional texture caused by bark-loving algae. Old stumps and deadwood can provide substrate for soldier lichen and a variety of lichens that brighten the forest floor. It is a unique composition that adds color, texture, and a breath of fresh air to these wild plant communities. Caribou are adapted to feeding on lichen and are very dependent upon large areas of this symbiotic relationship for forage habitat.

Like any native plant community, especially those found in the challenging climates of the far north, the boreal forest is tested on an annual basis. Frigid winters that keep most humans from inhabiting these latitudes are harsh and unforgiving on the plant communities. Fires, usually caused by the ferocious lightning from thunder storms, can level thousands and sometimes millions of acres of boreal forest and in any given year are always a threat. And human infringement, especially pulp logging, can change the face of a boreal forest for generations.

But within all of the mysteries that the boreal forest holds, the greatest is its gift for survival. And who would guess that those small, often unnoticed plants, that lurk in the shadows of the taller conifers would provide the foundation for future generations. All, the peat moss, Labrador tea, sheep laurel, cranberry, low-bush blueberry, bristly sarspirilla, and fireweed (amongst others like asters, alders, clintonia, meadowrue, and northern buttercups) provide what is needed for soil stability, soil fertility, and a nest for the future of the boreal forest-black spruce, balsam fir, and the tamarack.

A miracle? Perhaps.

It occurs to me that all of nature is miraculous.

And aren’t we fortunate to be able to witness this never ending sequence of nature and be challenged by a puzzle that just begs to be unraveled?

Click on smaller photos to enlarge!

Written for in August of 2012.

  • Teresaevangeline

    This world truly is miraculous if one redefines that word to include the divinely natural. That we are able to witness it is another miracle, and to discover its mysteries…the greatest miracle of all. And isn’t it fun, even in the attempt?

    Great images and information.

  • Montucky

    Fascinating insight into those forests Bill! What an amazing place this planet is!

  • Wild_Bill

     Whatever we call the wonder of the natural world it certainly is our foundation, heart and soul.  And instead of trying to make the foundation crumble I think all who read me agree that we should strengthen the wild underpinning that allows all life to go on.  Consideration should replace greed.  Wonder should replace want.

    Thank you very much for your continued support Teresa!

  • Wild_Bill

     We share an appreciation and gratitude for the natural world.  I worry that people have become so separated from the outdoors and natural ecosystems by electronics and urban/suburban life that they neglect to understand that the human species cannot survive without a healthy ecosystem. 

    And yes, what an amazing place our planet is!

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    I really enjoyed the post especially the information about lichen. And you are right we are fortunate I wish more of us realized that.


  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks Guy for the compliment and thank you for being such a wonderful friend of our planet!  One of the primary purposes of is to promote celebration of our planet.  The Universe is a lonely place for those rare planets that are capable of supporting life.  The odds are minute that this will occur.  It really is something we should not take for granted.  The Earth is our life blood!

  • Sandy

    The woods down back has bunchberry, sheep laurel, lots of sphagnum  moss, and the more  common sarsaparilla. I haven’t found cranberry, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  I have never heard anyone refer to this area as a bog, but it is very wet. Now, I am wondering… 

    As usual, this was an interesting and informative post, Bill.  Just reading about the boreal woods is fascinating. If you ever wrote about a book about it, I would buy it. 

  • Wild_Bill

     That’s quite a compliment Sandy.  I’m presently thinking about writing another book (have not found a publisher for the first one-a compendium of my earlier writings) and have decided I need to write about a very specific topic.  The boreal forest is one possibility, I have several other ideas, all related to particular ecosystems.

    These plants that you mention, may or may not grow in a bog.  Bogs are very acidic and (available) nutrient poor.  They are dominated by peat and are host to a slew of acid loving shrubs like the ones you mention (mostly in the Heath family).

  • Nature Drunk

    It’s the smallest of plants and animals that fascinate me the most, Bill. When on a hike, or even in my garden, I find myself drawn the the elements that most people don’t notice. I wonder how certain creatures or organisms survive in the smallest of cracks or crevices. Or how they thrive with virtually no sunlight or water. Perhaps some of us humanoids don’t want to miss out on a thing while on planet earth. We want to feel alive so we seek the tiniest of miracles — the surprises that make our hearts skip a beat.

  • Wild_Bill

     Yes!  You don’t have to look too far or too long to find a mystery in nature.  And the best place to look is where others don’t look at all.  From the nearly microscopic to dark, hidden fissures in bedrock there are creatures and plants that hardly get noticed. 

    My heart skips a beat regularly.

  • Emily B

    Yes, yes, and YES! Enjoyed this post, Bill. I’m always so impressed by your vast stores of knowledge. If only you could just telepathically send your eco-bio wisdom this way… In any case, my favorite two plants here were Labrador Tea and Sarsapirilla. I do remember the original stuff, and it was delicious. :)

  • Wild_Bill

     Thank you Emily.  I’m telepathically sending some plant info your way.  No need to wear antennas to receive the message. 

    I’d love a fresh glass of ice cold root beer or sarspirilla made from real roots! Yum!

  • Barbara

    Hmmm- left a comment the first day, but I guess as usual technology and I don’t often agree and it was lost. So again, I love all the information you’ve given us about understory growth and all the small plants that support life after the scouring of a forest – a natural occurrence obviously in an area so far from human intervention. 

    How lovely that not only yours but many of your followers hearts skip beats regularly and the small miracles in nature – I think I’ve had to train mine to beat regularly – there is so much evidence everywhere of the wonders of nature… and now that we’ve had rain! goodness what a treat – the grass no longer feels crunchy and spiky under my feet…but all is looking and feeling as if life has stopped hiding and is poking its nose out of the hidey holes… though there are a dearth of snails which surprises me… hope they aren’t going the way of the bats… though I have finally seen one bat around here lately… but please Bill keep on telling us about nature’s miracles. Small and large… all equally great stories and information.

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks Barbara.  I think humans naturally appreciate what nature has to offer but unfortunately modern culture and technology has cut us off from our life source.  There is every reason to care about our planet.  It nurtures us and makes us feel whole while also bring us beauty.  And once we get addicted to nature it is nearly not curable.  One of the few addictions that should be good for us!

  • Sue Sweeney

    very interesting – nice look at some plants I don’t usually see. Ah, so that’s what bunchberry actually looks like…. I’ve never seen live peat moss before.

  • Hudson Howl

    Now you gotta know am love’n the textures. Gosh golly. Lichen always reminds me of what healthy lung tissue looks like, which is fitting since the boreal forest is in part the lungs of the world -filtering the air and producing oxygen.

    You touched on forest fires and logging, since I have never been in that particular area, are there any stands of old growth. Just curious.

  • Annie

    Just now getting to your latest articles. With the start up of school just weeks away I find my time focused on preparation and planning and things that happen in a busy environment. Reading this felt so good, so relaxing, so informative. I love learning about these ecosystems that are so foreign to my local and several of the passages reminded me of a favorite story from Seuss; Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your incredible talent as a story teller.

  • Wild_Bill

    Even though Seuss was a local product I haven’t heard of Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose. I’ll have to check it out! Glad you liked what I wrote hear and hoping you will continue to return.

  • Wild_Bill

    The textures and the mosaic of the north are spectacular. I love the comparison between lungs and lichen! Old growth is best found north and east of this area.

  • Wild_Bill

    There is lots of bunchberry and peat in New England so perhaps you will get to see it live soon! The plants of the boreal forest are unique and wonderful.

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