Know what’s in the wetlands


One question people ask me is: “How do I know I’m in a wetland area?” The easy answer is to just keep walking until the water leaks into your shoes. However, since no one wants to walk around in soggy shoes, an easy way is to observe the plants growing nearby.

There are two types of wetland plants: obligate plants, which almost always grow in a wetland area, and facultative plants, which usually grow in wetland areas, but can grow in other areas.

One of the easiest to spot and to remember is cattail plants. These plants can grow up to seven feet tall. The seed head is the most recognizable part of the plant. It is a large, sausage-shaped seed head that turns brown when it matures. The leaves are flat and have no midrib. When young it can be confused for irises or sweetflag.

While the cattail is an important plant for water birds, amphibians, fish and mammals, they will get out of hand if not controlled. Cattails can spread by both windborne seeds and rhizomes (underground roots). If you know what you’re doing, quite a bit of the plant can be used for food.

Arrowhead is another common plant in wetlands. This plant can get almost five feet tall. As the name suggests, its leaves are shaped like an arrowhead. Arrowheads are a perennial plant with about 20 species native to the eastern U.S. It is also called duck potato, because the tubers are edible for muskrats and porcupines (and people if you really have to). The seeds are eaten by waterfowl.

Yellow marsh marigold is misnamed — they are a member of the buttercup family, not the marigold family. The flowers of this plant look similar to other buttercup plants, with five-petaled yellow flowers with large, very smooth and round leaves. This is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom. The bright yellow color is a welcome sight on wet rainy days. It will get up to 18 inches tall and the leaves are heart-shaped. After it quits blooming, the leaves can get up to 8 inches across. Look for Skunk Cabbage, where you find one you’ll find the other.

Jewelweed (also known as Touch-Me-Not) — there are two types: one has orange-spotted flowers, and the other one has pale yellow ones. These plants get to about five feet tall. These are found usually in wetland areas, but can be found other places.

Once the seeds are ripe, if the flowers are touched, the seeds shoot out. If you ever get caught in some stinging nettles or poison ivy, look around for one of these plants, because the crushed leaves and juice from the stem are a well-known remedy to ease the itching.

The Swamp Milkweed grows to a height of five feet and there are two types — one of them has small pink-purple flowers that you find in bogs and marshes. The other one has white flowers and prefers shady wetlands. Butterflies and hummingbirds really love this plant.

The cardinal flower is one of the prettiest plants you’ll find growing in the wetlands. It also gets up to about five feet tall and has bright red flowers. It can grow either in the sun or the shade and hummingbirds are highly attracted to this plant. There has been an occasional attempt to get this flower named as the state flower. If you have a rain garden, this is a very showy flower to grow.

Queen-of-the-prairie is a rather large plant; the rose-pink flower clusters can get up to 10 inches across and almost 12 inches long. The entire plant will get up to six feet tall. It grows in boggy areas and moist meadows. Once planted, it will take over due to its creeping rhizomes.

These are just a few of the wetland plants that can be found in the wild, or you can grow them on your own.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Send comments to [email protected].