By Michele S. Byers
In the wooded wetlands of southern New Jersey, tender buds of swamp pink flowers are popping from the ground like stalks of asparagus. The buds open into beautiful blooms with large clusters of tiny bright pink flowers dotted with blue anthers.
More and more, these rare flowers are surrounded by cages and fences designed to protect them from hungry deer. As it happens, swamp pinks buds shoot up to the exact height of a deer’s mouth – and at a time when food is scarce in the forest.
“The main problem for swamp pinks right now is deer browse,” said Michael Hogan, a naturalist and photographer who works for the South Jersey Land and Water Trust.
For the last 20 years, Michael has been working to protect native swamp pinks, which are classified as endangered in New Jersey. He has installed numerous cages and fences around swamp pink populations and keeps detailed records of their progress from year to year.
One recent project took place at a golf club in Dennis Township, Cape May County, where 180 swamp pink plants were caged.
“We installed cameras and got hundreds of videos of deer walking through,” he said.
Another project took place at a property in Washington Township, Gloucester County, where deer fence was installed around a swamp pink population in a cedar swamp near the Big Timber Creek.
About half of all swamp pink populations in the world are found in New Jersey, with the other half spread across Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Georgia.
New Jersey’s southern counties – especially Cumberland, Cape May, Ocean, Salem and Burlington – are strongholds, although swamp pinks are also found in Atlantic, Gloucester, Camden, Monmouth and even small areas of Middlesex and Morris.
Swamp pinks grow primarily in Atlantic white cedar swamps on hummocks on perpetually saturated soils.
“In the Pinelands, you can see them growing on decomposing cedar logs,” said Michael.
As recently as the 1970s, swamp pink populations were healthy and abundant in New Jersey. Historical plant records show that at one time, this state we’re in had about 200 distinct populations, each with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of plants.
But in the past 50 years, swamp pinks have taken a one-two punch.
Dr. Emile DeVito, New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s staff biologist, explains the first punch:
“Humans are especially good at drying out swamp pink habitats by drilling too many wells, and by paving over aquifer recharge areas and turning rainfall into sediment-laden flood water.
“On the New Jersey coastal plain, we chew through sandy uplands with bulldozers, destabilizing soil and causing headwater streams to become clogged with sand,” DeVito said.
While some plants can stand these disturbances, swamp pinks can’t.
Efforts have been under way for years to preserve lands with habitat for swamp pinks. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, for example, recently received a federal grant to preserve wetlands along the Cohansey River in Cumberland County.
But the threats from deer to these rare plants are even worse. Because swamp pink is semi-evergreen, its leaves are present all year round and vulnerable to deer browsing. Without deer fences and cages, swamp pink populations can be wiped out.
For swamp pinks, an advantage to flowering very early in spring – before most other wildflowers – is less competition for pollinators.
A disadvantage is that their tender shoots are vulnerable to herbivores, since so little other nutritious food is available. But if deer were as abundant in New Jersey forests as they are now, the swamp pink’s reproductive advantages would have failed tens of thousands of years ago.
Thanks are due to the individuals, agencies and groups working to protect our beautiful swamp pinks, and our state’s natural biodiversity.
By preserving swamp pink habitat, safeguarding clean water and protecting plants from deer browse, we can hopefully restore them and make sure future generations will be able to marvel at them like we do today.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at email@example.com