Hydrophilic plants are adapted to waterlogged conditions. They are found in swamps, marshes, and running water in the U.S., where they face no competition from plants that need drier dirt around their roots. Common hydrophilic plants include the baldcypress of the American South, the cranberries of New England, and the wild rice of the North Country.
Baldcypress: Southern swamps
Baldcypress (taxodium distichum) have needles, and knees that stick up out of the water to absorb the oxygen that the waterlogged roots cannot. They grow 100 to 150 feet tall. The wood of mature trees is rot-resistant, so many of the older baldcypress swamps were once clear-cut. The slow-growing trees can live 200 years and more, and are seldom harvested now.
The baldcypress is associated with pondcypress, another variety of the species. The baldcypress has needles that spread wide, while the needles of the pondcypress cling close along the twig. Neither is a true cypress; no true cypress is native to North America.
Other plants associated with baldcypress include varieties of tupelo trees, water lilies, and Spanish moss. Red maple, black gum, wax myrtle, and buttonwood grow nearby as well. Deep in the baldcypress swamp are rare wildflowers, and carnivorous plants that live on unwary insects.
The baldcypress swamps are also a refuge for raccoons, alligators, and turtles. The black bear is sometimes still seen, along with the bobcat, red fox, and otter. Venomous snakes include the cottonmouth, coral and copperhead. Among the swamp birds are pileated woodpeckers, purple gallinules, anhingas, egrets, and herons.
One beautiful place to get an overview of the baldcypress ecology is the huge Okefenokee Swamp in southeastern Georgia and northern Florida. The park provides wildlife programs, and is a fine place for studying the tree and its ecology, whether by canoe, on a path, or from an elevated boardwalk.
Cranberry bogs: New England and Ohio
The American Indians ate cranberries, and taught the first European immigrants how to harvest them. Cranberries, Vaccinium oxycoccos and related plants, grow in cool acidic bogs throughout the northern hemisphere, and are an important commercial crop in New England, though Wisconsin actually produces the most cranberries each year.
A bog, according to information at ucla.edu, is a waterlogged depression filled with peat moss, where very few plants can grow. It is nitrogen poor and highly acid, so cranberry bushes have little competition for sunshine and elbow room.
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation on Nantucket Island is one place to see a cranberry bog, and Cranberry Bog is an unusual bog island in Ohio, holding rare orchids and carnivorous plants.
Wild rice: The North Country
Wild rice, Zizania palustris, is a tall aquatic grass native to North America. It grows at watersides in the eastern United States and Canada, where it formed a central part of American Indian culture, particularly among the Ojibway, Menominee, and Dakota.
The grain grows best in minimal water flow, beside a stream or in a lake with an inlet and an outlet. A water depth of about 1.5 feet is best, though the plant is adaptable. The annual plants prefer clear fresh water, and grow poorly when they are disturbed by the wakes of powerboats.
Wild rice was once harvested by hand, because the grain tended to shatter, disintegrate, with mechanical harvesting. American Indians increased their stands of wild rice by mixing mature seeds into balls of clay, and then dropping them along the shore.
The Ojibway harvest the grain by bending the stalks over their canoes, and filling the boat with grain. Now, shatterproof varieties have increased the commercial value of the crop, and it is grown in paddies as far away as California.
Waterfowl-ducks, geese and swans, feed on wild rice and take cover in its tall stalks. Muskrats, along with deer and other grazing animals also feast on it in fall. Fish breed within its cover and stands of wild rice slow erosion by slowing wind and water flow.
Baldcypress, cranberries, and wild rice are some of the most common of the hydrophilic plants in the U.S. Each defines a region, at least to a degree. Each has a fascinating history, and maintains a prominent place in the culture of North America.