Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Cedar Swamp at High Point State Park

Boardwalk through the Cedar Swamp - Atlantic White Cedar and Holly line its edge while Wild Calla grows in the mosses below
The Cedar Swamp Trail found within High Point State Park is a little known gem. Now please, do not let its name deter you as it did me. My love told me repeatedly what a special spot it was this past summer....but anything called a swamp in New Jersey I typically find less than appealing during the warm months. However, he kept on about it and I was looking for a new trail for my next plant walk. There's a lot of factors that can come into play when seeking a place to lead a guided hike - must be easy to moderate in difficulty, no more than a couple miles long, and of course...botanically diverse. So when I learned that the Cedar Swamp was more than a mere swamp but rather a glacial erratic filled bog with plants rarely found in these parts...and fit all the aforementioned criteria to boot...I gladly gave in.

The Cedar Swamp Trail is about 2 miles long and shaped like a lollipop, in other words, the hiker is not forced to go "out and back" but rather, walk the trail to a large loop so that your steps are only retraced at the end of the hike. It is level and well- marked and contains some of the first miles of the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (read: for more info). This is also an excellent time to hike the trail given that the entire park at High Point State Park is presently free of charge (no charge after Labor Day)

The history of this trail sets the botanical stage for a fascinating walk through time. The Cedar Swamp is better defined as a glacial bog. About 15,000 years a retreating glacier left in its wake a 30-acre pond. Life naturally began to form, firstly with lichen, then mosses, and eventually herbaceous and woody plants. As the vegetation sprouted, flourished, and died, decomposing matter gradually filled in the pond, creating a deeply layered bed of soft acidic soil and the bog we know today. More recently, well on a relative scale, about 300 years ago, a random Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) seed, likely carried on the wings of a bird or traveling haplessly on a wind current from the Atlantic coast, landed here in the bog. It germinated, sprouted and eventually created the dense stand of Atlantic White Cedar that remains here today.

However the ecosystem continues to change here. The seeds of Eastern Hemlock, Birches and hardwood trees, which are what surround this bog, continued to be carried to this site by wildlife, wind, run-off water, and even our boot-clad feet. These trees do not require the same amount of sunlight to flourish and are more naturally suited to this mountaintop environment, therefore the sun-loving Cedars are gradually being crowded out. How incredible to walk through this  bog and see Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Black Birch (Betula lenta), and Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) with boughs interlaced. The bog is also strewn with boulders rolled and tumbled like pebbles by the glacier thousands of years ago.

Winterberry - a Holly with smooth deciduous leaves (Ilex verticillata)
At the base of these trees and lichenized boulders are exposed roots, rotting downed trees, and a springy bed of bright green moss. This vegetation continues to fill in the bog and when we hiked through in early August after a rather dry summer, there was really no water in sight. However this acidic environment still plays host to a wealth of plant life. Tangled vines of Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) wove throughout the forest floor as did tiny moisture-loving 3-leaved Blackberry (Rubus) vines, single Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadensis) leaves waved as we walked by, and Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) berries tempted us like tiny red candies lining the trail. A few shriveled blueberries still clung to Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) bushes and nearby deciduous, smooth-leaf, Holly (Ilex verticillata) bushes were lit up like the holidays to come.

Wild Calla (Calla palustris) - although technically edible, a whole lot of work to process. The root and berries of Wild Calla may be dried and pulverized, boiled, and dried, and perhaps boiled and dried some more to prevent the calcium oxalate crystals inherent in the fresh plant from doing harm. These crystals will cause your tongue and throat to feel as if it is being pierced by hundreds of needles...however native people did employ it as did the pioneers. It was in fact used as the flour in Missen (famine) bread.
Along the beautifully crafted boardwalk was where we spotted the most intriguing plant life. Wild Calla (Calla palustris) shown its shiny green soon-to-be scarlet spadixes, easily seen even amidst the scramble of mosses. Wild Calla is a plant often found in more northerly regions, further evidence that this habitat was once a colder one. Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) with its wheel of elliptical egg-shaped leaves also graced the carpets of moss, alongside the fresh smelling needles of Black Spruce (Picea mariana), two more unlikely inhabitants in this now warmer clime.

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) - the smallest member of the Dogwood Family - develops edible berries in early autumn that can be somewhat tasteless but contain abundant pectin and therefore excellent for use in jam
We stopped to have a snack on a most inviting bench, one of a few that are located along the trail, and to admire the trail sign for the Shawangunk Trail that we would be hiking in a few weeks. We were no more than halfway through our granola bars when I finally got curious about the rustling that was growing ever louder just behind us down the trail. I turned just in time to meet the round eyes of a large black bear that suddenly appeared just as alarmed as me. I stood up with a jolt and a grabbed Scott to pull him near for a closer look, when the bear darted from the thicket of Rhododendron and Blueberry bushes as fast as he could and ran clumsily down the trail. I do believe, for once, a bear was more frightened of me than I was of him!

American Chestnut (Castanaea dentata) - the nuts at one time were the most delicious to be found in all the North American woods.
Another unique inhabitant of this trail included American Chestnut (Castanea dentata). American Chestnut does reside throughout the northern forests of New Jersey to many a hiker's surprise. They have not all been wiped out but simply can never reach full maturity, falling ill to a blight within their first few years and usually dying by 20 years old. However, common or not, upon seeing young seemingly healthy trees like this one here, they seem a slender but bright ray of hope. Perhaps, just maybe, this will be one to make it.

The inedible and toxic, although wonderfully lemony smelling, berries of Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
I returned nearly a month later to lead a hike with the Sierra Club and my fellow hikers and plant enthusiasts seemed to fall in love with this place as much as I did. By this point the Wild Calla berries had turned scarlet and the Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) that lined the old road that makes up the beginning portion of this trail had gone to berry as well. The Wintergreen berries were all the more prevalent and those of the Holly still persisted. Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus) was even making an appearance.

Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus)- edible and very tasty when cooked. 
This is one of the things I love about an easy trail such as the Cedar Swamp Trail. The hiking is effortless, allowing one to simply soak up all the sights along the way. It is also readily accessible enough that it can be revisited again and again throughout the year, creating a perfect opportunity for getting to know a relatively small area well and observing what plants sprout, blossom, and go to seed throughout the seasons. This trail may have been a new one for me but one that I believe will someday become an old friend.


  1. awesome description! I would very much like to see a black spruce, black birch, and white cedar, as I'm not familiar with these (have seen plenty of red spruce, white birch, and red cedar though!)

    1. Hi Ken! I am kind of terrible about seeing comments on my blog - so sorry! Thank you for the kind feedback and I am sure you have met a black spruce by now! :)

  2. This is beautiful and informative, thanks. I've been going to High Point for almost fifty years, and knew basically none of this. Just happened to go today, and came across this.

    1. Thank you Irfan for your praise. I am delighted that the post added another dimension to a beloved well-known landscape. My apologies for my delayed response!

  3. I recently 'met' the Bald Cypress and saw that it was planted in the floodplain area within Lafayette. Is this tree now suitable for North Jersey and good for restoration projects?