After grabbing their journals and magnifying glasses on their way out, early 20th-century conservationists would hop on the newly installed electric trolleys around Alexandria to visit a recent magical discovery — magnolia bogs.
Once they arrived at their destination, the researchers would quickly walk through the bustling area to enter a tiny secluded portion that, to the untrained eye, looked like nothing more than a muddy swamp.
After stepping inside, the loudness of the city dissolved and the scientists found themselves engulfed in an otherworldly atmosphere that mimicked a Costa Rican rainforest. The grounds were dim, but the light gaps peeking through the treetops provided just enough space for sunbeams to reach through so they could study its habitat.
Spanning no more than 1 acre in size, early residents originally called these natural wonders “magnolia swamps” after the plentiful Sweetbay magnolias growing around them. It was the early 1900s when biologist Waldo Lee McAtee gave them their official name of magnolia bogs. McAtee was one of the first to document these areas and spent years trekking through the region to write about their history, condition and location.
But, over time, the grandeur of the Alexandria bogs faded and they became only a memory as development increased. Today, one of the last of these, the Beatley Bog, is fighting to survive.
Despite their rich history and importance in the local ecosystem, many in the area are still unaware of the existence of these unique micro-ecosystems.
Fundamentally, the acidic bogs are a testament of the Ice Age with most of their topography and plants reflecting this period. In fact, they’re some of the rarest in the world because they thrive exclusively within the East Coast’s Fall Zone. Thanks to this setup, they have a distinctive filtering system that strains large quantities of rainwater that come from upland terraces. As the water flows along the clay terraces, they remove any sand and gravel away before it falls into the bogs.
Today, the main force behind preserving magnolia bogs is Rod Simmons, Alexandria’s Natural Resource Manager and Plant Ecologist, who has spent more than 30 years investigating them. In spite of his decades of research, Simmons is still amazed at the new discoveries. Some of his most notable experiences have been uncovering species that have never been recorded or were thought to have disappeared forever. He also fondly remembers coming across century-old artifacts left behind by early magnolia bog explorers.
Simmons explains that Alexandria has had a significant loss of magnolia bogs simply due to human development as well as mismanagement. Throughout the 1900s, there were countless scattered around the city. While the first surveyors didn’t give them a specific name, they would track their location. Because of this, we know there were bogs near Hunting Creek, Hume Spring in Four Mile Run Valley, Taylor Run, Lake Barcroft and Turkeycock Run, to name a few. Scientists would hike through these mostly now-vanished spots and collect rare flora like Virginia bunchflower, nodding ladies’ tresses, white fringed orchids and swamp sunflowers.
Simmons also describes magnolia bogs as biodiversity hotspots that provide a habitat for a myriad of rare dragonflies, damselflies, crustaceans and birds. This makes them a favorite hideout for yellow-crowned night herons, rusty blackbirds and little wood satyrs.
In spite of their remarkable ecosystem, magnolia bogs are unfortunately fragile environments because anything that disrupts their hydrologic supply (like pipe installations) harms their existence. Besides this, invasive plants (especially poison ivy) threaten their rare flora. Magnolia bogs are resilient but any intrusions take their toll.
What is the main culprit behind the extinction of magnolia bogs? In most cases, ignorance. The National Park Service oversees one site at Oxon Run, but despite an investment of over $29 million two decades ago to protect it from the Metro, it is still struggling to flourish.
Besides this, man-made adjustments of the tidal plains have often redirected water resulting in erosion and sediment deposition. Stormwater runs have also proven to be troublesome. While magnolia bogs are primarily filled by rainwater from nearby springs, toxic pollutants on roads and landscapes will get washed away and eventually drain into them. As Simmons points out, “The water we have isn’t created, just renewed. We don’t get more of it.”
Magnolia bogs might seem insignificant but they’re a critical piece of Alexandria’s culture and environment. As with so much of our local heritage, what we have is unique and irreplaceable and these strange, uncelebrated tiny swamps just might be one of the jewels in that crown.