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Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site of Canada

Barrens and Bogs

A lone hiker on the boardwalk Coastal barrens
© Parks Canada


As you approach the ocean, leaving the shelter of the forest behind, the coastal barrens stretch out before you. This is a zone of vegetation generally about the height of an adult human. Cold and salty winds from the ocean clip the growth of plants, causing them to be stunted and twisted.

Barrens form along Nova Scotia’s coast where the rigours of the climate combine with soil conditions. The thin, poor soil left after glaciation also forms an impervious iron-rich hardpan that plant roots find difficult to penetrate. The effects of fire may have removed much of the soil humus. Attempts to farm and graze sheep on this land have also had a major influence.

Cinnamon fern Cinnamon fern
© Parks Canada

Despite the name, the barrens are a diverse and fascinating habitat. This landscape is actually a miniature Acadian forest. Stunted White pine and Red maple are present. Black spruce, Balsam fir, and Wire birch grow not much taller than the multitude of shrubs such as blueberry, Sheep laurel, Bearberry, Canada holly, and huckleberry. Many of these shrubs are prolific berry producers later in the summer. Birds and sometimes Black bears can be seen feasting on the rich bounty. Beneath the twisted, impenetrable, and dwarfed trunks of tree and shrub, there is a forest floor. A lush growth of Cinnamon ferns, Wintergreen, Bunchberry, and mosses are found here. This is also a haven for many small animals like Snowshoe hare, Red squirrel, and other small rodents who seek the shelter offered by the thick vegetation. Birds like the Common yellow-throat warbler, the Savannah sparrow, and the Palm warbler flit in and out of the branches. These small creatures move easily in the tangle of shrubs and dwarfed trees typical of the barrens.

Nearer the ocean, the barrens become more stunted. The shrubs give way to Crowberry, Reindeer moss, and Ground juniper that grow right up to the beach’s edge.

The very low barren can harbour toads, snakes, voles, and shrews. The moist conditions also favour the Eastern red-backed salamander. In the past, moose and caribou found ideal living conditions in these low barrens. Mainland moose are now considered an endangered species and the last Woodland caribou disappeared from Nova Scotia around 1905.

Seaside bog Seaside bog
© Parks Canada/R. Farrell


In some bogs the woody shrubs all but disappear and the vegetation does not pass knee height. Typically damp and mossy places, bogs look quite uniform from a distance. But up close, there is a diverse mixture of plants, colours, and textures. Sphagnum moss dominates the bog and gives it its peaty character, including water saturation and high acidity. Plants that also grow here include Bog laurel, Bog huckleberry, Three-leaved false Solomon’s seal, White-fringed orchids, Rhodora, and Sweet gale. All of these plants thrive in the bog conditions which prevent many other plants from growing.

At the Seaside, the bogs are pierced with large boulders. These boulders are called glacial erratics and remind us of the relatively short span of time that has passed since the last Ice Age swept over Nova Scotia. Many of the seaside bogs began as small ponds that formed when the last of the glaciers melted along the coast about 13 000 years ago. Cool and damp, this landscape encouraged the growth of sphagnum. The moss gradually filled in all of the ponds to form bogs.

Pitcher plant Pitcher plant
© Parks Canada
Arethusa Arethusa
© Parks Canada/M. Burzynski

Unusual plants populate the bog. Pitcher plants, Horned bladderwort, and Sundew augment their meagre rations taken from the sterile peaty soil with insects. During June and July, orchids like Rose pogonia, Calopogon, and Arethusa display splendid flowers. Tufted seed heads of Bog cotton float like clouds above the surface of Sphagnum moss. Certain trees do seem to be able to endure: Wire birch, Black spruce, Balsam fir, and sometimes even White pine adapt to the conditions. Bare, branchless trunks face into the predominant winds, while most of the growth is directed downwind on low, lateral branches. Due to the extremely slow rate of growth, trunks of a few centimetres in diameter may contain up to one hundred very fine growth rings.

Few animals live in the bog but many inhabit the perimeter and make use of it. Song sparrows and Swamp sparrows are common. White-tailed deer criss-cross the bog with trails, seeking food during calm days, but when North Atlantic storms hit land, they will leave for more dependable shelter in the surrounding forest or in islands of spruce trees.

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