Forested Swamps

Hardwood Swamp

Winter Hardwood Swamp Scene

Early spring snow in the swamp

Hardwood Swamps are wetlands dominated by trees:  Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra), Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) are common trees found in swamps.  Due to the invasion by the Emerald Ash borer, the ash species are likely doomed to become minor players in American swamps, like the American Elm (Ulmus americana) and other native elm trees that have been decimated by non-native diseases and pests.  Hardwood Swamps are usually flooded in the spring and have a high water table for the rest of the year.

Above: video of a hardwood swamp in late summer, NE Wisconsin

Floodplain Forest

Floodplain forest

Floodplain forest at Mosquito Hill, NE Wisconsin.

Floodplain forests have many of the same features and plant species found in hardwood swamp habitat, but are influenced by the floodwaters of rivers.  Flooding rivers bring in silt, nutrients and seeds. The flowing waters also remove and re-sort the soil and detritus of the forest.  Here, the water level is more seasonally variable than in Hardwood Swamps, being above the water table in the spring and then lower than that of the Hardwood Swamp in summer.  For these reasons, the Floodplain Forest is a more dynamic ecosystem.  The Eastern Cottonwood (Populous deltoides) is very common here; its seeds germinate on the exposed sediments, and its small broken branches will take root as water levels drop.  Many species of Willows (Salix spp.), both tree and shrub, have the same reproductive properties of Cottonwood that make them common in Floodplain Forests.  The flood frequency of Floodplain Forests can run from yearly to many decades between floods.

Coniferous Swamp

Unlike the Hardwood Swamp and Floodplain Forest, Coniferous Swamps can vary considerably in the tree species that dominate.  The trees give rise to the name of each type of swamp:  Cedar, Tamarack, and Black Spruce swamps.  Minerals, nutrients, and pH soil conditions typically drive what kind of species dominate.  Mineral rich, basic pH swamps are usually dominated by Eastern White Cedar, and acid, nutrient-poor swamps are often dominated by Black Spruce.  Each type of swamp may have all three species of trees; nature seldom has definite lines between plant communities.  A swamp with its ground covered with Sphagnum Moss is called a Coniferous Bog.

Wood Cutting in Swamps

The value of tree species for lumber, pulp and other products can vary significantly, from very valuable like Black Walnut, to very little like Eastern Cottonwood.  No matter the value, precautions must be taken when harvesting timber in wetlands.  Moving heavy equipment in wetlands causes ruts which can change drainage patterns, and the equipment can get stuck in the soft water-saturated soils.  If runoff occurs, these ruts can send nutrients and sediment into surface water causing turbidity and algae blooms.  Harvesting trees when the ground is frozen, or with special low ground pressure equipment that reduces impact, is preferable.

Windthrow Tree Roots

A tree tipped over in the swamp exposes its shallow root system

Trees help support each other by reducing wind.  This is especially important in swamps where the high water table causes root systems to be shallow and the trees are prone to wind through.  Removing too many trees from a swamp increases the chance that the remaining trees will be knocked over in a strong wind storm.

Winter Swamp Photo

A Hardwood Swamp in winter with mostly Swamp White Oak and Green Ash trees.

Swamp Animals

Many species of animals can be found in swamp wetlands for either their whole life cycle, or just for a single season.  In early spring many amphibians visit the flood water to breed and lay eggs.  The adult forms of American Toads, Leopard Frogs, Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs, and Eastern Tiger Salamanders may stay year-round, or head to far off upland woodland and grassland habitats to spend the summer.

Leopard Frog

Leopard frog in the swamp

Many species of trees in swamps are prone to rot, or are short lived.  This seems to be just fine by the woodpeckers.  Down, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Pileated Woodpeckers can be found in swamps.  Through their search for food, the woodpeckers create nesting cavities for Black-capped Chickadees, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Screech Owls and many other birds.

In the spring and summer the swamp and its plentiful supply of insects attracts many species of warblers, either as a migration stop or a breeding location.  At my latitude the winters can be harsh, but it still is the wintering grounds for species like the Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Dark-eyed Junco.  In one of my local swamps I often see a Northern Shrike in search of mice, shrews and other small animals.  These birds often cache their prey on cattails in the adjacent marsh.

Sensitive Fern Swamp

The floor of this hardwood swamp is covered with young Sensitive Ferns.

Swamp Plants

While the tree canopy dominates, many interesting species of plants grow on the forest floor.  In early spring, even before the snow has melted, Skunk Cabbage flowers are melting the snow and are pollenated by flies.  As spring progresses many other wildflowers begin to bloom.  Probably one of the most showy of the spring flowers is Marsh Marigold, with its bright yellow flowers.  In very late spring or early summer Northern Blue Flag Iris shows its amazing blue blooms.  The ground of many of my local swamps is now covered in the invasive Reed Canarygrass which out-competes the native grasses, sedges and wildflowers.

Swamp Trees

Trees in all wetlands have shallow root systems to avoid oxygen depletion.  These root systems make trees growing in wetlands less stable and more prone to tipping over during high winds, than the same species grown on uplands.  Trees and shrubs have evolved several physical adaptations to cope with saturated soil and standing water. The first are lenticels which are pores in the bark that allow for gas exchange.  The second are pneumatophores which are root structures like the knees found in Cypress swamps.  Pneumatophores serve the same purpose as lenticels.

Flooded hardwood swamp

Flooded hardwood swamp.

Swamp Trees

Swamp Wildflowers

Swamp Grasses

Reed Canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea

Swamp Shrubs


Swamp Birds

  • Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor)
  • Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)
  • Northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus)
  • Wood duck (Aix sponsa)
  • Hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus)
  • Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
  • Hairy Woodpeker (Leuconotopicus villosus)
  • Pileated Woodpecker (Hylatomus pileatus)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
  • Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
  • White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

Swamp Amphibians

  • American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus)
  • Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum)
  • Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)
  • Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)
  • Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens)