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What is a Wetland?

A wetland, in the typical definition of the term, is an area where plants remain under water a lot of the time.  If the water stays so deep for so long that the plants die, then it isn’t a wetland.  It’s a pond or a lake.  A wetland is a place where plants grow.  One way you can be sure an area is a wetland is if the soil has a characteristic, blackish, grayish color that smells a bit off.  That’s because there isn’t as much air under water, and the organic matter is decomposing and underwater chemical reactions are taking place.

It takes a little skill to determine definitively if an area is a wetland, and this is important, because an area designated as a wetland falls under lots of government regulation.  People trained in wetland identification understand the unique plants and animals that live in wetlands.  If they see these special indicator species, then they can identify an area as a wetland.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has created five categories of wetland plants, each associated with the amount of moisture in which they grow.  So, from drier to wetter, the categories are Obligate Upland (UPL), Facultative Upland (FACU), Facultative (FAC), Facultative Wetland (FACW), and Obligate Wetland (OBL).  These categories are too hard to pronounce, even for the experts, so they tend to designate the categories by their abbreviated names most of the time.  You might hear them called Upland, Fac U, F.A.C., Fac Wet, and Obligate. Obligate plants are the only ones that you won’t see unless you are standing in shallow water.

If you want to plant in a wetland area, there are special challenges, obviously!  The best way to re-vegetate a wetland area is to wait for plants to volunteer, but they won’t do that until the area is stable.  If you can eradicate the competing invasive species, that helps, too.  Wetland re-vegetation is something that must be done delicately by hand, so the labor costs far outweigh the delay of just waiting. In fact, each wetland site seems to be uniquely suited to specific species.  Look around to see what is growing nearby, and limit your plant choices to only those species.

That means the only way to do a successful wetland re-vegetation project is to visit the site and get to know the plant neighbors. Some designers like to stay in the office and specify replanting using a list they found on the Internet. The lists are often populated with species that are not available in the trade and would not survive until a wetland area has matured over several years. It would be less trouble for everyone to just toss thousands of dollar bills into the water and watch them sink to the ground. 

Be a responsible wetland design professional, and put on your wading boots!  It is a wonderful, messy, delightful way to be part of the natural world, and you will appreciate the memories generated. Step one for a successful wetland planting design – visit the site!

You can find more information about trees in The Advanced Guide to Environmental Mitigation Planting: Healing Disturbed SItespart of The Advanced Guide series.

New Article! Wetland Plant Identification