Step on them, and they wiggle and squish. Slip off the peat, and you plop into the water they float on.
But from these dense mats of dead plants sprout unique growth, among it thick-leafed shrubs and carnivorous plants in Ice Age relic bogs that hold the brightest flowers imaginable.
Within a few weeks, the Maryland Department of the Environment will ask a joint House-Senate committee to adopt emergency regulations that would give a group of bogs and their rare plants and bugs greater environmental protection from Pasadena's encroaching development.
Four of the bogs are recent discoveries, bringing to 10 the number of fragile bogs in a swath across Anne Arundel County's Pasadena peninsula. Environmentalists call the area a "biodiversity hotspot" probably unequaled in the state, and Del. Joan Cadden, the Brooklyn Park Democrat who is leading the cause to keep Pasadena green, says they are nothing short of treasures.
"There is something really special about this peninsula, and this is letting these bogs survive," said Judy Broersma-Cole, an MDE wetlands specialist.
"It is an island of glacial relics," said wetlands scientist William S. Sipple of Millersville, who has retraced the excursions of 100 years ago by Charles C. Plitt and the Baltimore Botany Club through what Plitt called the "wilds of Anne Arundel County."
Some of the bogs were known before Plitt's turn-of-the-century "tramps," but others have no mention in his journal. Some may be 4,000 years old, others may be the remains of ice ponds from the 1800s.
Landscape architect Keith Underwood of Crownsville, whose passion and expertise are bogs, says the Pasadena bogs hold an assortment of plants threatened with extinction, plants that grow nowhere but in acidic, nutrient-poor bogs. Garden soil, a little fertilizer, a different water temperature would kill them, yet they thrive on the metals that send other plants into a wilt. The state's largest known stand of stunning, yellow-fringed orchids grows in one bog, carnivorous pitcher plants in another. And most of the leatherleaf shrub in Maryland lives near the Magothy.
Besides filtering water on its way to the Chesapeake Bay, each bog is a separate ecosystem. One bog has insect-eating sundews and no carnivorous pitcher plants; another has mostly pitcher plants and no sundews; and a tangle of pines and leatherleaf dominates another.
Inside the pitcher plants - so-named for their tubes - hides a "Little Shop of Horrors" ecosystem of bugs and bacteria. Mites - each type of pitcher plant hosts a different mite - farm the carcasses of insects and young frogs lured into the tube by its tasty mix of rain and digestive enzymes, Underwood said.
Experts say these bog plants, like Saint Johnswort sometimes used as a treatment for depression, may hold medical secrets, commercial promise and more. If Maryland were to promote a cranberry industry, it could have native cranberries from these bogs. The timber industry might learn from Maryland's Atlantic white cedars to see what genetically allows them to live in the mid-Atlantic when northern and southern varieties are not interchangeable, said geneticist Robert J. Griesbach of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research center in Beltsville.
The Magothy bogs, as well as a few others, lie in an unusual band of soils that cuts across the county from Pasadena to Odenton. On a recent bog tour, Underwood points to the zebra-liked striped wall of a small cave by the state-owned and globally significant Arden Bog near the Severn River. The white is sand. The black is silty clay and lignite, a decayed wood and sap that sometimes holds amber fossils. The clay traps the rainwater that the sand filters. Surrounded by woods and some low-lying soupy bowls are sunny bogs.
Shin-deep in Arden Bog muck, Underwood waves an endangered cranberry moth from his face and bursts with excitement.
"Have you ever seen anything like this? Is this the most gorgeous thing ?" he says, pointing to an explosion of fist-sized, vivid-scarlet flowers nodding from their pitcher plants. A few months earlier, at a bog near the Magothy River, he gushed over how healthy a gawky leatherleaf limb appeared despite existing within a few feet of a road.
It is that delicate existence that supporters want to protect and promote as a means to a healthier bay. The proposed regulations would enlarge a 25-foot buffer around the bogs to 100-feet, said Gary T. Setzer, who administers MDE`s wetlands program, and would add a layer of intense state review to proposals to build within the buffer.
The bogs' local and professional champions don't think that's a cure-all but say it's a start.
"The real solution here is to find appropriate funding to purchase the properties," Setzer said.