Spring Walk Through Variable Habitats

This circular walk is designed to get you through habitats where there is good opportunity to see vernal species (i.e.”wildflowers” that disappear during summer after sex and food storage in the spring) and other species that flower in May. In Dogtown don’t expect the glorious abundance of the Great Smokies in terms of spring species. Many forests in New England also feature more spectacular spring “wildflowers”. But May visits to Dogtown’s small eastern coves and swampy areas are rewarding. The walk may also be taken in other times, of course, when it takes on interesting seasonal characteristics. [I have put August observations in brackets.] Be sure to take a field guide to plants - with lots of pictures. Many of the pocket guides to “wildflowers” don’t include shrubs and ferns or even trees. The best combination is the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Canada by H.A. Gleason and A. Cronquist (1991) and its Illustrated Companion by N.H. Holmgren (1998). But you will need a pack animal (or teenaged offspring) to carry them since together they weigh a bulky five pounds.

 

Begin at the Babson Museum parking lot on Route 127. Proceed over the partly overgrown unnamed trail to the railroad, as if you were taking the Tarr Trail circular walk. You are greeted by a patch of flowering wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) near the trail entrance, then a dense mixture of shrubs and vines east of the railroad tracks: hardhack (Spirea tomentosa), black current (Ribes americanum), saw brier (Smilax rotundifolia), pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta), blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis), honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), several in flower. [In August note the blue fruit on arrow wood (Viburnum dentatum).] Brush through these slowly, identifying as you move. West of the tracks, in small meadow and hardhack, there are two large highbush blueberry bushes (Vaccinium corymbosum) in full flower in May, [but alas no fruit in August 2011]. These open-grown specimens may represent the apex of blueberry growth, with heights of the 3-5 meters noted in authoritative descriptions.

 

Figure 17. The “trail” at base of terminal moraine boulders.

 

Cross the swamp’s brook over the old stone bridge, then bear south along the edge of swamp and the boulder field bounding the terminal moraine. [In early August the sweet pepper-bush (Clethra alnifolia) lines the way, fully in flower and aroma, Dogtown’s signature species.] The beech west of the trail is a soft bright green with fresh leaves, the oaks just beginning foliation. And everywhere there is Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) and its small companion, starflower (Trientalis borealis), carpeting boulders, filling spaces between them, all beginning to flower.

 

Figure 18. A spring carpet of Canada mayflower on Dogtown boulder.

 

Later in season they meld into the landscape’s ordinary green, but now stand out, ubiquitous spring greeters beside the colonies of wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) with its clusters of white flowers beneath leaves. On the swamp side of the road-trail, a small group of white-flowered goldthread (Coptis trifolia) in unlikely habitat for it I think. But it is in a moist mossy place, though competing with all the rough trailside species. The sweet pepper-bush (Clethra alnifolia) has just leafed out, and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has expanding flower buds at leaf axils. Highbush blueberry in shade, just more shrub green in summer, is now bold with blossoms. No wonder we almost missed tiny goldthread. [In late summer the trail is lush with grasses, sedges. Asters (Aster sp) and golden rods (Solidago sp) and one of the several joe-pye weeds (Eupatorium maculatum ?) are flowering; stop and “key” them down to species. But beware that blackberry and sawbrier are especially aggressive, reaching out gleefully to bare flesh.]

 

Figure 19. Wine Brook Cove in August.

 

Pass through some squishy swampside trail to Wine Brook coming in from the north. Before proceeding up the brook on its west side, note the colony of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosa) competing with goldenrods and asters near at base of hill on the brook’s east side. (Yes, amateur botanists, it used to be Smilacina racemosa, but taxonomists tend to change their minds occasionally.) In mid-May its shoots are almost fully developed, and flowers are emerging at their apices. [In August it’s loaded with apical fruit.] A spectacular display of Canada mayflower on boulder surface is west of the brook-swamp junction. Move up the brook over the dim rock-strewn trail, stream still a bold spring run. The sound of it will accompany us all the way up to the red maple swamp from which it emerges. We look for trilliums, dog-toothed violet, ramps, May-apple, the certain spring emergents all along the Appalachians. None are here, though all but May-apple are listed for Essex County. But we are alternatively rewarded with flowering moosewood (Acer pensylvanicum), its long strips of green inflorescence below fully grown leaves. Mixed with moosewood is witch hobble (Viburnum lantanoides) with great white globes of flowers lightening up the woods for a few days in May.

 

Figure 20. Witch hobble at late stage flowering in Wine Brook Cove.

 

And ferns unfurling: royal fern (Osmunda regalis) delicately expanding on its rock near the brook; cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) almost reaching its mature height in fertile places between boulders, its central fruiting fronds dark against the light green of new vegetative fronds. Canada mayflower and starflower continue everywhere, on boulders ruled by rockcap ferns (Polyplodium virginianum), between dark mossed rocks under the occasional brook spray. [August is the time for fern fun. In addition to those noted above, Wine Brook cove harbours lady fern (Athyrium felix-femina), New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), wood ferns (Dryopteris sp) and marsh fern (Thelypteris palustris) and probably more species that I’ve missed. At this season all boast sporangia (container for spores) on the underside of mature leaves. Each species has a characteristic sporangium (or fruit dot) which one can see with very keen eyesight and/or a hand lens. For easy identification carry Peterson’s Field Guide to The Ferns, Second Edition, Northeastern and Central North America by Boughton Cobb, Cheryl Lowe, and Elizabeth Farnsworth, 2005.]

 

The trail is a series of worn spots between rock, pleasant going if one strolls properly with periodic contemplation pauses to consider new green and the detail of small flowers. Then as if in response to my rant on vernal diminishment, there is Solomon seal (Polygonatum biflorum) on a boulder, in full flower beneath its arcing leafy stem. A few more are nearby in more appropriate substrate.

 

Figure 21. Solomon’seal , Canada mayflower and boulder back.

 

What better declaration of renewal to original woods, a declaration confirmed by a neighboring colony of Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana), its apical inflorescence still a promise; [in August red fruit]. A close look turns up partridge berry (Mitchella repens) crawling over rock.

 

At Number 12 (reference number on Dogtown Common Map) on a small dead birch we arrive at a trail intersection. To the east there is Tarr Trail, to the west the Moraine Trail. Continue up Wine Brook on a faint unnamed trail. The brook noisier as we move up through boulder field to the maple swamp edge about 100 meters ahead. Along the way a single patch of blue-bead lily (Clintonia borealis) further confirms the community’s recovery progress, though the invasive buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is sometimes mixed with native spicebush and sassafras along the brook. Perhaps this rocky cove community was never destroyed by the 400 years of Dogtown occupancy – or perhaps it was avoided. As we near the swamp, the brook levels off to a gentle sinister flow. There is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in all its newly green and enormous-leafed abundance, generating a jungle-like atmosphere.

 

Figure 22. Spring in Wine Brook Swamp.

 

The swamp’s shrub layer is hazy green with growing leaves, spooky with tangled vegetation on this dark foggy morning. A threatening patch of old hemlock stands starkly dead to the west. The swamp dares us to jump the brook, sink into its interior. We whistle by and concentrate on a solitary jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and another solitary goldthread sitting on a mossy spot, then retreat back down the brook to “12”. We’ll return on some friendly summer day.

 

Figure 23. Wine Brook Swamp in August.

 

[I return in August to put on rubber boots, hop the creek at a narrow spot, and proceed around the swamp’s southeastern edge. It’s still spooky, with tangled masses of spice bush (Lindera benzoin),sweet pepper-bush, healthy red maple, arrow wood, and other mysterious species all underlain with skunk cabbage and sphagnum mosses waiting to suck me down. Water is half way up my knee boots near swamp edge, and I need clippers or a machete to proceed through its vigorous vegetation to the interior; I have neither. No one knows how many individuals have been sucked into its maw never to be seen again on Cape Ann. I continue along the swamp’s border to a second smaller creek outlet which meanders down to join Wine Brook at around Number 12. I meander with it, but before leaving the swamp gratefully note a small colony of marsh fern at its edge.]

 

From Number 12 follow the Moraine Trail up the hill through a field of large boulders. Before leaving the cove’s influence we note another patch of flowering Solomon’s seal growing on a boulder with rockcap fern. Soon though, we enter dryer ground where the spring attractions are flowering shrubs and more Canada mayflower carpets. A patch of fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis) at left of trail attracts our attention midway to ridgetop. Its small twin yellow flowers are at their peak on this May morning. Nearby among the boulders is red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) in full bloom, its apical inflorescence distinguishing it from the common or black elderberry (S. canadensis). And in the same interesting bouldered area there is maple-leafed viburnum (Viburnum acerifolia), some moosewood and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

 

The dry ridgeline is reached quickly. Here white pine seedlings are sparsely scattered under a young community of black oak and shrubs. Pine parents are over the hill to the west mostly, seed blown east to this site. Their seedlings and saplings will persist under the light shade for ten years or more, then develop into trees if an opening in the canopy occurs. Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium and V. corymbosum) and huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) bushes dominate the shrub layer of vegetation, all with racemes (“A more or less elongate inflorescence with pediculate flowers arising in acropetal sequence from an unbranched central axis.” Got it?) of bell-shaped flowers in peak development along newly leafed stems. If flower abundance were strongly correlated with fruit abundance it would be a good berry year. But there are a lot of hoops to jump through along the way from flower to berry, like adequate pollination, good fertilization and maturation conditions. Predictions come later in the season. [And in August 2011 there are only a very few huckleberry fruit with their “ten seed-like nutlets”and no blueberry fruit.]

 

At the summit of this hill in second growth forest (or maybe third or fourth growth) of oak saplings there is a small opening around a big rock.

 

Figure 24. Summit of hill above Wine Brook Cove.

Don’t ask how I managed to set the boulder on two stones;

never underestimate an eighty-one year old forester.

Shinning sumac to left, barren blueberry to right.

 

We are greeted by flowering pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) and chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), the latter a bit out of its typical habitat (moist woods and swamps) on this dry rocky top. [In summer the summit’s most pronounced vegetation is a colony (clone) of shinning sumac (Rhus copallinum) with its trademark “rachis-winged leaves”.]

 

Proceed down through boulders to Number 11 painted on a rock east of trail. Turn southwest at Number 11 on an unnamed, unmarked trail to “spring” noted on the Dogtown Common Map. Walk almost immediately through a good patch of the deciduous hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctiloba). In mid-May it is almost complete in its unfurling for the summer, fronds all oriented in synchrony toward the light. It’s not a common fern in Dogtown, but farther west in New York and Pennsylvania it can be an aggressively invasive pest species which prevents establishment of other species with its dense colonies. The “spring” west of the trail is a series of oozing low spots with sphagnum moss at edges; together they eventually generate a small stream. No bold spring from which clear groundwater emerges to tempt a drink. But as reward for slopping through, on the west side of the springy area we find a small patch of wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), the first we’ve seen in this area of Dogtown. The trail continues through hay-scented fern which melds along the way into the look-alike New York fern (Thelypteris novaboracensis). Could we be mixed up? Come back in summer with manual and hand lense and check this out. [August. There’s both New York fern, hayscented fern and wood fern (Dryopteris sp) and maybe some lady fern (Athyrium felix-femina) along with the common cinnamon fern. Check them out.] At the moment, however, we are excited to see merrybells (Uvularia sessilifolia) at trailside, another rare species on our walk so far, though not generally rare. Then another patch of blue-bead (Clintonia borealis), a species last seen near Wine Brook on this walk. Along the creek there is a cove-like atmosphere with witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), sweet-pepper bush (Clethra alnifolia) and many beech saplings, altogether a suitable place for a quiet rest against one of the large white pine mother-trees.

 

Then continuing down creek the trail passes by small colonies of mountain-laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and sheep-laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) at a good place to compare the two. Nearby a great white pine has been blown down, its extensive surficial root system extending into the air about 3 meters. This disturbance has opened a patch of mineral soil, a suitable site for all sorts of seedlings which require direct sunlight.

 

Such openings resulting from blow down, other local disturbances and simply death of the old ones keep the forest diverse in age and species - and interesting. We note specimens of all four of the local birches (Betula lenta, B. papyrifera, B.populifolia, B. alleghaniensis) within sighting distance of each other here; check your identification ability again. Then suddenly we are at the railroad track. Remember that high speed commuter trains zip through here more frequently than one might expect near the end of the line. Don’t sit on the track with hand lens and manual trying to key down an obscure flower. Proceed north along the west side of the track past the empty Cossack Vodka bottle and boulder bearing a blue “RIP Teddy”. Note blue violets (Viola sagittata) and yellow cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis) blooming in the gravel. And don’t miss the great carpet of wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) growing boldly right in the track right-of-way.

 

When you reach a steep embankment supporting a small clone (genetically identical stems connected by a common root system) of bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata) cross the track to a trail leading briefly through a grove of hardwoods, mostly beech and maple. Observe small colonies of beech-drops (Epifagus virginiana), parasite of beech roots, groups of brown stems emerging from leaf litter.

 

The trail then emerges from the woods to a swamp of dead red maple, bare of everything. An old beaver dam and pond (?) is the probable cause of death. Even red maple doesn’t tolerate standing high water for long periods.

 

Figure 25. Swamp with overstory of dead red maple in August.

 

The dam has been broken and the water is now low. Tussock sedge (Carex stricta) is greening up throughout, and at the grassy edge a flowering white Viola lanceolata. [By August the swamp is filled with all manner of herbaceous vegetation under the dead maple. Along the old beaver dam you will be rewarded by swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and joe-pye weed, all in full flower. The colony of joe-pye weed is particularly spectacular, worth a special visit to the swamp edge.]

 

Figure 26. A colony of joe-pye weed at swamp edge in August.

 

We cross the swamp on the dam and follow the trail along the shrub rich swamp edge. There is common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), of course, and scattered speckled alder (Alnus incana) with a few of last year’s fruit still hanging on after seed dispersal in the fall and winter. In mid-May the foliage of stag-horn sumac is emerging from apical buds. As we leave the swamp, trailside vegetation is increasingly a jumble of exotic and native shrubs and trees, all held together by bittersweet (Cleastrus scandens) and saw brier. We bear left (north toward the museum meadow) when we near an intersection with stone wall on the Old Rockport Road (see Dogtown Common Map). There is flowering pin cherry near the small grassy opening. Beginning here the trail north passes through a messy impenetrable mix of shrubs (bush honeysuckle, hardhack and more) and poorly formed apple seedling trees (Malus sp) and black cherry (Prunus serotina), many in full May bloom. [In August, buckthorn is bearing abundant dark fruit.] The apples have undoubtedly sprung from the seed of cultivated varieties (clones); but unlike their varietal parents, their small sour fruit are only savored by animals. As I have noted before, the black cherry here is a far cry from its fine tall relatives in Pennsylvania, New York and in the high Appalachians south to North Carolina. Here and at low elevations throughout its range it’s mostly a scrubby tree, this differentiation an example of genetic racial variation within a tree species. No matter, we still like its shiny leaves, spring racemes of flowers, and birds love the fruit. The mixture is typical of vegetation early established on abandoned land. Eventually trees will prevail and it will become a forest. Now it’s good habitat for birds. And we celebrate the trail as an aromatic tunnel through shrub in spring inflorescence.

 

After about 100 meters of shrub, we are in meadow. Follow the trail on the west side near the swamp. By May the goldenrods (Solidago sp), asters (Aster sp) and other late-summer-flowering meadow perennials are up and green. [In early August early golden rod (Solidago juncea) with its smooth leaves is in full bloom along the trail. Common Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis) follows a week later, along with grass-leaf goldenrod (now named Euthamia graminifolia). No doubt other goldenrod species here will test your identification skill if you pause with field guide to “key them out”.] Now in May the flowering shrubs and trees noted above brighten the walk along the meadow’s edge. Note the mature hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and white ash (Fraxinus Americana) at swamp edge, their progeny scattered around them. Both are relatively rare in Dogtown. Continue north through the meadow’s buttercups (Ranunculus your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine) until you reach the beginning point near the Babson Museum. [In late summer hawkweed (Hieracium sp) has replaced buttercups in the adjacent meadow.] If you remembered to lock your car, it will probably still be there.