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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 09 May 2010 by John Richards

New England woodlands, Entry 147.

Across the pond

Sheila was chatting to someone at the Malvern Show yesterday (I haven't quite worked out who it was) who asked conversationally whether I had been off on my travels again. When she asked how he knew, he said that if the diary was delayed, chances were the next entry would carry a description of our latest escapade.

Well, yes, eleven days since my last contribution at a busy time of year, and its true, I have been AWOL again. No sooner had we returned from Greece (or so it seemed) than I flew over to Boston as a guest of the Eastern Chapters of the American Primrose Society at their National Show at Tower Hill, near Worcester, Mass. I was there exactly four days, not counting the flights, and had a great time, enjoying the Show, the hospitality, and the company. What a load of characters! Mad as hatters. I love you all, and you will form the basis of my next (and only) novel! Particular thanks to Rodney Barker and Betsy who put me up/put up with me in a century-old clapboard house in such an elegant part of Newton Highlands, Boston.

It was fine to meet people and talk plants, but if the truth was known, one major reason I agreed to go was to see something of the New England woods in spring. In this I was given ample opportunity, for on the Friday we spent much of the day at 'The Garden in the Wood', the Show was held at Tower Hill Garden, and on the Monday, Rodney took me to the famous Arnold Arboretum. Each of these 'gardens' harboured extensive stretches of relatively untouched deciduous woodland, with lots of native spring flowers, both introduced and natural.

The Garden in the Wood.

I really ought to be talking about plants in the garden here because a great deal is happening (and a lot of weeds are not being removed! or seedlings pricked out, not to mention the show plants that are not being repotted!), but New England in spring is something else, not least when the temperature is 90F in the shade (thats 32C for modern folk on this side) for three successive days. I was very overdressed! (By the way, I looked today and its 59F/15C! I am sure they are all breathing a collective sigh of relief as their primulas unwilt).

Lets start at the 'Garden in the Wood'. This is a public garden run by the New England Wildflower Society, and it is very remarkable. Although many of the plants grown there are natural (and there are large areas of untouched forest), in many areas glades have been opened up and native woodland plants from all over the US, particularly the eastern woodlands, are grown there. Many lovely trees were in flower, notably the 'Red Bud' (Cercis canadensis, so like the Greek Judas Tree), and Cornus florida.

The Garden in the Wood.

One of the most striking trees was the so-called 'snowdrop tree' Halesia tetraptera which is native to east coast woodlands.

Considerable use had been made of natural wetlands. On an artificial island in a natural pond, Painted Terrapins (they call them turtles!) rested amongst Caltha.

Along streamsides and in 'swamps' they grew some really unusual aquatics. I had never heard of the araceous Orontium aquaticum, the 'golden clubs'.

Nearby was Helonias bullatus. This is slightly less unusual perhaps, but I still had to look it up and it is a really striking plant. It would be a thrill to find it in the wild.

On the other side of the path, a Tiger Swallowtail was drinking from Ribes odoratum.

Another wetland plant we should try to grow more is Trollius laxus. Apparently this has become rare and threatened in the eastern States, although the alpine form is common enough in the Rockies. Many of the plants grown at the Garden in the Woods have become very rare due to habitat destruction. After the Trollius comes a photo of another ranunculaceous plant, one I had never heard of, the gravely threatened Hydrastis canadensis.

Yet another plant native to that area and completely unknown to me, is Prosartes (Disporum) maculatum. I thought this had more garden merit and substance than some others of its ilk, other disporums, streptopus, maianthemums and polygonatums.

On a drier more open 'tump' was the native pasque-flower, Pulsatilla patens, and Cypripedium pubescens. I failed to see any truly wild 'slippers', but was told that I was rather early for them.

Another plant that was only just starting to 'jump up' in the woods was the native Arisaema, A. triphyllum, known locally as 'Jack in the pulpit'.

There are two native Hepaticas in America. The lesser-known one, perhaps, is H. americana. This plant has poor flowers but fascinating foliage.

The last plant I want to select from the fascinaing 'Garden in the Woods' is the extremely primitive Calycanthus floridus. I used to give a course of lectures on the origins of the flowering plants, in the days before the DNA was able to tell us which really are the most ancient surviving flowering plants and what the first angiosperms must have looked like. One of the great surprises is that there is a small branch of shrubs, most notably Calycanthus and the wintersweet Chimonanthus, which branched off from the main evolutionary stock which gave rise to the flowering plants at such an early date that it has put our understanding of when the angiosperms arose way back. The first flowers on Earth may well have looked something like this.

Moving smartly to Tower Hill, where the Show was held, here a formal garden (still being developed) surrounds magnificent public facilities with a capacious lecture theatre, restaurant, class-rooms etc. There are extensive natural woodlands, and although some plants have been added to the native flora at the edge, mostly the plant communities are truly wild.

I don't think Phlox divaricata is native quite this far north, but it makes a magnificent display at the woodland edge.

However the little 'bluets', Houstonia caerulea is certainly native on areas of open wet ground, as is the rather local Anemone quinquefolia which looks very like the European wood anemone.

Deep in the woods I found three more exciting native woodlanders. First is Polygala paucifolia, so obviously related to P. chamaebuxus from the European alps. Here it is growing with the May Lily, Maianthemum canadense, so like our own species (rare in the UK, but common in Scandinavia). In New England the maianthemum is abundant, carpeting all the woodlands.

Nearby was a demure Streptopus. I can't find this in the book, but suppose it is S. simplex?

The last plant I want to show is a wetland viola, growing with skunk cabbage. This handsome large violet, V. cucullata, is one of many species to be seen, but is the most distinctive.

Last, but not least, a brief glimpse of the APS Show, held in the main corridor at Tower Hill.

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