After a long New England winter, the first warm days of spring always cause a rush of activity. It’s a great time of year to get outside, as the sun is warm, the days longer and there’s nary a bug to be found.
Many of us tie the start of spring to familiar sights and sounds emerging from our neighborhood, be it the call of the red-winged blackbird, the wing-whirled sky dance of the woodcock or the chorus of peepers from a nearby vernal pool. While we find these sounds relaxing reminders of the season ahead, they actually represent a frenzied rush to stake territory, breed and continue the life cycle of their species.
Woodland wildflowers are in a rush of their own, as they have to complete the entirety of their life cycle before the leaf canopy overhead chokes out the light, their only energy source. These early exhibitors of vibrant color, known as spring ephemerals, begin their growth as soon as the snow melts, and are typically in seed by June.
Flowers like Hepatica (liverwort) and Bloodroot are first out of the ground, with flowers emerging ahead of their leaves, and giving the cultivated crocus a run for the money for earliest blooms in the area.
Soon after Trout Lilies, Spring Beauty and Bunchberries cover the ground, and the showy Ductchman’s Breeches and Trillium stand (relatively) tall over the forest floor. After the winter season of brown, gray and white, the exhibition of color in the forest can lead to a spectacular sensory overload.
Naturalists have long noted the phenology, or annual cycle, of these woodland beauties. Thoreau started careful notes of the bloom dates of several species at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, a tradition that continues to this day on the reservation bearing his name. It’s an activity I also enjoy every spring in the woods of Pawtuckaway State Park near my home in Southern New Hampshire as a way to connect myself to the natural world. I’ve revisited the same locations in the park for many years now, and very much look forward to seeing the annual blooms!
The woods of Pawtuckaway exhibit fantastic displays of flowers that are not unlike the woods all over New England, but each environment will only host a few of the hundreds of wildflowers listed in guidebooks. Limited by terrain and temperature as well as soil type, a wildflower fan would have to visit locations in all six New England states over the course of two months to find every species.
Or, they could simply visit the New England Wildflower Society’s ‘Garden in the Woods’ in Framingham, Massachusetts.
An easy, one mile long graded trail winds through the former property of noted botanist and collector William Curtis, who gifted his property, and collection of nearly 2000 native plant species to the non-profit organization in 1965. Though an actively maintained and largely cultivated landscape, the property has a very natural feel to it, with plants growing in habitats feel true to their wild counterparts.
The path begins at Curtis’ old cabin, on a plateau above the woodland gardens. Looking down on this early spring day, you could imagine a few weeks ahead when the redbud and rhododendron would be in full bloom above a floor filled with herbaceous ephemerals.
From there, the path swung past a rock garden, to a pond filled with frogs and turtles and lined with highbush blueberry and irises. A succession rolling hillsides feature more families of flowers, and just before the path turns into the woods, an alternating rich swamp and acidic bog bring you close to rare orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants.
The path then leaves the cultivated area, and brings you into a beautiful natural forest, and along a small brook. I could easily imagine myself with a book on one of the wooden bridges crossing the stream on a hot day in summer, surrounded by asters and cardinal flowers.
For visiting families, there is a great activity area in the forest for kids to explore, with much needed open play space amidst an environment that might otherwise seem limiting to children (Why can’t I pick the flowers?). The path then swings past the rare and endangered plant garden on its way back to the visitors center and garden center.
In my visit I found the staff of the New England Wildflower Society to be friendly, passionate and engaging. They offer a great variety of tours and educational opportunities, from guided walking tours (Daily 10AM weekdays/2PM weekends) to specially arranged trips around the property on golf cart. The garden center on the property offers many of the wildflowers for sale, and encourages the use of native species in landscaping. The staff of the garden center was most helpful in determining what type of plants would be suitable on my property.
While nothing can replace the experience in a walk your local woods this time of year, you certainly can’t beat the educational experience, biodiversity or beauty of the Garden in the Woods. They open for the season in April, and peak blooms this year should occur around Mother’s Day, with waves of flowers continuing throughout the spring and summer.
Have you ever visited Garden in the Woods?
Garden in the Woods. 180 Hemenway Road, Framingham, MA. 508-877-7630; newfs.org/visit/Garden-in-the-Woods