I have helpers that readers of this blog don’t ever hear from and who I don’t thank enough. They send me corrections when I’ve misidentified plants, reveal the names of plants that I don’t know, and pass along tips about places that might be worth a visit. One of the places mentioned recently was Dickinson Memorial Forest in Swanzey, which was once owned by a prominent local family. Since I’d heard of it but had never been I decided to visit.
When you’ve reached this point you have a choice to make; you can turn right and follow the trail into the forest or you can follow this old road into Muster Field, so named because volunteer firemen used to muster and train here. I followed both but my first choice was through these old gate posts.
I chose the old road because it follows the Ashuelot River which is off to the right, and because this is just the kind of place that I spent large parts of my boyhood exploring. Before I left this place my spirits had soared and I was feeling like a kid again and smiling from ear to ear. I’ve returned several times since because for me being out here is like walking into a time machine.
Old friends like striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) told me that this land has been this way without being disturbed for a very long time. I’ve read that this plant won’t grow on land that has been disturbed within the last century. It grows either in the woods or just at their edges; places where the plow wouldn’t have gone. I rarely see it and I think this is only the third or fourth place that I’ve found it. It’s very happy here and is going to bloom soon.
Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica,) another of our native wintergreens, grew in a large colony here. This plant’s common name comes from the way Native Americans used it as a poultice to heal wounds; especially shin wounds, apparently. It contains compounds similar to those in aspirin and a tea made from it was used for many of the same ailments. The nodding white, waxy flowers are fragrant and very hard to get a good photo of.
The river is doing what rivers do, which is eat away at their banks. Large sections of the silty embankment in this area have fallen into the river several times recently by the looks. In one spot it has fallen away right to the edge of the road. I drove out here one day not realizing just how close to the road the undercut embankment was, and I’m very lucky that my truck and I didn’t end up in the Ashuelot. Since then I haven’t driven past the gate posts in the second photo, but someone really should put signs warning people not to drive out here.
The reason I drove out here that day was because I was short on time and I wanted to see if the Canada lilies (Lilium canadense) that I saw on a previous visit were blooming. They weren’t then but they eventually did. I think that these plants succeed so well because they get tall enough to rise up above the surrounding vegetation to where the sunshine is. They soar to 7 feet tall sometimes and remind me of chandeliers at this stage.
In 1857 Henry David Thoreau was told by a Native American guide how the bulbs of this plant were cooked with meat in soups and stews to thicken them, much like flour does. Henry dug some and ate them raw, finding that they tasted somewhat like “raw green corn on the ear.” I’ve always been told that lilies were toxic when eaten so I’d say Henry was a lucky man. Cooking must remove the toxicity, which would explain how natives ate them regularly.
It’s nearly impossible to confuse the beautiful flowers of Canada lily with any other. Its large size, spotted throat, large red anthers and bright yellow petals and sepals make it unique among wildflowers in this area. We do have another native lily called the wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum,) but its blossoms are orange and point to the sky rather than nod like these do.
A family of Canada geese relaxed on the far bank of the Ashuelot. This photo shows how low the water level is.
A turtle was out for a stroll on the old road. She didn’t say where she was going but I’m assuming that she was looking for a suitable place to lay her eggs. She must have had quite a struggle to get up here from the river.
A spangled fritillary hid in the tall grass at the edge of the road. They and many other large butterflies love Canada lilies and like me were probably waiting impatiently for them to blossom.
In the Dickinson forest a dead tree had fallen across the trail and was hung up on some hemlock branches. This is a dangerous situation and I hope whoever maintains these trails will remove it. It wouldn’t take much of a breeze to blow it down and I hope there isn’t someone under it when it falls.
A boardwalk and footbridge crossed a seasonal stream, which just a muddy ditch at this time of year.
I didn’t see any deer but I wouldn’t be surprised if they saw me. This hoof print looked very fresh.
Whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) grew all along the river. This pretty little flower has quite a long blooming season and it and its cousin the swamp candle (Lysimachia terrestris) can be seen in moist areas throughout the hottest months. Its common name comes from the way its flowers and leaves grow in a whorl about the stem. Native Americans brewed a medicinal tea from the stem and leaves of whorled loosestrife to alleviate kidney ailments.
The plant also played an important part in the American Revolution. According to the book The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers by Timothy Coffee “With the Revolution came the refusal to drink the tea of commerce and our four leaved loosestrife, being dried and steeped, was used in its stead.” And that’s why another common name for the plant is “liberty tea.”
The biggest surprise here was finding false hellebore. It grew quite a distance from the river, which I thought was odd because it usually grows as close to water as it can. False hellebore is one of the most toxic plants in our forests. Eating just a small amount can be lethal and people have even gotten sick from drinking water that it grew in.
Even more surprising than finding the false hellebore was finding that it was flowering. That told me that these plants had grown here undisturbed for quite a while. Only mature plants will blossom and can take 10 years or more to do so. The bright yellow anthers were missing so I knew these flowers had nearly gone by. I never realized that the flower’s green petals and sepals are as pleated as the leaves are. There are pairs of nectar glands at their bases and ants visit the flowers to feed on their sweet treats.
Forget me nots lined the river bank. There were thousands of them, far more than I’ve ever seen in one spot. Forget me nots or no, I won’t forget this place. In fact I’m having a hard time staying away.
A ditch somewhere – or a creek, meadow, woodlot or marsh…. These are places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin.… Everybody has a ditch, or ought to. For only the ditches and the field, the woods, the ravines – can teach us to care enough for all the land. ~ Robert Michael Pyle
Thanks for coming by.