I was lucky enough to be able to visit Distant Hill Gardens in Walpole, New Hampshire a few times this year. The gardens started out simply enough; in 1979 Michael Nerrie and his wife Kathy bought 21 acres of land in the hills of Walpole that had been farmed since as early as 1773. As landowners always do they started exploring their acreage and what they discovered is, if I had to describe it as simply as possible, mind blowing.
One of the first things seen as you enter the property is the stone wall that marks the edge of the woodland. There are many different types of stone walls and fine examples of nearly all of them can be found on the property. What many people don’t realize about New England stone walls is that their original purpose, more often than not, was simply a way to get rid of the tons of stone that littered the landscape. In the 1600s instead of walls the stones were often just piled, usually in an unused corner of the property. These oldest examples of stone removal are very hard to find but they can be seen here at Distant Hill. I would call the wall in the above photo a “tossed wall,” which was built just as its name suggests. Stones were tossed out of the way to clear the field and over time became a sort of wall that usually marked the property line or was used to keep the cows out of the corn.
Laid walls are another type of stone wall but considerably more effort was used to make them beautiful as well as functional. These walls were usually built in the front yard or other places that were seen by the public. This excellent example was built by Michael. I’ve built many dry stone walls and I can say that he did a fine job, especially since he had little experience in wall building when he built it.
Bird’s nest fungi are so small you could easily step on them without seeing them and that would be a shame because they’re beautiful and unusual little things. I think these examples are fluted bird’s nest fungi (Cyathus striatus.) They were growing on a bit of twig right in the lawn.
The “bird’s nest” is actually a splash cup called a peridium and when a drop of rain falls into it with enough force the “eggs” are splashed out. These eggs are really disc shaped spore cases called peridioles. Once ejected from the splash cup the peridioles degrade over time to release the spores. These were the first examples of this type of fungus that I’ve seen.
Something else I’ve never seen is the bronze fern (Botrychium dissectum obliquum.) Its common name comes from the way its sterile evergreen leaf turns from green to bronze in winter. It is also called the cut-leaved moonwort. No matter what we might call it, it is a grape fern, so called because the fertile frond develops a cluster of tiny spherical spore cases (sporangia) that resembles a bunch of grapes. These ferns usually only have two leaves; one sterile and one fertile. The fertile frond appears in late summer.
Michael is lucky enough to have discovered two grape ferns on his property. This one is the cut-leaved grape fern (Botrychium dissectum dissectum.) Its lacy, evergreen sterile leaf also turns from green to bronze in the winter but they look very different than those of the bronze fern. The sterile leaf withers away in spring when a new one appears. Both of these ferns are very rare in this area so seeing them was quite a thrill.
There are also orchids here, and plenty of them. I’m very familiar with the downy rattlesnake plantain orchid (Goodyeara pubescens) but I had never seen this one, which is in the same family. I’m not sure but I think it might be the dwarf rattlesnake plantain (Goodyeara repens,) also called creeping lady’s-tresses, but it’s hard to be sure because there are several different Goodyeara species here and they could be producing natural hybrids. Something that surprised me about these little orchids was how they lacked the light or dark stripe down the center of each leaf that most plants in this family have.
This photo I took earlier of a downy rattlesnake plantain orchid (Goodyeara pubescens) shows the different colored line down the center of the leaf that is so characteristic of these orchids. Sometimes light and sometimes dark, seeing an example without it was surprising.
Longtime readers of this blog most likely know that I’ve been looking for hepatica plants for a long time. I finally found them here and that’s because the soil is rich in limestone. Hepatica and many other plants prefer soil that is on the sweet side rather than the acidic soil found in most parts of our county. Walpole lies on the Connecticut River just across from Vermont and Michael and I were marveling at how, by just crossing the river, a completely different world of plants can be found. That’s because much of Vermont was once part of a sea floor and its sedimentary bedrock is made up of calcium materials extracted from tiny marine organisms that floated in the water. Much of New Hampshire is made up of mostly igneous granite but some areas like Walpole and Westmoreland are really more like Vermont, at least in their underpinnings and flora.
I’ve waited a long time to see these little beauties. You really can’t tell much in the way of size from a photo and I was surprised by how small hepaticas were. That’s why visiting a place like this is so important if you want to go out and find plants growing in their natural habitat. There’s really no substitute for seeing where they grow, what time of year they blossom, how much sunlight they get, what other plants and trees they grow near, and whether or not they grow near water. Usually once you’ve seen a plant growing naturally it will become much easier to find more of them. The fern guide that I use says that the same thing is true for the rare grape ferns we saw previously, and I hope to see many more examples of them as well.
I had to laugh at the hairy stems and buds of the hepatica. It seems that something like this would be hard to miss but again, how are you supposed to know what time of year to look for them if you’ve never seen an actual plant? Now I have the exact date stamped on these photos, so next spring I’ll know when to start looking.
If you’re not one to go crawling through the woods in search of plants that you’ve never seen before there are plenty of other things to see at Distant Hill Gardens. For instance you’ll see some of the most well-tended flower gardens that you’ve ever seen. Michael has surrounded his house with flowering perennials and it is really something to see. I should mention that though the flower beds are full of mostly cultivated plants, the plants found in the wooded areas are natural and have had no human intervention. That’s one of the great things about the place; the native plants remain just as they were found.
There are vegetable gardens too, and much of the produce grown here gets donated to local food pantries. This is something all of us with more vegetables than we can eat should consider doing.
I don’t know how Michael finds any free time but when he does he welds found objects into sculptures, and they can be seen throughout the property. There really is something for everybody here, especially in the way of plants. I saw more previously unseen plants and fungi in two hours than I have in the last two years, and there is much more to come in part two of this post.
There are many more things I’d like to show you but even with a two part post there is more to see here than space and time will permit, so I hope you’ll take the time to visit Distant Hill Gardens if you are able to. I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed. I’ve put a permanent link to their website over in the “Favorite Links” section, but you can also find it here: http://www.distanthillgardens.org/
Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. ~Aldo Leopold
Thanks for coming by.