The Pioneer Valley is a botanist’s paradise, a true hotspot of plant diversity in the state and, indeed New England.
But besides pleasing plant geeks, our bounteous flora is the basis for all the animals — birds, insects, furry friends and us — that flourish here, providing food, shelter and a sense of home.
Why is our region so rich in plants?
First, our equable climate.
New Englanders complain about our changeable weather, but it’s just this variability of climates that fosters the growth of a variety of species. The Valley sits comfortably in the center of New England, with climates that range from relatively mild along the southern border with Connecticut, to more chilly along our northern borders with Vermont and New Hampshire.
Temperatures also vary with elevation, so the Metacomet Range hosts plant species on its many summits that differ from those at the base. Thus, Massachusetts is a climatic and ecological meeting point, where the ranges of many plant species, hailing from farther north and south, all overlap.
Second, great dirt.
Any gardener knows that plants are choosy about the soils they grow in. Western Massachusetts is remarkably rich in different kinds of bedrock — enough to strike the fancy of any geologist — which yield great soils.
The volcanic basalts of the Metacomets and Mount Tom contain magnesium, iron and a smattering of calcium, which weather to nutrient-rich soils that are close to neutral in pH. Suites of plant species find this soil mix especially luscious.
The flooding Connecticut River regularly replenishes these soils with a mix of silts and clays, making for some of the most fertile farming soils in New England.
Third, the past shapes the present.
For nearly two million years, until about 10,000 years ago, mile-high glaciers sculpted the Valley’s terrain. They left their signatures in unique landforms: kettle ponds, dunes, deltas, drumlins, rounded hilltops, talus slopes and sand plains.
In Montague, one of New England’s most ecologically significant sand plains (where acidic, dry, nutrient-poor soils contrast with otherwise lush soils) hosts prairie and pine and scrub oak forests reminiscent of Cape Cod.
Following on the heels of the receding glaciers, people reworked the land. Native Americans hunted and farmed, burning here and there, favoring certain types of forests and edible and medicinal plants such as blueberries and juneberries.
Colonial farmers and ore miners cleared the forests in the 1700s and 1800s (while still preserving maple sugar bushes), creating habitat for both crops and wild plants that enjoyed open areas and abundant sunlight, including milkweeds, lupines, blazing stars and Indian paintbrush.
In the past century, with the abandonment of agriculture, forests have rebounded from only 20 percent to nearly 80 percent of the land cover. With their recovery, plants more tolerant of shady forest understories have gradually replaced the sun-loving herbs; some of our rarest but most beautiful species are forest -floor denizens: orchids, wild ginger and goldenseal.
Suburbs have now begun to chop up the forest, interspersing trees with lawns and roads. Careless landscaping favors certain more opportunistic plants (including invasive species) and tends to work against the interests of the rarer, more specialized species.
We need to foster resilient plants in a time of intensifying land use, population growth and development pressures. Fortunately, folks have been working hard in the Valley to conserve and protect some of our most fascinating botanical hotspots, which you can visit throughout the year to plant-watch, bird-watch and animal-watch.
Here are some of my favorites:
In spring, take a walk around Mount Toby State Forest in Sunderland, especially the area nearest the cooling, calming waterfall. The limestone-infused bedrock gives rise to soils that support a colorful mass of “spring ephemerals” — the plants that take advantage of sun and nutrients before leaf-out to flower and fruit quickly before they are shaded with the advent of summer.
In summer, head to High Ledges, a 630-acre sanctuary of MassAudubon in Shelburne. Unusual ferns, orchids and other wildflowers, and even a small bog with carnivorous pitcher plants await you on the trail. There is also a gorgeous vista of the Deerfield River Valley.
In fall, climb Mount Holyoke in Skinner State Park in Hadley. Besides the reward of stellar views from the Summit House, you’ll pass through verdant forests of maple and ash to the higher-elevation forests of oak and hickory on south- and west-facing slopes and hemlock, striped maple and mountain ash on cooler, north-facing slopes.
In winter (Yes! In winter you can still see plants!), walk the ADA-compliant boardwalk that traverses one of the Valley’s newest and most beautiful preserves: the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge’s Fort River Birding and Nature Trail in Hadley.
A breeze of a stroll at any time of year, this trail features sweeping views of the Metacomet Range; winds through a forest of hemlock, maple and oak, and through open meadows and shrub lands with many grasses, herbs and ferns; and it passes floodplains with vine-laden silver maples. Look for the rattlesnake-shaped tops of stems of sensitive ferns, or just revel in the tan, waving remnants of grasses.
Oh, so many other places to go… but you’ll discover them on your own, and in doing so, you’ll discover the plants that make home, “home.”
Elizabeth Farnsworth, Senior Research Ecologist at New England Wild Flower Society, can be spotted frequently on trails, stopping every five feet or so to gape at a plant.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.Click here to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.