Wild Ones   Spring Blooms in Eastern Woodlands  
By Cheryl Lowe

Cornus floridaIt is most definitely winter as I write this article about spring in an eastern woodland garden. It is the second week of March; the snow is two feet deep in most places, and the temperatures chilly. But at 5:30 p.m. the day is still light, and I saw the first soft pussy willows bursting from their buds in the swamp today. Soon, the garden will be coming to life.

Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts, is a special place, a 45-acre sanctuary of tall trees and quiet water, with rich foliage and an incredible array of wildflowers in thirteen acres of naturalistic displays. You approach by driving up a narrow, winding road through quiet woods, an experience that sets the tone for the rest of your visit.

Even before you have paid your admission fee at the Visitor Center, the woodland envelops you. In the spring, visitors stop to admire a wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) growing near the path, its clear pink flower petals and deeply scalloped leaves reminding them of something they saw in the woods, but this time with a label. A few steps more, and they stop again, surprised by the lush display of nodding Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), blue wood phlox (Phlox divaricata), trillium (T. grandiflorum, T. luteum, and T. cuneatum), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginiana), the delicate peppermint-striped flowers of spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) and more than twenty other species.

At this point you might start to worry that it will take all day to walk the one-mile trail, but then you begin to absorb the rhythm of the place. The path goes through a hemlock grove, where fallen hemlock needles and shredded leaf mulch decorate the forest floor. Past the Nursery and just beyond the old cottage where Will Curtis, the garden’s founder once lived, you must again stop to wonder.

kalmia latifoliaThe path drops down into something reminiscent of an Appalachian cove, like the lush ravines of my Ohio childhood, but without the bedrock and boulders. The hundred-year-old oaks and pines (Quercus rubra, Q. nigra, Q. alba, Pinus strobus) tower overhead, but at eye level, the curves in the pathway are hidden by mature rhododendrons and azaleas, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium). This is the heart of the Woodland Garden, an acre or two of textures, colors, and elusive fragrances that entice you to stop and look. This garden is in its glory in the spring, although I love its cool, quiet shade in the heat of summer.

Down the old stone steps into the cove you walk, past the soft yellow merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora), the dainty, lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and a curious wild ginger (Hexastylis speciosa) with its fairy ring of speckled, burgundy-brown jugs arranged like yaks in a snowstorm, facing out and "protecting" the stems of the large, smooth, beautifully patterned leaves. The position of the tropical-looking flower "jugs" makes it easy for ground beetles to pollinate its flowers and ants to disperse its seeds.

As you wander further down the path, the large yellow lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens) usually grabs your eye, although I favor the more delicate small yellow lady’s-slipper (C. parviflorum var. parviflorum) mingling with many of the species from the entrance bed and drifts of creeping and wood phlox (Phlox stonolifera, P. divaricata). Rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) is one of the most common garden "room dividers"; dog-hobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana) is another. But the deciduous native azaleas (R. prinophyllum, R. calendulaceum, R. cumberlandense, and R. vaseyi), with their colorful flowers in spring and summer, rich brown seedpods in August, and bright foliage in autumn, are the featured furniture in these rooms.

Leucothoe fontanesianaOne of the oldest and richest carpets in the lower part of the garden is a mosaic of wandflower, Oconee bells and box huckleberry (Galax urceolata, Shortia galacifolia, and Gaylucassia brachycera). Although evergreen, the leaves of these species shift from bright green with lacy red borders in spring to dark, glossy greens in summer, and then to rich burgundy-greens in winter. One of my favorite rooms in the lower Woodland garden is a boreal corner, a cool, moist, deeply shaded area, where you will find bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), dewberry (Dalibarda repens), and twinflower (Linnaea borealis). These species are not found in the surrounding drier, oak-pine forests. They flourish here because the humusy soil is cool, damp and acid.

Beyond this, the Woodland Garden ends. The paths take you out into a sunny, wetland basin, slow to leaf out in spring with the water keeping the soil cool, but filled in summer with a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds of birds, insects and frogs. But that is a tour for another day.

Cheryl Lowe is the Horticulture Director for New England Wild Flower Society, located in the Garden in the Woods, in Framingham, MA. Contact her at clowe@newfs.org, 508-877-7630 x3401.

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Updated: Jun 12, 2005.