“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower“(Camus)
Last week my husband and I travelled 150 miles from our home in central Massachusetts, across 4 different “eco-zones”, to the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire…a beautiful wild “rock garden” designed mostly by time (billions of years) and nature. If you’re a plant and nature geek, it’s a region with scenery worth visiting long after the wild flowers of spring and summer are past their bloom…
At Franconia Notch Parkway (I-93), the brilliant foliage colors were a little past peak, but a hike along the Pemigewasset River is always breathtaking:
In our 3 hours’ drive north, we travelled from southern New England’s oak/pine forest through a region of coniferous (needle) trees such as hemlock, spruce, fir and cedar and the characteristic “New England fall foliage” hardwoods such as maple and beech. At the summit of Loon Mountain in Lincoln, NH (3,000 feet above sea level), we emerged from the gondola into the Appalachean boreal forest zone that runs along the peaks of northern New England.
The summit of Loon is equivalent to the climate of a region much further north at Hudson Bay, Canada. Cold, exposed and rocky, it’s a harsh environment for growing things, but a range of plants have adapted over time to do very well here.
In the rocky outcrops of these high forests, moss, lichen and ferns prosper in the damp crevices where hardwood tree leaves (maple, birch, poplar and mountain ash) collect each fall:
Thick mats of moss grow lush under the stunted fir and spruce trees at the cold, exposed summit of Cannon Mountain (elevation 4801′):
So if you are like me, and you have an area of garden that is cold, rocky, damp and shady year-round (like a north-facing slope with evergreen trees), you’ll be wise to look at nature’s own plantings at higher elevations to help guide your efforts…
Here are a few shots from the White Mountains National Forest that I hope will inspire your own woodland gardens…
At ground level near the Loon summit, we spotted the diminutive leaves of bunchberry (Chamaepericlymenum canadensis), some of it growing in the tiniest cracks between rocks. This is what bunchberry looks like when it blooms in June:
Bunchberry is a low woodland ground cover with flowers that look just like small flowering dogwood blossoms. It grows in the cool, moist woods of southern New England, but it really seems to prosper in the higher elevations, where competition from other plants is not as fierce.
We also spotted yellow blue-bead lily (Clintonia borealis) foliage, although birds and chipmunks had already stripped off the showy blue berry “beads”. We saw lots of wintergreen aka checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens) happily spreading in very marginal areas of thin soil. Both of these are hardy groundcovers worth growing in woodland gardens of New England.
More of nature’s groundcovers for shade include lichens (moss-like plants that grow on rocks and trees) and clubmosses (which are not mosses but related to ferns, and to me look like tiny bonsai evergreen trees for a doll-size landscape):
At 2700′, at the Base Station at the cog railway to the summit of Mount Washington, the hardwoods have mostly lost their leaves, but the Mountain Ash (Sorbus) trees appear to be in full bloom – not with flowers but their showy clusters of bright red berries:
Along the Pemi River near Lafayatte Mountain:
The final throes of color in the forest understory near the Flume at Franconia Notch:
“October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight” (Henry David Thoreau)
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