NH White Mountains: Nature’s Original Beautiful Wildlife Garden


Ascending Loon Mountain on the gondola

Ascending Loon Mountain on the gondola. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com


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:

Cascades on Pemigewasset River, Franconia Notch, NH

Cascades on Pemi River at Franconia Notch. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

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.

View from Loon Mountain.

View from Loon Mountain into the boreal forest of red and white spruce trees, white birch, striped maple, poplar and mountain ash. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

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:

Christmas Fern growing at the top of Loon Mountain. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

Christmas Fern growing in a granite outcropping at the summit of Loon – this is an evergreen fern that will even grow in the deep shade under hemlock trees. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

Thick mats of moss grow lush under the stunted fir and spruce trees at the cold, exposed summit of Cannon Mountain (elevation 4801′):

Moss under spruce and fir trees

Moss is the perfect green groundcover for full shade. It grows luxuriously under spruce and fir trees at high elevations where few plants can survive the harsh winds and cold temperatures. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

NH's own stonehenge at Loon Mtn

New Hampshire has its own Stonehenge…formed naturally over billions of years. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

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 (Chamaepericlymenum canadensis) growing with ferns in the New Hampshire forest. Veronica Guyre photo.

Bunchberry (Chamaepericlymenum canadensis) growing with ferns in the New Hampshire forest. Veronica Guyre photo.

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):


Robert Sousa photo

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:

The maples might have lost their red foliage but the mountain ash still sport their red berries in mid-October, 2013. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

The maples have lost their red foliage but the mountain ash still sport their red berries in mid-October, 2013. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

Along the Pemi River near Lafayatte Mountain:

Pemi River near Lafayette Mountain.

Pemigewasset River. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

The final throes of color in the forest understory near the Flume at Franconia Notch:

Wild Raisin aka Witherod (Viburnum nudum) and White Birch growing in Franconia Notch. Birds already stripped the viburnum berries bare.

Wild Raisin aka Witherod (Viburnum nudum) growing along with Gray Birch (Betula populifolia). Birds have already stripped the viburnum berries bare. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

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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  1. says

    These are beautiful photographs. They remind me of the time I spent in Dublin, N.H. when I was a kid, right near Mt. Monadnock.

    This biome you describe seems to cover an unbroken expanse stretching from the Appalachians westward up into Western Canada (see map here http://www.marietta.edu/~biol/biomes/boreal.htm). Many of your photographs remind me so much of the Boundary Waters, which is a couple of hours north of my home (Duluth, MN). And the Boundary Waters reminds me a lot of the area around Banff in Alberta. Even the smell of the forest is similar in those different places. (I imagined I could smell your woodland photographs!)

    I love the idea that this ecosystem connects such far-ranging places. Let’s hope it does not get fragmented by development.

    Thank you for making my wake-up coffee time so enjoyable.

    • says

      You’re very welcome Ruth, and I like the idea that the plants that grow here in our New England mountain tops are so similar to other boreal forests of the world – closely related even if not by distance. Kinda like the human race as a whole!
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Fall Frenzy

  2. Suzanne says

    Fantastic photos, Ellen! What a great idea, looking in wild areas with similar light and weather as the tricky spots in my yard. Of course, out here in the PNW, the entire yard is shaded with evergreens and mossy. I love the clubmosses, too. I have always thought of them as teeny tiny trees, too. Fairy bonsai.

  3. says

    These photos are breathtaking. Your posts help me get through the day, as I find it so difficult working in a cubicle in an office without windows. I am an outdoor person, hiking, gardening, star gazer, and artist, and I thank you so much for feeding my nature’s soul. God Bless,

  4. Robin Wilkerson says

    Ellen – thank you for a wonderful excursion to New Hampshire. I didn’t get north this fall so was glad to experience the pleasures of a mountain hike. I really enjoy your posts. Best, Robin

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