Anature hike with other people is different from taking a walk in the woods alone, and I recommend both. Almost every day I walk by a pond and through woods with my dog. Often, despite the dog’s presence, we see ducks, turkey and deer; recently I startled a grouse (I think). I observe and try to identify plants, too, but I don’t work too hard at this; it’s my home turf and I tend to take it for granted.
Recently, however, I helped on a hike organized by the Friends of Mill Road to identify plants and converse about habitat, native plants, invasive plants and the resident birds and other animals. We also focused on the rare and precious commodity called a view – something country people are learning not to take for granted any more. The Mill Road view in Aurora township – overlooking the Cazenovia Creek valley – is one of the last such unobstructed views in the area. Organizers aim to buy and protect from development some 60 acres with 1,500 feet of road frontage and then give it to the town for the public’s enjoyment.
This hike caused me to think about the land more consciously than usual. I considered the kinds of ecosystems in those acres, the various stages of forest or meadow regrowth, and which plants support which communities of wildlife. I was hiking with a fellow educator and certified nursery and landscape professional (CNLP), Ken Parker, and many in our group were quite knowledgeable. But we all had questions as well as answers as we explored.
Solving the problems of invasive plants, suburban sprawl and habitat degradation is not easy. I was reminded how much more education people need in caring for wild land.
Wildflowers or weeds: Growing up with plants we called “wildflowers,” I had no idea which ones were native, which were introduced and naturalized, or which were weeds that plagued neighboring farmers. They were all wildflowers. It was not until about the 1980s and ’90s that most gardeners become aware of the concept of “non-native invasive” – specifically “plants from another region or country that cause economic or ecological harm,” usually by displacing native plants or otherwise disrupting the balance in an ecosystem.
In many of our meadows and woodlands, you will typically see the following troublemakers: Multiflora rose (a suckering, shrubby rose that scratches your limbs and tears your clothes), Japanese honeysuckle, buckthorn (a shrub/tree with nasty thorns), Phragmites (common reed grass, seen along the Thruway ditches), Japanese knotweed, and perhaps purple loosestrife in wet locations. Japanese barberry, a seriously invasive plant in eastern New York State, is now appearing in abundance in our woods – not a good thing. (To learn more about these and other invasive species and control methods, go to www.nyis.info.)
The nature hike was not all about troublesome plants. Wonderful native and benign, naturalized plants are flowering or berrying in abundance in our fields in the autumn. Among the native plants, we saw Joe-Pye weed, boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), brown-eyed Susan, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca, swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), native goldenrod, wild geranium, marsh marigold and New England or New York asters.
In a nearby property, swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolilus) and New York Ironweed (Vernonia) are spreading. Non-native plants that are common and seem compatible in our fields include Queen-Anne’s lace, chicory, mullein and clovers.
Tree and shrub identification also kept us busy. Stands of (non-native) Scots pines and many overplanted silver and Norway maples were present, but also a large stand of hemlocks, native poplars, white and green ash, Eastern white pines, sugar maples, red maples, pignut hickory and even a beautiful basswood (Tilia Americana). Just turning color, gray dogwoods and nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) were abundant.
Bugs, snakes and other critters: Many people have little exposure to wildlife. Butterflies alighting on a New York aster and bumblebees diving into turtlehead (Chelone) may produce appreciative sighs, but I have also observed children who are afraid of them both. Nature hikes and long hours of exploration in fields and streams are crucial for developing informed citizens as well as future environmentalists.
That is all the more reason I was thrilled with our snake discovery moment: The father of the family on our hike spotted a large brown snake (at least 30 inches long) which was trying to hide from us by curling into a tight knot under a patch of dead grasses.
I picked him up behind the head and the midsection, as my Grandpa taught me long ago. “Would you like to meet Mr. Snake?” The group gathered, and we talked about how lucky we are that Western New York does not have venomous snakes. It was a fine, teachable moment.
One of the boys asked, “Can I hold him next?” I said “Yes, as long as you are gentle” and very carefully the boy’s hands replaced mine.
Soon the snake went on his way, most relieved, and we finished our hike.
It was a good day.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.