When most people think about the types of habitats that are unique and special about Nantucket, forests are probably not on the top of the list. But we have some beautiful and special ones on our little island, and there is no better place to see spring unfolding. Take a walk in the woods along the trails on NCF’s properties at Masquetuck, Squam Swamp, Stump Pond, and Norwood Farm (our newest land acquisition), and here are some of the things you can expect to see – but don’t wait too long, because spring on Nantucket is a fleeting phenomenon.
The forest floor is one of the first places to green up by producing a carpet of small, delicate wildflowers and ground covers, including Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), star flower (Trientalis borealis), trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). These “spring ephemerals” are among the first flowers to bloom at the end of the winter. They have very short life cycles that enable them to take advantage of the increased sunlight that reaches the forest floor at this time of year, before the overstory trees and shrubs leaf out. These plants are all less than 5 inches tall, and quickly become out shaded at the end of their bloom period by taller shrubs, ferns and the summer and fall blooming asters and goldenrods that dominate later in the growing season. So now is an excellent time to get out and explore these habitats, while these dainty little beauties are still visible.
Speaking of ferns, the damp soils in these areas support an abundance of species that are now just emerging, including New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), and netted chain fern (Woodwardia areolata). Ferns are among the oldest life forms. They belong to a group of flowerless plants that produce spores (reproductive bodies) in tiny sacs along the underside of their large leaves, or fronds. In spring, the fronds first appear as “fiddleheads” – curved structures reminiscent of the carved upper neck of a violin or fiddle. Cinnamon fern is one of our largest, most common and obvious species and it is just coming up now. It gets its name from the pale cinnamon colored fuzz that covers the fiddleheads when they first emerge.
Ferns and flowers are not the only species that are emerging from dormancy at this time of year in Nantucket’s forests. Vernal pools – bodies of fresh water that either dry up for a portion of the year or are not large enough to support fish populations – are at their annual peak of activity right now. These habitats are very important breeding sites for several species of amphibians because there are no fish present to prey on their eggs. Probably the most vociferous of these are northern spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). These tiny tree frogs are only about an inch long, but their mating chorus can be heard on spring evenings from up to a quarter mile away. Their eggs, which are laid in clusters attached to the vegetation at the bottom of these temporary wetlands, hatch and mature very rapidly, reaching adult size in 5-8 weeks. Adult peepers are terrestrial and are equipped with adhesive toe pads that they use to climb into tree tops during the summer months – so the only time of year that they are usually detectable is springtime.
A common woodland shrub that is in full bloom right now is high-bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). This species bears small, prolific bell-shaped flowers that are white, cream or pale pink. If visited by a pollinating insect, each of these flowers will produce a delicious blue morsel in late July. While other blueberry species on Nantucket are low growing and occur in sunny, upland locations, high-bush blueberry can grow up to 12 feet in height and occurs primarily in moister environments such as forests, swamps, bogs and pond shorelines. Now is a good time to go out and make a note of where the blueberries are in full bloom – then mark your calendar for a follow-up visit with your berry bucket later in the summer!