This story covers our sixth visit to a salt marsh and surroundings at the northern end of Alley Pond Park, where we have been documenting the progression of seasons.
Our children are growing up. Well, not literally our children, but the plants that we first glimpsed as they emerged from the ground early this spring.
The growth of those botanical babies has been dramatic. Some wetlands plants, like the common reed or Phragmites australis, are taller than a tall man, though they were only a few inches in late March. The burdock, or Arctium – a plant with mammoth leaves and burrs that inspired the invention of Velcro – is at least six feet.
And many of these plants are in bloom, some spectacular, others subtler, requiring a close-up look to appreciate. Seen together, they are a great advertisement for the beauty of native plants. Of course not many of us have for a garden the varied habitat of an 18-acre wetland, plus surrounding uplands, as is the case in this stretch of Alley Pond Park.
Our guide last week was the always-informative Aline Euler, the curriculum and grant developer at the Alley Pond Environmental Center. Euler is a good advertisement for the nonprofit center, whose mission is to provide educational programs about the salt marsh and vicinity for children and adults.
One of the first plants we come across is Phytolacca americana, also known as Inkberry, Pokeberry and especially in the South, Poke Sallet or Poke Salad. The plants are three to four feet tall, have striking purplish-pink stems and white flowers clustered somewhat like a bunch of grapes. Though most of the plant is considered toxic, it’s been used as a folk remedy and as a food – but only after processing, which can involve its repeated boiling and the disposal of the remaining liquid each time. Sounds like a lot of work when escarole or collards would work just fine.
Heading out through the wetlands, Euler is thrilled to see the thriving Spartina alterniflora, a marsh grass important to many wetlands’ species. The grass seemed off to a slow start in May and early June, far behind the taller and faster growing Phragmites. Much of the Spartina we see – along with many of the native species in sight – were planted a few years ago in a project that doubled the wetlands’ size from nine to 18 acres. “I am shocked to see that it has come back so well. It’s beautiful,” Euler said.
Many of the native plants now in bloom are notable favorites of pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Among them are coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea; butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias incarnata; and a variety of thistles, including Cirsium vulgare. That insect-friendly reputation is confirmed as we watch insects repeatedly visit these plants. Incidentally the most prominent of the thistle varieties we see is common thistle, though it’s not a boring plant. The flower that bursts from a spiky globe is a deep purplish pink and the plant’s stem and dark-green leaves equipped with daunting sharp protuberances.
Queen Anne’s Lace, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, is in bloom. Queen Anne’s Lace is also known as wild carrot and when broken, its tap roots smells like the typical carrot. Though this European native is considered invasive in parts of the country, it’s not a problem in the park – especially when compared to the porcelain berry, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, which is sprawling over more plants as the summer continues. Euler rarely fails to mention the porcelain berry’s damaging nature, nor a chance to yank the offending vine off shrubs and perennials.
Early July is still too soon to see some perennials in bloom. We find only a scattered handful of flowers on the jewelweed or Impatiens capensis, which seems to grow naturally in beds, much like its garden relative the ever-popular impatiens. The plant’s orange blossom is the only native orange flower in the park, Euler noted. We have another reason for a return visit in August: the rose mallow/rose swamp mallow, or Hibiscus moscheutos. Judging from the many buds on these plants, it should be worth the wait. Though its huge blossoms, up to 10 inches across, look tropical, the rose mallow is native to the region. It’s an increasingly popular plant; varieties of rose mallow are available in local nurseries.