The Flora Of New England

The trees of New England are its crowning glory. Stripped of its foliage, the country would be bare and bleak indeed. To fully appreciate how large a part of New England is still wooded one should journey across it by balloon or aeroplane, and yet the generally accepted view that before the coming of the white man the whole country was completely mantled with primeval forests is incorrect. There were stretches of open meadows along the river valleys, and, as today, great expanses of salt marsh along the coast. Verazzano in 1524 describes in the Narragansett Bay region “open plains twenty-five or thirty leagues in extent entirely free from trees.”

Each portion of New England has its characteristic trees. Entering from the south or west the transition from the plant growth of New York and the Middle States will be gradual. The chestnut, an especially beautiful tree when in bloom, is predominant. The chestnut blight which is spreading from Pennsylvania northward into New England is working havoc with the chestnuts, and the forestry experts tell us that they will soon be a thing of the past. The commercial loss in many areas is heavy, as one in every six of our timber trees is a chestnut.

The elm is perhaps the most beautiful and characteristic of New England’s trees. It stands like a sentinel in the meadows or arches the village street in a friendly way. In the rich alluvial soil of the Connecticut valley it grows to prodigious size. The famous old elm at Wethersfield, twenty-six and a half feet in girth, is perhaps the largest example of plant growth east of the Rockies. Numerous other magnificent examples of elms have attained a circumference of twenty-five feet and a height of over ninety. The American elm in New England presents a great variety of forms. There are the vase and the wineglass types. The vine elm has its slender trunk clothed in its own delicate foliage as with a vine. Others take on the manner of growth of apple or oak trees. The elm, too, has its enemies,—the elm leaf beetle, which eats the leaves, and the leopard moth, which bores into the young twigs. New Haven, `The Elm City,’ is now almost devoid of elms, as is the Harvard Yard, whose beauty was due to its arching elms.

New England’s broad-girthed oaks are more like the English tree than those elsewhere in this country. The white oak is the noblest of the family. The Waverley oaks near Boston are the best known group of these, calculated by Professor Shaler to be a hundred years old. Beaman’s oak, at Lancaster, Mass., is a notable specimen If the white oak, twenty-nine feet in circumference, and in the same own is the largest red oak in the country, sixteen feet in girth. Although by no means exclusively a New England tree the maple of the principal hardwood growths, and the sugar maple of the Connecticut valley yields Vermont’s most popular product.

Through the middle belt of New England the white pine, the most beautiful of its family, grows more happily than elsewhere. Old Timothy Dwight, who missed nothing, wrote a century ago: “The white pine is the noblest forest tree in New England, and probably in the world. . . . The sound of the wind in a grove of white pines has all the magnificence which attends the distant roar of the ocean.” It is the most valuable timber tree of New England and many a farmer has found the growth of pine in a neglected wood lot or overgrown pasture the means of raising his mortgage. It is a tree of rapid growth and well repays planting. In Massachusetts large areas have been planted to white pine by the State, by corporations and individuals. A few of the primeval pines with a girth of upward of fifteen feet still stand at Carlisle, near Boston, and in the Pisgah primeval forest in southwestern New Hampshire.

The white or canoe birch generally associated with the white pine is a tree of feminine attractiveness which makes a strong appeal to the eye of the artist. The gray birches are weaker sisters, growing farther south and on sterile soil, but even more languishingly graceful. The yellow birch is sturdier and less interesting.

Northern New England is a region of spruce, whence comes the wood pulp for our papers. During the spring, the rivers of Maine and the Connecticut are clogged with huge drives of spruce logs. Along the Maine coast is Sarah Orne Jewett’s “country of the pointed firs.” On the drumlins and hills along the shores of Massachusetts Bay, the savin, or red cedar, vigorously points its spires.

The mountain laurel, one of the most beautiful plants of the American flora, grows in a belt across the middle of New England. For a few weeks in early summer it makes the woods indescribably lovely with its dusters of pink and white blossoms.

The Cape has its own characteristic plant life, the scrub pine, the Christmas holly, the cranberry, and the bayberry, which yields a fragrant wax from which the early settlers made candles, an industry now revived.

The arbutus is the most-sought-for flower in the spring. It is New England’s mayflower, so named by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, although other flowers bear that name in other States. It comes almost before the snow is off the ground. There is such demand in the cities for its fragrant perfumed bunches that the Portuguese children have gathered it almost to extermination in some localities. Weedier and shabbier except when in bloom, the blue-flowered chicory abounds chiefly on the outskirts of Boston.

Many of New Englandes most familiar shrubs and plants are immigrants. The buckthorn, the English hawthorn, the barberry, as well as the Black-eyed Susans and the ox-eye daisies which dot the meadows with blossoms, and the hordes of weeds that grow about our yards and barnyards, are almost all European in origin.