Sun filtered through a vibrant green canopy. The leaves, newly unfurled, were the telltale shape of a red oak — long, with dramatic pointed lobes. Throughout the spring, the leaves would grow and their color would deepen to emerald. That autumn, they’d turn a russet orange, then fall to cloak the forest floor.
The oak tree was just one of many plants she spotted that day, walking along the woodland trail. Crisp white blossoms of bunchberry dotted the ground. The tiny red fruit of wild strawberries hid in the grass, and fern fiddleheads had begun to unfurl. In early spring, after the ground has thawed, a whole host of plants emerge in the woods of Maine, rapidly growing as they compete for sun.
Throughout the nature preserve, tiny identification tags were fastened to the branches of trees and bushes, while other plants were described in interpretive displays. And for those mysterious plants that weren’t labeled, she carried a guidebook of local flora, which she leafed through each time an unknown species caught her eye.
The native plants of Maine vary dramatically, from poisonous to edible, fragrant to stinky, drab to colorful. And in one short botanical exploration, you might be surprised at all you can find.
In no hurry, she shuffled along the trail, embracing a world that had been dormant for so many frozen months. Spring had finally arrived, and with it so much life.
Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson
Covering 1,000 acres in central Maine, Hidden Valley Nature Center features a 25-mile trail system that explores a variety of habitats, as well as a boardwalk that extends out into a peat bog. Along the trails, native plants such as witch-hazel shrub are labeled so visitors can learn their common and scientific names. The labels also include a few interesting facts about each plant species.
HVNC has a history of holding workshops on sustainable forestry. Its co-founders, Bambi Jones and David “Tracy” Moskovitz, were awarded the 2014 Outstanding Tree Farmers of Maine as well as the Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Northeast Region by the American Tree Farm System.
The boardwalk on the property is a place where you’ll find a number of plants you’ll only find in a peat bog, where only certain species can thrive in the acidic environment. Just a short walk from the parking lot on the Warbler Trail, the boardwalk leads to a platform with interpretive displays about the bog’s fascinating flora, including three carnivorous plants: roundleaf sundews, pitcher plants and horned bladderwort.
The center asks that visitors leave a $5 day-use donation at the kiosk near the parking area. Dogs are permitted off leash, if well behaved and if they respond well to voice command. For more information call the Midcoast Conservancy office at 207-389-5150 or visit midcoastconservancy.org.
Directions: The address is 131 Egypt Road in Jefferson. To get there, start at the intersection of Route 194 (Jones Woods Road) and Route 215 (S Clary Road) in Newcastle; drive on Route 215 for 4.4 miles and turn left onto Egypt Road. Drive 0.5 miles and the gate parking area will be on your right, just before the gate, which bars visitors from the center’s service road. Hike up the service road and you will come to a kiosk on the right, which includes a donation box, trail maps and plenty of information about the center.
Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport
Conserved in 1986, Beech Hill is covered in blueberry fields that are filled with wildflowers, including daisies, beach rose, black-eyed susans and fireweed. The fields are also home to the native wood lily, which have large orange blossoms on tall green stalks. These tropical-looking flowers are scattered throughout the fields.
The hill is located on a 295-acre preserve that features two public trails: the 0.75-mile Summit Road Trail and the 1-mile Woods Loop Trail, which travels through a 2-acre sugar maple stand. Posted along these trails are interpretive displays that help visitors better understand their surroundings. These displays include information about plants, birds and historical features on the property, including Beech Nut, a historic stone hut located at the summit of Beech Hill. There on the building’s veranda, visitors enjoy views of Penobscot Bay, Camden Hills and Saint George Peninsula.
The property is free to visit during daylight hours. Dogs are permitted but must be on leash at all times. For more information, call Coastal Mountains Land Trust at 207-236-7091 or visit coastalmountains.org.
Directions: There are two trailheads to the preserve. To reach the Summit Road Trailhead, drive to Rockport on Route 1 and turn onto Beech Hill Road, which is across from Hoboken Gardens. Drive about 1 mile and the parking area is on the left. To reach the Woods Loop Trailhead, drive to Rockport on Route 1 and turn onto Rockville Street. (If you are heading south, it will be the first right after Fresh Off the Farm.) Drive about 0.7 miles on Rockville Street, and the parking area is on the right.
Shore Acres Preserve on Deer Isle
Shore Acres Preserve is one of several preserves on Deer Isle that can be explored with the help of a detailed, nature guide booklet created by Dr. Kenneth L. Crowell and Marnie Reed Crowell. This booklet is available for free online and includes 10 points of interest on the preserve’s 1.5-mile loop trail. At each of these points of interest, the authors have identified and described in detail several native plants, as well as fungi. Color photos in the guide will help you locate these natural features yourself.
Some of the plants included in the guide include a woodland flower called sweet white violet, an evergreen herb with bright yellow roots called goldthread, and a particularly stinky plant called skunk cabbage. The guide also helps visitors identify a number of common native trees, including red maple, white pine and white birch.
The preserve is owned and maintained by the Island Heritage Trust and is open to the public for free. Dog are permitted if on leash at all times. For information, call 207-348-2455 or visit www.islandheritagetrust.org.
Directions: From Route 15 in Deer Isle, turn onto the Sunshine Road at Mill Pond Mobil. Drive 1.2 miles and bear left at the fork onto Greenlaw District Road. (Watch for traffic coming around the bend.) Drive about 0.9 miles to the parking area, which is on the right and marked with a sign.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s April 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.