Nature Notes: Oh, Fantastic Flora!

SWEET PEPPER BUSH- Clethra anifolia.
SWEET PEPPER BUSH - Clethra anifolia.

    The middle of the summer is the best time to enjoy the plants. I like birds. I like mammals, I am one. I like fish. I like snakes, salamanders, turtles, and frogs. I like all of the animals without backbones, especially the ones in the sea. I even like insects, spiders, and most other creepy-crawlies. But there is nothing quite so beautiful as a plant. I like plants best.
    When I go birdwatching, I end up looking at the plants. When I drive to work and back, I note the plants along the way. I take as many different routes as possible to and from. When I drive around for work, I check the status of this or that plant seen along the roadway. Each trip reveals plants in different states of development. I’ve come to know most of them intimately. When one is missing I become alarmed. Something is out of whack, something went wrong, I wonder, what could it be?
    On Swamp Road east of Sag Harbor there are still a few crested yellow orchis. A few hundred yards down the road stands a lone poison sumac tree on the shoulder, one of only a handful left on the South Fork. I see it bare in the winter, leaf out in the spring, flower white in the summer, and fruit red in the fall. A little beyond, next to a pond, I can see the tall spires of the twin pines, side by side as if holding hands, standing high above the rest. Then comes the persimmon grove, the only natural one on the South Fork, save for on Gardiner’s Island. Then come the sweet peppers — presently in bloom and sweet to the nostrils — understorying the proud tupelos, the last to leaf out in the spring, the first to turn red in the fall.
    About 10 years ago something suddenly went missing on Swamp Road — a patch of white fringed orchis. The East Hampton Garden Club had generously provided a sign marking the spot. They weren’t stolen, just overtaken by an aggressive patch of phragmites. This same invasive ditch reed species from Europe has blotted out other rare plants on East Hampton roadsides, including the yellow fringed orchis that used to grow on Stephen Hand’s Path a little north of Montauk Highway.
    Turn the corner on to Old Northwest Road and 50 feet of hay-scented ferns smack you in the eye. Along the edge of Northwest Road just about every tree and shrub known to us on the East End can be seen through the windshield. White pine, pitch pine, eastern red cedar, American beech, white oak, scarlet oak, black oak, flowering dogwood, black cherry, mockernut hickory, pignut hickory, highbush blueberry, mapleleaf viburnum, mountain laurel, wild raisin, huckleberry, and a host of others intermingling, sharing, persisting, creating a magical symphony of hue and form, statuesque and spreading, surely inviting and beckoning, ever pleasing, no matter the season. In late April, bird’s-foot violets, followed by wild lupine, greet the discerning eye.
    Turn on to Northwest Road and you see more of the same, joined by swamp maples, chestnut oaks, willows, swamp azalea, arrowwood, a new stand of thorny Hercules club with its splash of white flowers at the top, chestnut oak looming over a ground covered with lowbush huckleberry and Pennsylvania sedge. Miraculously, at this season, last year’s leaves that fell by the thousands upon thousands, are mostly all gone, consumed into the topsoil horizon, on their way to contributing to next year’s growth. There’s a small patch of rare orchids, whorled pogonias that I first came to know in 1981, scattered pipsissewa. Some of the white pines are 100 feet high.
    If earlier I had turned south on Two Holes of Water Road I might have caught a glimpse of the northern shrub leatherleaf peeking up from the waters of Chatfield’s Hole, or, in the spring, seen pink moccasin flowers, along with more lupine and bird’s-foot violets. If I had stayed on Route 114 leaving Sag Harbor, I would have seen the spreading common juniper just after the spur to Barcelona and the Sag Harbor Golf Course. It’s only a foot high and 20 feet in diameter and is at least 50 years old. The common juniper is the ancestor of most of the large variety of shrubby junipers used to landscape strips in commercial and shopping areas. As far as I can tell there are fewer than 10 of this hug-the-ground species on the South Fork. In China the same species grows into a tree.
    If I choose to go to Montauk and take Cranberry Hole Road, I’ll first pass by a low “desert” of heather and evergreen bearberry, which looks the same most any time of year save when the heather is blooming yellow in June and July. Just east of the dilapidated tin-roof state park building north of the road is a stand of quaking aspen, the same quaking aspen surrounded by grassland that grows in Colorado and other points west. If I take this route in the first week of August I will see marsh hibiscus, both pink and white forms, with six-inch-wide flower heads peaking out from the reeds on the south side of the road just east of the desert.
    Proceed on by way of Napeague Meadow Road and there are spartina grasses flowering in the salt marshes on either side of the road dotted with little “sand dune” islands overgrown with beach plums, high bush blueberry, sea myrtle, and shrubby trees including the bear oak, which seldom reaches more than eight feet in height.
    Then on to Montauk by way of Montauk Highway, where pitch pines play host to shads, bear oaks, beach plum, dune heather, bearberry, and, in July and August, flowers of the evening primrose family, sundrops and the taller common evening primrose. In June the flowers of three species of wild roses — Virginia, Carolina, and swamp — and one alien rose, Rosa rugosa, will please the driver’s or bicyclist’s eye. Along the wetter edges of the road you will be able to make out a cranberry bog or two.
    Proceeding through Hither Woods, ladies’-tresses orchids start to bloom on the sloping shoulders in late August, while behind the guardrails grow two remnants from Long Island’s few historic prairies, both part and parcel of Montauk’s maritime grasslands, tall blue-stem grass and Indian nut grass. Descend into Montauk and you enter a whole new world, a garden of delights.
    I love plants.