Norman Taylor was a well-traveled botanist and the curator of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In 1923 he published a monograph on the flora of Montauk, subtitled “A Study of Grassland and Forest.” He probably picked Montauk because it was largely undeveloped and had the second largest prairie on Long Island, and it was topographically varied and bathed with seawater on three sides. Montauk had just about every kind of habitat found elsewhere on Long Island with the exception of pine barrens. It had stuff along the ocean that the rest of Long Island’s oceanfront expanse lacked, namely, tall bluffs, stuffed with clays and glacial erratics.
Behind the bluffs was a dwarf forest, a heath land, not unlike those for which Ireland and the British Isles are known. Many of the area’s early European inhabitants, who came from heath lands in the Old World, identified these spots as moors.
In Taylor’s time Lake Montauk was still the largest freshwater pond on Long Island. It sat between extensive “downs” to the east and west. Hither Woods was just recovering from almost 200 years of woodcutting and grazing, and was still dotted with grasslands. The only mature forest, per se, was the Point Woods, which covered most of the south half of Montauk west of the Lighthouse.
Because the glacier and its aftermath had deposited so much clay over the land, the soils were impervious. Water from rains mostly ran off in ditches towards the ocean, Lake Montauk, Oyster Pond, Big Reed Pond, and Fresh Pond, thus the name “Ditch Plain.” Much of the precipitation was trapped in depressions, kettle holes and such, creating numerous little ponds, swales, and flattish meandering wetlands.
Russell Stein, a former resident of Montauk and ex-East Hampton Town attorney, aptly called Montauk a “Swiss cheese,” owing to its perforated land surface. Geologists called it “knob and kettle” topography.
Not counting algae, liverworts, mosses, mushrooms, and the like, Taylor recorded over 400 different plant species, many of which were pressed and deposited at his botanic garden and are still housed there today. Vicki Bustamante and I are tracing his steps to see how the flora has changed since his time.
Except for First, Second, and Third Houses and an inn near the Lighthouse, the only other structures of note were the Life-Saving Station at Ditch Plain and the four sisters designed by Stanford White on the bluffs to the east of the station. Taylor could stand on the top of Fort Hill northeast of Fort Pond and see clearly all the way to the Lighthouse. There was nothing but grasslands to block his view. He remarked how in late summer these grasslands were pink with a thick covering of sandplain gerardia blooms.
Ironically, a little more than 70 years after his study was published, less than 100 of the plants were left, and a species once plentiful had been reduced to such a low number that it became the second New York State plant species to be declared federally endangered.
The grasslands — what’s left of them — are also still home to several plants now considered almost as rare by the New York State Heritage office in Albany. These include the bushy frostweed, which can be found on the Nature Conservancy’s “Montauk Mountain” west of Fort Pond, and the New England Blazing Star, which graces Shadmoor Park. Taylor also found the “cloudberry,” a rare species of blackberry that is alpine in habit. It hasn’t been recorded since, but we are hopeful that a few will turn up. The closest living ones to Montauk are high up on Mount Washington in New Hampshire and other northern New England and Canadian peaks.
Montauk is also orchid-rich. It has at least seven different species and several species of native lilies, including the trout lily, Turk’s Cap lily, wood lily, and Canada lily, but you have to do a lot of scratching here and there before you’re able to find one.
Montauk is probably the richest area in the country with respect to shad coverage. It has four different species, the common one with multiple stems, Amelanchier canadensis, the smooth shad, Amelanchier laevis, the intermediate in height shad, Amelanchier intermedia, and, lastly, the diminutive Nantucket shad, Amelanchier nantucketensis. The next nearest spot for them is Nantucket Island, where they were first discovered.
Over the last half-century or so some southern species have taken up residence in Montauk. These include the southern red oak and the Hercules’ Club, a scruffy tree with pretty white flowers and numerous thorns to keep the deer away from the flowers and leaves.
The oak and American holly association is very rare on Long Island and much like some oak-holly communities along the Jersey shore. Montauk is fern-rich, too, especially in the wetlands and water edges associated with Big Reed Pond in the county park. There are at least 10 different fern species in Montauk, including the rare Massachusetts fern and Interrupted fern.
The Walking Dunes west of Hither Hills are a miracle in themselves, with two species of orchids and a host of bog plants dominated by cranberries.
Parts of the dunes resemble the sunken forest of Fire Island, as the sand is continually moving to the south-southeast and the pitch pines and other trees and shrubs in its path are being slowly buried. One of the rarest orchids in the western hemisphere is a mere stone’s throw away from these dunes.
Since Lake Montauk was opened to Block Island Sound during the occupancy of Carl Fisher in the 1920s, Fort Pond has taken its place on the Long Island leader board of freshwater ponds. It is second in size behind Lake Ronkonkoma. With sea level rise, it is steadily creeping up. It has a little island in its northeast area, once called Brush Island because it was covered with woody plants. It now is largely underwater and all of the woody plants are dead. The only American basswood tree that Taylor was able to locate in Montauk happened to be on this island, along with some other broadleaved tree species.
Taylor’s list includes less than 10 species that are foreign or exotic, perhaps even invasive. Only a few of each, however, were found, including barnyard grass, trees-of-heaven, yarrow, bindweed, Kentucky bluegrass, chickweed, and a few others. No Asiatic bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, mugwort, dandelion, Tartarian honeysuckle, mile-a-minute weed, lamb’s ear, Japanese black pine, Eurasian phragmites, Japanese honeysuckle, and the like.
Vicky and I have been keeping track of the invasives as we go along. So far there are at least 50 on the list, and some, like the phragmites, have taken over whole plant communities. On Sunday Vicki reported that she had found black swallow-wort at Shadmoor, a new one for Montauk and one that can take over the world if left to play.
If Norman Taylor were with us today, he might not believe what he experienced. If he were alive and botanizing Montauk in July or August of 2012, he might have tossed it in. If you’re a naturalist, it’s better to be early than late.