Massachusetts' Garden in the Woods as a 45-acre haven for native plants

LA Times | Travel

Trillium, goldenstar, five spot, wild bleeding heart. They sound like the ingredients for a magic potion. Actually, they are what I found blooming at the New England Wild Flower Society's Garden in the Woods near Framingham, about 20 miles west of Boston. The 45-acre preserve is no...

By Susan Spano // 08.14.09

Trillium, goldenstar, five spot, wild bleeding heart.

They sound like the ingredients for a magic potion.

Actually, they are what I found blooming at the New England Wild Flower Society's Garden in the Woods near Framingham, about 20 miles west of Boston.

The 45-acre preserve is no vast, encyclopedic horticultural museum; it's no Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England. It is, instead, a precious, little safe box containing the native plants of Massachusetts, especially its wildflowers.

Botanic garden director Scott LaFleur, who walked me through the garden on my late-spring visit, said some visitors complained they didn't see any flowers.

Tut, tut, I'd say. They aren't looking closely. Around Mother's Day, the garden is a big bouquet of spring ephemerals that rush to flower and seed before the trees leaf and cast them in shade.

At other times, the garden is all about delicate details etched on the forest floor by native plants that thrived in the region before European settlers and rapacious foreign species began to threaten the landscape of New England.

Nor are there showy, shallow-rooted, mass-produced annuals on display -- your summer petunias and fall chrysanthemums in disposable plastic pots. The Garden in the Woods is devoted to organic, insect-friendly, sustainable gardening using homemade compost and the right plants in the right places.

A brook lines the western boundary, forming a wetland that state law says cannot be cultivated. The garden's ridges and dells are covered with oak, beech, pine and hemlock -- none of it virgin because by the time the preserve took shape in the 1930s most of the region's hardwood forests had been chopped down. Beneath the canopy, smaller native plants grow in apparent abandon, which is deceiving. They were raised from seeds cultivated at the Wild Flower Society's Nasami Farm nursery in western Massachusetts, so the choice and placement have been meticulously planned.

From the shop and classrooms at the entrance a trail winds into the recently established White Walk, which commemorates founder Will Curtis' favorite color. He was a Boston landscape designer who noticed a fine stand of hemlocks on a drive in the country, jumped out of his car and took a look at what was then a railroad company gravel pit. Recognizing its topographical diversity, he fell in love with the parcel and soon moved there with his partner, Bill Stiles, to start the garden and live like Henry David Thoreau at nearby Walden Pond.

Some considered Curtis a curmudgeon, LaFleur told me. Curtis chased away children and refused to use power tools, cutting dead wood with a pull saw. Fearing for his life's work when suburban development arrived in the 1960s, he deeded the property to the New England Wild Flower Society, a venerable organization founded around 1900 by a group of prominent Boston women who wanted to stamp out the profligate picking of wildflowers. I picture them in bustles and pith helmets with netting, dividing their energy between wildflower rescue and the temperance movement.

As we went along, LaFleur pointed out tiny, divine, pink lady's slipper orchids, blue woodland phlox and yellow trout lilies. Then we stopped at a rustic woodshed with plants growing on the roof, as they do in rural parts of Italy and France. This area demonstrates how home gardeners can use native plants to replace unsustainable species (plants on drugs, LaFleur calls them). For instance, a plot of bushy, shade-loving sedge is an alternative to lawns of Kentucky bluegrass that guzzle water and fertilizer, ultimately polluting the groundwater.

The buckwheat hull-lined path crunches underfoot as it descends to the lily pond, passing rustic wood benches made in classes at the garden. Education is the principal mission of the society, which offers courses on topics such as "Introduction to Seed Collecting" and "Survey of New England Ferns."

We stopped at the pollen-coated pond, fringed by native blue irises. It is a sultry spot beloved by frogs, turtles, black snakes, dragonflies and mosquitoes that found me at once and left red welts on my neck. Chemical insecticides are never used in the garden. Indeed, gardeners cultivate certain kinds of plants to attract butterflies, honey bees and other insects.

Beyond the pond, the natural topography of the garden frames Massachusetts habitat displays, including a swamp with skunk flowers, the first green plants to push out of the snow in February, and a bog where carnivorous yellow pitcher plants catch flies.

Finally, LaFleur and I came to the invasive plant jail, where marauding foreign species such as Norway maple, black locust and Japanese honeysuckle do time in wooden cages. The display underscores the Wild Flower Society's dedication to teaching people how to identify and eradicate invasive flora so that New England natives can grow and prosper.

After the tour I sat on a bench at the entrance, scratching my bug bites and thinking about the late first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, who helped start the Wildflower Center at the University of Texas in Austin, and my friend Bill Wolverton, a resource management ranger at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area who undertook a one-man quest to eradicate nonnative plants in the canyons of Utah's Escalante River -- two warriors in a battle I never understood before visiting the Garden in the Woods.

Now I will think twice before coming home from the nursery with potted plants I know I'll only have to throw out later. I'll think of trillium, golden star, five spot and wild bleeding heart.