Always Something New – (Re)Discovering the Fells’ Species Diversity

This post was written by Bryan Hamlin and Walter Kittredge. Above: Indianhemp Dogbane – Apocynum cannabinum.

The Fells has a surprising diversity of plants for its size; so much so that in a nine year survey we found 868 species of ferns, conifers and flowering plants! In 2012 we (along with Betty Wright and Don Lubin) published the results in the botanical journal Rhodora (available on our Merchandise page) entitled “Changes in the vascular flora of the Middlesex Fells Reservation from 1895 to 2011”. We explained the high number of plants as due to the varied geology, topography and habitats in the Fells, but also to an increase in the number of non-native weeds and escaped garden plants. This steady arrival of non-native species will continue indefinitely. It is remarkable though that the number of native plants has remained constant for over a century, although the composition has changed somewhat as the forest has matured.

We’ve continued to survey and document the Fells flora, resulting in finding quite a few more species: 21 in 2012, then 17 in 2013, and now seven more this year. Most significantly twenty of these species are native to the area. There surely has to be a limit to this sort of thing.

Scientific names are always a little bit arcane, but this year’s crop of new finds has some fun common names.

[column size=half position=first ]Common Name

Cockspur Hawthorn*

Common Yellowcress

Indianhemp Dogbane*


Ridged Goosefoot

Sweet Autumn Clematis

Tumbleweed[/column] [column size=half position=last ]Scientific Name

Crataegus crus-galli

Rorippa palustris var. palustris

Apocynum cannabinum

Galinsoga parviflora

Dysphania pumilio

Clematis terniflora

Amaranthus blitoides[/column]

* Indicates a native species

Cockspur Hawthorn – Crataegus crus-galli

Cockspur Hawthorn – Crataegus crus-galli

The Indianhemp Dogbane (at top) was reported in the original survey of the Fells published in 1896, so it was great to finally re-find it. The Cockspur Hawthorn (above) is the third native species of Hawthorn in the Fells, which have become uncommon due to the fields growing back into forests. Our new findings are getting fewer and fewer each year. This may be because we’re getting older, or more likely that we’re getting closer to finding most things, although in over 3,000 acres it is well-nigh impossible to be sure of finding everything. But it’s that slim possibility of coming around a corner and finding a rarity that hasn’t been seen for 100 years that keeps us excited to continue exploring the wonderful flora of the Fells.

Without Bryan and Walter’s involvement with the Friends of the Fells, these long lost species would never have been rediscovered in the Fells. Right now, your contribution to the Friends will be tripled by a generous donor, helping us provide a new generation with the love of nature that drives Bryan and Walter.  Please consider making a contribution now.