Isle au Haut’s most prominent feature is Mt. Champlain, elevation 540 feet; second to that is Sawyer Mountain at 486 feet. The coastline is dominated by granite boulders and shingle beaches (that is, covered with pebbles or cobbles).
The Island biome is categorized as a temperate coniferous forest, with the canopy dominated—it seems almost exclusively—by spruce and Balsam fir. I saw some birch here and there, but very few, at least in the areas we explored. The Island falls within USDA zone 5b-6a, just a tick below us here in Marblehead. The presence of so much Balsam is indicative of the cooling effects of the ocean and the very damp soils.
The forests appeared at first to be stunted like it had been logged or burned, but this is actually the result of blow downs due to North Atlantic storms. The effects of these storms is amplified by the fact that the soils are relatively shallow and therefore do not afford the trees the opportunity to set deep roots. As we hiked, we frequently passed through areas where there had been blow downs that were now being repopulated by waist or head high balsam and cedar.
As the air warmed it was thick with the smell of the balsam which gave way to salt air as the trails broke from the wooded interior of the island and meandered along the rocky coast.
When the trails crossed the shore line one always encountered the intersection of nature and culture as winter storms invariably deposited reminders of Maine’s lobster fishing legacy. Like most nature lovers, I find it jarring when I encounter trash in the wilderness. I kind of liked the buoys though.
Apart from the evidence of fishing by Maine lobsterman, there was ample evidence of the hunting efforts of the gulls. The beaches were littered with the bleached shells of small lobsters, crabs, and urchins that had fallen prey to the numerous sea birds. I watched as a gull snatched an urchin from a tide pool, then taking flight, swooped low over the beach, climbed to about twenty feet and dropped its quarry on the rocks below in order to fracture its shell and expose its soft interior. The gull alighted on the rock, retrieved its prey and flew just offshore to an exposed boulder where it could have its meal unmolested.
The numerous urchin shells also became the medium for a piece of impromptu public art along the trail.
I’ve had people ask me why I like to use the scientific name for plants and spend so much time learning Latin names instead of the easier common names. Here is a perfect example. Depending on who you ask, people will tell you that this is a beach pea, sea pea, circumpolar pea, or sea velching. Botanist know it by one name: Lathyrus japonicus
Like many of the plants I encountered on this trip, Lathyrus was once largely ignored by gardeners. However, as native plants have thankfully come into vogue, I have found retailers who are now propagating this lovely perennial. If I had the right environment in my own garden I would give it a go.
Since we were on the Island early season, many plants had yet to bloom, so I sadly missed out on the glory of these native Iris versicolor (that’s blue flag, harlequin blueflag, larger blue flag, northern blue flag, or poison flag if you don’t want to learn the Latin).
Rocky shores are synonymous with New England, so i was hardly surprised by the Island’s coast. What did surprise me (pleasantly I might add) was the amount of wetland in the Island’s interior. While hiking to camp on on our subsequent excursions around the Island I was taken by the sphagnum bogs. Walking along the hummocky terrain I could feel the ground compress and rebound with each step due to the sphagnum mats that thickly covered the trail and even the surrounding granite boulders.
The sphagnum bogs are an ideal environment for Balsam as well as an assortment of fern, sedges, and one of my favorite harbingers of Spring, Symplocarpus foetidus, commonly called skunk cabbage. This is another example of a plant that went ignored for years but is now finding favor with gardeners, especially those interested in restoring habitat areas.
If you are reading this you should realize by now that when it comes to botany and horticulture, I am an amateur. I am pretty well read, but still an amateur, Nowhere is my amateurishness more apparent than when I am trying to identify ferns. I love ferns and have a few varieties in my own garden and when I see them in the wild I always try to figure out what they are and if I can grow them at home. Isle au Haut has lots of fern.
Crush a frond and breathe in the aroma and you will have no problem identifying Dennstaedtia punctilobula, commonly (and appropriately) called eastern hay-scented fern. I have this is my garden. It is a vigourous grower that will quickly take over areas where the soil has been disturbed. That said, it is not invasive and is easily controlled.
Pretty sure these are Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern), another great garden plant.
Another plant I have added to my list to add to the garden in the spring is the cinnamon fern, Osmundastrum cinnamomeum
While not unknown in the forests of my home state of Pennsylvania, I have associated bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) with the Maine woods since I took a trip to Mt. Katahdin a few decades ago. I love this plant. A low growing groundcover that thrives in zones 2 to 6, bunchberry is happily available from several large commercial growers including Monrovia. I am definitely adding this to the wooded border at the back of our property–apart from the delicate cream colored flower in the spring, it bears a beautiful red berry in the fall.
Equally delicate yet stunning is Triantalis borealis or starflower. Sadly this plant does not appear to be commonly propagated or available in most nurseries–this is also on my list to hunt down next spring.
I grew up tending (sometimes against my will) our family vegetable garden, but my love of ornamental horticulture has emerged in just the past twenty years or so. It has changed my relationship with plants I encounter not only in my own garden, but in the wilderness as well. Once a casual observer who enjoyed the aesthetic qualities of plants I encountered hiking, I now have a deeper relationship.–I stop, I photograph, I pour through books to identify, and I always wonder, can I grow this in my own garden?