We sling on our packs and leave the cars in the parking lot, entering the northern forest on a narrow paint-blazed trail. Paper birch, mountain ash and red spruce make up the forest along with balsam fir scenting the air. No matter how many times I come here it surprises me how different the plants are here than at home, only a 3½-hour car ride away. Bunchberry is in bloom and painted trilliums are, too. Blue-headed vireos gossip from the treetops. Swainson’s thrush calls shimmer from the deeper woods.
I know we have a tough climb ahead of us. But I’m up for it. I just remember the goal: above tree line on Mount Washington. I try to visit the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains every June as this is the largest acreage above tree line in New England. And this is the month when many of the alpine plants bloom — as soon as the snow is mostly melted and the temperatures warm up.
My favorite way to get there is to hike up the Ammonoosuc Ravine trail on the west face of the mountain. It’s a tough and strenuous climb. But sweating our way up through the different forest zones is worth it when we finally emerge from the trees onto the rocky faces above tree line: miles and miles of space, a huge sky in every direction with clouds shredding over the summit and maybe a raven or two dancing in the wind. I feel a palpable lift to my spirits and an excitement about what we will find in bloom.
As we continue to rock-hop and negotiate the wet, slippery rock faces we find mountain avens just opening. The only places this plant grows are in the White Mountains and two sites in Nova Scotia. The plant is about 8 to 12 inches tall and looks sort of like an overgrown yellow buttercup. It likes moist to wet sites and is one of the tallest of the alpine plants. I always feel privileged to see it; knowing that it is found in such a limited range somehow makes me value it more.
As we reach the true alpine zone we find a tapestry of color scattered on the rocks and stony soils. Here conditions are too severe for most trees to grow, except for some dwarfed spruces, firs and birches sheltered from the prevailing northwest winds behind boulders. Tiny white, pink and yellow flowers are all held close to the ground seeking protection from the constant winds. The bright colors attract the few hardy insect pollinators able to survive here.
One of the more widespread alpine plants in the Presidential Range and elsewhere above tree line in the northeast is called Diapensia. That is its Latin genus name as well as its common name. It looks like a big pin cushion made of tightly woven starbursts of dark green leaves with waxy white luminous flowers shivering in the winds just above.
Each plant is actually a miniature shrub, and you can observe on occasion where the leaves have been blown off, leaving just the trunk and a few branches bleached silver by the elements. The flowers glow in the shifting light.
When I’ve managed to get there in early June, I have been privileged to see Robbins’ cinquefoil in bloom. It is an iconic plant in the Whites representing persistence and human success at remedying past errors. It once was included on the federal endangered species list — it had been reduced to a total of fewer than 2,000 plants — but has now been de-listed. This recovery was accomplished by re-introducing the plant to the several natural locations from which it had been largely extirpated. The U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New England Wild Flower Society and the Appalachian Mountain Club partnered to bring it back. They gathered seeds, germinated them, grew the tiny plants to bloom size, planted them in the appropriate habitat and monitored the results. And they re-routed hiking trails to skirt areas where the cinquefoil grows. The plant is recovering nicely. As species continue to be threatened by the variety of factors currently in play on the planet, it is an incredible success story of people noticing what was happening in the natural world and then taking action.
If you haven’t explored the alpine zone in the Presidentials it is worth finding the time.
The easiest way to get there is to drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road and park at the Alpine Garden parking lot below the summit. You’ll need to hike a rough and rocky trail, but not too steep, to get to the wide plateau on the east side of the Mount Washington summit. If you go, pick up a copy of “Field Guide to the New England Alpine Summits” by Nancy Slack and Allison Bell. It’s a super little guide to life above tree line. There are nice photos of the flowers, and information about the plants, the communities and the animal life in these mountains. Now I have to go for a run to get in shape for my upcoming hike. I hope to see you on the mountain.
Ted Watt is an educator/naturalist at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. For more of the story about the recovery of Robbins’ cinquefoil, check here.
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