As the annual wildflower festival and native plant sale heads into its final weekend, Berkshire naturalist Thom Smith recalls a walk through Bartholomew’s Cobble, a Trustees of reservations Property in Sheffield along the Housatonic River.
American author Hal Borland (1900 – 1978), best known for his nature musings, wrote, while living on his 100 acre farm on the Connecticut and Massachusetts border, “… Today I took a walk up our hillside and found that though a hundred things may be wrong, a thousand things are right.”
That about sums it up today across the state line in Ashley Falls for Bartholomew’s Cobble, one of the most striking and biologically diverse places that I have ever explored.
“Every week in the spring there is something new to see,” said Rene Wendell, Jr., who served for many years as the Cobble’s resident naturalist and Conservation Ranger.
More than 250 species of birds have been identified on the property owned by The Trustees of Reservations, along with some 800 plant species on its two rocky knolls or cobbles, its floodplain, woods, hayfields, pastures and meadows and more than five miles of well maintained trails.
Much of the diversity here is due to the geology. The large exposed rocks are quartzite and marble. S. Waldo Bailey, Botanical Warden at Bartholomew’s Cobble between 1946 and 1963, wrote in an early guide, “Soil conditions vary widely over the Cobble area from the sweet or limey, on or adjacent to the limestone ledges, to the neutral and acid in the open and much of the wooded areas. Such marked variation in the soils within the [then] 44 acres of the Reservation helps to explain the great variety of plant life there.”
He never tired of showing visitors the area’s botanical champions. I fondly recall spending Sunday afternoons exploring The Cobble back in the mid 1950s with Mr. Bailey, his wife May and daughter Pricilla. After gaining his confidence I was shown the rarest specimen on the property, a fern hybrid named Scott’s spleenwort. It has since disappeared, I’m told.
On a spring visit, the weather forecast called for rain. In a gentle drizzle we spent an enjoyable morning renewing friendships with flowers and ferns. Sarsaparilla were in bloom, and baneberry, wild geranium, daisy fleabane, golden ragwort, foamflower, bishop’s miterwort, Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal, Canada mayflower, cuckoo flower, golden Alexander, white trillium, nodding trillium, bloodroot, May apple, tree bladdernut and more.
Near the end of our leisurely trek on the Ledges Trail, Wendell told me and local biologist David St. James, “Naturalists before me were lucky enough to make bird lists, flower lists, fern lists and write poetry. My time is spent fighting invasive species. That is the need at The Cobble today if its biodiversity is to survive.”
In recent years, the countryside has been invaded by foreign plants and insects that have few if any natural enemies and threaten to overtake some of our most cherished properties.
“We control garlic mustard, the biggest threat right now,” he said, “buck thorn, Japanese barberry, honeysuckles, bittersweet, and the really nasty black swallow-wort, now beginning to take over old fields, and a new invader, narrowleaf bittercress (Cardamin eimpatiens) that few people have heard of.”
Pointing to a very old, twisted hemlock root holding onto near bare rock, Wendell cautioned “this tree will be dead in a couple years,” turning over a branch to reveal the cotton-like puffs of the hemlock woolly adelgid, an invasive insect introduced to eastern North America from Japan, that has decimated stands of eastern hemlock wherever it grows save for the frigid north.
But a thousand things are still right, and Bartholomew’s Cobble remains high on my list of retreats, calling me to return throughout the year.
“During June flowering slows down and ferns [about 40 species] are at their peak,” Rendell said.
More than 30 species of grass-like sedges, black-eye Susan and other composites bloom in high summer, and goldenrods in late summer and early fall.
“There are 16 different species here,” he said, “and 13 or so different kinds of asters.”
This post is adapted from an earlier column by Thom Smith. In the photo at the top, Red Trillium or wakerobin blooms at Bartholomew’s Cobble. (Photo by Kate Abbott)