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CHAPTER III

VEGETATION IN THE DUNES

“No daintie floure or herbe that growes on grownd,
  No arborett with painted blossoms drest
  And smelling sweete, but there it might be found
  To bud out faire, and throwe her sweete smels al around.”
 — SPENSER.

BY far the most characteristic plant of the dunes, one that is of great economic importance in that it restrains by its binding network of roots the movement of the sands, is the cosmopolitan beach grass — the maram-grass of East Anglia — a plant which by its scientific name reiterates both in Greek and in Latin that it is a sandy sand lover. Everywhere it extends its long, creeping rootstocks, sending up at the ends its spiny-tipped leaf-blades, sharp and hard as a needle, where they emerge from the sand. Tangles of withered stems and rootstocks hang in festoons from the steep retreating sides of the dunes, but on the leeward side the grass struggles bravely above the engulfing sand. In the comparatively level stretches back of the beach, the grass grows to greatest perfection and reaches a height of two or three feet, growing thickly, dark green and shining in summer, and bearing pale yellow fruiting stalks in the autumn. As the winter comes on the green gradually fades, but is replaced by a golden straw color, that like a luminous yellow haze spreads over the sands. While the beach grass is beautiful in mass, with its colors varying with the season, the individual clumps and sprays of graceful up­right and drooping grass stems, and rigid plumes of flower and fruit are exceedingly picturesque in their brilliant white setting of sand. Around each clump is often drawn a magic circle, a fairy ring, for the drooping grass blade, blown by the wind, writes with its tip in the soft sand.


GROVE OF PITCH PINES


CLUMPS OF FRUITING BEACH GRASS. THE TIPS OF BURIED PINES BEARING CONES
MAY BE SEEN IN THE FOREGROUND

Another plant which binds the sand has the singularly inappropriate name of poverty-grass, for it is not a grass, but a member of the rockrose family, and it expresses anything but poverty, if one is to judge by its wealth of golden blossoms, which paint the dune sides yellow in June. Rather should it be called by its own name, Hudsonia, given it in honor of William Hudson, an early English botanist. Matted together like heather and close to the sand, it forms in summer great patches of a beautiful sage green, which in the autumn are tinged with yellow, and in winter become sandy gray, while in the spring all is smoth­ered in the brilliant yellow of the closely crowded blossoms. The Hudsonia is a plant well worth knowing.

In the dry sand a number of interesting and characteristic plants are to be found, some of which prefer the sea side of the dunes close to the beach. The American sea rocket is one of these, a plant of the mustard family, with small purplish flowers, but swollen and drop­sical like a sand-loving cactus. Another swol­len cactus-like plant is the saltwort, cactus-like also in that it is beset with sharp points, woeful things for the bare foot.

The resemblance of these plants to the cacti is not wholly accidental, for, like cacti, they are growing to a certain extent under desert conditions, and it is incumbent on them, there­fore, to treasure up as much moisture as pos­sible. In the dunes the air always contains moisture, and the sand is wet a few inches down, no matter how dry it may be on the surface, yet the strong winds, the intense light and great heat radiated from the white sand approximate the conditions of a desert. Both the desert cacti on the one hand and the sea rocket and saltwort on the other conserve moisture by making reservoirs for water in their stems and leaves, taking on a fleshy habit, in the language of the botanists. The saltwort also resembles the cacti in its spiny defenses. It always seemed to me a cruel state of affairs that in the deserts, where vege­tation is so scanty, the plants should be so forbiddingly spine-covered; but after all Na­ture always looks after the individual, she is not altruistic. These sand dune plants are then true xerophils, — lovers of dryness.

In the same situation near the edge of the beach grows the cockle-bur with its beaked and spiny fruit, and also the salt-loving orach.

In photographs of the semi-arid regions of eastern Africa, one sees great spreading trees, giant candelabra, under which the rhinoceros takes his noonday siesta. These are euphorbias or spurges, and here throughout the dunes a lowly member of the same family, the seaside spurge, spreads itself in mats from the size of a silver dollar to that of a large saucer, prostrate on the sand. By a central tap-root it draws its nourishment from the damp sand below. The purple gerardia, closely akin to the seaside gerardia of the salt marsh, and the joint-weed, with its delicate rose-colored or white blossoms that appear throughout the fall, are also common.

The beach wormwood is another plant of these sandy regions, a plant brought from northwestern Asia, but one that has rapidly increased in numbers on the Atlantic shores in the last thirty years. It is the “dusty miller” of old-fashioned gardens, and I am inclined to think that at Ipswich it escaped into the dunes from the old lighthouse-keep­er’s garden. There is also one patch of bear­berry in the Ipswich dunes.

Each species of goldenrod — and there are over fifty in eastern North America — has an interest and beauty of its own, but the salt-loving species, the seaside goldenrod, which is equally at home on the edges of the dunes and on the border of the salt marshes, is cer­tainly one of the finest, with its dark green vigorous leaves and its robust flowering stalk of large golden flowers. Long after the flow­ers have succumbed to the frosts the stalks stand up like gray plumes waving in the wind. While the cultivated sweet pea does not blos­som unless it has an abundance of moisture, its wild relative, the beach pea, with its purple flowers and rich green leaves, thrives amid the dry sand and bears plentifully its flowers and small round peas.


SEASIDE GOLDENROD

One would hardly expect to find mushrooms growing in the dry sand, but there are a num­ber such, both on the bare wastes and among the groves of trees and bushes. The most noticeable one is the sand-star puffball, which in wet weather stretches its leathery-looking star flat on the sand, and holds on its upper surface a puffball not much larger than a hazel-nut. In dry weather the leathery arms of the star curl up dry and brittle around the puffball, as if to protect it from the sun. Com­mon in the dunes is a brown mushroom whose stem, swollen and bulbous, extends down some distance into the sand, as if to retain as much moisture as possible.

The depressions between the dunes, which vary in size from small circular basins but a few feet across, to valleys a third of a mile broad between the amphitheatre waves, are to a large extent carpeted with cranberry vines. In the large bogs the vines extend upwards in a thick spongy mat, into which one sinks half-way to the knee, while in the smaller depressions the vines often run pros­trate in a thin branching film of great beauty over the white sand.

The American cranberry is worthy of the poet’s pen, for at all seasons it is a delight to the eye, while of the pleasures its fruit affords to the palate there is no need to speak; it suggests the delights of the New England Thanksgiving. In the spring its pale rose-colored flowers, nodding on delicate stalks, in summer the brilliant polished green of its leaves, are but the prelude to its varied charms in autumn and winter. The botanists call it evergreen, which is literally true only as re­gards the under protected leaves, but all on the surface change in the fall to a dark red, and later to a wonderful maroon color, which, in the setting of white sand, is regal in its effectiveness.

Early in the summer, after the delicate blos­soms have fallen, tiny pale green or whitish berries appear, which gradually grow in size and grace, taking on successively a pink, a brilliant crimson, a dark red and lastly a purple color. Fortunately in these dimes no at­tempt at cultivation is made, there is no dyking nor draining, no weeding nor planting, so that the cranberry vine grows with its native grace and freedom. Many berries es­cape the pickers in the large bogs, and many of the small bogs, hiding among the dunes, are overlooked entirely. Some years the frosts come early and all the berries are lost to commerce. Other years several hundred bar­rels are picked by hand and with box rakes. In any event the dune wanderer can al­ways pick his pockets full, and, with a little water and much sugar, may quickly convert the berries over the fire into a delicious “sauce.” I have often gathered them from beneath the snow, and their fine resistant qualities keep them sound even when in the spring floods they are floated away and line the shores of the bog pools in windrows. I once for a record made a good sauce of these berries on the first of June.


THE BROWN MUSHROOM OF THE DUNES                                   SAND-STAR PUFFBALL
Drawn from Nature by Robert Swift.

Another great attraction these natural cran­berry bogs have which the artificial ones lack is their wealth of extraneous plants, — herbs, bushes and even trees. In fact some of the bogs are so overgrown that the cranberry vines take but an insignificant part. Clumps of blue irises are beautiful in the spring in their cranberry vine setting, and when, as occasionally happens, they escape from their environment and blossom in the white sand, they look for all the world like a picture on a Japanese screen.

There are two lovely orchids which bloom abundantly in the early summer in the bogs, Pogonia, the bearded-one, with its pinkish flowers generally single, and Calopogon, the beautiful bearded-one, with its half dozen or more clustered flowers, whose color, according to Gray’s Manual, is “magenta-crimson.” The very name orchid has an interest and charm, but it is certainly deserved in the case of these two dune-loving orchids, for they are extremely beautiful.

Another interesting bog-plant, with leaves so divided that they suggest the royal fern, one that is common on the southern seacoast of the Labrador peninsula, is the Canadian burnet. This blossoms in midsummer in long cylindrical spikes of white flowers. A more modest but most interesting inhabitant of the bogs, one that grows abundantly in places, is the sundew, which owes its name to the dew‑like drops that glitter in the sunlight on the tips of the bristles covering the little round red leaves. This “dew” is not so innocent as its name would seem to imply, and leads to the death of tiny insects. Attracted by the dew, which is secreted by the plant, the insect alights, and is held there by the glutinous fluid and also by the tiny hairs which bend over and enclose it. At the same time a di­gestive secretion is poured out, under the action of which the nutritious parts of the victims are dissolved and absorbed. It is rare to find a plant without one or more insects in various stages of digestion on its leaves. They are veritable charnel-houses. The flow­ers are borne on stalks and are white and inconspicuous. In the shady bogs grow also clumps of the beautiful royal or flowering fern, as well as the sturdy interrupted and cinnamon ferns.


A CRANBERRY BOG IN THE DUNES WITH SINGLE PITCH PINE


CRANBERRY VINES ON THE SAND

Before taking leave of the smaller plants I should mention another orchid, the lady’s slipper, which, however, is hardly a sand dune plant, for it demands the sheltering environ­ment of the pitch pines that grow among the dunes. In May and June its beautiful crim­son pink flowers nod upon their stalks. Moccasin flower is its proper name, for in its broad and swelling outlines it resembles much more closely the Indian moccasin than the pointed lady’s slipper.

Of the bushes growing in the dunes, the beach plum is the most characteristic, a strag­gling prostrate shrub where it is exposed to the full force of the wind, but expanding luxu­riantly in the protected hollows. In the early spring it is a mass of white blossoms, and in the fall the small globular purple or crimson fruit can be gathered. There is a wild flavor about it not unattractive. It is not common at Ipswich, but abounds at Plum Island, from which, indeed, the island takes its name.

Everywhere in the dunes grows the bay­berry or myrtle with its fragrant leaves and aromatic, wax-covered berries, the favorite food of four different kinds of birds, namely, the flicker, crow, tree swallow and myrtle warbler. In fact the myrtle warbler not only owes its name to the berries, for the older name of yellow-rumped warbler has been dis­carded, but also its ability to brave the north­ern winter when all its companions of the same tribe have fled to warmer climates. The early settlers found these bayberries useful for making candles which had a delicate greenish brown tint, and exhaled a faintly aromatic odor. The berries were gathered in large quantities and boiled in kettles, and the wax which rose to the surface of the water was skimmed off when cool.


BEACH PLUM BUSHES AT PLUM ISLAND

Early in May the bayberry bushes are still gray and wintry and well gleaned of berries, unless perchance they have been long pro­tected by the snow. In the summer they are densely clad in a dress of shimmering green; in the autumn the leaves turn brown and the berries, hitherto inconspicuous by their green color, become gray and hoary. The fruiting branches, with their closely clustered berries, are very beautiful, and stand out the more clearly as they generally drop their leaves earlier than do the barren branches. Through­out the winter the snowy gray of the bayberry clusters is a delight to the eye.

Less abundant than the bayberry among the dunes is its first cousin, the sweet gale, a fra­grant bush, but easily distinguished from the bayberry by its dull green leaves with faintly toothed edges. In the early spring, while the bayberry is still gray in its winter sleep, the sweet gale takes on a rich chestnut hue which glows in many a sandy hollow. Its fruit, how­ever, is brown in color and comparatively in­conspicuous.

The sumach family is an interesting and beautiful one. Three of the tribe occur in the dunes, and of these the staghorn sumach de­serves first place with its thickets of brown, hairy branches in the spring, very suggestive of a stag’s antlers in the velvet. Its wealth of dark green foliage in the summer is tropical and palm-like in appearance, and its flame-col­ored masses of fruit in the autumn are borne aloft like so many torches on the ends of the branches. Its great compound leaves, before they drop, rival the fruit in color. Unlike the staghorn, the poison sumach or dogwood is decidedly uncommon, and is easily distin­guished from it by its more delicate leaflets, its reddish leaf stalks and its white fruit. The last of this group in this seashore region, the poison ivy, abounds in every grove and thicket, and there is no more beautiful vine, with its shining green leaves which change to wonderful shades of yellow and red in the fall, and on whose bare winter branches hang clus­ters of greenish yellow berries.

Perhaps the most beautiful common bush of the dunes is the wild rose, of which there are at least two species. These fragrant single roses seem to take on a deeper crimson in this maritime region than farther inland, and their changing foliage in autumn, and their red hips that stand out in the snow are always attract­ive. Shad bushes, with their early white blos­soms, clumps of meadow-sweet and hardhack with their pink and rose-colored flowers, are common in the dunes, and in one or two places the hardy leather-leaf, named Cassandra, sur­vives the winter with its evergreen leaves, and with flower buds ready to open in the spring. In the fall and winter the black alder or winterberry bushes are aflame with their crowded crimson berries.


BAYBERRY IN WINTER


HUDSONIA AND ADVANCING DUNE

There is one bush that grows in two small patches in the dunes whose discovery in bloom is always a delight.

“Rhodora, if the sages ask thee why,
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.”

May the beauty and charm of these flowers long be “wasted on the earth and sky,” and not ruthlessly plucked and exterminated from this region!

The trees of the dunes remain to be enu­merated. The most important tree is the pitch pine, which forms two groves of several acres in extent, both of which have spread consid­erably in the last twenty years. Mr. C. J. Maynard tells me that forty years ago not only were there no pines, but no large clumps of bushes to be found in the dunes. One of these pine groves, as we have already seen, is being overwhelmed by a sand wave from the north, but is more than making up for this by its extension to the south. The trees are some­what stunted and rarely reach a height of more than thirty feet, but their thick groves are a welcome refuge in storms for bird and man alike. I have often cooked my dinner in comfort in the lee of these trees when in the open dunes the wind and sand cut like a knife and the frost was severe.

In addition to the pines there are several thickets of graceful white birches whose height is carefully regulated by that of the encircling dunes, and the wind that sweeps over them. Thickets and clumps of alders, as well as of aspens and willows, are also common.


DINNER IN THE LEE OF THE PINES 

The exceptional trees are a few scattered white pines, small and frayed by the wind, some thrifty red cedars, a couple of hunched up hemlocks which bear no resemblance to the stately forest trees, a few red maples, two elms, dwarfed and stunted, that look large only at a distance, and two small clumps of red birches. The red or river birch is com­mon in Texas, the lower Mississippi region and Florida, and extends along the coastal plain to Long Island. From there to Essex County, Massachusetts, is a gap of one hun­dred and fifteen miles where the tree is absent, but it is common in the lower valley of the Merrimac River and in southern New Hamp­shire. Professor M. L. Fernald explains this distribution by the former existence of a great highway for plant migration, a sandy shelf that extended out for miles all along the coast from the southern parts of the United States to Newfoundland, a shelf which has largely sunk beneath the waters since the close of the glacial period.


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