Current goings on in the Fells


There is suddenly a lot of interest in the invasive plants in the Fells. Yes, it's serious, and we have 25 invasive species in our woods. But the big question is how to deal with them.  I have put together a powerpoint presentation with photographs of what they look like and where in the Fells they are.  I also have copies of the state published booklet describing all invasives statewide. 

The first week of the year was relatively mild with no snow in the area to talk of. As a result I photographed evergreen plants of the forest floor such as Striped Wintergreen and its close cousin Pipsissewa.  And on a hill top Bearberry in flowerbud.

winterskirt  pippy  arctos
         Striped Wintergreen                                           Pipsissewa                                                  Bearberry showing a flower bud

Finally, on January 20th, after a record winter period without snow, the Fells got a covering of a few inches.  Those forest floor wintergreen plants shown below and photographed this winter will be fine. They're built for it.

Then as January moved into February we saw deep cold.  The Cascade in the eastern Fells is well worth a visit at this time.

        waterfall     very cold

February 2nd marked the 125th anniversary of the  creation of the Middlesex Fells.

A word to Trail Adopters: when Spring comes I'd love to walk your trail/zone with you, not just to ID invasive plants but to also point out beautiful native plants, and other interesting things.


Wonderful news,   Just before Christmas DCR informed Mayor Burke of Medford and the Friends of the Fells that the proposal to build an ice skating rink at the 90mm site in Lawrence Woods was NOT going forward.  Huge relief and a wonderful Xmas present.  Meanwhile girl scouts and others of us have been enhancing the site by removing invasive plants and generally smartening it up. .

More good news.  Thanks to Dennis Crouse, Lindsay Yarsley and Laura Costello an orchid - Goodyera pubescens - with the not-so-nice common name of Rattlesnake Plantain -  was found in sector 2 of the Fells.  It had been rumored for some time but had not been officially recorded in recent years till now,  Great news. Thanks friends.

Laura hand Photo by Laura Costello

December was so mild native Witch Hazel  - Hamamelis virginiana  was seen on several occasions still in bloom , not that the flower is that pretty :-)

                                                               funny flower


February was unusually mild and I saw Skunk Cabbage open on Feb 25th, beating last year's record of the 28th. Just one little hint of climate change.

A Note in the journal Rhodora by Walter Kittredge and myself appeared in March entitled "Continuing discoveries in the Middlesex Fells."  Rhodora Vol. 118, No. 976.  This is the third follow-up Note to our main paper in Rhodora about the plants of the Fells which was published in 2012.

Neverthless our findings continue. Walter found a sedge Carex cumulata  last reported in the Fells in the 1920s; and  identified another sedge that I had found earlier as Carex tenera, last reported in 1896. So, there's still stuff to find in the Fells.

In fact my own focus has been to be sure that the abundance reporting of species is as accurate as possible. A decline, particularly if it's of a native species is concerning and also not easy to be sure about. Nevertheless I have seen a marked decline in Canada Lilies and Nodding Trilliums in the past few years which I'm pretty sure is due to deer grazing.

On the positive side, a 'sector find' is when we find a species in one of the eight sectors of the Fells, not previously reported in that sector. In 2017 we made 26 sector finds, 14 native species which is good news, and 12 non-native which is not such good news. This work is being done with the help of Laura Costello, and as usual Walter Kittredge helping identify things.

     fells mapp
                                                                             Map of the Fells showing the 8 different sectors                                                  If we find a species in just one or two sectors we call it 'rare'; if in 3 or 4 - 'occasional'; 5 or 6 - 'frequent'; and if in 7 or all 8 sectors then it is deemed 'common'.                                                  

With record warmth in February, the Skunk Cabbage opened in the same location in the Fells a whole month earlier than in 2015. Here is a photo taken on February 28th. this year. 2015 was the hottest year on record. Then 2016 beat the 2015 record.  Climate change is for real !

skunk cabbage
Skunk Cabbage    in the Fells, Feb 28, 2016

However, the first week of May was unusually cold.  This delayed the blooming of Pink Lady Slipper orchids into late May and early June. After that it was a very hot and dry summer with reservoirs and ponds in the Fells shrinking considerably.

In early August I came across a patch of Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra; and in the Fall Walter Kittredge found one bush of an unusual Crabapple Malus sargentii. Sadly both these taxa are non-native.

Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra                                    

Meanwhile, I have found a few of what we term 'sector finds' - see map further down this page showing the Fells divied into 8 sectors. This means an increase in frequency - a rough measure of abundance in the reservation. Seven are natives - good news; six non-natives - not so good news. 

As the year closed out I received exciting information from friends Irina Kadis and Alexey Zinoviev that during 2016 they had made some important finds in the Fells.: Wild Coffee - Triosteum aurantiacum, Small-flowered Buttercup - Ranunculus micranthus  both native plants not reported since 1896;  and  Japanese Stiltgrass - Microstegium vimineum  an invasive grass, so not such a nice find, but still important to note it.; plus a couple of other probables to be confirmed  - a great piece of work. Thank you  Irina and Alexey.

Findings in 2015 (for earlier findings since the 2012 publication see further down this page.)

Golden Alexanders                   Ranunculus abortivus
Golden Alexanders  - Zizia aurea                           A small-flowered Buttercup - Ranunculus abortivus

2015 was a good year for new finds in the Fells. Walter Kittredge and I found ten species never before reported in the Fells. What was most exciting was that eight out of the ten are native species. Because it was an exceptionally (perhaps troubling so) dry year this allowed easier access to various wetland areas which is where several of these new species were found.

 Viburnum opulus subsp. trilobum                                                                          
 Zizia aurea
 Ceratophyllum demersum
  Scirpus atrocinctus
  Scirpus pedicellatus
  Colutea arborescens
  Bartonia paniculata
 Potamogeton berchtoldii
 Potamogeton gemniparus
 Malus prunifolia

Golden Alexanders is a common roadside native plant, common particularly in western Mass., but never reported in the Fells before. Here would seem to be a case of a recent native arrival, as it is difficult to believe that such a showy plant would go unseen for 121 years. In addition, a problem that has bothered me for a while was resolved.  There are basically two species of small-flowered buttercup. One is supposed to be common, the other is considered rare enough to be state-listed in Mass. In recent years we have only been able to find (by the hundred) the rare species Ranunculus allegheniensis distinguished by pronounced hooks on top of its fruit. Although reported before in the Fells, I had personally never found the more common species  - Ranunculus abortivus, with straight spikes on top the fruit. Finally, I found a patch in May of 2015. Clearly I had not sampled enough :-). In addition we found five taxa ( two native, three non-native) not reported in the Fells since earlier surveys in the 1890s or 1920s. Allowing for 7 species which we believe have taken their leave of the Fells in the last few years, our current total for the reservation  is  918  (586 or 64% of which are considered native).

Bartonia paniculata                                                R. abortivus
Bartonia paniculata  an unusual                               close-up of fruit of Ranunculus abortivus
saprophyte found on the muddy shore of one of the reservoirs.

Findings in 2014.

Apocynum cannabinum  Cranberry
Prairie Dogbane - Apocynum cannabinum                                   Cranberry  -  Vaccinium macrocarpon

These native plants, reported in the Fells by Deane in 1896, were re-found in 2014;  the Prairie Dogbane by Walter Kittredge in June; the Cranberry by Bryan Hamlin in December.  A non-native Hawthorn species - Crateagus crus-galli, also new to the Fells, was jointly discovered by Hamlin and Kittredge in July, 2014.

Further discoveries in 2013

In 2013 we had a further 11 new finds, four of which were native.  These findings resulted in a further small paper in Rhodora, published in 2014.

In February 2013, Arnoldia, the magazine of Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum, published a beautifully illustrated article by Walter Kittredge entitled The Middlesex fells, a Flourishing Urban Forest (Vol. 70, N0. 3).  This ten-page article describes the floristic history of the Fells in a more readable form than the scientific article in Rhodora in 2012.

2012 season

In the 2012 season we found 19 additional plant species not included in the main published survey (Hamlin et al. 2012). This was reported in a New England Note in the Spring 2013 issue of Rhodora. Fourteen were non-native some of which therefore probably represent new arrivals; but five of the new finds were native species. In the spring of 2012 we were excited to stumble upon a small patch of the three-lobed violet – Viola palmata. It was reported in 1854 in an area that later became part of the Fells.  It is possible that these native species have been in the Fells all the while and have been overlooked. 

Viola palmata

Viola palmata   File photo by  Hamlin

As a result of these new findings in 2012 a five-page Update note was published in Rhodora in June 2013 covering these new findings in 2012.  Hamlin, B. T. & W. T. Kittredge. 2013. An update on the Middlesex fells Flora. Rhodora, Vol. 115: 191-196.

Sector finds

For the purposes of determining a frequency of occurrence for each species, the Fells was subdivided into eight sectors of approximately equal size using roads and bodies of water as boundaries as shown on this map.

map of the Fells

The basic map image is reproduced with permission of the Friends of the Fells and the Department of Conservation and Recreation.   To zoom in: right click, choose 'view image', and click again. 

If a species was found in only one or two sectors it was deemed Rare, if in three or four then Occasional, five or six - Frequent, and if in seven or all eight sectors then we called it Common.

A History of plant surveys of the Fells

Upon creation of the Middlesex Fells as a reservation in 1894 a floral survey was conducted by Walter Deane and Warren Manning and others, and published in 1896. We owe a great debt to these pioneers for providing us with this base-line of what plant species existed in the Fells over a century ago. Here is the map of the Fells that accompanied Deane's Flora. 

               Deane's map

       reproduced by permission from the archives of the  Gray Herbarium, Harvard University

Much has happened to the Fells since then. New, wider roads have been created carrying a lot of traffic, in particular I-93 forming an almost solid barrier between an east and west Fells. An electric railway line has come and gone (1946), and the soap-box derby track at Sheepfold is still in evidence. Although land has been lost to the road widenings,  the creation of Stoneham Zoo and, to some extent, Wright's Park, there have been a few gains as well, most significantly the addition of Lawrence Woods in the southwest. General Samuel C. Lawrence, the first mayor of the City of Medford, owned a huge estate part of which was wooded. The public were welcome into these woods so that they served as an unofficial annexe to the Fells in the early years. General Lawrence died in 1911 and in 1925 this wooded part, now known as Lawrence Woods, was officially added to the Fells.

For more details on the first forty years of the Fells I recommend Round About the Middlesex Fells published by the Medford Historical Society in 1935. Compared with the original condition, where there were more fields and open spaces, the Fells has been allowed to go back to a reasonably natural state with re-growth of forest as well as much tree planting in the early part of the 20th century. But in the first decade or so of the 20th century the trees of the Fells were hit very badly with gypsy moth infestations. Human usage is on the increase and invasive species have made their encroachments. All these things have brought, and will continue to bring, changes to the flora of the Fells. Between 1920 -1922, Nathaniel Kidder collected many plant samples in the Fells which are now held at the Harvard Herbarium. He did not publish a report. 


As the centenary of the reservation approached, a survey of flowering plants was made by Brian Drayton through three growing seasons between 1990 and 1992 (Drayton and Primack, 1996).  Drayton compares what he found to what Deane had found a century earlier, noting in what location he found particular plants. Most interesting are the lists of those plants found by Deane but not found by Drayton, and vice versa. Sadly, but not too surprisingly, the former is the longer list.  It should be noted however that Drayton confined his area of survey to west of I-93 and north of South Border Road, therefore only about 40% of the present total. Not all subsequent reporting on Drayton's work has taken sufficient note of this. Because of a difference in the underlying geology between West and East Fells, there are quite a few species only found, and still found, in the eastern part. This meant that there had been no published survey east of I-93 since the original Deane survey, and never any published survey of Lawrence Woods, shown as sector 1 on the Fells map above.

A full plant survey of all the Fells was therefore required. I began making a simple check-list in 2003. Teamwork was needed in this large task.
The 2003 - 2011 survey ultimately involved several people including Betty Wright (trained by the New England Wildflower Society), Irina Kadis of the Arnold Arboretum, and Don Lubin, one of the leading authorities on ferns in New England. Starting in 2007, and particularly since 2008, much work has been done by Walter Kittredge of the Harvard Herbaria, taking things to a new level, including the documenting of thirty different habitat types - a major work in itself - and finding many more species, especially grasses. Other specialists helped with certain groups of plants, including Alexey Zinoviev with willows and Lisa Standley with sedges. Further acknowledgments are given in the Rhodora paper.

Deane, W. ed. 1896. Flora of the Blue Hills, Middlesex Fells, Stony Brook and Beaver Brook Reservations of the Metropolitan Parks Commission, Massachusetts.  C. M. Barrows  & Co.  Boston, MA.


        Drayton, B. & R. B. Primack. 1996. Plant species lost in an isolated conservation area in metropolitan Boston from 1894 to 1993. Conservation Biol. 10, No. 1: 30-39.

      Hamlin, B. T., W. T. Kiitredge,  D. P. Lubin and E. B. Wright.  2012.  Changes in the vascular flora of the Middlesex Fells Reservation, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, from 1895 to 2011. Rhodora, Vol. 114: 229 - 308.