On the Trail — by Garry Plunkett
WildfloraRI, Winter 2012
Tiverton’s Fort Barton Woods is a gem of a natural area in East Bay that is well worth crossing a couple of bridges to visit. Its varied terrain, mature maritime hardwood forest and “babbling brook” are reason enough to come, but visitors will also be interested in the Revolutionary War history of the site. That story, as well as natural history information, is told in guides found in a trailhead box, or as a PDF you can download at Tiverton Beaches & Recreation.
The entrance and parking is at 343 Highland Road, across from Tiverton’s Town Hall, and there are interesting plants to see right from your car. Come in spring, maybe late April, and the face of the granite outcrop above the parking area will show off a population of dainty spring ephemerals, Early Saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis), a state-listed plant. There is also a small Northern Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), a tree that’s common in the South but somewhat unusual in Rhode Island.
As you leave the street to walk up a paved approach to the Revolutionary War Redoubt, on the immediate right is a White Mulberry (Morus alba) that – at over two feet in diameter – has to be the state champion of this species. One suspects this huge specimen is an offspring of mulberries brought over by colonists in an abortive attempt to establish a silk industry. Continuing up the path takes you to a bluff where colonial troops established a major defensive position whose earthworks survive today.
The strategic need to fortify these Tiverton Highlands is evident when you climb the observation tower that overlooks the Sakonnet Passage, a narrow strait separating the mainland from Aquidneck Island, where thousands of British troops occupied Newport early in the Revolution. Eventually, the ill-fated Battle of Rhode Island was launched from Fort Barton, when thousands of colonial troops ferried across the Sakonnet in an attempt to drive the British off the island.
When the redoubt site was developed in the 1960s, it was cleared and planted in common ornamental shrubs, so visitors looking for native plants can proceed from the tower right to the trailhead at the rear of the redoubt area. Here a sign cautions visitors about uneven terrain and rustic bridges on the trails, so the usual advice for being careful and wearing sturdy shoes applies. In the vicinity of the sign are several patches of Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), a plant with the curious distinction of being state-listed for protection in Rhode Island but also listed as a noxious invasive weed in Oregon.
Beyond the sign and halfway down the stairway on the right is an unusual tree, an American Basswood (Tilia americana), the New World’s version of a Linden Tree. It prefers rich, alkaline soils, which explains why it is scarce, maybe nonexistent, in the wild in Rhode Island and puzzling that this single tree is here on a rocky slope.
The trail proceeds along a narrow connector path to the 80-acre Fort Barton Woods, where the principal natural attraction is the lovely Sin and Flesh Brook winding toward Nanaquaket Pond. No, the brook’s name is not what you might think, but refers to a poor Quaker preacher who passed through Tiverton during the King Philip’s War and was ambushed by a band of Pocassets, and whose bloody body was discovered alongside the stream. Today this pristine stream is not bloody at all, but courses through towering Red Oaks, quiet fern glades, and within earshot of vernal pools quacking with wood frogs in the spring.
Go there in August when brilliant red Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) grace its banks, and the blue-green, checkered basal leaves of Downy Rattlesnake-plantain (Goodyera pubescens) hide in leaf litter beneath stems of this discreet little orchid. Or go in October when the otherwise demure Maple-leafed Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) proudly displays its rosy pink foliage in the understory.
Fort Barton Woods is also an excellent place to practice fern identification. The observant fernophile will find Netted Chain-fern (Woodwardia areolata), Crested Wood-fern (Dryopteris cristata), Silvery Spleenwort (Deparia acrostichoides), Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), and Broad Beech-fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera), along with the usual suite of common woodland ferns. The Crested Wood-ferns are in a Sphagnum-carpeted wetland, where there is also a state-listed tree that likes swamps, the Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra).
Alternatively, on some warm summer afternoon when you are in no mood for keying out ferns, Fort Barton Woods is a fine place to leave the iPhone at home, find a shady bend in the brook, hang your feet in the water and just listen to wood thrushes singing in the forest canopy.