A Walk Along Parris Brook on the Mount Tom Trail – Marnie Lacouture
WildfloraRI, Winter 2020
The Mount Tom Trail in Exeter, with almost six miles of varied hiking experiences, is perhaps best known for the panoramic views from its high point south of Route 165. I like to wander at a snail’s pace, however, along Parris Brook, a short botanically rewarding section of the trail. The heady smell of grapes greeted me on a bright September morning last fall as I left my car in the small clearing that accommodates a few parked cars, just before the bridge on Mount Tom Road. An occasional hiker, dog walker, or fisherman may share the area, but usually it is quiet except for the splashing of water over small dams of rocks and logs created by fishermen, according to the late Ken Weber in his book Walks and Rambles in Rhode Island. Depending on the season there may also be bird calls or the buzz of insects. Years ago, an elderly woman told me how she and her husband had crouched safely in the brook under a wet tarp during the forest fire of 1951 that destroyed their nearby cabin.
Heading southeast on the trail I first found the tiered seed pods of American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), hanging from branches like dangly earrings. Farther along, more branches interwove with those of American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), their yellow spidery blossoms beginning to open, and the sun created a shining ceiling of pods and flowers against the blue sky. It had been a good summer for poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), with leaves so large they looked like tropical vines climbing on nearby trees. Along the road, its cut-back stems were sturdy and short with large white berries that birds and even deer eat. Tall meadow-rue (Thalictrum pubescens) had had a good growing season too, and what remained were six to eight feet stalks. Giant pitch pines (Pinus rigida), with rough mosaic-patterned bark, stood tall and straight next to eastern white pines (Pinus strobus), while red maples (Acer rubrum), arched over the water, were beginning to show color. The thick, green vegetation mostly obscured the brook except where fishermen had kept a few paths to the water open.
As I looked closely, I began to sort out the various colors and shapes of the leaves—there was nannyberry (Viburnum lentago), its raisin-like fruit so far undiscovered by birds, and clammy azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) with fat seed pods and plump buds promising fragrant June flowers. There was an occasional clump of Canadian serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), the waxy green of mountain laurel leaves (Kalmia latifolia), and common winterberry (Ilex verticillata), their leaves curled and black from apparent insect damage. Though one large branch, partially broken and hanging in the water, had perfect green leaves and lots of bright red berries. Coastal sweet-pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) grew everywhere, the brown seed pods standing above the branches like spires, reminders of its abundance of fragrant blooms in early summer.
On the ground were the remnants of spring-blooming wildflowers, groups of sessile-leaved bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia), beginning to shrivel and yellow, and the two basal, striped-veined leaves of pink lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium acaule) hugging the earth. Some carried a brown seed pod with a bird-like beak at the top of a tall, erect stem, reminding me of herons. Remnants of a carpet of Canada-mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) offered a few red berries for hungry birds. The true ephemerals of spring, such as wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia) and dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius), were left to the imagination.
Late-summer bloomers were abundant. Along the bank grew spotted Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and axillary goldenrod (Solidago caesia) amid royal ferns (Osmunda regalis) and the activity of dragonflies. Along the trail bloomed white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata), heath American-aster (Symphyotricum ericoides) and the only white goldenrod (Solidago bicolor).
At my feet were the unassuming evergreens that become apparent as the deciduous plants lose their leaves; they would soon be especially welcome as winter companions. Great masses of partridge-berry (Mitchella repens) carpeted the bank, its fruit already a cheerful bright red, and small clumps of trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) dotted the edge of the trail, the seeds planted unwittingly by nesting ants. Another of its common names is mayflower, since the Pilgrims were cheered by its lovely bloom their first spring in America. On the edge of Mount Tom Road, near the trail, arbutus covers much of the bank in April. It is well worth a visit to see and smell the tiny blossoms attended by early pollinators. The shiny round leaves of American wintergreen (Pyrola americana) and the striped leaves of pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculata) were crowded among common lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium). Mosses and clubmosses would add to the winter greenery.
When I reached the bridge over Parris Brook on Blitzkrieg Trail, I turned and retraced my steps. Instead you can cross Blitzkrieg Trail into the pine/oak forest for a longer walk to the Wood River and beyond or head northwest up the Mount Tom Trail from the parking area for a more rigorous hike over granite outcroppings. I would save those hikes for another day but promised myself to return soon to this ever changing trail, rewarding in all seasons.
Note: This walk is only a very short section of the Mt Tom Trail going east between Mt Tom Rd. and Blitzkrieg Trail. From the parking pull over head in the direction of the brook (downriver) on the same side of the of the road as the parking spots.