On the Trail — by Garry Plunkett
WildfloraRI, Spring 2015
Weetamoo Woods in Tiverton is the centerpiece of one of the few remaining large continuous canopy forest preserves along the coast of southeastern New England. Together with Pardon Gray Preserve and the Pocasset Ridge Conservation Area, over 1,500 acres of forest in Tiverton are protected. An unbroken stand of this size has important ecological value, particularly for wildlife species that need significant interior forest shelter to thrive.
There are diverse habitats for visitors to see along the eight miles of trails that weave through Weetamoo Woods and the neighboring Pardon Gray Preserve. There is, however, a challenge for those who come looking for botanical excitement – the temptation to put away the field guide in favor of exploring archeology. Many footprints from the area’s past lie in the Woods of Weetamoo: cellar holes and stone walls from long-abandoned home sites, remains of a 19th century sawmill, and prominent scars from the last glacier whose retreat scoured out the nearby Sakonnet Passage.
The main trailhead of Weetamoo Woods is off East Road about a ¼-mile east of Tiverton Four Corners. The trail leading from the parking area is an old right-of-way originally surveyed in 1681, when Plymouth Colony was still recovering from the war. This original “Eight Rod Way” continues northward over three miles through the entire greater Pocassetlands forest preserve. Most of it is indistinguishable now, but it is quite evident for a twenty-minute walk beyond the trailhead.
Ten minutes into that walk is a massive, slab-stone bridge spanning Borden Brook, and Eight Rod Way still has rude cobblestones that likely came from a nearby field. Pausing to reflect on how that bridge was built before the age of power machinery, one can imagine the rattle of oxcart wheels passing by.
Borden Brook is the main waterway that drains the 150-acre cedar swamp in the core of Weetamoo Woods. This stream also provided power for a sawmill that operated in the 19th century. The stonework complex of that mill is further up the trail, including the millpond dam, the millrace, and a marvelous dry stone bridge that arches across the race.
Old recorded names for trees are unreliable, but “cedar swamp” probably refers to what once was an Atlantic White Cedar swamp. These were common in colonial times along the Atlantic seaboard, but are threatened today. Scattered Cedars (Chamaecyparis thyoides) can be seen along the trails, and a small stand survives in the interior. But the wetland is now more of a red maple –deciduous shrub swamp, possibly due to the sawmill cutting out the cedars. They do not stump sprout, so regeneration back to a cedar community would have been thwarted by a clear-cut.
Much of the upland surrounding Cedar Swamp is mixed oak–American holly forest, found in coastal Rhode Island where slightly warmer maritime temperatures result in American Holly (Ilex opaca) being part of the sub canopy. Black and scarlet Oaks, Red Maple, Yellow and Black Birches, and Beech are in this community, with Blueberry and Sweet Pepperbush in the understory.
The American Holly has the “distinction” of being New England’s only native broadleaf evergreen tree. Broadleaf evergreens are dominant in tropical forests, but those species gradually disappear from forests going northward, replaced by deciduous and conifer trees. The last species in forests this far north is our native holly, and its glossy, green leaves and red berries are a welcome addition to rather colorless winter woodlands.
Along a low, north-south ridgeline in the north end of Weetamoo Woods are drier, rockier soils, so the forest transitions to mixed oak/hickory forest. The hollies are fewer, and there are more Hickory (Carya spp.), Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), and Hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) trees, with an understory dominated by Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata).
The total area of Weetamoo Woods is about 650 acres, almost all of it mid-successional forest. The oldest trees are around 100–125 years old–those individuals that were young and pliable enough to survive the 1938 Hurricane. There are, however, a few older tupelos (Nyssa sylvatica), perhaps in the 200–300 year range. Their famously twisted grain makes them less susceptible to hurricane wind throw, and they are practically unsplittable, so they were shunned as firewood.
There is one non-forested habitat to be seen, the result of a long-term restoration project. It was completed three years ago and adds significant wildlife diversity to Weetamoo Woods. Twelve acres of old plow-land next to Eight Rod Way had been abandoned a few years before it was acquired and added to the preserve. With help from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant, the interior hedgerows were removed and the entire area restored to create a single, unbroken meadow. The sweeping view of this grassland is beautiful, and it is being managed to sustain quality habitat for severely threatened ground-nesting birds and edge species. A partnership with a local farmer for late-season haying, along with edge mowing over the winter, has resulted in noticeable increases in bird species.
In the spring Weetamoo hikers may be lucky enough to enjoy the raucous mating chorus of wood frogs, since the topography is perfect for vernal pools. Isolated bowls of poor drainage are scattered throughout the forest, so on a quiet, sunny day following the “annual migration” of amphibians, the ducky chattering of wood frogs can be a cheery accompaniment to a springtime outing.
The flora of Weetamoo Woods is typical to the forest types described above; oak-dominated ones found in rocky, acidic soils that range from poorly drained, sphagnum dominated wetlands to barren granite outcrops. Common shrubs of the understory are Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), Huckleberry, Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago), Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), and Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). There are also some pure patches of Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) that can be spectacular around the third week of June.
The spring wildflower array along the trails includes Sessile-leaved Bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia), Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), Dwarf Ginseng (Panex trifolius), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), Pink Lady Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), and Squaw-root (Conopholis americana). The Squaw-root is an interesting member of the broom-rape family of parasites. It grows on oak tree roots and looks like a small, pointed ear of corn coming out of the ground. It is state-listed (concern) and perhaps the best population is in Weetamoo Woods, where it can be seen in May near the sawmill.
As in all our woodlands, the floral display diminishes in summer. A few to be seen are Whorled Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Indian Pipe (Monatropa uniflora), and Indian Cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana).
A summer visit to Weetamoo Woods is well worth the drive to East Bay. There is history, diverse habitats, and the ultimate reward–cooling off at Tiverton Four Corners with a double dip of Gray’s Ice Cream.