Nature Walk at AGM - October 20, 2007




Boot explains all about Goldenrod.

“Boot” Boutwell Leads Nature Walk
at Arlington’s Great Meadows

On Saturday, October 20th, popular naturalist Roland “Boot” Boutwell led a nature walk for the Friends of Arlington’s Great Meadows.  It began at 9:00AM, just as the cloudy sky cleared and sunshine showed through on the reds, yellows, and (still) greens of this fall weekend.  Seven of us joined him, all adults, though Boot was prepared to work with children as well. 

 Boot’s enthusiasm for nature is contagious.  One secret to his success is that he prepares well for each walk, in this case spending more hours in preparation at Arlington’s Great Meadows (AGM) than it took to actually do the walk.  Another is that Boot makes learning easy by (1) sharing a variety of interesting facts and (2) by giving little memory tricks which stick tenaciously in the mind.  Not sure whether the sumac you just touched is poison sumac?  Remember:  “Berries red, no need to dread.  Berries white, flee from sight!”  Poison ivy also has white berries.

 Boot added that poison sumac is found in very wet areas, such as the edges of bogs, where most people don’t go.  With regard to other sumacs (smooth and staghorn sumac), Boot said the wide core of pith in the center of the sumac stem is easy to carve out, resulting in a tube.  Colonists used to insert a hollowed-out sumac stem into a drilled hole in a sugar maple to collect sap for maple syrup. Can other trees be tapped?  Yes, some can, including other maples and birches, but the sugar yield of the sap is much lower.  A significant stand of smooth sumac is located across from the AGM kiosk, just up the trail from the parking lot of the nursing home.

 At one point, Boot pointed to a goldenrod flower and asked who in the group had allergies which responded to goldenrods.  Several raised their hands.  He pointed out that it has evolved to have colorful flowers, which means it attracts pollinators (insects in this case).  Also, the pollen comes in sticky clumps, which help it to stick to the insects which visit the flowers.  Ragweed, which has no showy flowers and no sticky pollen, is pollinated by the wind, which means its pollen  is far more apt to be in the air we breathe – and far more apt to be the cause of our suffering.    

 Boot added that Thomas Edison obtained a kind of rubber from goldenrod plants.  In fact, he had Model T Ford with tires made from goldenrod rubber.  The rubber on display in Edison’s laboratory is still elastic.  


Boot held up a “wooly bear” caterpillar, with its apparently warm “coat”.  Boot said the coat is not for warmth, for the caterpillar is cold-blooded and doesn’t need insulation in the winter.  However, the hairs may protect it from predators, and when the caterpillar is ready to develop into a butterfly, it combines the hairs of its coat with silk which it generates itself to make the cocoon. 

 Arlington’s Great Meadows has many wild black cherry trees and saplings.  Boot pointed out that the dark bark of the larger trees looks like charred corn flakes.  The long, thin, pointed leaves have fuzz on the underside, along their middle vein.  Early in the season the fuzz is white, later it turns to tan or brown.  All parts of the tree except the flesh of the fruit contain hydrocyanic acid, which is known to suppress coughing.  It isn’t a surprise, then, that the Smith Brothers chose wild cherry for their cough drops. 

 Can you tell white birch from gray birch?  Often their bark is similar in color, but the bark of gray birch doesn’t peel, and its leaves are triangular in shape.  AGM has many gray birches, some of which have multiple stems (trunks), as many as a dozen or 15.  In fact, they are beginning to take over some of the grassland area and may need to be pruned back. 

 A gall is lump on a leaf or stem of a plant, which forms in reaction to an insect, insect egg, a fungus, or other natural stimulus.   Many leaves of quaking aspen trees have a gall on the leaf stem, just below the leaf tissue.  These are caused by the tree’s reaction to the presence of the egg of a kind of aphid, with the tree’s vegetative material growing up around the egg.  This provides protection to the insect larva as it develops.  Many galls are specific to certain species of plants.  AGM has many quaking aspens, which, like gray birches, are “pioneer species’, quick to move into open areas such as old fields because their seeds are spread by wind.  The leaves of both quaking aspen and big-toothed aspen “tremble” in a breeze because their leaf stems are flat, not round.

 Boot showed us evidence of “leaf miners”, tiny larvae which travel inside leaves, eating their contents.  They leave trails of light tan color where leaf-green used to be.  Looking at the leaf, one can see that the leaf miner grows as it travels, leaving an ever-widening path behind it. 

 Many interesting plants are found along the long boardwalk on the north side of AGM, including some shrub species.  The bright red berries of winterberry cling to its twigs.  Soon its leaves will fall, but the berries will remain through part of the winter.  Buttonbush has spherical flowers which by now have become  spherical fruits, the “buttons” from which the shrub gets its name.  The seeds fall into the water and are eaten by ducks. 

Winterberry Maleberry

Highbush blueberry shrubs are found along the boardwalk, also, their leaves a bright red with a tinge of purple this time of year.  We saw that if a leaf is in a shadow cast by another leaf, the portion in shadow remained green.  Maleberry shrubs look like blueberry shrubs, and their flowers are similar.  However, maleberry fruits are dry, hard capsules with five sections. The capsules often remain on the shrub for more than a year, which helps in their identification.  Chokeberry shrubs have tiny glands along the mid-vein of the leaf.  The glands help with identification of the plant, but one needs a hand lens to see them.  Even then, they are tiny. 

 There are several native dogwood species at AGM.  Silky dogwood has tiny hairs along its twigs, while red osier dogwood does not.  The lenticels on red osier are white and raised above the surface of the twig or branches, which are usually bright red.  Gray dogwood, near AGM’s northern kiosk, tends to have many individual stems emerging from the soil separately.  Silky dogwood stems appear more in clumps. 

 AGM has much glossy buckthorn, an invasive shrub (and sometimes tree) which came from Europe and has become a major problem in this area.  Glossy buckthorn has no teeth on the leaves or thorns on the twigs, but it does have many white, raised lenticels on the stems which help to identify it.  A related invasive plant, common buckthorn, is also present at AGM, though in smaller numbers.  It has tiny teeth around its leaves, warty lenticels on its larger stems, and a thorn at the end of most twigs.  The berries, leaves and twigs of both common buckthorn have a highly cathartic effect on the human gastrointestinal system when ingested.  Beware, lest your quiet walk in the woods be urgently disrupted!

Common Buckthorn

Arriving back at the trail head, our group had learned much about nature, enjoyed a walk in a beautiful place, and met some nice people with shared interests.  It was a fine way to spend a few hours on a Saturday morning.

Boot Boutwell leads nature walks for a variety of groups in the area.  He teaches  courses, including one called Native Shrubs of New England, for the New England Wild Flower Society, whose headquarters is at Garden in the Woods in Framingham.  He also works part-time as a naturalist at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Habitat sanctuary in Belmont. 

 Arlington’s Great Meadows is a 184-acre piece of natural land located in East Lexington, but owned by the Town of Arlington.  The Friends of Arlington’s Great Meadows (FoAGM) is a group of volunteers who work to provide stewardship and eventual permanent protection for this treasured natural landscape.  FoAGM is a project of the Arlington Land Trust, a non-profit organization.  Visit our website to learn more about AGM and our activities:

 Article by Don Miller and photos by David White of FoAGM - October 2007.