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Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Wales, a ‘well-kept secret’ that’s worth the drive

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF NORCROSS WILDLIFE SANTUARY<br/>Rue Anemone (anemonella thalictroides)
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF NORCROSS WILDLIFE SANCTUARY<br/>Yellow Lady Slipper and Foam Flower (Cypriperidum parviflorum)
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF NORCROSS WILDLIFE SANCTUARY<br/>Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata)
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF NORCROSS WILDLIFE SANCTUARY<br/>Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia cu)
  • CHERYL WILSON<br/>Leslie Duthrie
  • CHERYL WILSON<br/>Leslie Duthrie

Spring is the time to enjoy drifts of daffodils and clusters of bright, flashy tulips. It is also prime time to appreciate the delicate gems of native woodland wildflowers.

“Peak bloom for woodland wildflowers is mid-May through mid-June,” says Leslie Duthie, horticulturist and plant propagator for the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Wales.

From hepatica in early spring to trilliums and lady slippers in May to pitcher plants and goats beard in summer and asters and goldenrod in the fall, there is always something to admire among our native wildflowers.

Most wildflowers are small and you need to stoop down to appreciate them, although some like goats beard (Aruncus dioicus) can be huge plants in height and spread.

“Some people dismiss native plants. They say, ‘Oh, wildflowers are so insignificant,’ ” Duthie told about 40 people in a workshop at a garden symposium in Holyoke in April. But wildflowers are far from insignificant to Duthie.

Her lecture inspired me to visit the private, nonprofit sanctuary, the largest private wildlife sanctuary in New England. There are two miles of trails through 75 acres of public areas in a sanctuary which totals more than 2,500 acres. The sanctuary was created between 1939 and the early 1960s by Arthur Norcross, owner of Norcross Greeting Cards, and a native of nearby Monson.

Although I had heard of Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary I had never considered a visit because it is 45 minutes from Amherst. “We are a well-kept secret,” Duthie said.

Worth the trip

Over the past 30 years, Duthie has created a two-acre wildflower garden and a one-acre shrub garden along the “Short Trail” near the visitor center. The aim was to provide an overview of the plants found throughout the sanctuary.

“I was hired to bring the sanctuary to the trails,” she said, adding that 75 to 80 percent of the species in the garden were transplanted from elsewhere on the property while the remainder were purchased or donated.

Last week the garden, under a canopy of deciduous trees, was awash in pale blue. Huge stands of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica.) and wild phlox (Phlox divaricata) dominated the landscape, interspersed with fragile rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides), claytonia and dramatic trilliums.

When Duthie started the garden there was a small patch of the bluebells beside a few Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum). One problem with the bluebells — as with other plants with drooping flowers — is that their seeds drop close to the mother plant instead of being more widely dispersed.

“I used to tie paper bags over the seed heads,” Duthie said. “I raised all these bluebells from seed.”

Now the stand is so prolific that she has to resort to thinning them by removing plugs or small plants to avoid overcrowding. Since the bluebells go dormant in summer, they are interplanted with ferns, black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) and closed gentians. The bluebells have pink buds that open to true blue, a color that is rare in nature.

Nearby are beds of phlox, both the woodland Phlox divaricata in white and blue and the even lower-growing Phlox stolonifera, which multiplies by underground rhizomes.

Duthie said that before she worked with wildflowers she disdained phlox because she only knew the summer-blooming tall varieties so prone to mildew.

She quickly learned to love the low-growing ones. “The scent is so beautiful, light and lilacy.”

Woodland jewels

Trilliums are often regarded as the jewels of the woodland garden and Norcross has a variety of them. In addition to the familiar white Trillium grandiflorum, there are T. erectum (commonly called Wake Robin) with burgundy flowers, T. recurvatum with recurving sepals, T. sessile and T. luteum. Even more unusual are Bent trillium (T. flexipes) which Duthie originally thought was nodding trillium (T. cernuum) until she noticed the nodding form has purple stamens. They all peek out from stands of other flowers.

One problem with trilliums — and lots of other prized plants — is that deer love them. So the planted gardens at Norcross are surrounded by deer fencing.

Soon the lady slippers will bloom. Duthie said the yellow lady slipper (Cypripedium pubescens) prefers limestone soils while the pink (C acaule) needs more acid conditions. At the master gardener symposium in April she suggested planting the yellow form in a hole with marble chips to provide lime.

“Lady slippers are fairly easy to grow,” she said. The pink, which is not endangered, dislikes being moved, however, although it is a plant that seeds itself into disturbed areas.

Blooming with the lady slippers is foamflower or tiarella. There are two forms: T. cordifolia, which spreads very well, and T. wherryi, which is a clumping type. If you want a ground cover, get the former, but if you just want an accent plant, get T. wherryi. “Foamflower is a fabulous plant,” she told the symposium attendees. It does need organic soil, full of humus.

Woodland gardens usually provide their own humus because they are planted under deciduous trees whose leaves decompose to provide essential nutrients.

You can help your woodland plants by shredding leaves from your lawn in the fall and using them as mulch. Duthie suggested you simply run the lawn mower over a pile of leaves.

Cheryl B. Wilson can be contacted at valleygardens@comcast.net.

There is a free Garden Open House at Norcross today, 5-7 p.m., with guided tours.


Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary: The particulars

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The sanctuary, known locally as Tupper Hill, was founded and liberally endowed by Monson native Arthur Norcross, of Norcross Greeting Cards. The visitor center has displays of beautiful photographs of flowers and animals and birds, mostly taken by Leslie Duthie, as well as changing exhibits on wildlife. Currently there is a spooky bat cave (great for children) and a display …

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