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The Garden in the Woods at New England Wild Flower Society

Michael Weishan joined Bill Cullina, nursery manager and chief propagator at the New England Wild Flower Society, for a wet yet enlightening tour of the Society's "Garden in the Woods."

Blue flag iris
Bogs and wetland habitats are home to many of New England's most beautiful wild flowers, including the blue flag iris.

Most people's first inclination when they encounter a wet or boggy area in their yard is to drain it or dry it out. But we say, not so fast: these spaces actually offer the home gardener a great opportunity, just as they are, for a different kind of gardening.

As in many other parts of the country, bogs are an important part of the New England landscape. The ones we see today are part of the post-glacial landscape formed when glacial kettle holes filled in with mosses and developed these communities.

Green moss
Green moss is a prime ingredient of bogs. It can grow out over the surface of a pond, decomposing to peat moss and slowly converting the pond to a bog.

Bogs are nutrient-poor environments. In particular, a northern bog is a habitat with the added difficulty of acidic soil. So the low, dwarflike plants that tend to grow in bogs, like cranberry and pitcher plants, are very well adapted to scavenging what nutrients there are. The more fertile habitats known as wetlands, on the other hand, are characterized by larger plants, such as iris and cattail, that thrive in the water or around its edges.

Some of New England's most beautiful wildflowers, including rare orchids, carnivorous plants and shrubs, have adapted to grow in bogs because of the moisture and freedom from competition. One place to witness such bog and wetland gardening in all its swampy glory is the Garden in the Woods, in Framingham, Massachusetts. Owned and operated by the New England Wild Flower Society, the garden has the largest landscaped collection of wildflowers and native woody plants in the Northeast. The 45-acre garden showcases over 1,700 native plant species, including 200 rare and endangered species displayed as habitats, including bog and wetland, meadow, woodland and dry land.

The Society was founded in 1900 and today is the nation's oldest institution dedicated to the conservation of wild plants. Its mission is "to promote the conservation of temperate North American flora through education, research, horticulture, habitat preservation, and advocacy."

Southern pitcher plant
The southern pitcher plant adapted to the habitat by becoming insectivorous, trapping insects inside a large modified leaf and digesting them for food.

A living, ever-changing museum, the Society as a whole houses more than 1,600 kinds of plants, with many rare and endangered native specimens throughout the gardens, as well as the unique New England Garden of Rare and Endangered Plants. In late April, the woodlands sparkle with trout lilies, Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, and rare Oconee bells. In mid-May hundreds of wildflowers burst into bloom, including wood phlox, yellow lady's-slippers, shooting stars, and great trilliums. Carnivorous pitcher plants, delicate Calopogon orchids and plum-leaved azaleas appear as summer approaches, and the meadow blazes with brilliant wildflowers. Blue gentians, violet asters and dazzling foliage brighten the cooling days as fall sets in.

In addition to maintaining its gardens and habitats, the Society also runs a variety of educational horticultural programs. Its Native Plant Studies program teaches thousands of people each year about native plants and their habitats through courses, field trips, garden tours, teacher training, family programs and publications. The New England Plant Conservation Program is a collaboration among botanists, federal and state agencies, and conservation organizations throughout the US. The Society has coordinated a volunteer corps for plant conservation efforts throughout New England since 1998, and also runs a plant nursery that offers over 230 kinds of seeds and spores and hard-to-find herbaceous and woody native plants.

Plant List:

Sarracenia purpurea
northern pitcher plant

Vaccinium macrocarpon
large cranberry

Sphagnum cymbifolium
green moss

Sarracenia flava
southern pitcher plant

Lychnis flos-cuculi

Iris pseudacorus
yellow flag iris

Hibiscus moscheutos
rose mallow

Iris versicolor
blue flag iris

Typha latifolia

Ligularia dentata

Ligularia stenocephala
'The Rocket'

Chelone lyonii
pink turtlehead

Osmunda cinnamomea
cinnamon fern

Helonias bullata
swamp pink

Caltha palustris
marsh marigold

Myosotis palustris

Dryopteris affinis
'Cristata the King'
crested male fern

Carex cv.

trowel icon For more information about the New England Wild Flower Society and the Garden in the Woods, visit them online at

William Cullina is author of two comprehensive reference books on native plants of North America: The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada (2000), and The New England Wild Flower Society's Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: Growing and Propagating North American Woody Plants (2002).

This segment appears in show #2715.

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Published August 31, 2007