A Wander at St Joseph’s Abbey

After a rainy, dismal week, the sun has returned to the farm. It hasn’t been a great year for foliage (due to the drought, I wonder?), and heavy rains have forced many leaves to the ground already, so our days of viewing central Massachusetts’ stunning fall foliage are nearly behind us. With that in mind, I grabbed my camera and headed to the nearby St. Joseph’s Abbey this morning. This is an enormous hillside farm in North Spencer, now owned and maintained by Trappist Cistercian monks who converted the farm buildings to a monastery and jam production facility.

st josephs abbey IMG_0021The farm, formerly called Alta Vista Farm, was one of the largest dairy farms in Spencer in the early 1900s, and was famous for its prize-winning Ayrshire cattle.

Thousands of native and other ornamental trees grow there, including many gorgeous sugar maples.

sugar maples st josephs abbey IMG_2231 Unfortunately, the sugar maples are not at their peak yet, but it was a beautiful day for a hike and I saw some really cool stuff, including a plant that is on the Endangered Species list for Massachusetts. On the side of the road to the abbey, underneath some pine seedlings, I noticed this mat of ground-hugging stems that looked like miniature cacti:

foxtail clubmoss IMG_6575_2

It reminded me of the diminutive clubmoss princess pine but the foliage was more dense and it had cute yellow pine-coney fruits (called strobili). When I got home, I checked my Cullina/New England Wild Flower Society book Native Ferns, Moss & Grasses and sure enough, what I had spotted is a relative of princess pine, a type of fern called foxtail clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum). This plant is widespread across its range (in the East along the coastal plain from Maine to Florida), but is endangered in Massachusetts, perhaps because it thrives best in a sunny moist areas with little competition from other plants. Unfortunately, sunny areas with consistent moisture in New England tend to naturally revert to woodlands over time, or be developed, so foxtail clubmoss is rare except in areas where succession is kept under control through brushcutting or logging.

I also saw a cute white fuzzy caterpillar crossing the road from some woodlands towards a large field:

tussock moth IMG_6570 I am pretty sure it’s a hickory tussock moth caterpillar, can anybody confirm? I certainly noticed many hickory trees on my hike, as well as oak, willow and ash which are also food trees for these caterpillars.

Gray squirrels were busy collecting acorns from underneath the oak trees. They’ll bury most of them, and some of the acorns buried by a forgetful squirrel might later sprout to form new generations of New England’s massive oaks. I don’t see many gray squirrels on our own farm, our dogs are less than hospitable, so I enjoyed watching their industrious work.

By the way, the monks at St Joseph’s Abbey make GREAT jam from their fruit trees, and buying their jam not only supports the monastery, but also helps preserve the pastoral views and agricultural heritage of their beautiful farm. I highly recommend the blueberry preserve…

To all my wildlife garden friends, enjoy the great weather this Columbus Day Weekend! Schedule yourselves a quiet walk in the woods and keep your eyes peeled. You never know what you’ll spot when you unplug for a few hours!

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