Category Archives: Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary

Norcross Sanctuary – Hidden Jewel of Monson, MA

The small south-central Massachusetts town of Monson (population 3,800) is home to a nature lover’s dreamland, Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary. Free and open to the public – Norcross has over 1000 acres of fields and trails, beautiful vistas and an education center that offers free classes, tours and lectures throughout the year.norcross-little-bluestem-meadow-october-IMG_1016

I’ll be doing a free talk on Pollinator-friendly Landscaping at Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary on Saturday, February 23rd at 1.30pm. Reservations are required because space is limited – please call 413-267-9654 or email Leslie Duthie to reserve a seat.

It’s worth coming back to Norcross during the warm season though. Norcross covers an area of over 1000 acres, containing a variety of different natural habitats found across New England, including wet and dry meadows, ponds and streams, upland and wet woods, plus cultivated culinary, herb and rose gardens near the visitors’ center. If you’re looking for plant combination ideas and inspiration for your own garden conditions, a trip to Norcross is definitely worth the drive!

This white-flowering Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) grows in a wet meadow with the grass-like wetland sedge (Carex). This calming, pollinator-friendly combination is easy to replicate in a small area with moist to wet soil and sun:


 Norcross is home to the biggest patch of black bugbane (Actaea racemosa) that I’ve ever seen.:

A large old millpond on the property is being encouraged back into native shoreline plant communities. In summer, you can see the beautiful blooms of Plymouth gentian (Sabatia kennedyana), a plant native to freshwater ponds near the coast — now very rare in the wild due to development on New England’s coastline.


In a small sandy garden near the visitors’ center is a stand of spotted beebalm aka horsemint (Monarda punctata), with its interesting pink/yellow stacked blooms:


I long to grow this plant for its impressive blooms, but it prefers sandy soil, which we do not have here on our farm. If I can find seeds for it, I may try growing it on a sunny hillside where drainage is good, but I don’t have high hopes that it will ever look this good.

Because Norcross’s founder established it in 1939 as a wildlife and plant sanctuary, no hunting is allowed at Norcross, which puts the sanctuary staff in the awkward position of trying to try to protect native understory plants from being grazed out of existence from the abundant population of white-tailed deer.

Unfortunately, deer fencing in certain wooded areas has been the only solution to allow native “deer candy” such as trilliums, lilies, Canada mayflower and most woody native shrubs to flourish. In the rest of the sanctuary, deer have grazed most of the native understory layer out of existence, and careful management is needed by sanctuary staff to ensure that these areas don’t fill with invasive non-natives such as barberry,  burning bush and Asiatic bittersweet.

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Come visit the sanctuary, walk the trails, attend a free class or even take a free van tour of the sanctuary (pre-booking required). Afterwards, visit the town of Monson and stop for lunch. They’ll appreciate the business. Monson was hit very hard during the Tornado that blew a terrifying path across southern MA on June 1st, 2011. The photo below was taken over a year after the tornado hit — all the houses and trees on this hillside were destroyed. The homes have now been rebuilt, but it will be many years until the woods will fill in again.

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Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary

Recently we had a tour of Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Monson, MA. Founded in 1939, the sanctuary has 1000s of acres of protected wildlife habitat, and well-maintained pond, woodland and pasture habitats brimming with plants native to the US.

I had never seen such large stands of one of (I believe) the best native plants for New England woodland and shade gardens, Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa). We were lucky to visit when it was in full bloom. I think the area looks like a spooky wood:


Black Cohosh is an excellent plant for attracting pollinators and grows best in rich, moist (but draining) soils such as a woodland edge.

Another thrill for me was to see Plymouth Gentian (Sabatia kennedyana) which is native to clean coastal pond edges of the east coast. Because of coastal development and water pollution, this plant is now very rare and very few wild populations still exist. Our tour-guide Leslie Duthie generously offered to send me some seeds from their population of Plymouth Gentian to try to grow on the edge of our farm pond.


Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) is another plant I have never seen growing in the wild, although I have admired it in William Cullina’s The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers. Here it’s growing in a sunny open field containing native grasses and perennials.


Mountain Mint’s numerous white flowers make it a good drought-tolerant substitute for Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) for dry areas of a natural habitat garden. Its pollen and nectar are valuable for pollinators so it’s a good butterfly plant. When we visited, this area was buzzing with thousands of pollinators of all shapes and sizes, none of which took any notice of us.

A beautiful field of the native grass Little Bluestem near the old barn:



I’d love to see this later in the year when the Little Bluestem has taken on its gorgeous reddish bronze hues. I’m sure the area is chock full of Goldfinches, Finches and other songbirds in winter, foraging on the seedheads of the grasses. Leslie told us that they always mow this field outside of bird nesting season, to provide safe nesting for ground-nesting birds who often suffer high mortality rates in New England hayfields.

The sanctuary was founded by Arthur Norcross, an early advocate of the cultivation of native plants and the protection of wildlife habitat from development. A true pioneer in the world of plant conservation, Norcross performed many “plant rescues”, saving native plants from development sites and transporting them to his sanctuary where many of these populations still flourish.

A gem in central/western Massachusetts, Norcross is worth a visit! Best of all, it has free admission and they hold many (free) education programs throughout the year.

Click for another (later) article about Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary.