A Field Guide to Plant Watching

Happy Monday GPODers!

Hope everyone had a beautiful weekend with lots of time spent in the garden. If not in the garden, I hope you at least had an opportunity to go outdoors and enjoy the sights and sounds of spring.

This time of year in Connecticut is the best time to go on hikes and do, what I call, “plant watching”. Just like bird watching, plant watching simply involves going into nature and observing (but thankfully you don’t have to worry about sneaking up on or spooking the plants you’re watching for). From the tall trees towering overhead to the fuzzy moss growing on the side of log, just get up close and take in their beauty. No matter how long you’ve been living in an area, you might be surprised by the flora you find.

One of my favorite spots to go “plant watching” is Little Pond Boardwalk Trail in Litchfield, CT. It’s a quick 1.2 mile (1.9 km) loop on a relatively flat raised wooden walkway across wetlands. Given the time, you can easily make multiple loops and see something new each time around. Below are some photos from a recent trip when new foliage was just beginning to emerge.

Foliage and flowers always get lots of love, but in winter and early spring you can appreciate the other elements of plants that make them so mesmerizing. This leaning tree—potentially a crack willow (Salix x fragilis)—was starting to sport some bright green leaves, but jagged bark is stealing the show.

wooden boardwalk over a lake covered in tall reed grass

The sad reality is that many of our natural landscapes are overrun by invasive plants, and observing these are an equally important part of “plant watching”. While an impressive sight as you’re walking along the boardwalk, this common reed grass (Phragmites australis) is highly invasive and has taken over large swaths of these wetlands.

Canada mayflower plants growing in the shade of a tree

I missed these Canada mayflowers (Maianthemum canadense, Zones 3-8) emerging from the ground on my first loop of this trail, but was lucky to catch them hiding in the shade on my second time around. An understory perennial, native to Canada and the northeastern United States, these low-growers will produce tiny white flowers later in the season but the tiny wisps of foliage were still a treat.

close up of Veratrum viride growing in nature

This next native is beautiful, but bites back. False hellebore (Veratrum viride, Zones 3-7) has a laundry list of common names, but no matter what it goes by you should be weary of it’s toxic properties. Several indigenous American and Canadian communities have traditional, medicinal uses for the plant, but a novice should not be tempted to experiment. Ingesting even a small amount of false hellebore can be lethal due to steroidal alkaloids found in the roots, shoots and rhizomes.

crabapple tree beginning to bloom with pink flowers

On a much lighter and brighter note, the beautiful first blossoms of a crabapple tree (Malus spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) are a sure fire sign that spring is in the air.

close up of an arborvitae in front of a cafe

And once the hike is over, plant watching doesn’t need to stop! A stop at a local café included a sighting of the classic ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald Green’) and flopping daffodils.


Have you gone “plant watching” yet this spring? We’d love to see what’s emerging and growing around you. If you have a chance this week, step outside your garden and see what inspiration you can get from plants growing in nature.


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