A bench with a view of the North River at Stetson Meadows in Norwell.

Spring is here. Forsythia in bud and daffodils blooming at the roadside herald the start of another colorful season. The days grow longer and soon the marsh will begin to turn green. The ground thaws, puddles appear, and to quote the poet e.e. cummings, the earth becomes “mud-luscious.”

I love those days toward the end of winter when the imminence of spring becomes undeniable. It always takes me by surprise. This year it was the crocuses. I’d noticed their green heads emerging from the flower beds around my front door, I knew that the sun had been shining more strongly, but stopping home at midday a couple weeks ago, I was stunned by the white, yellow and lavender blooms scattered on either side of the path. Where had they come from? Then slowly the realization crept into my mind . . . “Oh yes. That’s right. It’s . . . spring.”

As we leave winter behind for another year, the grandeur of emergent spring surrounds us. But the season arrives in subtler ways as well. In the next few weeks the delicate leaves of woodland wildflowers will begin to appear. Think of daffodils and forsythia as Everyman’s signs of spring. Woodland wildflowers, on the other hand, are for the connoisseur.

One of the best places to learn about woodland wildflowers is Stetson Meadows Conservation Area in Norwell. You can see these tiny, short-lived blooms — also known as spring ephemerals — in just about any wooded area, but at Stetson Meadows, volunteers have placed identification tags on all the wildflowers along a short stretch of trail, providing a wonderful introduction to these little-known species.

To get there, from River Street in Norwell, turn onto Stetson Shrine Lane. The paved road ends in a cul de sac; continue on the dirt road for a half mile or so to get to the conservation area’s parking lot.

I usually start with the River Trail, which is marked by a wooden sign and a gate. You’ll walk down a slight grade through a dark pine forest. Bearing left, watch for a bench and a picnic table on a small rise. This is the best place from which to view the North River. Looking across the marsh you’ll see the Two Mile Farm Reservation of North Marshfield. To the left is the beginning of the wildflower trail, which follows the edge of the marsh.

Local wildflower enthusiast Winnie Lou Rounds is one of the volunteers who oversees the River Trail. According to Rounds, because we had a mild winter this year, Mother Nature is about two weeks ahead of her usual schedule. Toward the end of April, Rounds says we will begin to see the brownish, mottled leaves of the trout lily, also known as speckled fawn or dog-toothed violet. The leaves of the indian cucumber root, anemone quinquefolia, and sweet pepper bush will also be visible, as well as the buds of the highbush blueberry. Identify these species as they begin to show signs of new life, and then come back in a few weeks to look for their flowers.

The evergreen goldthread is another species to watch for. Its tiny white flowers are likely to bloom before the end of the month. Partridgeberry, lying low to the ground with dark green leaves bearing thin white lines, are easy to spot, especially when the birds have not yet carried off the red berries. The nodding trillium, an unusual species, hides its white flowers with whorled leaves and a curled stalk.

Right now, what you’ll mostly see along the River Trail are moss-covered stumps and lycopodium, also known as princess pine. But if you walk the trail every week from now into the middle of May, paying careful attention to the little shrubs and ground cover you’ve probably overlooked in times past, you will witness significant transformation with each visit. The wonders of nature exist in these finer details.

The River Trail will bring you slowly uphill, back to Meadows Farm Road, which bisects the conservation area. Crossing the road, bear left to the Twin Pine Trail. If you continue on this trail, it will bring you back to the parking area, where you can pick up the Stetson Trail and tour the northern half of the property.

Another route, the EMS Trail, branches off Twin Pine to the right. This relatively new trail features traditional New England stone walls, some fallen, some still standing. Following the EMS trail, bear right twice, and when the path comes to a T, turn left. Off in the distance you will see a teepee-like structure that’s definitely worth investigating. On the right, you will be able to see the North River through the trees. A brook marks the conservation area’s boundary.

Although both the Stetson and EMS Trails have a lot to offer, they are both essentially dead ends — your options are to retrace your steps through the woods to the parking area, or walk along the road instead. I’m not particularly fond of backtracking, but it does have its value. What you see while walking in one direction can vary greatly from what you observe when facing the other way.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
April 2000

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.