The middle of the summer is the best time to enjoy the plants. I like birds. I like mammals, I am one. I like fish. I like snakes, salamanders, turtles, and frogs. I like all of the animals without backbones, especially the ones in the sea. I even like insects, spiders, and most other creepy-crawlies. But there is nothing quite so beautiful as a plant. I like plants best.
When I go birdwatching, I end up looking at the plants. When I drive to work and back, I note the plants along the way. I take as many different routes as possible to and from. When I drive around for work, I check the status of this or that plant seen along the roadway. Each trip reveals plants in different states of development. I’ve come to know most of them intimately. When one is missing I become alarmed. Something is out of whack, something went wrong, I wonder, what could it be?
On Swamp Road east of Sag Harbor there are still a few crested yellow orchis. A few hundred yards down the road stands a lone poison sumac tree on the shoulder, one of only a handful left on the South Fork. I see it bare in the winter, leaf out in the spring, flower white in the summer, and fruit red in the fall. A little beyond, next to a pond, I can see the tall spires of the twin pines, side by side as if holding hands, standing high above the rest. Then comes the persimmon grove, the only natural one on the South Fork, save for on Gardiner’s Island. Then come the sweet peppers — presently in bloom and sweet to the nostrils — understorying the proud tupelos, the last to leaf out in the spring, the first to turn red in the fall.
About 10 years ago something suddenly went missing on Swamp Road — a patch of white fringed orchis. The East Hampton Garden Club had generously provided a sign marking the spot. They weren’t stolen, just overtaken by an aggressive patch of phragmites. This same invasive ditch reed species from Europe has blotted out other rare plants on East Hampton roadsides, including the yellow fringed orchis that used to grow on Stephen Hand’s Path a little north of Montauk Highway.
Turn the corner on to Old Northwest Road and 50 feet of hay-scented ferns smack you in the eye. Along the edge of Northwest Road just about every tree and shrub known to us on the East End can be seen through the windshield. White pine, pitch pine, eastern red cedar, American beech, white oak, scarlet oak, black oak, flowering dogwood, black cherry, mockernut hickory, pignut hickory, highbush blueberry, mapleleaf viburnum, mountain laurel, wild raisin, huckleberry, and a host of others intermingling, sharing, persisting, creating a magical symphony of hue and form, statuesque and spreading, surely inviting and beckoning, ever pleasing, no matter the season. In late April, bird’s-foot violets, followed by wild lupine, greet the discerning eye.
Turn on to Northwest Road and you see more of the same, joined by swamp maples, chestnut oaks, willows, swamp azalea, arrowwood, a new stand of thorny Hercules club with its splash of white flowers at the top, chestnut oak looming over a ground covered with lowbush huckleberry and Pennsylvania sedge. Miraculously, at this season, last year’s leaves that fell by the thousands upon thousands, are mostly all gone, consumed into the topsoil horizon, on their way to contributing to next year’s growth. There’s a small patch of rare orchids, whorled pogonias that I first came to know in 1981, scattered pipsissewa. Some of the white pines are 100 feet high.
If earlier I had turned south on Two Holes of Water Road I might have caught a glimpse of the northern shrub leatherleaf peeking up from the waters of Chatfield’s Hole, or, in the spring, seen pink moccasin flowers, along with more lupine and bird’s-foot violets. If I had stayed on Route 114 leaving Sag Harbor, I would have seen the spreading common juniper just after the spur to Barcelona and the Sag Harbor Golf Course. It’s only a foot high and 20 feet in diameter and is at least 50 years old. The common juniper is the ancest