Before you is a pussy willow, a sure sign of spring. In the spring these willows have fuzzy catkins (small flower clusters) on the bare branches in early spring. In many cultures around the world pussy willow cuttings are used in holiday celebrations including Chinese New Years in Asia, Easter in Europe and America, and Nowruz (First Day of Spring) in the Middle East.,
About halfway down the slope is a high bush blueberry. Blueberries like the sun, which they get because the rail bed keeps away trees that might shade them out. They also don’t mind “wet feet” and are often found near wetlands like this. Closer to the trail is are small patches of wood fern.
Old rail beds make great trails. The rail bed is built for good drainage, so it can be paved with less expense. Trains do not like sharp turns or steep hills—which makes for easy hiking, biking and cross county skiing. The train engineer cannot stop quickly and must see far ahead. From here you can see nearly a mile to the south.
Notice the stone wall that runs parallel to the railroad at the bottom of the slope. At one time much of NH was dedicated to pasturing sheep to provide wool to the mills in Manchester and Lawrence. The stone wall was likely the edge of a pasture that has now returned to forest. In another 50 feet along the trail to the east you will be crossing over the natural gas line that feeds the Granite Ridge power plant. The gas line traverses the entire length of Londonderry from the Windham line to the Manchester line. It forms a wildlife corridor that joins the forest you are in now to other natural areas within the town.
You are standing over a large culvert that was built when the railroad was constructed, so that water could flow out of the large wetland on the north side of the trail, underneath the railroad, and continue on downstream to the south side of the trail. Culverts maintain the natural flow of water—if they are constructed properly—and they allow wildlife to cross the railroad safely—but only if they are large enough.
If you are here in late April or early May, at the base of the large tree on the far side of the brook you can see the broad, upright, bright green leaves of skunk cabbage emerging from the forest floor. This is an early sign of spring, as the skunk cabbage tries to get a lot of sunlight before it is shaded out by taller plants and trees. The plant emits a foul odor like that of decaying meat in an effort to attract pollinators.
|Look carefully near the ground at the tree just off the trail. It is a red maple that has “root sprouted” into at least three main stems, one of which was cut off to clear the rail trail. The bark of the tree is covered with lichens, an association between an algae and a fungus: the fungus provides structure and the algae combines nutrients with carbon dioxide (photosynthesis) to make food for the whole organism. Look for large circles of foliose “green shield” lichens. The lichens do not harm the tree; in fact, they are often an indicator of good air quality—something we work hard to protect in Londonderry! (Notice that the lichens are heaviest on the north side of the tree, where it is less likely to dry out. So, you have an indication which way is north, even on a cloudy day).|
You are standing in a “cut” made through a small hill, so that the rail bed remains level. Earlier in the walk you went through a “fill” where the rail bed had to be raised up to keep it out of the wetlands on either side. Now these cuts and fills make it easy to use the trail without too much exertion and without getting your feet wet.
The dark evergreen tree is a hemlock. This isolated tree can survive here, because it likes to have “wet feet;” it is close to the water and is protected from drying out by being on the north side of the rail bed. The extremely dense shade of the hemlock makes it difficult for other plants to get started underneath it—even baby hemlocks!
Just to the right of the post is a small, low plant called checkerberry or wintergreen, which carries its bright red fruit through the winter. Just to the left of the post is a slightly taller plant called sheep laurel. Both are in the Heath Family. Come back in the early summer to see their different blossoms.