Over the years, more and more farms in New England have been abandoned and all that is left is the memory of old New England ways. The stone walls left behind have become part of a thriving ecosystem for plants and animals of all kinds. It is even possible to tell what the old stone walls once enclosed, by the various types of trees and other plants that grow there today.
The golden age of stone walls was between 1775 and 1825. It started around 1775 because after the forests had all been denuded the frost could penetrate deeper into the soil and lifted the stones to the surface. It started to decline after 1825 because the smaller enclosed farms of New England could not compete with the larger farms of the South and Midwest. The new machines invented during the industrial revolution were not made for small fenced-in areas with sharp corners. These new inventions sent New England farmers to the Midwest searching for cheaper and larger lands.
Red Cedar was a common tree found on abandoned New England farms (see Figure 1). It is a short sun-loving tree that was often found on recently abandoned farmland. Red Cedars on average grow to a height of 40 feet. The cedars would die out after a while because the white pines would grow above them and block out the sun. Cedars are most commonly found in grassy fields and pastures. Small dark blue berry-like cones can be very helpful when trying to identify red cedars. Also they grow in columnar shapes, their bark is very thin and is reddish brown in color. When the bark is stripped from the trunk it gives off a very pleasant aroma.
White pines would take over the pastures once the red cedars died off. They grow much taller than the red cedars, on average up to 100 feet (see Figure 1 ). White pines can often be found in hayfields, pastures, and grassy fields. White pines, like red cedars, require a large amount of sunlight. The white pines are able to get taller because they begin their growth before the pastures and fields have been abandoned. The pines tend to only germinate in flat open areas. White pines can be identified by their four-inch long needles that tend to grow in bunches of five or by their six-inch long cones. White pines are the largest coniferous trees found in New England today.
Between 1890-1920 a large market opened up for white pine as a source of building materials. Before the invention of plastic or cardboard, white pine was often used to make items as boxes, pails, matchsticks, shoe and boot heels, toys and woodenware. The average price for 1000 board-feet was about 10 dollars. Between 1890 and 1920 an estimated 15 billion board-feet of second growth white pine, with a manufactured value of over $400 million, was cut in central New England. After the large majority of white pines were harvested in New England it opened up room for the hardwood trees to take over. Some of the hardwoods that succeeded the white pines consisted of red maple, red and white oak, white ash, chestnut, black cherry, and black birch. Under the shades of the white pines the hardwood trees sprouted from saplings and small stumps not effected by the recent deforestation.
Aspen trees tend to grow on cultivated land (see Figure 1). The Aspen trees could not grow in the pastures because animals such as cows and sheep would have devoured them as they were grazing. Aspen trees are members of the willow family and can grow up to 50 feet tall. Ovate shaped leaves that turn vibrant red with yellow veins in the fall identify aspen trees.
Shrubs are also a very common species of plants found on old farms (see Figure 1 ). Shrubs are mostly located in the fields used for storing hay, as they often sprout from cut stems. Hay fields are such a common place for growth because the stems would get inter-tangled with the hay. Once inter-tangled with hay, they would fall to the ground and sprout a new shrub.
Crustose, foliose, and fructicose are three kinds of lichens commonly found on New England stone walls. Crustose is an immovable lichen that uses the fungal thread of the thalluce to attach to the rocks. Crustose lichens form circular colonies that vary in color but always have black rims around the lichen. This particular lichen is very good for dating because it grows at a rate of about 1 millimeter per year. Foliose is a 3 dimensional leaf-shaped lichen that varies in color from yellow, green, gray, brown, to orange. This particular lichen uses growths on the bottom called rhizines to attach to the rocks. Foliose is not as accurate for dating because its growth in 1 year tends to vary, although it tends to be about 1 centimeter. Foliose is the fastest growing lichen found in New England. The third lichen found in New England is fructicose, which can be distinguished by its shrub-like appearance. This species of lichen is more commonly found on trees instead of stone walls. Fructicose is usually found on the shaded side if its habitat. It has a relatively slow growth rate, so it can be used for dating, although it is not the best lichen to use. (For more, see lichen identification chart)
There were two styles of stone walls most frequently used in New England farms: single-faced and double-faced walls. The single-faced wall consisted of a single row of stones carefully placed on top one another. The most common use for single-face walls was a property line. The double-faced walls were made from two rows of stone that were tightly packed with smaller stone in the middle. This style of wall was a great deal more complicated and took a longer amount of time to build. The double-faced walls were used in either keeping animals enclosed or keeping them away from crops.
My personal experience with the flora surrounding stone walls came during a walk through an old farm surrounding Norwood Pond in my hometown of Beverly, MA. My travels took me into to the woods off of Red Rock Lane. There was a town tree census map at my local library from the late 1800’s that told me the types of trees that grew in that area. On my walk the large majority of trees for the most part were either hardwoods or pines. This would mean that most of the land was open field and pasture. The tree map that was located at the library was consistent with my discoveries in the woods. Around Red Rock lane most of the trees on the map were either hardwoods or pine.
The vegetation that grows in and around old New England stone walls can determine the origins of a place in the woods. Red Cedars are usually found in recently abandoned pastures or grassy fields. Pastures and open fields tent to be overgrown with pine trees and other various types of hardwood trees. Cultivated land usually has a large population of aspen growing on it. Hay fields can be identified by the vast amount of shrubs growing on that spot of land. Next time you’re on a casual stroll through the woods and there happens to be an old stonewall, it might be worth the time to examine the flora around it.
Alden, Peter C. National Audubon Society Field Guide New England. New York: Knopf Inc., 1998.
Allport, Susan. Sermons in Stone: the Stone Walls of New England and New York. New York: W.W. Norton Inc., 1990.
Bidwell, Percy. “The Agricultural Revolution in New England”, American Historical Review, no.26 (1921): 683-702.
Gardner, Kevin. The Granite Kiss. Woodstock, Vermont: The Countryman Press, 2001.
Foster, David R., O’Keefe, John F. New England Forests Through Time. Cambrige, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.