The small south-central Massachusetts town of Monson (population 3,800) is home to a native plant and wildlife lover’s dreamland, Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary. Free and open to the public — Norcross has over 1000 acres of fields and woodland trails (April to November), beautiful vistas and an education center that offers free classes, tours and lectures throughout the year.
Trails at the sanctuary are closed until mid-April, but there’s lots going at Norcross in winter. I’m doing a free talk on Pollinator-friendly Landscaping on Saturday, February 23rd at 1.30pm as part of their Winter Lecture Series. Reservations are required because space is limited – please call 413-267-9654 or email here to reserve a seat.
Established in 1939 by Alfred D. Norcross (founder of the Norcross Greeting Card Company) who bought up farmland around his family’s property to create a sanctuary for wildlife and native plants being displaced due to development. He was an early member of the plant conservation movement — alarmed at the massive northeast building boom of the 1920 and 1930s eating up fields, woods and wetlands, he was one of the first to do a native plant “rescue” — removing most of the plants from a New Jersey pine barren about to be bulldozed, and transporting them to his sanctuary. Just before the Swift River of Massachusetts was cleared and flooded to build the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930s, Norcross went in with trucks and removed thousands of the native plants and rehomed them at Norcross, where many of them still flourish.
It’s worth coming back to Norcross during the warm season though. The sanctuary gardens represent a wide variety of the different natural habitats found across New England, including wet and dry meadows, ponds and streams, sand-plains, upland and wet woods, plus cultivated culinary, herb and rose gardens near the visitors’ center. If you’re looking for natural plant combination ideas and inspiration for your own garden conditions, a trip to Norcross is definitely worth the drive!
Enjoy this short virtual tour of some of the beautiful native plant habitats at Norcross:
This white-flowering Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) growing with the grass-like sedge (Carex). This calming, pollinator-friendly combination is easy to replicate in a small area with moist to wet soil and sun:
Norcross is home to the biggest patch of black bugbane (Actaea racemosa) that I’ve ever seen. I think this area looks like a spooky wood when the cohosh is blooming:
A large old millpond on the property is being encouraged back into native shoreline plant communities. In summer, you can see the beautiful blooms of Plymouth gentian (Sabatia kennedyana), a plant native to freshwater ponds near the coast — now very rare in the wild due to development on New England’s coastline.
Sandy, well-drained soils:
Because Norcross deeded his property as a permanent wildlife and plant sanctuary, no hunting is allowed at Norcross, which puts the sanctuary staff in the awkward position of trying to protect native understory plants from being overgrazed by the abundant population of white-tailed deer.
Unfortunately, deer fencing in certain wooded areas has been the only solution to allow native “deer candy” such as trilliums, lilies, Canada mayflower and most woody native shrubs to flourish. In the rest of the sanctuary, deer have grazed most of the native understory layer out of existence, and careful management is needed by sanctuary staff to ensure that these areas don’t fill with invasive non-natives such as barberry, burning bush and Asiatic bittersweet.
If you’re visiting Massachusetts or northern Connecticut, come visit the sanctuary, walk the trails, attend a free class or even take a free van tour of the sanctuary (pre-booking required). Afterwards, visit the town of Monson and stop for lunch. They’ll appreciate the business. Monson was hit very hard during the Tornado that blew a terrifying path across southern MA on June 1st, 2011. The photo below was taken over a year after the tornado hit — all the houses and trees on this hillside were destroyed. The homes have now been rebuilt, but it will be many years until the woods will fill in again.
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