Here’s what’s blooming in town this week to make your walks more enjoyable
Today is an important date in town history. On February 17, 1815, the area which is now Saugus officially separated from Lynn and became incorporated as its own town. Saugus had been the native American name for the overall area, including what is still known as Lynn, but the settlements around the present Saugus Center had been called the West Parish once a new meeting house was built.
Nationally, we are at the start of a long weekend, since Monday is Presidents’ Day when we celebrate George Washington’s birthday (actually Feb. 22) and Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 12). The thin sheet of ice which has off and on covered parts of our ponds this winter has once again melted. With the warm temperatures of recent days, perhaps we will soon be celebrating the bloom of some of the first bulbs, such as snowdrops.
The most common seagull species, the American herring gull (Larus smithsonianus or Larus argentatus smithsonianus), always makes me think of summer days at the beach, but they are actually year round residents. You will surely see them on coastal walks at any time of year, and even some distance inland as they also are often found on freshwater ponds and even large parking lots, where they may congregate on the pavement or perch on the lampposts. Herring gulls are scavengers and can eat a wide range of foods. Their natural diet consists mostly of small fish and shellfish, and they can often be seen flying over rocks and concrete to drop clams and break their shells. They also seem quite happy to eat leftover food from people’s outdoor meals, and sometimes scavenge in dumpsters for leftover French fries and pizza. While they can eat bread and crackers, this could not be a very nutritious diet for them.
Given how often they are seen today, and how well adapted they appear to the presence of people, it may be surprising to think that they were fairly scarce in the 19th century due to people collecting their eggs, and in the early 20th century their eggs were among the most impacted by DDT, making the shells fragile and likely to break before the chicks hatched. In the latter part of the 20th century, the gull population rebounded but now seems to have leveled off somewhat. European herring gulls are very similar in appearance to our birds, but scientists disagree on how closely related they actually are, a controversy reflected in the two different scientific names that are used.
Herring gulls most often nest on islands, like Egg Rock off the coast of Lynn and Nahant, but also on cliff edges and even rooftops on the mainland at times. Gulls can often be seen in Saugus sitting near the river waiting for the lobster boats, swimming in the tidal parts of the river or on ponds like Birch Pond and in large parking lots along Route 1.
It takes four years for a bird to mature from hatching age to an adult of breeding age. Immature birds have brownish speckled patterns on their feathers, while mature birds are mostly white with gray wings and black and white patterned tails. They are large birds, often a little over two feet in length.
One of the tree features that can be most appreciated in winter is interesting bark colors and textures. While New England’s iconic paper birch (Betula papyrifera) does not tend to have a long lifespan in southern New England due to a couple of insect pests, we do have bright white bark on the native gray birch (Betula populifolia), which is fairly common in this area. The peach to grayish colored peeling bark on some river birch varieties, especially ‘Heritage’ river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’) can be seen in many landscapes from residential gardens to commercial sites on Route 1.
A little more unusual is the peeling cinnamon colored bark on the paperbark maple (Acer griseum). Two trees of this species near the front entrance of the Senior Center may be the best examples in Saugus. During the growing season, they have compound foliage with three leaflets, which is common on many Asian maples but not what we usually think of when we picture maple leaves here. Paperbark maple is native to central China. The foliage turns bright red in fall. Like all maples, the fruit is a winged seed known as a samara, which can whirl away in the wind to disperse seeds to new growing sites but may in some cases linger on the branches for several months.
Editor’s Note: Laura Eisener is a landscape design consultant who helps homeowners with landscape design, plant selection and placement of trees and shrubs, as well as perennials. She is also a member of the Saugus Garden Club and offered to write a series of articles about “what’s blooming in town” shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was inspired after seeing so many people taking up walking.