Rock: The Best Thing about Vermont

by Becky Cushing

I’m not a geologist, but recently I learned a thing or two about Vermont bedrock that bumps it above maple syrup or cheese on Vermont’s “Best of” List.

By nature, I ask a lot of questions: What trees are those? How deep is this soil? What bird lives in that nest? Turns out, a lot of the answers are directly or indirectly related to the kind of rock below. And in Vermont, those are calcium-rich rocks—which create an alluring hotspot for many cool, rare or economically important plants.

Picture Vermont 500 million years ago, covered by a vast ocean full of planktonic organisms—a primordial soup. Over time, generations of these tiny organisms died and their bodies drifted to the seafloor laying down sediment full of calcium. When the land shifted and the ocean receded, these compressed sediments formed the basis for the calcareous bedrock of today’s Champlain Valley, mostly dolostone.

So what’s the deal with calcium? Plants need it for metabolism and structure, just like we do. It also helps to raise the pH of the soil (thus lowering the acidity). The chemistry gets a little complicated—but find enlightenment (like I did) in a bottle of Tums. Calcium carbonate, well-known for soothing heartburn, also neutralizes acidity in soil making it more alkaline. Who cares? Bacteria, for starters. And those rascals are necessary for making nitrogen available to plants. In fact, under acidic conditions many nutrients give plants the cold shoulder—instead they’re hooking up with each other or leaching out of plants’ reach. Where dolostone (or limestone) is close to the surface (thanks to several glaciations and years of other erosive processes) these nutrients are more willing.

Farmers have known this forever and call neutral or alkaline soils “sweet.” Plant biologists know it too. I’m embarrassed to admit it took nearly a semester of botany for me to pick up on the pattern of our field trip locations—calcareous bedrock stared me straight in the eye.

Maidenhair Fern

Maidenhair fern near Gleason Brook (photo courtesy of Ryan Morra)

For instance, check out the Long Trail near Gleason Brook in Bolton, VT. If you park in the lot off of Duxbury Rd. and hike up a quarter mile or so, you will start to see telltale plants of calcium-enriched soils like maidenhair fern, wood nettle, blue cohosh, plantain-leaved sedge and white baneberry (doll’s eyes). Sugar maple, white ash, basswood and hophornbeam dominate the tree canopy while striped maples sit eagerly in the understory. Stay on the trail to find the dense patch of pale touch-me- not, an irregular pale yellow flower, at the base of a steep slope on the south side of the trail. Here the downward movement of soil and nutrients from the upper slope along with the exposed calcareous bedrock create a double whammy of plant nutrient bliss. Scientists describe this type of vegetative community as a Rich Northern Hardwood Forest—sounds fancy but Vermonters are spoiled with this natural community-type in ample abundance.

Wood Nettle

Wood nettle near Gleason Brook (photo courtesy of Ryan Morra)

Vermont’s best-kept secret, dolostone, has broader implications than satisfying curious botanizers. Conservation planners, for instance, can use geologic surveys to identify potential priority areas for rare plants among Vermont’s varying bedrock landscape. If you travel a few miles farther on the Long Trail up toward the summit of Camel’s Hump your heartburn might return—the rock transitions to more resistant igneous and metamorphic rocks resembling the bedrock geology of our neighbors to the east in “The Granite State.” At the summit’s rare (seemingly masochistic) alpine plants thrive under harsh, acidic conditions—yet another botanical treat thanks to the state’s multifarious geologic past. Motley geology begets vegetative diversity.

So, next time you douse your pancakes with maple syrupy goodness, take a moment to thank the nutrient-rich soil conditions integral to the Sugar maple-dominated forest community of Vermont.

And remember the best—and oldest—thing about Vermont is the rock.

 

 

  • Helikopterflug

    December 10th, 2011

    Even if you’re not a Geologist Becky, you still don’t fail your readers! I’ve read several posts about the best of Vermont and this one is definitely going on to the top of the list as you’ve said!

    • Becky

      December 18th, 2011

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! What continues to amaze me is how much Vermont’s rock influences the other things I love about the state (small farms, diverse vegetation, maple syrup…) and yet the rock isn’t always acknowledged as a crucial piece of the landscape. I’m happy someone else will vote for the rocks! Thanks for reading~

  • Augenlidstraffung

    November 25th, 2011

    I must say that aside from rocks, Vermont’s vegetation is another thing that makes it a hot-spot for tourists such as myself.. Just looking at your photos makes me want to go there now!

    Looking forward to your next gallery Becky!

    • Becky

      December 18th, 2011

      Thank you for reading! I completely agree that the vegetation is another aspect of Vermont that makes it so special. Having recently moved here I’m learning new plants all the time (my most recent favorite is the walking fern).

      I’m glad you enjoyed the photos — one of my fellow grad students Ryan Morra took those on one of our field botany excursions.

      Maybe my next post should be about plants?

  • Andrew

    November 15th, 2011

    Nice work Becky!

    • Becky

      December 18th, 2011

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Ralph Horsely

    November 6th, 2011

    Fantastic post!

  • Bob Vessels

    November 5th, 2011

    Uh Oh My favorite ornithologist has become a botanist. Talk about reading the landscape! Ian McHarg would be proud of you. You are on your way to designing with nature.

    • Becky

      November 10th, 2011

      Thanks, Bob! Don’t worry, I still love birds, too.

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