Four-toed Salamanders

In 2009, Andrew Mckenna-Foster, Director of Natural Science at the Maria Mitchell Association, found the very first record of a four-toed salamander for Nantucket in the vicinity of Sesachacha Pond! Andrew was working on another project at the time and incidentally found the four-toed salamander underneath a plywood board meant to attract snakes. Up to that point, it was presumed that our only salamander species on island was the ubiquitous red-backed salamander, a species very commonly found in the early spring underneath logs and leaf-litter in our forests.


Juvenile red-backed salamanders

In the following few years, Andrew searched for other specimens of the four-toed salamander and found a few on NCF’s Squam Farm and Squam Swamp properties. With a permit from the state of Massachusetts, Andrew was able to collect two specimens to deposit in the Maria Mitchell collection and at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, thereby officially documenting the species as occurring in Nantucket County. While searching for these specimens, Andrew and his assistant also found a nesting female with eggs in Squam Swamp!

This spring, NCF decided to follow up on Andrew’s work to try to learn more about this species on our properties. We searched Squam Swamp with the goal of documenting which wetlands were important to four-toed salamanders, how big the population might actually be, and locate nesting females. To date, we’ve found more than 100 nesting females, each with approximately 15-20 eggs! Not bad for a species that we didn’t even know existed on island just a few years ago!

Four-toeds are very small salamanders that are distinguished from other species by having an orangey-brown back, a distinct constriction at the base of the tail and a beautiful white belly speckled with black flecks. As the name implies, they only have four tiny toes on their hind feet. Females are slightly larger than males.


Female four-toed salamander showing constriction at the base of the tail


Underside of a male four-toed salamander

Four-toed salamanders have quite specific habitat requirements. They spend the winter underground often with other male and females of the same species, as well as with red-backed salamanders. They emerge in the very early spring and migrate to dense shrubby wetlands with large hummocks of Sphagnum moss. The females generally lay 10-20 eggs in the moss and brood their nests until hatching. We found several instances of communal nesting where multiple females laid in the same location but only one female tends the entire nest of 50-60 eggs! The eggs develop quickly and hatch within 35-40 days. The larvae drop directly in to the water and feed until metamorphosis. At this point, the juveniles, which look like very small adults, will leave the wetlands and head for the forest floor to hide under loose bark, downed logs and leaf-litter.


Typical four-toed salamander habitat

While nesting of four-toed salamanders is nearly complete already for the spring of 2015, NCF plans to continue searching for wetlands in the Squam area that host populations of this species in the spring of 2016!

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Spring Happenings at Squam Farm

By Connie Helstosky, NCF Sheep Grazing Project Technician

Greetings from Squam Farm! This past fall I made the decision to not breed the ewes. Therefore, there will be no lambs this year out at Squam Farm. I do look forward to lambing in the future. As I learn more about targeted grazing and the unique goals for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation Squam Farm sheep program, I have found myself thankful that there are no lambs on their way to dominate my time in the early growing season. Finally, with this difficult winter I am happy that the sheep could put all of their energy into staying warm and healthy.

Winter Sheep watermarkedWith the flock growing in size over the past few years, winter holding pastures have been used heavily and could benefit from a rest. With that in mind, a new two acre pasture is currently being permanently fenced in. This pasture will run along the public trail and will be ideal for sheep viewing in all seasons. Richard and Donnie Mack from our Properties Maintenance Crew have been hard at work drilling and setting posts, which eventually will be attached to metal fencing. This will provide us with a hardy, all season fence that can withstand the rigors of Nantucket weather! Be sure to take a walk around Squam Farm and check out the new permanent fence.

Donnie and Richard watermarked

The predominant form of fencing used out on the Squam Farm property is a series of plastic posts with four strands of electric wire. This type of fencing, characterized by its orange and black colors, can be moved all over the property. It is impermanent and can be put in and taken out of the ground quite easily. Be careful when viewing the sheep from outside the impermanent fence, because the fence will be hot! This means that a battery charger will be hooked up to the wires keeping the sheep safe inside, but will give you a jolt if you accidentally touch it.

Sheep in Smart Fence July 3 2014 watermarked

I have been very surprised at how different farming can be in different parts of the northeast. From varying soils to different micro-climates, every farm is unique. My first desire when I began this job was to get an idea of what the soils on Squam Farm looked like. Therefore, I sampled all of the permanent pastures where the sheep spend the winter months and are also used in the fall breeding and spring lambing seasons. The results showed various mineral deficiencies, which is quite common in Nantucket’s sandy soils. Across the board I saw low Calcium and low Sulfur. Therefore, after speaking with a couple agronomists and doing some basic arithmetic, I was able to calculate the required soil amendments to bring up the levels of Calcium and Sulfur. In this case, I will be spreading pelletized lime and gypsum within the permanently fenced pastures at Squam Farm. The reason I chose the pelletized form is due to the fact that the wind out at Squam can be strong and I would hate to lose the lime to a good gust. The hope and what science supports is that once the calcium is in the soil it will promote good bacterial growth and will make nutrients more available to the plants.

Sheep in chute watermarked

With more of the macro and micro nutrients available, the plants will then incorporate these nutrients into its tissues which the sheep then eat. Therefore, by increasing the overall health of the soil, you can in turn increase the overall health of the sheep flock, and reduce supplementation requirements. In order to monitor how liming and adding gypsum to the fields will affect some of the native plants, a project has been created. Throughout the upcoming growing season, the science team and I will monitor a 5 acre pasture. One half of the field will be spread with lime and gypsum, and the other half will not. We will monitor biodiversity throughout the coming season and into the future in order to determine how the plant species in the pasture are being affected by these particular soil amendments.

In order to keep the sheep healthy during the grazing season, I have been trimming hooves, de-worming, and vaccinating – all in hopes that the grass will be growing soon and I can put the flock out to work. In addition, it is the time of year when the sheep get their annual haircuts! Shearing is scheduled for the third Saturday in April (weather permitting), so if you would like to come out and see a sheep shearer in action, be sure to stop by the farm on Saturday April 18th.

Sheep and Lambs Spring 2011 002 watermarked

Finally, I would love to hear any and all feedback from you, or just about your happy memories out at Squam Farm. As I look toward the future of the program, I plan to incorporate NCF’s land management goals with the community’s interests and my own personal hopes in order to formulate a holistic management plan. The NCF sheep project is a unique program that benefits many, including the land and community of Nantucket Island. I have truly enjoyed the challenges and successes over the past six months and look forward to learning a whole new skill set as the growing season approaches!

Thanks, and I hope everyone has a wonderful and healthy spring!

Connie (I can be reached at

Connie with Sheep Nov 2014002

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us!


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Controlling Phragmites with Salinity

*This research was recently published in the journal Wetland Science and Practice. The full article is available here: PhragmitesGreenhouseWSP

Among invasive, non-native wetland plants in North America, Common reed (Phragmites australis); commonly just called Phragmites is king; forming dense monocultures and crowding out native plants. A variety of this species is native to North America, but the non-native variety has been invading and choking out native vegetation in wetlands all across the country. Nantucket is no exception with large stands of Phragmites seen at Hummock Pond, Long Pond, the Creeks and various smaller wetlands around the island.

Medouie Creek, dominated by the non-native grass Phragmites australis

Medouie Creek, dominated by the non-native grass Phragmites australis

Once Phragmites becomes established, it can be very difficult to eradicate, particularly without more impacts to the wetland. Direct, judicious application of herbicide to cut stems can be effective and reduces the amount of herbicide used and minimizes impacts to other native plants but it is also very time and labor intensive. Plants can be dug up and removed although this causes severe destruction of the wetland soil. Phragmites is typically a freshwater plant and some studies and projects have shown a dramatic impact just by applying salt water to the plants. Phragmites can be very variable in its response to increased salinity with some plants seeming to survive ate moderate salinity levels and some dying back immediately upon exposure.

In 2008, NCF initiated a large-scale salt marsh restoration project at our Medouie Creek property  with the goal to reestablish salt marsh hydrology to a wetland that had been historically diked by a road (Figure 1). Previous blog posts have talked about what this restoration looked like and it’s impacts on native species, including the spotted turtle. One key driver in planning this restoration project was to reduce a large population of Phragmites (~ 3.9 acres) that had invaded the diked, freshwater dominated area of the marsh (Figure 1).

Medouie Overview 2014

Figure 1: Aerial photo overview of the Medouie Creek restoration project showing the location of the Phragmites population before restoration and six years post restoration.

Restoring salt water to Medouie increased salinity in the soil and dramatically decreased the density and health of the Phragmites population over the past seven years. Even though the Phragmites has been diminished, it still covers a large area at Medouie (~2.9 acres) so we decided to conduct an experiment to determine at what level of salinity Phragmites stems specifically growing at Medouie are most impacted. Understanding the response of these local Phragmites plants to different salinity levels in a controlled environment provides us with better understanding of target salinity levels that need to be achieved at Medouie Creek to effectively control and/or drastically impact Phragmites.

Phragmites plants from Medouie were grown in pots at the NCF greenhouse and exposed to one of five different salinity levels (0, 10, 20, 30, or 40 ppt salinity – ocean water is typically between 30-32 ppt). The treatments were continued for two growing season and NCF staff monitored plant height, stem diameter, leaf number and leaf health over that time.

Phragmites at Greenhouse

Phragmites stems at the NCF greenhouse after 2 years of salinity treatments. Differences in height and flowering between the salt treatments are visually dramatic

Increased levels of salinity dramatically impacted both the size and health of Phragmites stems with a significant reduction in stem height and leaf number, particularly at salinity levels of 30 ppt and higher. The impacts of high levels of salinity were even more dramatic the second year of growth indicating that salinity effects on Phragmites growth are cumulative over time. Plants exposed to water with a salinity of 30 ppt or higher were much shorter and less robust than the other plants as can be very obviously seen in the above photo.

In the field, at Medouie Creek, salinity levels have been observed between 15-32 ppt (compared to 0-5 ppt before restoration); comparable to the experimental salinity levels that we saw negatively impacting the Phragmites. Currently these salinity levels are variable across the marsh and not consistent. Seven  years after opening a culvert under the dike road to increase salt water flow, the observed salinity levels are likely at their maximum and the chance of decreasing the Phragmites population even more is slim. Without additional dramatic increases in soil salinity, further impacts to the current Phragmites population are unlikely.


Photo taken in Medouie Creek among the Phragmites stems before restoration took place.


Photo taken from the exact same spot in Medouie in 2013, five years after restoration. The height and density of the Phragmites stems is dramatic but there is still more work needed to control this invasive.

Salinity  alone is not likely to be an effective control strategy unless the entire Phragmites population can be consistently exposed to adequate, increased salinity levels. At sites like Medouie Creek where the Phragmites population extends across a natural gradient of soil salinity levels, there will likely always remain a portion of the marsh favorable to Phragmites. Therefore, further management at Medouie Creek to control the Phragmites population could include opening up additional tidal access creeks to increase salinity throughout the marsh as well as targeted herbicide treatments to decrease and eliminate Phragmites located at sites exposed to lower, more tolerable salinity levels.



The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us!



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Less Shrubs and Moor Views

WM WRRP Mowing Shawkemo Hills Winter 2015 8

Take a walk in the northwestern portion of our vast Middle Moors property holdings this winter, and you will see that the landscape in this area has been opened up dramatically. This brushcutting management work is being undertaken by Foundation staff and is associated with our Middle Moors Wildland Fire Management Plan. The mutually-compatible goals of this project are to restore and manage rare, ecologically-significant sandplain grassland, heathland and scrub oak barren habitats while also reducing wildfire risk in areas that are adjacent to homes and other public infrastructure. This effort was initiated several years ago by the Foundation’s Board of Trustees and staff and is being implemented over multiple years as funding and equipment resources allow.

Fire and Pines

The unique landscapes of Nantucket’s conservation properties are valued and enjoyed for many reasons…..but what is not immediately apparent is that the native grasses, shrubs and trees within these areas are composed of highly flammable vegetation. These plants contains volatile oils and resins that are capable of producing extreme fire behavior when burned. The vast majority of these species not only exhibit fire adaptations, but actually require fire or some other type of disturbance for their continued existence. When vegetation such as this is located in close proximity to homes, roads, and utilities, wildfire professionals call it a “Wildland-Urban Interface Risk.” Nantucket’s risk factor is worsened by our 2 ½ hour ferry travel time, which significantly limits the ability of off-island fire fighters and equipment to arrive in time to assist in the event of a catastrophic wild fire.

WM Fecon Management Work Jan 2012 014

Several island and regional conservation groups, including the Foundation, conduct prescribed burning, brushcutting, and combinations of these activities to control and reduce shrub cover and promote the occurrence of sandplain grasslands and heathlands and their associated rare species (read more about our prescribed burn management activities in a previous blog post from May, 2014). The brushcutting work that the Foundation is undertaking requires a very hefty piece of highly-specialized equipment called a Fecon mulching tractor, which was purchased in 2012. This tractor has since been put to good use on our Head of the Plains property and in several locations within the Middle Moors, systematically widening out existing roadways or cutting strategic firebreaks through dense brush where no roads or trails exist. These breaks are designed to provide sufficiently large gaps in the vegetation that will slow the progress of wildfire and provide our fire department with a safe location from which to do fire suppression work.

Middle Moors E & W Firebreak Map for Blog Feb 2015

In order to avoid disturbing nesting birds and other wildlife, we limit the majority of our brushcutting efforts to the fall, winter and spring months. During these seasons, the lack of leaves on dense shrubs also affords increased visibility to the tractor operator so that large rocks and other natural obstructions can be avoided. This winter, we are focusing our efforts on completing fire break establishment and road widening within the northwestern section of the Middle Moors in the Shawkemo Hills area, just south of Folger’s Marsh and the Nantucket Shipwreck and Life Saving Museum. This management work will benefit the homes located along the southern side of Polpis Road that border our property, especially the North Pasture Lane subdivision.


Once these breaks are established, they will be regularly maintained by periodic mowing, possibly combined with strategic prescribed fire. Although the initial cut creates a large amount of shredded woody material that gets deposited on the ground as a thick layer of mulch, follow-up treatments will reduce this debris over time. The results of road edge mowing that has been taking place within the Middle Moors area for many years demonstrates that these areas will eventually be colonized by native grass and wildflower species. In fact, some of the largest populations of our state-listed rare plant species, including New England blazing star (Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae), eastern silvery aster (Symphyotrichum concolor) and sandplain blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium fuscatum) occur along open, sunny road edge habitats in the Middle Moors.

WM Road edge Liatris

Winter is a great time to get out into the moors and see some of these treated areas first-hand, right after they have been cut……and then come back this summer to see how beautiful these newly-opened landscapes look once the vegetation has greened up! If you like what you see, please consider making a contribution to our dedicated fund that supports this important work.

WM WRRP Mowing Shawkemo Hills Winter 2015 Panorama

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us!


Posted in Habitat Management, Prescribed Fire, Restoration, Sandplain Grasslands, Scrub Oak Barrens, Trees, Winter | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Meet Our New Sheep Grazing Project Technician!

Connie with Sheep Nov 2014002

We are very pleased to welcome Constance Helstosky to our year-round staff as our new Sheep Grazing Project Technician. Connie joined us in mid-November and has hit the ground running, taking on the many responsibilities associated with the care and maintenance of our current flock of 75 sheep at Squam Farm. Connie took over this position from our previous technician, Jessica Pykosz, who recently moved off-island with her husband to manage a historic working farm in Foster, Rhode Island. Jess did a fantastic job overseeing our sheep grazing and flock management for the past 5 years, and we wish her the very best of luck in her new endeavors.

Connie comes to us with a great deal of previous experience and enthusiasm for this unique and challenging position. She holds a B.S. Degree in Animal Science with a pre-veterinary concentration from the University of Delaware in Newark and has four years of post-college experience working in various farm and livestock-related capacities. Over the coming months, she will be overseeing the breeding of our sheep to produce a new crop of lambs this spring, rotationally grazing the flock on approximately 30 acres of upland pastures scattered around the Squam Farm property during the spring, summer and fall, and taking care of all aspects of the flock’s health, nutritional needs, and overall well-being.

If you see Connie out at Squam Farm, feel free to introduce yourself, welcome her to Nantucket, and ask questions! Below are some thoughts from her about her past experiences and how they relate to her new position with us:

I grew up in a suburb of Boston reading All Creatures Great and Small and dreaming of the day I would become a large animal veterinarian. I attended the University of Delaware and during my first semester I got a job on the dairy feeding calves. From that moment I gravitated toward being the farmer rather than the veterinarian. During my years at University I worked on farms producing everything from broccoli to ice-cream. All the while gaining practical knowledge and a thirst to know and do more. 

Once I returned from a final semester at Lincoln University in New Zealand, I began farming full time as a herdsman for a sheep and cow dairy in CT. From there I headed north to farm on various diversified livestock operations in Vermont. All the while learning, making mistakes, and taking in as much knowledge from older farmers as I could. 

My final job before heading to Nantucket was as a nutritional research technician for a 500 cow dairy located in Northern New York recognized as one of the top producing herds in the nation. From this job I gained more skills and experience thinking about the nutritional requirements of individual animals, and the interplay of efficiency and economics. 

I am very excited to join the team at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. I have been provided with a unique and wonderful opportunity to continue a successful project. I have found farming to be extremely frustrating when troubles arise that there is no chance to prepare for. However, no other occupation on earth provides those beautiful, perfect days in the hay field, or nursing a sick lamb back to health. The triumphs and beauty of an ancient lifestyle make every obstacle worth overcoming. To be a good farmer is to be a great land steward and I believe that through this unique opportunity I will learn to succeed at both. I look forward to the unique challenges farming on Nantucket will bring me, and I am grateful to be given a chance to continue the exceptional standard and quality of the sheep land management program on Squam Farm.

Sheep Squam Nov 2012 001

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us!


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Restoring Illegally Created Trails on Foundation Properties

Working for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Science and Stewardship Department, we spend a large portion of our time maintaining and restoring Foundation properties as favorable habitats for rare plants and animals through prescribed fire, sheep grazing and mowing to name a few techniques. Nantucket is home to very unique sandplain grassland habitats and supports the highest percentage of rare species in Massachusetts.

Northern Blazing Star (Liatris novae-angliae, Asteraceae) one of the rare plants seen at Tupancy Links

Northern Blazing Star (Liatris novae-angliae, Asteraceae) one of the rare plants seen at Tupancy Links

A great benefit of Foundation property is that, even though all of our properties are privately owned, we are able to make them available for public use in ways that are in harmony with our mission to protect and restore the unique habitats and plants and animals on this island. Nantucketers have a strong appreciation and respect for the natural beauty that makes Nantucket so special.

Open sandplain grasslands at Tupancy Links

Open sandplain grasslands at Tupancy Links

Occasionally and unfortunately though, we have to care for neglect on our properties caused by visitors.  Usually this is on a small scale: removing trash and landscaping waste piles from the Head of the Plains or cleaning up pallet piles from the Middle Moors before they can be used for bonfires.

And occasionally we find very blatant misuse of NCF properties that requires very time intensive work to restore.

This summer, in early July, a new trail appeared overnight at our Tupancy Links property in an area that never before had a trail.  The new trail was a very consistent width of dead plants (apparently killed overnight) indicating that someone likely illegally used herbicide to create this path.  This new trail, approximately 1/2 a mile long!, was in a previously and very purposefully undisturbed area of the property and, unfortunately, the time intensive restoration of this site is now up to NCF staff.

Danielle raking up illegally herbicided, dead plants before reseeding at Tupancy - the illegally created trail is visible stretching behind Danielle in the distance.  This is only a small portion of the disturbance.

Danielle raking up illegally herbicided, dead plants before reseeding at Tupancy – the illegally created trail is visible stretching behind Danielle in the distance.  This is only a small portion of the disturbance.

Why do we care? Tupancy is already very heavily used by dog walkers and the public, what does one more trail hurt?

There are a few major reasons, the first being that this is private property and alterations, particularly using herbicide, is illegal. Unregulated herbicide use can be harmful, not only to native species like the Northern Harrier but also particularly in areas where dogs and children have open access. The second is that, our Foundation staff puts a lot of careful work into deciding how our properties can best be used so that the public can enjoy them while also protecting natural habitats and plants and animals that we are responsible for. Tupancy is very intensively used in some places so we have purposely not put trails in other areas to avoid disturbing rare plants and maintain areas of continuous open space. Imagine what this island would look like if everyone decided to create trails wherever they wished. NCF staff puts a lot of time into carefully considering the location of trails and property access and blatant disregard for our hard work is pretty upsetting!

Kelly and Danielle fencing a newly restored and seeded trail at Tupancy to keep foot traffic off of it.

Kelly and Danielle fencing a newly restored and seeded trail at Tupancy to keep foot traffic off of it.

How will we restore this impacted area?  Kelly, Danielle, Karen and Jen (Science and Stewardship Staff) spent time this fall collecting seeds from the native grass, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). We then raked up all of the dead plant material in a section of the new trail, disturbed the soil a little bit to promote germination and laid down a thick cover of little bluestem seeds. We fenced off the areas we seeded to prevent anyone from walking on this area while the seed germinates. Little bluestem grass establishes and grows quickly when planted in either the fall or spring.  We also fenced off an area of the herbicided trail and did not seed it which will allow us to see what might happen to this trail on its own without seeding.  Because herbicide was used so extensively here, we are not sure if native plants will be able to easily re-establish.

Reseeded area, fenced for the winter. We will monitor grass growth next year and hope this trail is able to re-establish.

Reseeded area, fenced for the winter. We will monitor grass growth next year and hope this trail is able to re-establish.

We will keep monitoring this trail and working on more restoration and seeding in the spring.  The size of this disturbance means it might take us quite a while to successfully restore this site.

NCF has been able to protect and maintain large areas of Nantucket but we can’t be everywhere at once, so we need your help! Please, if you see activities on any of our properties that seem unusual or not in keeping with our mission to protect Nantucket’s natural spaces, contact the Foundation office (508) 228-2884!!




The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us!


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Botanizing on Nantucket

By: Katherine Culatta, Seasonal Botany/Ecology Field Assistant

Katherine with a really big cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum, Osmundaceae)

Katherine with a really big cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum, Osmundaceae)

One of the most exciting things that can happen to a botanist is to stumble across an unfamiliar plant and puzzle over its identity, working though guide books, dichotomous keys, and consultations with fellow plant enthusiasts.  When I’m solving the identity of mystery plants, I feel like a real-life botanical Sherlock Holmes.  It’s the same kind of rush you might get from solving a complex puzzle or reaching the end of a scavenger hunt, and it’s one of the reasons I first became interested in a career in botany.  Of course, mystery plants become fewer and farther between the more time you spend in one place.  It’s nice to walk along a trail and immediately recognize most of the plants you see, but the thrill of the chase is missing.

Luckily for me, this summer I got a chance to move over 700 miles, from mountains to coast, to reach Nantucket and ample opportunity to confront mystery plants as a botany and ecology field technician for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.  In fact, when I first arrived I was overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar plants and a bit clueless about where to start!  Fortunately, our resident plant expert Kelly Omand was there to introduce me to some of the more conspicuous plants familiar to anyone who has spent time observing the flora of Nantucket: Bayberry, Scrub Oak, Sweet Pepperbush, Little Bluestem, Blue-eyed Grass in the spring, Sickle-leaved Golden Aster in the summer, and Northern Blazing Star in the fall.  Once I was familiar with the most common plants, I was ready to start learning the less frequently seen members of Nantucket’s plant community.

Northern Blazing Star (Liatris novae-angliae, Asteraceae) at Squam Farm

Northern Blazing Star (Liatris novae-angliae, Asteraceae) at Squam Farm

The most definite and reliable resource that botanists use for plant identification is the dichotomous key.  Though dichotomous keys lack the ease and aesthetic appeal of a guide book with photographs or illustrations, they are superior for tough identifications because they offer detailed comparisons among similar species.  A dichotomous key is composed of many sets of paired questions about an unknown plant’s appearance, growth form, habitat, and other characteristics.  Each question answered narrows down the pool of potential plants that could fit the description of the unknown plant.  If a plant is truly a mystery, the best place to start is the very beginning of key, but with experience the plant family can often be determined without a key.  Recognizing family characteristics saves time in plant identification because it allows you to skip the portion of the dichotomous key designed to determine which family the unknown plant belongs to.  In taxonomic terms, a plant genus is a group of plant species defined by shared characteristics, with the genus name being the first in the Latin binomial (for example, the ‘Homo’ of ‘Homo sapiens’).  A plant family is the next larger classification that includes multiple genera and is based on characteristics shared by all the plants in the family.  For example, members of the grass family (Poaceae) have leaves with parallel veins that are divided into a stem-hugging sheath and a flattened blade, hollow stems, and specialized flowers arranged in spikelets.  Members of the daisy family (Asteraceae) have compound inflorescences made up of many smaller flowers, a specialized fruit type called a cypsela, and are usually non-woody.  Learning to recognize family characteristics is a useful botanical shortcut to get one step closer to figuring out the genus and species.

Grass specimens with a dichotomous key and hand lens (for magnifying small plant parts)

Grass specimens with a dichotomous key and hand lens (for magnifying small plant parts)

If you’d like to try keying out a plant, a full dichotomous key to the plants of New England is available online through the New England Wildflower Society. 

So, we’ve established that plant identification is a thrilling puzzle, but how does it fit into the larger goals of the Science and Stewardship department at NCF?  First and foremost, it is essential for land managers to know what species are present on their land and where they occur.  Plant identification is also crucial in assessing the effects of land management practices over time, or how natural forces such as deer activity might impact plant communities.

Part of my job this summer was to complete plant community sampling in the Middle Moors, Ram Pasture, Sanford Farm, and Squam Farm.  This entailed identifying and recording the abundance of plant species present in small plots or along transects designed to be representative of the larger landscape.  In the Middle Moors, community sampling focused around a population of Broom Crowberry (Corema conradii), a rare shrub most often found in open, disturbed coastal habitat.  Sections of habitat had been burned or mowed to assess how disturbance could promote or sustain Crowberry growth.  Community sampling at Ram Pasture and Squam Farm also took place in areas managed to promote open habitat- through fire at Ram Pasture, and sheep grazing at Squam Farm.  At Sanford Farm, monitoring was completed both inside and outside the large fenced-in area designed to prevent deer from eating vegetation.  Though deer clearly and visibly impact vegetation in areas where they feed, their exact impact on plant communities is uncertain.  Monitoring species composition in areas open and closed to deer will give us a better idea of how the deer population influences plant communities on Nantucket.

Data sheet used for vegetation monitoring. Abbreviated Latin names at left, with ‘X’ indicating species presence at each point along a line.

Data sheet used for vegetation monitoring. Abbreviated Latin names at left, with ‘X’ indicating species presence at each point along a line.

The data we collected this summer are interesting as a snapshot of the plant communities currently present in each location, but they become truly useful once they are put into the context of time.  This is achieved by compiling data sets from monitoring efforts over multiple years to assess how the plant community has (or hasn’t) changed over time and in response to management practices.   This information informs future decisions about land management on NCF properties.

Coastal sweet-pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia, Clethraceae) at Squam Forest

Coastal sweet-pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia, Clethraceae) at Squam Forest

I feel lucky to have found a place this summer where I could contribute to interesting long-term research.  I had a great time exercising my botany skills, learning a lot about coastal habitats, and working alongside some amazing biologists.  Farewell to Nantucket, and I hope we meet again!


The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us!


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