“And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.”
– the Faery Queen to
Thomas of Erceldoune, in the ballad
“Thomas the Rhymer” (Anonymous)
I’m not sure what it is exactly, but there’s something that feels a wee bit magical about happening upon a dense patch of ferns while hiking in the woods. It just seems like the sort of habitat that the Fae Folk would favor whenever they cross over into our mortal world. A more mundane attraction just uncurling about the “ferny brae” this time of year are the fuzzy fiddleheads, which are easily foraged and make a nice stir-fry ingredient.
There are plenty of places in the Gunks and Catskills where you can find ferns growing en masse, but a hiking destination in Dutchess County actually boasts a spot enticingly named Fern Glen. These two acres of the 2,000-acre campus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook feature a meandering boardwalk with interpretive signage, a pond and a picnic-friendly observation deck overlooking Wappinger Creek, all designed to facilitate your enjoyment of native plant communities.
The Trail Reports page on the Institute’s website will tell you what species of flowers, birds, butterflies and other natural wonders are currently appearing in the Fern Glen and along the site’s other four walking trails. All of these are under a mile-and-a-half in length and visit a variety of ecosystems from upland forest to meadow to wetland. More than 126 bird species have been spotted in the Lowlands area alone, so bring your binoculars. A trail map and bird and butterfly checklists can be downloaded from the website.
The Cary Institute’s trail system is open to the public from sunrise to sunset through October 31, with no admission fee. The campus’ internal roadway system and some of the trails are also accessible to bicycles; the gates open at 8:30 a.m. and are locked at 7 p.m.
Originally established as an arboretum, the Institute is home to a research complex, analytical laboratories, an environmental monitoring station, classrooms, an education department and an auditorium. The latter hosts a lively series of lectures and film screenings that are open to the public, and the talk scheduled for this Friday evening will focus on another intriguing member of the plant kingdom: the ginkgo tree.
The ginkgo is a living fossil, one of the earliest “modern” trees to evolve, contemporaneously with the dinosaurs; and it’s a tough customer, adaptable to a wide variety of harsh and disturbed environments. Nowadays Ginkgo biloba is commonly planted along city streets, on account of its ability to thrive even in places polluted by automobile exhaust fumes and road salt. Insect- and disease-resistant, it tolerates drought, root-crowding and neglect.
If you have ever lived in Manhattan, you’ve probably noticed elderly Chinese men raking the ripe nuts out of ginkgo branches, and you’ve likely enjoyed those nuts in dishes like Buddha’s Delight yourself. You’ve probably also noticed the horrible odor that fallen ginkgo nuts exude when mashed and rotting on the sidewalk, due to their butyric acid content; but on balance, the bright gold autumnal color of the tree’s foliage still makes it an attractive urban neighbor.
Herbal supplements containing an extract of ginkgo have enjoyed great popularity in recent decades as a treatment for memory loss and dementia (though studies have shown that they won’t actually stave off Alzheimer’s disease, as once hoped). Ginkgo is the national tree of China and the emblem of the city of Tokyo, and its graceful fan-shaped leaves are often used as a decorative motif in textiles and jewelry.
In his book Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot (Yale University Press), Dr. Peter Crane, dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and professor of Botany at Yale, explores the history of the ginkgo from its mysterious origin through its proliferation, drastic decline and ultimate resurgence. Crane also highlights the cultural and social significance of the ginkgo: its medicinal and nutritional uses; its power as a source of artistic and religious inspiration; and its importance as one of the world’s most popular street trees. He’ll be lecturing on the subject this Friday, May 23 at 7 p.m. at the Cary Institute.
Admission to Dr. Crane’s talk on the ginkgo is free, but early arrival is recommended to make sure that you’ll get a seat. The Cary Institute Auditorium is located at 2801 Sharon Turnpike (Route 44) in Millbrook. Whether you’re headed for a lecture or a stroll through Fern Glen, just don’t rely on your GPS, GoogleMaps or MapQuest to get you there, since they have a tendency to send you to the wrong road. Check out the event schedule and download trail guides at www.caryinstitute.org.
“Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot” lecture with Dr. Peter Crane, Friday, May 23, 7 p.m., trails open sunrise-sunset, free, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, 2801 Sharon Turnpike (Route 44), Millbrook; www.caryinstitute.org.