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Town Analyses > Dummerston > Ecological Landscape

Plant Communities

For a small town, Dummerston has a mosaic of vegetative patterns, thanks to its diverse topography, bedrock composition, hydrology, and the work of human hands. From a general point of view, the lands on the eastern side of town rest in the fertile, low-lying valley of the Connecticut River and thus have been subject to almost continuous cultivation by generations of Dummerston farmers. Towards the western side of town agriculture persists too, but there is considerably less, and it is tucked in amongst large tracts of forest that blanket rolling hills and narrow ravines. There are also waterways like the West River and Stickney Brook, and their associated swampy backwaters where shrubs and brambles grow wild.

More specifically, in the northeastern part of town are some lovely forest communities characterized by tree and herbaceous species that favor high-nutrient soils. Plants like the white ash, basswood, and sugar maple, maidenhair fern, blue cohosh, and wild leeks all thrive there. Much of the underlying bedrock contains abundant quantities of calcium-carbonate which gives rise to these ‘rich' or ‘sweet' soil settings. Black Mountain, on the other hand, is a comparably poor substrate. The hill is composed of a large dome of granite, with few nutrients and scarce cracks in which water can accumulate. These austere conditions create a microenvironment that supports the Pitch Pine-Oak-Heath Rocky Summit community, a rare natural community in Vermont. Down at the base of the mountain, where the West River courses through the valley, is another rare plant assemblage: the River Cobble Shore community. Frequent flooding, shifting of the rock and sand substrate, and ice scouring all make for a dynamic setting in which few plants can grow, one of them being the rare sand cherry. More commonly seen throughout town are the early successional forest communities dominated by white birch, like the one you'll find out on Prospect Hill. In order to regenerate, which birch requires full sunlight and exposed soil. Therefore, you will often see these young forest stands in areas that are regrowing from a relatively recent major disturbance such as logging, or storm damage. As the forest matures, the white birch eventually dies out and gives way to other trees such as maples, beech, and hemlock.

Today when we look out the window at the Dummerston landscape we see a patchwork of plant communities like the ones described above, fragmented by human structures such as roadways and houses, most notably in the village centers. Yet the current composition and distribution of these plants has not been static through time. When Europeans first arrived in the area, the great majority of the countryside was covered in a heavy cloak of mature, old-growth forests, with beech trees being the prominent species. As colonial settlement spread across the land and forests were cleared for cultivating crops and raising livestock, the vegetation patterns changed drastically, with open fields replacing the ancient forests.

Hardwood Forest

Hardwood forest in Dummerston

By the mid-late 19th century, at the height of Vermont agriculture, so much land had been cleared that as much as 75% of the Dummerston countryside may have been open fields. Since the early 1900s there has been a steady decline in agriculture in the region, and a good portion of Dummerston's old farmlands have reverted to forest. This time, however, other plant species like the white pine – which are especially good at colonizing open, sunny fields – have prospered, while beech are present is lesser numbers. One legacy of this farming heritage can be found in the large-diameter trees that stand alone with low, widespread branches in the middle of younger forests. These ‘wolf' trees, like the giant dead sugar maple on Prospect Hill, are silent witnesses to a time when the land was open pasture, and cattle rested in the shade of a lone tree's spreading branches.

As for non-human impacts, wind, ice, floodwaters, fire, and insects are other disturbance factors which have in the past and continue to manipulate the local occurrences of plant species across the landscape. At the regional and even global scales, climatic variations in temperature and precipitation can result in dramatic shifts in plant distribution. Remember, too, that individual ecosystem components are not isolated entities; every facet of the landscape is intricately in contact and connection with many others. Consequently, like a rock dropped into a pond, changes in vegetative patterns ripple outward and have long-term effects on the associated wildlife and human populations.

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