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Discover Occoneechee’s fern glade on Labor Day

2010 September 2

New York fern frond tapers at top and bottom. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore, Columnist

Those of you who remain home-based during the Labor Day weekend can enjoy a half-day mountain adventure finding the fern glade at the base of Occoneechee Mountain just west of Hillsborough.
I visited the mountain on Sunday to see if the fern glade is surviving the heat and drought. That glade of New York ferns, Thelypteris noveboracensis, is still impressive.

As the above photo illustrates, the pale-green fern frond tapers at top and bottom. I remember a mountain lady years ago describing an easy way to remember this fern. “If you think of New Yorkers ‘burning their candles at both ends’ you’ll never forget New York fern!” That notion remains with me, though now I believe we all tend to move too quickly to take time to notice ferns.

My preferred walk to the fern glade is following the Mountain Loop trail clockwise beginning beneath the giant white oaks at the visitor parking area. Trail maps are in the opposite direction near the ranger’s residence. My recommended clockwise trail meanders leisurely along contours up and down around the 867-foot mountain.

Early on, you’ll notice the forest floor carpeted green with thousands of seedlings of rock chestnut oak, Quercus montana. Take time to contemplate how many of those little trees will manage to become a specimen like the parent trees above. Last season’s acorn crop was unbelievable. This year’s will most likely be sparse, but later in the fall you may spot some chestnut oak acorns, which are the size of pecans.

As you move along, it’s fun to “read the landscape,” imagining what occurred in this forest in decades past. Take a closer look at all those chestnut oaks that dominate the several ridges you cross as you proceed around the mountaintop. Most of those deeply grooved tree trunks occur as multi-trunked specimens, probably stump sprouts from a long-ago fire. Occoneechee has a history of fire; parts of the mountain show evidence of fire within the past decade.

My favorite tree is a mighty old specimen that spreads upward from a hollowed central base of five trunks. Can you think of other disturbances for such a tree response?

Continuing down to the north side of the mountain, you walk through an understory of mountain laurel, which you will want to see early next May when they are in flower. Just beyond your intersection with the Eno riverside trail, you will find yourself approaching the fern glade. Sit on one of the huge tree trunks along the trail to soak in that sweep of ferns. It’s not unlike being in the Carolina mountains. Return here in April to find a sea of mayapples and Jack-in-the-pulpits.

Your climb back to the parking area takes you along a power line cut, where “power-line botany” is fun. Most notable in flower now are clumps of licorice goldenrod, Solidago odora. Crunch and smell a leaf. It makes a refreshing herbal tea, and this goldenrod is available at native plant nurseries as a fine garden plant.

You’ll make more discoveries before finishing your walk.

Exploring Occoneechee Mountain is worth doing each month of the year.

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