Wildflower garden is ideal for strolls -- plays educational and preservation roles, too

Yes, there is a native New England cactus. It's a smallish variety of prickly pear indigenous to the region's far-from-desertlike southern coast. And if you drive out to the New England Wildflower Society's ``Garden in the Woods'' at the right time in June, you might see it burst into bright-yellow bloom. The rather reserved ``Yankee'' cactus, prickles and all, is nestled among 1,500 varieties of flora lining the trails that wind through the garden's 45 acres, 15 to 20 of which are heavily planted. Thousands of visitors have hiked these trails over the years, but the garden remains a lesser-known local attraction, tucked away in a relatively obscure corner of this sprawling suburban community of 65,000.

``The garden blooms continuously from the time we open, mid-April, to Oct. 31,'' says Barbara Pryor, publicity coordinator and tour director. The first thing to flower, she explains, are the pale-pink Christmas roses that come up through the snow.

``Everything is full of treats for those who are observant,'' she adds, pointing to some pink lady-slippers congregated in a shady spot. Farther along the sloping trail are a couple of their rarer yellow cousins.

Pink -- great flaming bursts of it -- dominates the garden this particular late-May afternoon. The azaleas are brilliant, their mounds of color providing a kind of luxurious ice-cream sundae for the eyes. But seasoned garden observers like Mrs. Pryor don't let the bigger shows blot out the smaller wonders here. She bends down to inspect a delicate white foamflower. Not far away is a low-lying patch of ``green and gold,'' a pleasing but unspectacular native New Englander. ``They make wonderful plants for people's gardens,'' Mrs. Pryor notes.

That, in fact, is one of the chief reasons this magnificent public garden exists -- to make people aware of the region's native plants, and of how well they can be combined with other varieties in home gardens to produce appealing arrays of green and color.

``We want to promote the appropriate use of native plants,'' explains garden director David Longland. Typically, such plants aren't available at a commercial garden center, he says, or they'll be vastly outnumbered by the non-native varieties. Garden in the Woods has many types of New England plant life for sale every day, and each June it holds a gala plant sale patronized by gardeners from all over the state. That day -- June 8 this year -- is like a horticultural carnival, says the director, with over 150 varieties of wildflowers on sale, plus many other items.

Longland also points out that Garden in the Woods is one of 18 botanical gardens around the United States actively involved in an effort to save endangered plant species. The idea is to cultivate the threatened plants -- building a ``genetic reservoir,'' Longland says -- in case their natural habitats are later obliterated.

Back on the trails with Mrs. Pryor, we pass from a section where native flowers and shrubs are mixed with ``exotic,'' or imported, varieties into an area devoted entirely to the natives. The milieu here is more subdued, even more like a natural setting.

Dividing the areas is a levee-like geological formation called an esker, which marks an ice-age riverbed. From its crown, one can survey the dipping, hilly nature of the land.

Mrs. Pryor explains that the garden's creator, landscape architect Will Curtis, was particularly taken with the terrain, because its quick ups and downs provide ``mini-climates'' suitable for a wide variety of plants. Also, the lower sections stay colder in the winter, making it less likely that plants will go through destructive freeze-thaw-refreeze cycles.

Mr. Curtis lived here from the inception of the garden in 1933 until his passing in 1969. He was a pioneering plant conservationist, and the garden bears his mark in its naturalistic layout and in such key features as the pond that he dug by hand.

Mrs. Pryor observes: ``We hope people will appreciate the beauty, and realize how easy it would be to destroy it.''

Garden in the Woods, which can be reached from either Route 20 through Sudbury or from Edgell Road in Framingham, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 to 4, and closed Monday. Admission is $3.50 for adults and $2.50 for children and seniors. -- 30 --

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