A Walk Around Woods Hole


Over the weekend, we visited Woods Hole near Falmouth, MA, which lies at the extreme southwest corner of Cape Cod. The area is well known for its renowned oceanographic research institutions and quintessential New England seaside scenery. For me, it is a deeply nostalgic place where my aunt would take me as a child, while working on her PhD in marine biology, and show me whatever marine life she could find. Time spent there left a lasting impression.

On Saturday, we decided take a short hike out to an area called The Knob–a piece of land gifted to the town of Falmouth in the 1970s as a bird sanctuary, which is now comprised of a meandering 1 mile walking trail along the beach. You can read more about the history of the Knob here.


We were graced with beautiful weather for mid-October, with sunny skies and temperatures in the low seventies. The Knob is surrounded by a quiet inlet filled with fishing vessels and sailboats. A short sandy beach leads up to sea grass and a small forest.


Lots of uprooted trees sit on the beach. This one must have looked wild as a living tree. I’m guessing from its curves that it was a conifer, maybe some sort of pine.


Like many beaches on the Cape, the dunes here show signs of serious erosion caused by weather, rising sea levels, and tourist activity.


This granite boulder had a large flake missing. I’m not sure how this happens but I would guess it has to do with freezing and thawing. Geologists are welcome to weigh in here. I took a few courses back in college but it’s been a while now..


This Asian shore crab, Hemigrapsus sanguineus, has beautiful speckled claws and characteristic dark and light banding on its appendages. Its square carapace is unlike the typical triangular shape on many New England crab species. This one was about 3 cm long.


This scallop shell was covered with common slipper shells (Crepidula fornicata). These mollusks exist in abundance on the Cape–some beaches are completely covered in empty slipper shells. They often fasten together in heaps consisting of multiple snails, barnacles, kelp and other creatures.


We walked inland towards a dense forest of oaks, cedars and sumac.


Roses sometimes have a reputation for being needy and fickle. One of my favorite plants, Rosa rugosa, is quite the opposite. Imported as an ornamental shrub from eastern Asia, the beach rose is well-suited to the hardships of costal living in temperate climates, and can be found thriving up and down the beaches of New England.

Its bright flowers and deep red hips are spotted in late summer and early autumn. The fruits can be peeled and eaten, or brewed into a tea, and are naturally high in vitamin C. Beach rose is resistant to many common rose pathogens, and lives happily in sunny gardens. It is invasive in Europe, where it prodigiously outcompetes native coastal species.


The white oaks (Quercus alba) in the area show signs of a dry summer–burnt edges and very little fall leaf color. I’d heard that this year’s leaf change would be unspectacular due to the lack of rain and the warm weather late in the season, but we were pleased to see lots of roadside color on the drive down to Falmouth.


Many of the coastal eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) take on beautiful windswept forms. They are much too large for bonsai, although I wouldn’t want to remove them from such a scenic location even if I could! The ones we saw were laden with berries.


New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-anglie) is a ubiquitous autumn-blooming wildflower and often considered an aggressive weed. It plays an important role for late season pollinators such as monarchs and bees, and many of its parts were once used by indigenous cultures for medicinal and food purposes.


Further in, the flora changes noticeably as woody species reach up towards the canopy.


I was excited to find a large stand of mature Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) about thirty feet tall. Unlike their typical shrub-like counterparts, these had grown into a maze of twisting trunks topped with bright yellow-green tufts of foliage. With their characteristic mitten-shaped leaves, they looked straight out of Dr. Seuss.


I’m so used to planting ornamental viburnum that it always surprises me to find them growing natively. These had fully ripened berries and beautiful, darkly colored foliage. I’m not sure what species this was.


Another gorgeously-colored species, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), is extremely common in New England, and can frequently be found climbing up towards the canopy on the trunks of large trees. This vine is equally at home on the sides of large buildings in the city, and fences out in the suburbs.


More brightly colored species–some type of wild grape in spotted yellow, and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) in deep red.


Back towards the beach, a solitary pitch pine (Pinus rigida) shows its cones.


A crowd favorite, Toxicodendron radicans, aka poison ivy, puts on a brilliant display this time of year, along with a show of fruits that provide a substatntial food source for local birds. Despite its dark reputation, poison ivy is an ecologically important species in the north east.


Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), another invasive species, is as voracious as it is beautiful. It outcompetes its native counterpart–American bittersweet–in terms of adapting to both biotic and abiotic conditions. The berries of oriental bittersweet are bright red with yellow sheaths, making them quite attractive to birds and other foragers, and thus more easily spread. The vines grow rapidly, and can quickly overcome and kill a mature tree. Because of this, the species is tightly controlled in ecologically sensitive areas.


Goldenrod (Solidago) was also in full bloom on the Knob in some of the grassy areas near the beach. This native perennial is another important late-season food source for insects, and has medicinal properties as well. Its foliage is a major source of energy for many types of caterpillars. It is mostly thought of as a weed in North America but is planted ornamentally in Europe. Traditionally, goldenrod is a sign of good luck.


All in all, we had a great day at the Knob and I would highly recommend a visit to anyone who would like to experience the iconic Cape Cod seashore without a the crowd. I’m hoping to come back mid-winter and see what it looks like covered in snow.

Until next time!


Here are more pictures from the day:


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