Wildflowers Living on the Edge in Newfoundland

By Roger Rittmaster
August 31, 2023

Normally, Nature Now focuses on current natural history in Midcoast Maine. However, for 10 days in late August, my wife (Jeannie Hutchins) and I traveled with three botanist friends to the West Coast of Newfoundland to explore plants that can survive in two harsh environments: the Tablelands of Gros Morne National Park and the limestone barrens of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. We were looking for plants that we would not normally see in Maine. This episode of Nature Now is about this trip.

The Tablelands

Our botany trip started in The Tablelands, one of the few places where rocks of the Earth’s mantle are visible on the surface. The mantle is that part of the earth below the crust and above the core. It starts between about 4 to 22 miles below the surface and is about 1,800 miles thick. Normally, when two continental plates collide, the mantle is pushed downward, but in the Tablelands, a piece of the upper mantle was pushed towards the surface about 500 million years ago, when two continental plates collided to form the Appalachian Mountains. Over the next 500 million years erosion wore down the rocks overlying the Tablelands, which only became visible about 15,000 years ago during the last glaciation. The fact that these rocks were only exposed recently is important because the rocks in the mantle wear down quickly, geologically speaking, when exposed to water.

Why are the Tablelands botanically important? The principal rock that makes up the upper mantle is called peridotite, an igneous (magma-derived) rock that is very high in magnesium and iron. Such rocks are termed “mafic”. When peridotite is exposed to water near the Earth’s surface, it is converted to serpentine (= serpentinite) rock. Mafic rocks create soil that is nutrient poor (low in calcium, nitrogen and other nutrients), and its high concentration of magnesium and iron is toxic to most plants. The soil is thin and retains water poorly. The photograph below shows the barren rocky soil that is typical of most of the Tablelands.

Serpentine rock from the Tablelands. The name comes from the snakeskin like appearance of the rock. Serpentine is derived from olivine, and is often green in color. The rust color of the surrounding rock is from oxidation of the iron within the rock (which is what happens when iron metal rusts).

One of the most surprising plants we found was the Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea). Whereas pitcher plants typically grow in acidic bogs, here it grew among dry rocks in sparse soil, seemingly totally out of place. However, pitcher plants get their nutrients from insects that are trapped and digested in the fluid inside its tubular leaves. It does not require nutrients from soil and avoids absorbing toxic amounts of magnesium and iron.

Sea Thrift (Armeria Maritima) is another unusual plant found in serpentine and limestone barrens along the coast of northwest Newfoundland. It has a long taproot, which may help it reach water. The taproot also appears to concentrate toxic metals and ions in its tissue, preventing them from affecting the rest of the plant, and allowing it to survive the harsh chemical conditions of the Tablelands.

If one wants to see similar mafic rocks in Midcoast Maine, they can be found in the 7-acre Pine Hill Preserve on Deer Isle (https://www.islandheritagetrust.org/2018/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Pine-Hill-2016_09_22-13_11_25-UTC.pdf). Some plants growing here occur nowhere else in Maine.

Limestone Barrens

Most of the Great Northern Peninsula (GNP) of Newfoundland is underlain by limestone. About 500 million years ago this land was at the bottom of a shallow tropical sea just south of the equator. The limestone has its origin in the shells of marine life that lived in that sea. Subsequent northward movement of the tectonic plate on which Newfoundland sits, uplifting of the seafloor, and erosion of overlying rocks, brought the limestone to the surface.

But that’s only part of the story. Repeated glaciation has scoured the surface of these rocks, preventing the build-up of soil. Each winter water that has seeped into cracks in the limestone freezes and expands, breaking apart the rocks. The same process continually moves the gravel that has formed on the surface, damaging the roots of plants that have gained a foothold there. Further stress is caused by ice flows that form offshore which don’t disappear until late Spring, resulting in a growing season as short as 110 days. Finally, limestone itself produces a soil with a high pH that is too basic for many plants to tolerate. In protected areas, the breakdown of plants on top of the limestone creates acidity that modulates the otherwise basic limestone-derived soil. On the coast, however, there is often too little soil, creating a “barren” environment where most plants can’t grow. Those plants that do grow there are often highly specialized; some grow nowhere else. These are the plants that we were looking for.

Bedrock Geology Map of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. The location of limestone barrens is shown in red along the western coast.

The photograph below shows the southernmost limestone barrens near the town of Bellburns just south of the Table Point Ecological Reserve. Some plants that grow here don’t exist further north, due to the increasingly harsh climate.

Because of the windy, cold environment, there are no typical trees and few small shrubs on the limestone barrens. The plant in the lower right is Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) which is usually less than 4 inches tall, but whose branches can exceed 15 feet in length, snaking along the ground.

Yellow Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides) is an alpine/arctic plant that requires a high pH environment and usually is found in moist environments such as bordering a waterfall. However, its succulent leaves store water and have allowed it to adapt to cracks among the rocks of the limestone barrens in Newfoundland. It spreads by creeping rootstalks (rhizomes) either at or just below the surface. In New England, it is only found in a few places in Vermont among high limestone cliffs.

Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) is an alpine carnivorous plant that typically grows in moist alkaline environments. In Maine, it has only been found in a single population in a ravine on the western side of Sugarloaf Mountain, but it is common in limestone barrens and outcrops in Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, where little else can grow. Its leaves excrete a sticky fluid that traps insects and enzymes that digest the insects, thus providing a source of nutrients in an otherwise nutrient-poor environment. Common Butterwort blooms in July (this photograph was taken in Iceland) and what we saw in Newfoundland was the persistent basal leaves scattered among the limestone gravel.

I wish to thank our botanist friends, Bob Capers, Jerry Oemig, and Tom Phillips (left to right), shown here discussing the fine points of a plant on the limestone barrens at Port au Choix…

… and the Caribou that demonstrated how comfortable they were among humans in areas where hunting was prohibited.


As of April 1st, Coastal Mountains Land Trust met the goals needed to successfully complete the first year of its new Waldo County Conservation Initiative – a community effort to increase the amount of permanently conserved land in Waldo County for the benefit of wildlife, sustainable recreation, outdoor learning and climate protection.

In total, the Initiative raised $280,805 in support of the acquisition and stewardship of over 495 acres within the 12 Waldo County towns served by the Land Trust including Belfast, Belmont, Brooks, Knox, Lincolnville, Morrill, Northport, Prospect, Searsport, Stockton Springs, Swanville, and Waldo. In 2022 and early 2023, the Land Trust was thrilled to match a number of generous land donations from private landowners and earlier contributions with $100,805 in donations from individual community members and $180,000 from grants and foundations in Maine and beyond. In addition to an anonymous foundation, support was provided by the Maine Natural Resources Conservation Program, Leaves of Grass Fund, Mudge Foundation, Fields Pond Foundation, Maine Community Foundation, John Sage Foundation, and Margaret G. Jacobs Charitable Trust.

Specifically, the resources raised through the Initiative funded the addition of land to the Meadow Brook Preserve in Swanville and the Mount Tuck and Main Stream Preserves in Stockton Springs. The Land Trust also acquired its first two conservation parcels in the Town of Knox and completed the acquisition of its first Learning Landscape Preserve in Searsport within walking distance of the three local public schools. Together, these new preserves protect large areas of intact forest and high value wildlife habitats including extensive wetlands while also providing expanded opportunities for outdoor recreation and learning.

“We are extremely grateful to everyone, including our 12 volunteer committee members, who helped make the first year of this initiative a success. Coastal Mountains Land Trust is excited to build upon this momentum and continue to make an impact in our local community,” shared Elisabeth Wolfe of Belfast, Coastal Mountains Land Trust Board Member and Chair of the Waldo County Conservation Initiative Committee.

The Waldo County Conservation Initiative is ongoing and the team at Coastal Mountains Land Trust is actively working on and identifying new projects to pursue this year. To get involved, support the initiative, or stay up to date on the latest projects, click here.


By Tempe Landi, Development and Communications Coordinator

On November 2nd, Coastal Mountains Land Trust launched the Waldo County Conservation Initiative, a community-based effort to conserve natural lands in Waldo County for the purposes of wildlife conservation, outdoor recreation, outdoor learning, and climate mitigation. The goal of the initiative is to grow the capacity to complete land conservation projects within the 12 Waldo County towns served by Coastal Mountains Land Trust: Belfast, Belmont, Brooks, Knox, Lincolnville, Morrill, Northport, Prospect, Searsport, Stockton Springs, Swanville, and Waldo.

For the first year of the Initiative, by March 31, 2023, the Land Trust is seeking to raise an additional $250,000 to match the $450,000 already raised from grants, land donations, and private gifts for important projects across Waldo County. Specifically, $150,000 from grants and $100,000 from the community.

• $150,000 from grants
• $100,000 from the community

PROGRESS TO DATE: March 22, 2023
• We have met our $150,000 grant goal!
• We only need $3,795 to reach our community goal!

DEADLINE: March 31, 2023
Our goal is to raise the funds necessary for this initial round of Waldo County projects by the end of our 2022-23 fiscal year.

Funds raised will support 12 conservation projects that will protect approximately 495 acres including open space on Mt. Tuck in Stockton Springs, near Hurds Pond in Swanville, at the headwaters of Passagassawakeag River in Knox, and across from the three schools in Searsport. Completion of these projects will conserve a wide range of forested and wetland habitats, provide space for hunting and future hiking trails, create an outdoor classroom, and add to the protection of several large areas of undeveloped forest that will continue to sequester carbon.

For more information, email Tempe Landi at tempe@coastalmountains.org


By Maeve Cosgrove, Maine Conservation Corps Environmental Steward

While spring is hopefully well underway, this winter has been bright and full of excitement for our Coastal Mountains Land Trust community! Despite chilly conditions, our recent events have been a huge success and were so much fun to share with all of our participants, trail patrons, and amazing volunteers.
With support from resourceful volunteers, efforts from Maine Health and Coastal Mountains staff, and a huge helping hand from the Belfast Garden Club, the Belfast Rail Trail was set aglow to kick off the Our Town Belfast Ice Festival at the end of January! All throughout the weekend, Ice Festival attendees and community members enjoyed brisk, but beautiful walks along the harbor softly illuminated by ice lanterns.

Just a few weeks later, it was the Round the Mountain Trail that was alit – not by ice luminaries, but this time by the headlamps of our full moon hikers! A group of 27 enthusiastic night-wanderers joined us for an evening of snowy adventuring at the Thorndike Brook trailhead. We had a mystical time listening to the stream flow underneath the ice and theorizing about what nocturnal creatures might be hiking alongside us, just out of sight.

Photo by Amy Wilton Photography

The following day, we packed the parking lot and trails of Fernalds Neck Preserve with animal enthusiasts at our Tracking Workshop! This hike and learning session was led by extraordinary naturalist and co-founder of the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition, Cloe Chunn. With the sun peeking through the pines, it really started to feel like spring. Even with snow on the ground, we were warm and lucky to be learning from Cloe as she shared her tracking expertise with us. We learned how to tell cat from canine trails, what questions to ask when identifying prints, and where to look for wildlife along the trails.

Of course, our monthly Happy Wanderers hike, co-hosted with Maine Health’s Community Health program, was a blast, as always! On this walk, held on another delightfully snowy and sunny morning at Meadow Brook Preserve, the happy wanderers learned about the Waldo County Conservation Initiative. This ongoing project aims to conserve a significant amount of the most vital opens spaces in Waldo County and to steward this land for wildlife, recreation, and outdoor learning.


by Leah Trommer, Community Engagement Coordinator

I recently returned from the Sierra Nevadas in California where Coastal Mountains joined over 12 Land Trusts from across the country in developing Learning Landscapes, a multifaceted program that Land Trusts are uniquely positioned to provide for the youth in our communities.

Participants returned home brimming with perspective, ideas, and a plethora of shared materials. Most importantly, the Summit’s work is not over, monthly meetings and on-going support continue, as we work collectively to develop lasting and deeply effective opportunities for children and teachers.

Our Learning Landscapes program conserves land adjacent to schools, enhances the land with trails and outdoor classrooms and supports educators in providing outdoor learning for all students.

To learn more or volunteer for our growing Learning Landscapes program, contact Leah: leaht@coastalmountains.org.


by Ryan O’Neill
Stewardship Project Manage

Beech Hill’s Stewardship Barn gets an upgrade and a very meaningful dedication.

This winter, the Land Trust built a lean-to addition on the side of our Knox county stewardship outpost at Beech Hill Preserve. The addition will house the tools and equipment we use year round, as land stewards.

The structure was framed by local craftsmen, Wayne Ruesswick and John Snow, along with support from stewardship staff. The rest of the structure was completed over the course of several Wednesday Volunteer Field Crew sessions. Two super-volunteers took on the bulk of the siding of the barn.

During this project, I though often of the late Malcolm White, longtime supporter and volunteer of the land trust, seen here taking an e-bike for a test ride. This kind of project was one I would have relied heavily on Malcolm’s experience, enthusiasm, and attention to detail. I think Malcolm would be pleased to see volunteers working on the barn, and even more pleased with the outcome, maybe with the exception of one short siding board, and it really pleases me to have our stewardship outpost dedicated to the memory of our friend.

If you find yourself walking along the Beech Hill extension trail to or from Erickson Fields, stop and take a look at what we are working on at the barn, sit at the picnic table for a snack, enjoy the view, and maybe consider volunteering with us sometime!


By Maeve Cosgrove, Maine Conservation Corps Stewardship Intern

Wednesday mornings are special at Coastal Mountains Land Trust, or so I learned when I tagged along to the weekly work crew session on January 25th. Every week, members of the Coastal Mountain Stewardship team are joined by groups of volunteers to tackle trail maintenance and power through construction projects. In weeks past, volunteers have added siding to the stewardship barn, aided in blazing preserve boundaries, and installed new stone steps along trails at Fernald’s Neck. On this particular Wednesday, even amidst icy conditions, Stewardship Project Manager Ryan O’Neill and I met four tenacious volunteers at Beech Hill to remove some well-worn bridges.

The weather was no issue for the volunteers, who each arrived with snowshoes, enthusiasm, and a good sense of humor. Ryan, myself, and the volunteers dug through the snow to collect shards of shredded wood and unearth stringers which had once served as boardwalks for trail patrons. A volunteer and I took turns shuttling down hunks of wood to the truck at the trailhead and as we headed back up to reunite with the rest of the crew, two volunteers and Ryan came down the trail carrying one of the stringers together.

One of the volunteers suggested they whistle while they worked together, but it hardly seemed like work with the laughter echoing through Beech Hill’s wooded trails.


By Maeve Cosgrove, Maine Conservation Corps Stewardship Intern

It’s tricky working by a window as a birder. The demands of the day can easily fall to the wayside when there is a portal granting unlimited access to outdoor happenings just beyond or, in my case, above the computer screen. The challenge to look away from the birds is especially daunting at the Coastal Mountains Land Trust office, which overlooks a far-reaching finger of the Megunticook Lake, hidden in the white pines at the wooded base of Mount Battie. On my first day at the office, I was welcomed by bluebirds and their cascading calls. Though less melodic, the squawking nuthatches were equally exciting to watch from my new desk, scurrying up trees and hanging upside down from the bark.

A new window heralds a new window list. It’s a way of getting to know the neighborhood really, keeping track of the avian locals. Tracking the birds in one spot day after day, sometimes called “patch birding,” also reveals clues about our ever-changing environment. While it’s nice to hear the high whistles of robins in Camden during January and catch their red breasts like slashes of ribbons in the winter landscape, their presence could be a symptom of climate change.

A few weeks into my tenure at Coastal Mountains, my office window list has accumulated 18 species. Two pairs of goldfinches were the latest additions, having flown or blown in from over the lake to take refuge in the bare arms of a birch. Luckily for the finches they arrived a few hours after a red-tailed hawk made its debut on the list.


From Ryan O’Neill, Stewardship Project Manager

This is the time of year at the Land Trust, when stewardship staff are busy doing their end of year easement and preserve monitoring.

Distant view of Beech Hill from Elephant Head, Ragged Mountain
Emerald cedar grove


We’re very glad to welcome three new Board members!


Harper is a sophomore at Camden Hills Regional High School. Harper plays on the high school soccer team and is active in the school’s Windplanners environmental club.

Harper is very excited to join the board as a student and help use her voice to speak for her classmates and peers.


Kitty moved to the Midcoast 20 years ago with her husband and 3 daughters. An educator, she has always been passionate about and appreciative of the many opportunities we have to enjoy the Maine landscape in our area. Whether it’s along the coast or our community preserves she enjoys exploring the open spaces, thanks to the hard work and dedication of land trusts. She is excited and honored to help advance the important work of Coastal Mountains Land Trust.


Bob is a retired physician and professor emeritus of Environmental Health & Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He and his wife Cynthia have been coming to Maine since the 1970’s and moved to Rockport fulltime in 2017. Introduced to the Wednesday trail crew by Phil Gaudet and the late Malcolm White in 2014, he continues to enjoy helping maintain the beautiful network of trails created by Coastal Mountains Land Trust and supporting efforts to preserve open space in this beautiful part of the world.