The mountains of Acadia National Park

PHOTOS PROVIDED Left, mountain cranberry in full flower, notice the dark shiny green leaves.

(Editors Note: This article is the second of a series exploring plants and horticulture on Maine’s Mt Desert Island and Acadia National Park.)

Acadia National Park, on Mt. Desert Island, was created in 1916 (under a different name then) and covers 38,000 acres with another 12,500 in conservation easement. The landscape varies with rugged coastline to mountains that arise over 1,000 feet. In between, there are lakes, ponds, meadows, and forests. And plants occupy all these different niches.

While there are places to explore these island plants in a formal setting (Wild Gardens of Acadia and the grounds of the College of the Atlantic), it can be more interesting and adventurous to go into the park where one can see them in naturalized settings. With 158 miles of hiking trails, there are plenty of opportunities.

One of the more interesting hikes I took was the trek up Sargent Mountain, Adirondack National Park’s second highest peak at 1,370 feet. Our hiking party started down low on relatively flat ground. Since water doesn’t move offsite on this level ground, we had to move over a series of bog walks. These log bridges are designed to keep feet dry (and plants safe) as hikers move over the bog ecosystem.

Shortly thereafter, we passed through an area that was covered with lichens. Central Pennsylvanian’s encounter lichen all the time in yards and surrounding forest land but nothing that covers such a large area as this. It almost appeared that a carpet of lichen had been laid on the forest floor. It was so eye-popping that you wanted to wander around in this magical setting. Because of this temptation, signage is posted to help explain the fragile nature of the plant/algae symbiotic relationship and discourage movement off the trail.

Right, lichen, an organism comprised of an algae and fungi, cover large expanses of Sargent Mt’s lower forest floor.

The deceptively easy start gave way to brutal reality, to reach the top you must climb. The trial snaked up the mountain to the exposed granite tops. Over time, glaciers and erosion have removed most of the topsoil and there is very little substrate for plant anchoring and nutrient extraction. In addition, the ocean winds buffet the peaks to make for unpleasant growing conditions.

Even on these rocky tops, plant life thrives. Among the cracks and crevices, where soil has accumulated and been protected from erosion, mountain cranberry thrives. It only grows to eight inches in height as it hugs the surrounding rocks to shelter from extreme weather.

The dark, shiny leaves remain year-round (evergreen) and it will send out pinkish bell-shaped flowers during the summer. Red fruit appear later in the summer and are edible. They taste slightly acidic but are used in many dishes. A great addition to the edible landscape. Since they spread by underground runners, they can be utilized as a groundcover in gardens although they are little slower growing than traditional groundcovers such as English ivy, pachysandra, or periwinkle.

One of the hiking guidebooks called this route a “worthy adventure” and “something different and fairly strenuous.” By the end of the day, over half the hiking party had blood running down to their socks as cuts and scrapes resulted from numerous tumbles and falls on the rocky trail.

Probably should have read between the lines a little better, especially when one of the trails was named Giant Slide.


Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at 570-726-0022.