Beach Roses, Pitch Pines, and Big Dunes are Not So Cape Cod as You Imagine

Oct 21, 2014

Ah, the lovely beach rose - quintessential Cape Cod, yes? Think again. Rosa rugosa is an invasive species, native to Asia.
Credit Roger LeJeune / flickr

It’s an old saw that there’s not one square foot on Cape Cod that has not been altered by some human activity over the centuries. Harbors have been dredged, highways have been built, marshes filled in, beaches lined with stone jetties or concrete bulwarks, and woodlands carved up for subdivisions – just to name a few of the more obvious effects.

In fact, we can hardly take a step out of our yards without encountering the hand of man, though some of these alterations are not so obvious. In fact, here, more than most places, what appears natural usually turns out to be a mixture of the human and natural, or an overlay of one with the other. Take, for instance, the substantial forests that now help us to hide the shock of our numbers and houses from one another. These pitch pine and oak monocultures are the direct result of previous stripping and exhaustion of native forests and soils. Our forests today approximate the originals in area only, not in variety, shape or size. Oaks are usually stunted, crooked and double- or triple-trunked. Seen in winter from the air, the effect is not unlike an expansive arctic tundra, covered with primitive branched lichen, survival at the lowest and most uniform level.

Except for our dumps, gravel pits and highway cuts, we attribute most topographical features to the glacier, but this is often not true. Even today we can find many large gouges or half-bowls cut into hillsides, usually bordering a stream or a maple swamp. These are actually the healed faces of old sand pits or sand barrows, once used to supply sand to a thriving cranberry industry. On the north slope of the kettle hole below my house there is a narrow, steep, long ravine leading down to the bog at the bottom.  I had always assumed that this ravine was the work of glacial runoff until my neighbor, an old Cape Codder, told me that it had been worn by her father’s cows going down into the kettle hole to drink when these tree-wrapped hills were open pastures.

The beach rose, or Rosa rugosa that garlands so much of our beaches and dunes and looks so natural there is actually an invasive, alien plant, a native of Asia. It is said to have arrived on the Outer Cape as part of the cargo aboard the ship Franklin, which wrecked on Nauset Beach in 1849. The ship-wrecked plants survived and reportedly naturalized themselves, eventually spreading across the entire length of the Outer Beach.

The Cape shares numerous common alien wildflowers and weeds with much of the rest of the country, but some plants attest to a more local history. On the road sides and in the fields of Eastham, for instance, wild asparagus and clover continues to flourish, remnants of a vanished era of intensive truck gardening in that town over a century ago.

The sand dunes at Provincetown, of course, are largely a man-released phenomenon, the result of early overcutting and over-grazing. Most of the native pitch pine forests are not natural at all, but the descendants of pitch pine plantations, planted during the mid-19th century in an attempt to reclaim the treeless and wind-swept landscape the early settlers had created.

What is truly remarkable is not that every square foot of Cape Cod real estate has been occupied and altered by human activity, but that so much of what has been altered still looks so, well, natural.