MOSS HILL—Behind the Arnold Arboretum, on the Jamaica Plain Roslindale and West Roxbury meet, is one of the wildest places in Boston.
Often overlooked amidst the plethora of parks and woodlands in the area, the 90-acre Allandale Woods is the largest of the city’s “urban wilds”—parcels of land that are left relatively untouched by human hands, where plants and animals can pretty much do their own thing.
Some of the city’s 40 wilds are as small as one acre, said Paul Sutton, director of the City of Boston’s Urban Wilds Initiative, so it would be a stretch to describe them as an ecosystem, but Allandale is another story.
“It has a remarkable diversity of habitats,” said Ben Crouch, program director at EarthWorks, a Boston-based environmental group. “There are different types of fir [trees] there and maple and beech. It’s got upland rocky outcrops with white oaks and black cherry trees. It’s got a cattail marsh swampland—a little woodland with red maples. The forest cover changes a lot,” he said.
Allandale Woods also has three ponds and a number of streams, including the headwaters of Bussey Brook, which runs through the arboretum.
The woods is open to the public, with two entrances on VFW Parkway— one behind the Church of Annunciation near Centre Street, and one on the campus of the Lyndon street—and one entrance on Allandale street behind Springhouse, a retirement community.
Eugenie Beal, chair of the board of the Boston Natural Areas Network, lives at Springhouse. She said she has heard about coyote sightings in the woods and, in August, she saw a deer there.
While much of the woods is owned by the City of Boston, Springhouse and the nearby Sophia Snow House both own portions. Those privately-owned portions are under restriction by the Boston Conservation Commission.
Beal said that in the 1970s she and her husband raised money to purchase a 5-acre tract along Allandale Street that was donated to the city as part of the wild.
The woods is “an asset for this part of the city,” she said.
“Without having formally assessed it, I think it is one of the most diverse habitats we have,” Crouch said.
Crouch also described the area as a “living museum.” The area has been woodland since the 1800s. Before that it was the site of Weld Farm.
Some trails have been added, but the growth of the woods has remained largely undisturbed for the last 200 years, Crouch said.
And, according to both Sutton and Crouch, those years have rendered the area relatively resilient against encroachment by non-native species.
“Most of the site is a healthy forested site…we have problems around the periphery where there has been some kind of [soil] disturbance in the past,” Sutton said.
Crouch noted that Norway maples, which are native to Europe, have established some stands in the interior of the woods. In an article about the trees on the EarthWorks web site, Crouch described Norway maples as “able to tolerate shade, allow[ing] the Norway maple to seed itself in undisturbed woodland in which trees have not been cut or otherwise knocked down.”
Crouch specifically referred to Allandale in the article, writing, “Seeds from street and yard trees began sprouting up along the woodland’s edges decades ago. Evidence from other woodlands indicates that this may lead to their eventual dominance over the entire site.”
In the article, he noted that the trees are not under threat from the same leaf-eating insects as in Europe and that, once established, they leach “substances called phytoxins into the soil that prevent native seeds from germinating around the tree.”
But, speaking to the Gazette, Crouch backtracked from the original alarm he expressed about the species in his undated article. “In my opinion, they may not be as big of an invasive threat as we would have thought five years ago,” he said.
And while he does not hold the extreme opinion on the topic, he noted that there is a longstanding debate in the field of forestry about invasive species.
“According to some schools of thought, invasives are passengers on the ship as opposed to captains,” he said. “A lot of conditions have changed in urban areas…What we do to the land and the environment makes it less fit for its former inhabitants. One train of thought suggests that invasive plants are filling an ecological niche.”
Crouch said he personally still thinks “there is reason to be concerned about invasive plants,” and thinks woodland restoration can be important for maintaining balanced ecosystems in the face of changes created by human encroachment.
Major efforts to root out invasives are currently and restore native tree canopys are currently underway in JP’s Franklin and Olmsted parks. In contrast to Allandale’s wild roots, both of those parks were originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1800s. They are also more heavily used than their wild neighbor.
In the case of Allandale, Sutton said, a hands-off approach has been employed in part by necessity.
His position as coordinator of the city’s urban wilds program is a contract position, he said. He is the sole paid staffer overseeing the city’s urban wilds, and the program has no operating budget.
Relying on intermittent grant funding and volunteer support, even cursory maintenance of a site like Allandale is “quite challenging,” he said.
He leads volunteer groups in maintenance and cleanup projects there “two or three times a year,” he said.
One day this month, a group of volunteers from US Bank cleaned up the area around one of the trailheads leading into the site, he said.
And the area recently got some new signs, including one on VFW Parkway—on the West Roxbury side of the woodlands—that says “Welcome to Allandale Woods,” he said.
“With more resources we could do a lot more on-the-ground site restoration and site maintenance. And we could do more outreach to the neighborhood,” he said.
In the meantime, Beal said she is on board to help out. “It needs a lot of maintenance,” she said. “We are making plans…. I would like to see more people interested in it.”
Sutton said anyone interested in learning more about Allandale Woods or about volunteer opportunities can contact him at 635-4050.