Pardon Gray Preserve has about 160 acres of mixed hardwoods that, when added to the adjacent Weetamoo Woods and Pocasset Ridge, is a highly valuable continuous canopy forest region. Within this forest are significant stands of a rare “coastal oak–holly” forest type, sometimes referred to as maritime oak holly.
While native holly is widespread in the southeastern United States, it only grows in southern New England along coastal areas. In scattered areas of this region a combination of climate, soils, and maritime conditions result in a particular mix of holly and oaks that is globally rare. The American holly tree (Ilex opaca) is the signature species of this natural community. It is the only native broadleaf evergreen tree in New England, and graces our otherwise drab winter forests with its glossy green foliage and red berries.
When the Pilgrims landed the week before Christmas in 1620 on the coast of what is now Massachusetts, the evergreen prickly leaves and red berries of the American holly reminded them of the English holly (Ilex aquifolium), a symbol of Christmas for centuries in England and Europe. Wild holly was widely gathered as a Christmas green, though in recent times it has been replaced by nursery grown horticultural varieties.
Oak–holly forests are oak-dominated with a prominent sub-canopy of American holly. Because of its slow growth and relatively short stature, holly is seldom dominant. It is rather an understory component, blending between the shrub layer and the sub-canopy. Oak–holly typically mixes with other forest types, often at the upper edge of forested wetlands such as red maple swamps. Upslope it often grades into oak–heath forest, which is precisely the situation at Pardon Gray Preserve. It is found along the corridor of forested wetland adjacent to the stone wall that borders the open field, and then fades into the drier, oak–heath forest found on drier soils higher up, east of the Ridge Trail.
Other trees typical to oak–holly forests include red, black, scarlet, and white oaks; black and yellow birch; sassafras; black cherry; American beech; tupelo; American hornbeam; and eastern hophornbeam. The understory includes a diverse shrub layer of sweet pepperbush, high bush and low bush blueberries, black huckleberry, wild red raspberry, sheep laurel, bayberry, and arrowwood viburnum. There is also a great diversity of woodland wildflowers and ferns to be found in the herbaceous layer on the forest floor.
Pardon Gray Preserve was protected primarily because of its assemblage of natural communities, as well as the ecological importance of the large regional forest of which it is part. All the forests of the Pocassetlands region are secondary growth, meaning they have been cut multiple times since European settlement. While some patches were suitable for small farm plots, rocky, glacial soils resulted in pasturing and wood lots for most of this area. The 1938 hurricane leveled essentially all large trees in this region, so the oldest trees in the Sakonnet forests are in the 100-125 year range.