Another world:
the serpentine barrens

A rambling by Tom Knapp,
July 1994

The serpentine barrens at Nottingham Park don't look too exciting at first glance. Trees are stunted and scrubby. Soil is shallow and rocky. Wildflowers, at first, glance don't seem unusual.

But a walk into the barrens -- located in southwestern Chester County, Pa., near the Maryland border -- is like stepping into another part of the world. They are one of only three similar habitats in the United States. Subsequently, the plant and animal life which flourishes there is quite unique.

The Audubon Society notes that the Aleutian maidenhair fern, common only in Alaska and Canada, established itself in this region during the last ice age. When the ice retreated and more temperate species returned to the area, the fern died out everywhere except the barrens, where it had little competition.

On the other hand, Small's ragwort cannot be found anywhere north of Virginia except in Nottingham, where it began to thrive during the warmer interglacial age. Also during that warmer period, prairie species including little bluestem, grama grass and Indian grass spread eastward, and they still remain. The serpentine aster and serpentine chickweed are species found only in local barrens habitats, and the extensive pitch pine forest is thought to be the largest in the state.

Serpentine is a light green-colored rock formed beneath the ocean floor and thrust to the surface during ancient shifts in the Earth's crust. Barrens such as those in Nottingham are found only in three areas of North America: California and southern Oregon, the Gaspe Peninsula and western Newfoundland, and southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Maryland. The Nottingham barrens are among the largest of this region.

The thin soil covering the serpentine is low in essential nutrients and high in metals that are toxic to many plants, which is why only very adaptive species have survived there.

The rare flora in this area attracts rare birds, which makes the barrens a popular site for birdwatchers. Among the bird life found there are whippoorwills, barred owls, bobwhite quail and at least 17 species of warblers.

Eight miles of hiking and biking trails cut through the barrens, and there is a quarter-mile-long interpretive nature trail as well. The remains of early quarrying and mining sites can also be found.

The serpentine barrens, which covers more than half of the 651-acre park, is well-divided from the developed, recreational portions of Nottingham. In addition to the barrens, Nottingham Park has two camping areas, a lake and small pond for fishing, a one-mile fitness trail, play fields and nine pavilions.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

[ visit the Serpentine Barrens website ]