Folks keep asking me if I have walked or bicycled the 6.5-mile Kennebec Rail Trail that parallels the rail bed from Augusta’s Waterfront Park through Hallowell and Farmingdale to its conclusion in downtown Gardiner.

Until recently, my answer was no. I’m more of a big-woods wanderer who tramps over ridges and through bottomlands while avoiding blazed trails and people. When bicycling, highways suit me fine because I can pedal faster — and for me speed means everything on a bicycle.

Not long ago, though, on a sun-splashed morning with cool breezes wafting up the Kennebec, I walked the rail trail in Farmingdale, a quiet, safe place to recreate and exercise.

This trail improves our quality of life and also offers amateur botanists a feast for the eyes.

The trail slices through a floodplain that supports a huge variety of flora, a perfect place to walk with a wild-plant guidebook, particularly with children to give them an appreciation of nature.

Something else about the trail’s plant life impressed me far more — the huge number of species introduced from the Old World centuries ago.

There are far too many Eurasian plants to name in this short column dot the ground along the trail, but a quick list of a dozen include mullein, Queen Anne’s lace, coltsfoot, chicory, horseradish, Saint Johnswort, yarrow, Japanese knotweed, daisy, ground ivy, dandelion and hawkweed.

Many of these species arrived from the Old World in hay, and also, settlers planted many in gardens for food, medicine and decoration.

Then, the plants escaped into the wild.

Most introduced species have lived here for so long that the average person considers them natives, but dictionaries give the origin of common ones. It’s astounding how many of our plants came from another continent.

Settlers brought dozens of Eurasian species in the 1600s and sowed them during their headlong charge upriver to settle the Kennebec.

Through passing centuries, seeds from the south — also introduced by Old World settlers — hid in nooks and crannies on trains and automobiles before blowing off and taking root along the Kennebec Rail Trail and across Maine.

That day on the river trail, mullein caught my eye, because this species grows upwards to 6 feet tall and looks ever so exotic — more like a desert plant. No one can miss it because of the height poking above most plants.

The wooly-like stem produces a tightly packed cluster of yellow blossoms, a plant I associate with dry, sunny habitat, say road edges in the mid-Atlantic states, not the shaded, damp soil next to this Maine trail.

Mullein came to this continent from Mediterranean countries, and in fact, 2,000 years ago, Roman soldiers commonly dipped the flowered top into rendered fat before lighting it for a torch.

Queen Anne’s lace grows on sunny trail edges, and as most disciples of Euell Gibbons know, this plant also goes by the name “wild carrot.” The root tastes like carrot but contains no carotene, so it’s white.

However, if someone takes the time to collect Queen Anne’s lace seeds each year and plants two or three subsequent generations of seed crops, the root will take on the characteristic orange of carrots.

Also, if gardeners leave carrots in the ground through winter and the following summer, the green tops develop a blossom like Queen Anne’s lace.

Coltsfoot, a well-known medicinal plant introduced in the U.S. during the 1600s, carpets the ground in places along the Kennebec trail. Until just before the 20th century, U.S. pharmacists and herbalists made cough medicine from this wort, so many people could identify it.

In fact, during my youth, my grandmother had an old, empty bottle of coltsfoot medicine in her cellar stairway, and the label had a large picture of the distinctive coltsfoot leaf, which looks like a colt’s hoof print.

Coltsfoot blossoms look similar to dandelion, and in central Maine in early to mid-April, it blooms bright yellow when everything else looks brown and drab, including the coltsfoot plant itself.

Mike Holt from Fly Fishing Only in Fairfield runs an online bulletin board that attracts a poster from the Netherlands. This man, named Marcel, writes about his fly-fishing adventures in Europe, complete with photos.

Several weeks ago, Marcel posted a photo of a European riverbank dotted with coltsfoot. That really caught my attention, but heck, it should not have surprised me at all. Coltsfoot was originally a Eurasian plant.

We all know about chicory and horseradish, the former a substitute for coffee (the dried root), and horseradish makes a wonderful condiment.

Both Old World plants grow along the Kennebec trail.

Saint Johnswort allegedly works as an herbal cure for depression, but interestingly, early agrarian settlers hated this plant and tried to rid their hayfields of it. When cows, steers and sheep ate hay with Saint Johnswort, they ingested a chemical in the plant, increasing their propensity to get sunburn, resulting in painful, blistered noses.

It causes humans to sunburn more, too.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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