HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Plants that Rock




Mystery (to me) plant growing from an old stone wall in historic Harpers Ferry West Virginia.

Succession. A short, terse word for something so fascinating and beautiful in nature. Though it sounds a bit harsh, you are clued into its ecological meaning by looking at the first part of the word – success.

Sure this word has uses outside of the natural world – some things happen in succession and businesses and boards plan for leadership succession, but the ecological definition of succession is this: the process by which a biological community evolves over time.

This may happen slowly over eons or within a lifetime or maybe even within a generation depending on the place and the community. And sometimes it occurs in the most seemingly lifeless locations.

There are three lessons I take away, or think about, each time I see a plant growing, thriving, flowering in what seems an impossible location.

Two types of ecological succession occur – Primary and Secondary.

  • Primary Succession – occurs in what seem to be lifeless areas – think lava flows making brand new land or rocks deposited by glaciers so long ago – or even buildings and structures created by us.

    IMG_6261 (1)

    Primary succession- small seedlings of Solomon’s Seal emerge from the cracks in a large diabase boulder in the Manderfield Preserve in Southeast PA.

  • Secondary Succession – occurs where there used to be a community but it was disturbed in someway and unrecognizable as it once was but there are small bits of the community left to give a head start to rebuilding – think forest fires, massive hurricanes, landslides.

Secondary succession in action along the Perkiomen Trail in Southeast PA. Two small pine tree seedlings emerge from a larger “nurse log” in the woods.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the first of these types of succession – primary succession. I find myself most at peace near water and rocks – whether that is on a whitewater or quiet water river in my boat or hiking towards a waterfall. This combination of life giving flowing water and solid stable rock seem to ground me in the present, helps me navigate whatever’s going on in life. Being in these places reminds me I am but a small part of something greater and the most amazing things happen slowly over time and cannot be forced. I have been noticing a lot of life emerging from the seemingly lifeless, beautiful blooms adorning hard, gray, apparently inhospitable rock. Primary succession in action.


A wall of rock covered in a quilt of flowering plants along the D & R Canal State Park in NJ.

The first is that, as my dad always told me, “nothing is impossible, some things just take longer.” When I see a plant growing out of the side of a rock or a bridge abutment, I have to think of all that had to happen for that seed to land there and take hold where there is no soil and then for it to get enough water, sunlight and nutrients from its surroundings to grow into something substantial. And to think beyond the present, eventually, if left to grow this plant will form a community providing protection and sustenance for additional seeds to grow until there is a colony of life on what once seemed lifeless. Eventually, you may have to dig down deep to find the parent rock of this community as it is covered by generations of old leaves and debris and homes created by the animals that find this new community appealing places to raise their future generations. Over time this rock with a single plant becomes unrecognizable as anything but a community.


Sedum growing out of the top of an historic bridge.

The second lesson is something beautiful can always come from the seemingly lifeless and inhospitable. I am fascinated by geology, in fact on some travels I choose certain roadways instead of the faster route just because it takes me through an amazing road cut where the intricate inner structure of the planet is on display for the world to see. Doesn’t hurt that on the opposite side of the road from the geologic display is the Juniata River – a twofer of wonder and awe! Definitely not the quickest or the shortest route, but the most rewarding to me. (You all may be surprised I drive slow enough to even notice the geology, but, sometimes, even I slow down to take in the wonder of nature from the driver’s seat.) So when I find plants growing from the rocks in seemingly impossible conditions, I am inspired and renewed. Seeing this recharges my personal optimism and refreshes my view on life that there is always something good to come, even out of the most desperate seeming situations.


Juniper trees growing out of the tops of old bridge pillars where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac in Harpers Ferry West Virginia. Rocks, plants, water – does it get any better?

The third lesson is that even something that seems so solid as rock, eventually changes to become something else. The forces of nature – wind and water and sun and tiny plant roots pushing out chemicals that dissolve rock – slowly change rock, deconstructing it to base elements in which something else will thrive. Eventually the rock is unrecognizable, but it has not disappeared, it has become something new, something distinctive and now serves a different yet equally essential role in nature.


Volunteer ferns emerging from cracks in an historic bridge in southeastern PA.

Back a few posts ago, I wrote about lichens. These are often the first step in the succession of rock to ecological community. The first I see growing where it seems nothing can grow. Then follow small plants, whose tiny seeds or spores were able to settle into the lichens finding just enough nutrients, moisture and stability to germinate and grow. And on from there.


Ferns, like these in Harpers Ferry West Virginia, seem especially adept at finding niches in rocks to grow. Perhaps it is their tiny spores that are better able to take hold.

Sometimes the plants I see growing in rocks and walls were given a head start and do not meet the exact definition of primary succession. Perhaps they are growing from a small crack where some leaf and root debris gathered and decomposed to create the tiniest pocket of life giving soil. Still, I find the exhibition of the power and tenacity of nature fascinating.

Whether they are creating something new and beautiful from something gray and lifeless or taking advantage of a tiny little opportunity that many others may have missed, I do think this demonstration of persistence and strength is yet another life lesson and guidance to take from the natural world. Remembering great things do not happen right away, but rather slowly over time as a good foundation is built to support a community that then can support itself. Reminded that I cannot assume because something looks and feels lifeless that there is not, or couldn’t be, something wonderful to come.


Poppies growing out of a rock wall along a road in the Peloponnese section of Greece.




7 thoughts on “Plants that Rock

  1. Pingback: Change Along the Perkiomen Trail | HORT travels

  2. Great writing and very interesting! I’m impressed! Thanks for sharing your philosophy and knowledge.

    Kim Lawrence

  3. I second what Bill says!

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Both the message and the photographs are amazing.

    Bill Pasko MOL II


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