Hunt­ing for plants along the Shenan­doah

Rappahannock News - - FRONT PAGE - PAM OWEN wil­[email protected]

Ihad the great plea­sure of tak­ing two won­der­ful, in­for­ma­tive plant walks two week­ends ago, both along the South Fork of the Shenan­doah River, but in very dif­fer­ent ecosys­tems.

Both walks were led by plant ex­perts from the Pied­mont Chap­ter of the Vir­ginia Na­tive Plant So­ci­ety. The first one, on April 9, was at White House Farm, where U.S. 211 crosses the river. Led by Pied­mont Chap­ter mem­ber Car­rie Blair, it was de­layed a bit while we waited for a snow squall with strong winds, which cre­ated a near whiteout, to pass.

My friend Robin Wil­liams, a Slate Mills res­i­dent and also a Pied­mont Chap­ter mem­ber, joined me. When the squall ended, the day was still windy and cold, but Car­rie was un­per­turbed and ready to go.

The his­toric prop­erty is now owned by the non­profit White House Farm Foun­da­tion (wh­farm­foun­da­tion.org), which hosted the walk and sup­ports sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture and pre­serv­ing nat­u­ral re­sources. The foun­da­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Chris An­der­son, joined us.

The walk was billed as a “Nat­u­ral­ist Stroll” along the river to see how spring was pro­gress­ing, es­pe­cially plants. Car­rie pointed out a va­ri­ety of na­tive trees, shrubs and forbs, along the river, with a few non­na­tives mixed in.

The new, bright-green spring growth of the many na­tive box el­ders there con­trasted with their older, gray­ish trunks and branches from pre­vi­ous years. Catkins on many of them flut­tered in the wind.

Low branches of honey lo­custs, with their huge, scary thorns topped by smaller thorns, held lots of man­tis egg sacs from last year, as did the branches of some shrubs. Also hang­ing from sev­eral tree and shrub branches were bag­worms, look­ing like dead leaves cov­ered with twigs. And webs of east­ern tent cater­pil­lars dec­o­rated black­haw vibur­num, whose emerg­ing bright-green leaves with red edges were ahead of many of the other woody plants and looked lovely in the sun­light.

The strange-look­ing bell­shaped, pur­plish-brown buds of the paw­paws along the river were open­ing, re­veal­ing blooms in brown­ish-red or bright green. Vir­ginia blue­bells, scat­tered here and there, were also bloom­ing on the ground, some still cov­ered with the morn­ing’s snow.

As we walked, Car­rie ex­plained how to tell the trees apart, even with most just start­ing to leaf out, by look­ing at old leaf scars, bark and other sub­tle points of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. She eas­ily sorted out mock­er­nut hick­ory, black wal­nut, lin­den, cottonwood and oth­ers.

The next day, April 10, I saw Car­rie again at the Pied­mont Chap­ter’s reg­u­lar Sec­ond Sun­day walk, fur­ther north along the Shenan­doah, in Clarke County at Calmes Neck. This walk fo­cused on early spring ephemeral wild­flow­ers in rich mesic for­est and ravines on pri­vate prop­erty.

Sally An­der­son, also from the chap­ter, led the walk. The lime-rich soil sup­ports a trea­sure trove of lovely flow­er­ing and other plants, from the hill­sides down to the al­lu­vial plain along the river.

On the way down the hill, Sally pointed out dwarf lark­spur bloom­ing, some in white blos­soms and oth­ers in deep pur­ple; ses­sile tril­lium, with its blood-red buds just start­ing to open; and twin­leaf, in vary­ing stages of open­ing its small, cu­p­like white flow­ers.

As we de­scended fur­ther down the hill, we en­tered into a huge drift of Vir­ginia blue­bells, most at peak bloom. Scat­tered among them were a few bloom­ing trout lilies and jack-in-the pul­pits, along with more ses­sile tril­li­ums.

Patches squir­rel corn and Dutchman’s breeches, which are re­lated, were also in bloom, their puffy white flow­ers dan­gling from their branches like laun­dry on a line. One squir­rel corn plant had up­rooted, re­veal­ing the pink­ish tu­bers that gave it its com­mon name. Nearby were a few squaw­root, which also car­ries the less-of­fen­sive but still unattrac­tive com­mon name of “can­cer root,” as well as the more po­lite “bear corn.” In bloom, as it was that day, it re­sem­bles a fleshy, brown-and-white pinecone.

Fol­low­ing the drainage into the river’s flood­plain, we en­tered into a sea of blue­bells stretch­ing as far as the eye could see along the river. Walk­ing through the drifts of them, we could see the sub­tle lit­tle yel­low blooms of the tall, el­e­gant blue co­hosh on the hill­sides. Squir­rel corn was also there, mixed in with large patches of Dutchman’s breeches.

A va­ri­ety of ferns were also un­furl­ing their new fronds there and up to a rock out­crop at the top of the ridge be­yond, the last stop on the walk. One of the most in­ter­est­ing of th­ese was walk­ing fern ( As­ple­nium rhi­zo­phuyl­lum), a dis­tinc­tive plant that roots in rock crevices and whose new plantlets “grow wher­ever the arch­ing leaves of the par­ent touch the ground, cre­at­ing a walk­ing ef­fect,” as Wikipedia puts it.

Also grow­ing in crevices of the out­crop were wild ginger, with its red­dish-brown, cu­p­like blooms. Vir­ginia sax­ifrage — its tiny yel­low blooms stand­ing up on thin stalks above its fo­liage — seemed happy to root in any small patch of soil in the crevices or on top of the out­crop.

By the end of the walk, I’d been able to check off most of the 71 plants on the “short” check­list Sally had handed out at the start, thanks to her ex­cel­lent di­rec­tion. This stretch of the Shenan­doah, which has been pro­tected but is open to VNPS for study and guided walks, is truly spe­cial in the rich­ness and beauty of its re­mark­able flora.

To see more photos from both na­ture walks, go on­line to rapp­news.com/wil­dideas. For more op­por­tu­ni­ties to learn about our na­tive plants, check the VNPS web­site’s cal­en­dar (vnps.org/events), and for var­i­ous na­ture events at White House Farm, check its web­site.

© 2016 Pam Owen

PHOTOS BY PAM OWEN

Wild­flower walk at­ten­dees make their way through drifts of Vir­ginia blue­bells in a ravine at Calmes Neck.

VNPS plant ex­pert Car­rie Blair ex­plains how to iden­tify a bass­wood tree at the White House Farm Nat­u­ral­ist Stroll.

Wild ginger blooms in an out­crop crevice along the Shenan­doah River at Calmes Neck.

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