Thursday, April 29, 2010

Things to Look for in May

We've been posting for almost a year here at the Natural Capital, so we thought we'd go back and see what we said to look for last year in May. Things are a little early this year, but the list still holds. What have you been seeing outside lately? Leave us a comment and tell us what to look out for!

Photo credit: cotinis
Pinxter Azaleas - Some yards are an absolute riot of hot pinks and purples in the spring with azaleas bred from Asian species. But there is actually an azalea native to this area, and it's quite showy in its own right. This year, all the azaleas were several weeks ahead of their normal schedule, but you should still be able to see some pinxters blooming out there. At least, we saw one yesterday that was still holding many of its blooms. Make sure to give a sniff -- they smell fantastic.

tuliptree flower
Photo credit: The Natural Capital

Tuliptree Flowers - Tuliptrees are one of the dominant species in the forests in and around Washington, DC. But because the trees are so tall, many people have never seen their flowers. They're blooming now, and you may find some falling on the ground even if you can't see them in the treetops. But the real treat is, you can drink their nectar.

Baltimore oriole
Photo credit: Eric Begin

Baltimore Orioles - Migrating right along with the tuliptree nectar are the orioles. We've been hearing them over the last couple of days, and spotted our first one yesterday -- in a tuliptree. Learn to recognize their pretty song and you may greatly improve your chances of actually seeing one.

Mountain Laurel blooms
Photo credit: ac4lt

Mountain Laurel -  The gnarled, shaggy trunks of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) make it a showy shrub at any time of year. But in late May or early June, they burst into flower. We're leading a free hike for the Maryland Native Plant Society to our favorite stand of mountain laurel on May 22 -- hopefully we won't be too late, with this early spring we're having!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Trip Report: What's Up in Scott's Run

Our morels and wildflowers walk was so popular, we led two! On the past two Saturdays we've gone to Scott's Run to hunt for mushrooms and enjoy the spring.

Photo credit: Steve LaFayette
One of the things we've been focusing on in the last couple of years is better predicting when morels will be out. We've now got it down to a two-part warning system: when both redbuds and the evil invasive garlic mustard is blooming, there seem to be morels. On our second hike, the redbuds were on their way out, and we found fewer morels. Of course, on both hikes we also ran to other folks who were out mushroom hunting...that can't help either.

The elusive morels by Steve LaFayette
I think it's safe to say that finding morels was the highlight of the hike for many of us, but the sweet-smelling blooming pinxter azalea along the side of the trail was a close second. And there were lots of things to nibble along the way. Below is a longer list of the things we stopped to look at -- not an exhaustive of what's out there right now, but some of the highlights!

Our next edible plant walk will focus on fruit -- it's scheduled for June 12th in Upper NW DC. You can sign up here. Matt's also leading a free walk with the Maryland Native Plant Society on May 22 to look at a great stand of mountain laurels along the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia.

morels (yellow, black, and semi-free)
dryad saddle

Pinxter azalea
garlic mustard
pinxter azalea
star chickweed
showy orchis
wild ginger
cutleaf toothwort
sweet cicely
trout lily
wild geranium
toadshade trillium

Sending up leaves
wild ramps
bear corn (not really leaves, but up...)
skunk cabbage (already done blooming)

pawpaw flower
Paw paw flowers

bear corn
Bear corn (conopholis americana), a parasitic plant

star chickweed
Star chickweed (stellaria corei)

sweet cicely
Sweet cicely (myrrhis odorata)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Calendar: Arbor Day and other celebrations

The first Arbor Day was celebrated on April 10, 1872, but since a national proclamation in 1970, Arbor Day has been on the last Friday in April -- April 30th this year.

(Is it really the end of April already?! I ask. Why yes, it is.)

Photo credit: ehpien
The US Botanical Garden will celebrate Arbor Day with a stroll through the National Garden on Friday at noon to see trees and shrubs of the Mid-Atlantic region. Free, but pre-registration is required. There's a repeat tour on Saturday at 1:00.

Want to plant a tree for Arbor Day? There are some programs that will give you significant savings off a tree for your property: 
In DC: $50 rebate from Casey Trees and the DDOE
In MD: $25 coupon for a tree
In VA: I'm not aware of any programs. Anyone?

There are lots of other celebrations going on this weekend, not specifically related to trees (but in places that have lots of them). The Potomac Conservancy is holding a spring gala on Thursday night,  followed by an opening day celebration at their River Center on Saturday. And on Sunday there are events at Huntley Meadows and Potomac Overlook Park. Check them out -- and much more -- on our calendar. We'll see you out there!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

LOOK FOR: The Earth

We all have our favorite little pieces of this earth, but it's hard to take a step back and think about the whole planet. In honor of Earth Day, I wanted to pass along a little activity that is the closest I've ever come to being able to literally feel the whole earth move. It just takes a few minutes -- and it involves watching the sunset. So what have you got to lose?

Here's the trick. As you watch the sun cross the horizon, remind yourself of this:  

You're not watching the sun move. You are spinning with the earth. 
I know you learned this in grade school. But try really watching it happen. Sunset tonight is at 7:52.

Let us know how it went!

Earth from Galileo (NASA)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thompson Wildlife Management Area

Trilliums at TWMA by travel_stuffies
Over the next three weeks or so, people will be flocking to the Thompson Wildlife Management Area in Linden, Virginia. It's worth a visit at any time of the year, but there's a special draw around the beginning of May: huge swaths of trilliums. And, if you're really lucky, there may also be some small pockets of ladyslipper orchids blooming.

We know we're getting farther afield here -- Thompson WMA is nearly 60 miles outside the beltway -- but if you like wildflowers, there's nothing like it anywhere closer to Washington. Birding can also be quite good : the trillium happen to bloom around the same time that a lot of birds are migrating through. And we often see scarlet tanagers and bluebirds here, which can be hard to find in DC.

yellow ladyslipper orchid
yellow ladyslipper at TWMA by Carly&Art

As of 2012, Virginia now requires you to pay a $4 access permit fee ($23 for an annual pass) to enter any WMA. But there's no one at Thompson's to sell you one. You can purchase online (it's the form for a hunting/fishing license, but eventually gives you the option to buy a daily or annual "access permit" under "special licenses"). Or you can call 1-866-721-6911 during business hours, or go to a license agent.

Many local organizations sponsor trips to Thompson's -- check our calendar and the links to groups like Audubon Naturalist Society and the Sierra Club for more info.

If you go on your own, the western side of the area -- which is at the highest elevation -- is where the trilliums are. Looking at the map to the right (larger version here), you'll start at the trailhead next to the "F" in Freezeland Rd (directions below). Take the small spur on the right, labeled by a sign that -- if I recall correctly -- gives the Virginia Native Plant Society credit for maintaining the area. You'll be in the heart of trillium country, with healthy doses of other beautiful spring flowers mixed in. Later in the summer along this trail, you can see unusual species like Canada lily and carrion flower blooming. This spur will take you to the Appalachian Trail, which traverses the park.

Make sure to check out the creek at the bottom of the hill, which supports a whole different set of flora. And when you head back up the main trail back to the trailhead, keep an eye out for little paths leading off to the side -- there are a few clusters of orchids not far off the trail. Beyond that, you've got 4,000 acres to explore (and the AT can take you to Georgia or Maine!).

See this this map to get Google directions to our favorite trillium trailhead. From I-66 take exit 13 for Linden, and follow the signs to go east on Route 55 (John Marshall Highway) -- you'll go left to go under I-66, then left again onto Rte 55. In a little over a mile, go north (left) on Route 638 (Freezeland Road). Continue on Freezeland Road, passing some other parking areas. After 4 miles, you'll pass some radio towers on your right, then the parking lot you want is on your right.

Please note: The area is very popular in the fall and winter for hunting. Whether you're interested in hunting or in avoiding hunters, you should check the hunting season information from VA Dept of Game.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Calendar: Earth Day Events

There are many, many ways you could celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, which seems to be becoming Earth Week. (Not that we're complaining.) Here are some of our picks, but we've left out plenty -- how do you plan to celebrate Earth Day/Week? Leave us a comment below with other events folks should know about, or your own personal way of recognizing your connecction to the earth.

Earth from Apollo 17 (NASA)
Wednesday (Earth Day eve)

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna will host a program on Gaia Theory. "Join Martin Ogle of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority to learn about this tantalizing concept as he explains, in layman's terms, the science, history and societal implications of Gaia Theory. How does life regulate Earth’s temperature, atmosphere and other planetary conditions? How does Gaia Theory speak to global challenges ranging from climate change to energy use, and to the work of conservationists and educators?"

Thursday (Earth Day)

The Potomac Conservancy is hosting a cleanup along the C&O Canal near their headquarters at Lockhouse 8. "Stop by for a few hours with friends, a group of coworkers or your family, and make an impact for the environment. Wear clothes that can get dirty- we’ll provide all the necessary tools and equipment.For more information contact Deanna Tricarico, Outreach Coordinator, at or 301.608.1188 x.204."

Rock Creek Park will volunteer opportunities throughout the day, including pulling invasive weeds and picking up litter. There are also hikes scheduled at 11, 2, and 3 - see the schedule here.

And in the evening (7PM), Melanie Choukas-Bradley will talk about DC's trees at the Cleveland Park Library. Her talk description promises to take you on a virtual tour of Washington's botanic history and diversity, with pictures and stories behind the trees in Cleveland Park, the White House, the Capitol, Mount Vernon and other historic sites. And copies of her book, City of Trees, will be available for sale & signing. (NOTE: This is a correction from our previous posting, which had this event listed on Friday. Sorry Melanie!)

The US Botanic Garden on the Mall is having a mid-day (11AM-2PM) Earth Day celebration. "Join us as the USBG celebrates the 40th anniversary of Earth Day by promoting fresh ideas from the garden for food, health and life. Representatives of environmental organizations from throughout the region will also be on hand with information and ways in which you can make the planet a healthier place and be stewards of our natural resources." 


The Anacostia Watershed Society is hosting cleanups at more than 30 sites along the river in DC and Maryland from 8:30 to noon. Then they'll serve you a free lunch (with music!) in Anacostia Park. Click here to see the sites and for more info.


The Earth Day Network and many, many partner organizations have organized a major Climate Rally on the National Mall from noon to 6PM, aiming to be one of the largest Earth Day gatherings ever. They'll be rallying for climate and clean energy legislation. Scheduled appearances include Sting, John Legend, James Cameron, The Roots, Bob Weir, Patrick Stump, Mavis Staples, Passion Pit, Q-Tip, Booker T, and others. Exhibitors will be between 4th and 14th St.

There are plenty more activities -- linked to Earth Day and not -- on our calendar. We'll see you out there!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

LOOK FOR: Frog and Toad Eggs (and Tadpoles)

Wood frog eggs by
The Natural Capital
We've been writing a lot about all the flowers that emerge in the spring, but the animals are starting to reproduce, too. And one of the easiest groups of animals to catch in the act -- and to watch the progress of their offspring -- are the frogs and toads.

Even though most amphibians in our area spend most of their lives hopping around on the forest floor, almost all reproduce in the water. At different points throughout the spring and summer, different species will find a suitable body of water and do their thing. Most species want a vernal pond that will have water long enough for the tadpoles to grow up, but that dries up later in the year. That keeps their breeding grounds from becoming a buffet for tadpole-loving fish. (Species that lay their eggs later in the year may seek out more permanent spots.)

There are lots of vernal ponds in our area -- in just about every park we go to regularly, in fact. And most of them have tadpoles in them by now. The only problem is, it's really hard to tell what species of tadpole you're looking at, except by timing and by looking at the eggs the tadpoles hatched from. (Or, we're told, you can look at their mouth parts. Which is apparently even harder than it sounds.) If you pick a pond and keep coming back, though, you may start to get a sense of who's who.

Wood frogs are one of the first species to lay their eggs -- we found some on March 10 this year. They lay their jelly-filled eggs in big spherical clumps -- each female can lay up to 2,000 eggs. They're often attached to a thin stick or other vegetation in the water. The eggs take a couple of weeks to hatch, so the tadpoles are already out and about in the water. In fact, we stopped by a pond along the Northwest Branch last week that was teeming with thousands of them -- this video captures just a small fraction of the action:

Leopard frogs come later in the spring, followed by pickerel frogs. As far as I can tell, they lay similar globs of eggs; if you really want to try to identify what you're looking at you can try these descriptions.

Around June, green frogs and bullfrogs will lay their eggs in flatter, broader masses - more like a huge pancake (up to a foot in diameter for green frogs, and 2 feet for bullfrogs) floating on or near the surface of the water. The theory goes that those black embryos at the center of each egg are capturing heat from the sun, which is insulated by all the jelly in the egg mass. It's more helpful to have ball-shaped egg masses earlier in the spring for the insulation -- the temperature of the egg mass can be significantly warmer than the water temperature. But by June it's more helpful to have all the eggs exposed to the warm air.

American toad and eggs
American toad, with eggs, by The Natural Capital
Instead of laying their eggs in masses, toads lay eggs in long tubes. Really long -- a strand of several thousand eggs can stretch 20 to 60 feet. A couple of weeks ago we saw American toads mating in a little inlet off the Pinehurst Branch in Rock Creek Park; their tadpoles may have hatched by now. Other toad species will lay their eggs later in the summer.

Depending on the species, eggs can take from under a week up to almost 3 weeks to hatch. Tadpoles generally take 2-3 months to get their legs and switch over to breathing air rather than water. But some species, especially bullfrogs, may overwinter as tadpoles. So, while the next couple months are prime tadpole-viewing season, there are tadpoles to look for year-round!

What's your favorite spot to look for tadpoles? Leave us a comment below!

In the wild: You can get some help in looking for tadpoles if you listen for frogs and toads -- let their calls guide you to their breeding grounds. Some of our favorite spots include:
  • Two ponds on the right hand side of the Rachel Carson Trail that runs along the Northwest Branch. (This is where we took the video above.) Start from Burnt Mills Dam across from the Trader Joes on Colesville Road.
  • The Pinehurst Branch trail in Rock Creek Park -- we often find tadpoles in puddles along the edge of the stream, and have found the toads we mentioned above two years in a row now.
  • Huntley Meadows and Jug Bay have great wetlands that are sure to be full of amphibians at this time of year. The catch is, they're so big, the tadpoles have plenty of room to hide.
In your house/yard: We know from personal experience that it can be really hard to raise tadpoles at home. They're sensitive to water quality (and no, our drinking water doesn't pass their test). And they need plenty to eat. Better to find a good spot and check back on their progress in the wild. If you just can't resist, see this advice.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Car-Free DC: Fort Dupont and the Fort Circle Park Trail

At 376 acres, Fort Dupont is the second-largest park in the District. Compared to 1700-acre Rock Creek Park, it is small and neglected. Yet there is still wildness to be found here.

Fort Dupont trail
Photo credit: Danny Fowler
Fort Dupont was indeed a fort -- part of a circle of outposts on high points around the edge of DC during the Civil War. You can still see some of the earthworks on the eastern side of the park, near Alabama Avenue SE (see our map). From some high points in the park (like the hill behind the ice rink), you can see the Capital -- though the soldiers were likely facing in the other direction when they were guarding the city.

Although the area was farmland around the time of the Civil War, a large portion of Fort Dupont is now wooded. And Pope Branch flows through the park on its way to the Anacostia River.

An 8 mile trail called the Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail links Fort Dupont to several other small fort-based parks east of the Anacostia, running from Fort Mahan just north of Benning Road NE to Fort Stanton, south of Good Hope Road SE. Parts of the trail are paved, but much is a natural-surface trail. And, it's the only natural-surface trail within the DC city limits that allows mountain bikes.

Fort Dupont trail
Photo credit: Danny Fowler
Hiking: There aren't a lot of good options for loops in the park -- most of the trails are out-and-back unless you circle back along the road. A trail leaving from the parking lot near the main entrance goes down to follow a small stream. Others climb through the hills. Go exploring and see what you find!

Bikes: Are allowed on all trails in the park. If you're biking the Fort Circle Park Trail, check out this advice, or the page sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Offroad Enthusiasts -- there are a few tricky intersections.

Dogs: Are allowed, on leash. Please scoop your poop.

Other activities: The sports complex along Ely Place includes tennis and basketball courts and athletic fields; an indoor ice rink offers skating all winter. There's also a community garden.

Getting there: The closest metro station to Fort Dupont Park is Benning Road. You can walk the .4 mile to Fort Chaplin park on East Capitol St. and make your way down the Fort Circle Park Trail (about a mile total to the edge of Fort Dupont Park, but much of it is wooded).
For a ride right to the main entrance to Fort Dupont, take the V7/V8 bus from the Minnesota Avenue station to Randle Circle (Minnesota Ave. and Massachusetts Ave.).

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Calendar: National Park Week

Saturday (4/17) is the beginning of National Park Week.   Admission to all national parks is free -- that doesn't affect much in the DC metro area, but it will save you a chunk of change if you decide to head out to Shenandoah National Park.

boat on C&O Canal
Photo credit: voobie
It's also a great time to volunteer. Next weekend (4/17-4/18) is the beginning of C&O Canal Trust's C&O Canal Pride Days -- the largest volunteer event in the park. This year's projects will include planting trees, painting historic structures, removing trash, pulling invasive plants, and other sprucing up activities. Saturday's focus is at Great Falls, and Sunday will be at Pennyfield Lock. To find how you can be most helpful, call the Trust at 301-714-2233.

Rock Creek Park will be celebrating with a Junior Ranger day on Saturday (4/17) from 11 to 4, with activities for kids throughout the day at Peirce Mill. And Greenbelt Park will hold a Junior Ranger Day on Sunday (4/18) from 9 to noon.

As always, there are lots more events on our calendar, including a walk we're leading on Saturday to look for morels and wildflowers (register here). We'll see you out there!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

LOOK FOR: Morels, Closely Guarded Secret of the Forest

Photo credit: The Natural Capital
We first learned about morels about ten years ago, when someone told us that she had a spot where she went to pick them -- but she wouldn't tell us where it was. We soon learned that morels are delicious mushrooms that come up year after year in the same place. And the location of each patch is a secret as closely guarded as if there were pure gold sprouting up on the forest floor.

Hard to mistake for anything else, morels are a great beginner's mushroom. There's just one catch: morels are really, really hard to see. For years, we looked during the last two weeks of April in all the places people said to look: in old apple orchards, by dead elm stumps, and under tuliptrees. Nothing. Until we went out with experienced mushroomers who were willing to share their morel spots. Suddenly, the forest floor was dotted with these gourmet delicacies.

Photo credit: Jason Riedy

The pocked brown surface of morels is perfectly camouflaged to mix in with crumpled dead leaves. Several times, I've sat down to take a break while mushrooming, only to have my new perspective reveal a morel in the exact patch of ground where I was just looking. After finding a few, your brain forms a search image, and they start standing out a little more from the background. Until then, hunting for morels can be painfully frustrating. It's important to remember that even if you don't find anything, you're walking in the woods. And it's spring.

The earthy flavor of morels is like nothing else -- and their value among those of us who hunt mushrooms is heightened by the fact that they're the first mushroom of any note to come up after a long, mostly mushroomless winter. They usually start to emerge when the ground gets up to around 50 degrees -- around the time that the redbuds are blooming. Around DC they peak in mid to late April.

There are several species of morel that are most common in the DC metro area, listed here in approximate order of when they come up:
Photo credit: Jason Means

  • Morchella semilibera (meaning semi-free) -- the bottom of the cap is not attached to the stem.
  • Morchella elata (meaning erect or exalted) -- known as black morel, because the cap is blacker than in other species.
  • Morchella esculenta (meaning edible) -- often called yellow morel; the cap color is beige to brown, but yellower than other species.
  • Morchella crassipes (meaning big foot) -- much larger than the other species.
  • Morchella deliciosa (meaning delicious) -- known as white morel because the ridges on the cap are whitish when young.
All five of these species are edible. But if you are going to try to eat morels that you collect yourself, you must learn what a poisonous "false morel" looks like. If you know what to look for, they're easy to tell from true morels. Most importantly, true morels are hollow, while false morels are cottony on the inside.

morel hunter
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Go out with experienced mushroomers if you're just getting started. You'll be happy you did, not only for the help with identification, but also because they will generously take you to spots where they have found morels in the past. Look here for the Mycological Association of Washington's upcoming forays. Or sign up for Matt's wild edibles hike to Scott's Run on April 17, where we found dozens of morels last year.

But we're not going to tell you our favorite spot. Two years ago, at about this time, we found over 500 morels in one small patch of forest in the DC metropolitan area. This picture is your only clue of the location. The search is half the fun!

Have you found morels yet this spring? Let us know when you do! We checked our special spot on Wednesday and there was no sign of them yet, but they should be up soon.

In the wild: Look on the forest floor in stands of tuliptrees, especially under older trees. Keep looking. Go with someone who has found them before. Keep looking.

In your yard: There's a chance they might pop up if you have old elms or tulip poplars in your yard, but noone's figured out how to cultivate our east coast species. Until they do...keep looking.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Potomac River Watershed Cleanup This Saturday

Fletcher's Boathouse Cleanup. Photo by Johnny Bivera, OurVisualPlanet. 2009
For more than 20 years, volunteers have come out every year for the Alice Ferguson Foundation's Potomac River Watershed Cleanup. They (we) pull trash out of the Potomac River watershed -- from streams and rivers that feed the Potomac, and from "inland" areas whose trash might wash into those waterways.

Over the years, more than 50,000 volunteers have helped remove over 3 million tons of trash that would otherwise be sitting in the Potomac River or the Chesapeake Bay. Last year's organizers reported collecting 290 tons, including more than 27 tons of recyclables, 41,122 Plastic bags, 2,095 tires, 17 bicycles, 16 shopping carts, 9 Metal and plastic barrels, 5 TVs and 5 refrigerators.

Inside the Dumpster at Cloppers Mill West. Photo by Susan Hughes. 2008
It's a massive undertaking, and one that makes it that much more pleasant to explore the Potomac throughout the rest of the year. And, it can be really fun. It's a chance to be outside on a spring day, and making a measurable impact on the river we all love.

There are over 200 locations where you can volunteer on Saturday, in DC, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. To browse the sites by county, click here. Look for a site near you, help clean up your favorite park, or use it as an excuse to check out a spot you've never visited before. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Calendar: A Full Week of Evening Events

I don't know about you, but something about spring seems to get our personal calendars way more booked than usual. If you've got a spare evening this week, though, there's an event from our calendar for every weeknight! On Tuesday we'll talk more about a big event this weekend -- Saturday's Potomac Watershed cleanup, with hundreds of opportunities to volunteer (for now, see the Alice Ferguson Foundation cleanup page). 

A Black Hole Overflows (NASA, Chandra, 2/2/09)
The week starts off with the University of Maryland Observatory's open house on the 5th of every month -- that means this Monday. Mike Koss will do a presentation at 8:00 called "Supermassive Black Holes Feeding in a Galaxy Near You." The talk will be followed by a tour of the observatory, and some observing if weather permits. Logistical information is here.

Tuesday night (4/6) is the monthly meeting of the Mycological Association of Washington, at the Chevy Chase Library at 7 PM. I can't find a note of who the speaker is, but we always enjoy the part at the beginning where some of the experts in the group identify mushrooms that people have brought in. There's sure to be discussion of when people expect morels to start coming up -- and maybe even some early morel sightings.

Wednesday night (4/7) is a monthly lecture at the US Geological Survey. This month, two USGS researchers will talk about their tracking of animal migrations:  "World renowned USGS researchers, L. David Mech and Robert Gill will talk about the use of the latest state-of-the-art technology in tracking wildlife. Mech will share the secret paths of a pack of 20 or more arctic wolves during 24 hours of darkness, and Gill will take us from the arctic to the tropics with migrating shorebirds, specifically godwits and curlews, who make phenomenal nonstop migrations across oceans and continents. " More info here.

Thursday night (4/8) brings two opportunities to learn about wildflowers. Stephanie Mason at the Audubon Naturalist Society will teach an evening class called "Introduction to Wildflower Identification" at 7:30 at ANS's Woodend Sanctuary -- which will be followed by a Saturday field trip.  Call soon to sign up -- see the info here.

If you're further along in your native plant knowledge, you may want to head to the Virginia Native Plant Society meeting at Green Spring Garden Park on Thursday evening -- there will be a presentation on a compendium that it is being developed to describe more than 3,500 plant species that grow in Virginia, including 1,400 botanical illustrations. Address and a little more info here.

On Friday nights, the Analemma Society holds star-gazing events in Observatory Park in Great Falls, for about an hour after sunset. Directions are here.

On Saturday and Sunday nights, the Audubon Naturalist Society has two sessions of looking for spring peepers and other frogs and toads. The one on Saturday is aimed at kids; the one on Sunday is for adults. Advance registration is required; call soon to reserve a spot. More info here.

And of course, there's even more listed on our calendar. We'll see you out there!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

LOOK FOR: Bluebells, Clumps of Heaven Here to Ring in Spring

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, being pollinated by a bee
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Does it seem like all of our posts lately include the sentence, "it is a rite of spring for us to look for ___________"? Well, add one more to the list. The bluebells are coming out, and you can bet we'll be looking for them.

And they're not hard to find. In fact, in the right places, they're downright prolific. Bluebells like the bottomlands along streams and rivers. There are many stretches of parkland along the Potomac where they form 14-inch tall blue carpets for a few weeks every April.

But before turning blue, bluebells start out pink. The clusters of flowers don't open all at once, so you'll often see a bunch of puckered-up pink buds mixed in with the blue flowers. The stem arches over and the trumpet-shaped flowers really do hang like a cluster of little bells ready to ring in spring.

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica
Photo credit: Dancing Nomad
Even when they're not blooming, the foliage of bluebells can be distinctive. The broad leaves are smooth and light green, almost dusky when they first come up. But by midsummer, you won't even know they're there. The leaves of bluebells will die back by June, leaving their roots charged up and ready to go next spring.
William Cullina says of bluebells: "As best I can determine, Mertensias are not plants at all, but delicate clumps of sky, thinly disguised and sent here for a few weeks each year to bring us earth-bound folks briefly closer to heaven."


In the wild: Look in any of the wooded parks in the flood plain along the Potomac for big patches of bluebells -- including Scotts Run, Turkey Run, McKee Beshers, and some other stretches of the C&O Canal. They were already blooming last Saturday in some south-facing stretches of the Billy Goat C trail around Carderock. There are also some big patches in Rock Creek Park. We'd love to hear about other locations!

In your yard: Bluebells need moist, but well-drained, soil. They do best in deciduous shade -- they need the spring sun, but don't naturally grow in places where they'll get full sun in the summer.

Do you have a favorite spot where you find bluebells? Have questions about them? Leave us a comment!

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica
Bluebells at Scott's Run by the Natural Capital