Friday, April 29, 2011

Things to Look For in May

We're wrapping up our second year here at the Natural Capital, so these monthly reviews of previous posts are now going to be twice as long. But there are still many things we haven't gotten to yet...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. 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. 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.

Tiny Tim the Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse by RunnerJenny
Tufted titmice - These birds are in the Washington DC area year round, but (like many birds) they're nesting in May. Last year's post was inspired by catching a pair flying back and forth repeatedly to their nest to feed their young.

Blue Flag Iris
Blue flag iris by dermoidhome
Blue flag iris - This gorgeous iris can be found in our local wetlands. It's one of the showiest flowers native to the DC region.

Oyster mushrooms by justresting
Oyster mushrooms - These are quite possibly my favorite local mushroom. They're not showy like chicken of the woods or early like morels, just a reliable, plentiful mushroom with a nice mushroomy flavor.
serviceberry, amelanchier, juneberry
Serviceberries by dbarronoss
Serviceberries: We first learned these native, edible fruits as "Juneberries," but we're starting to think they should maybe be called "Mayberries" around here. (Does something already have that name, or is it just a place in tv land?) They should start ripening at the end of the month. They're scattered throughout the woods in the DC area, but you'll get the most fruit from trees that have been planted ornamentally...see our list of some of the best areas we've found.

Hummingbird by Jason Means
Ruby throated hummingbirds - Need I say more? Love, love, love these birds and I'm always so happy to see them come back in the spring. It usually happens in May.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


The morel season has been off to a sluggish (but still delicious) start. We had two moderately successful hikes on the last two weekends: everybody went home with at least one mushroom, but not with the big scores we've had in some years. (And wow, the spring wildflowers were beautiful.)

On Sunday Matt and I hit another spot we know for morels and discovered this 4-foot snake guarding some of them. It even fake-rattled its tail at us when we came close.

And then, when we were scoping out an entirely different spot in Washington, DC for a possible July walk, look what was growing right along the trail!

Sauteed morels and asparagus for dinner, yum!

Our friend Shannon tells us production is finally picking up at our favorite spot in Silver Spring (she discovered it too, the sneak). Heading back out today to look for more.

It's so easy to become obsessed at this time of year.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Calendar: Arbor Day

There's so much good stuff on the calendar this week -- from fern ID on Tuesday night, to Fern Valley on Sunday -- that it was hard to choose a few picks... but the last Friday in April is Arbor Day, and that wins out.

tulip tree
Photo credit: calliope
Casey Trees will celebrate with the official opening of its new headquarters in Brookland on Saturday afternoon. The open house will include building tours and neighborhood tree walks. The renovated building includes three green roofs, a “cool roof,” and rainwater retention designs. It's co-located with the Casey Trees tree yard, a revamped redfield site.

If you're thinking of actually planting a tree for Arbor Day, wait a day: the largest native plant sale we know of in the Washington, DC area is on Saturday in Alexandria. Though we tend to order wholesale for our native plant landscaping business (and propagate a lot ourselves), there are a couple of things we're looking for that will get us to make the trip around the beltway this weekend. The sale website has a list of vendors -- you can call them ahead of time if you, too, are looking for a certain plant...or just head on over and take a look.

Want to just get out and appreciate the trees? Rock Creek Park is offering several Arbor Day themed hikes on Friday and Saturday. The "Edge of the Woods" hike is for ages 3 and up along the short trail by the Nature Center; there's a longer (2-mile) "Forest for the Trees" hike on Saturday afternoon.


Friday, April 22, 2011

LOOK FOR: Bear Corn (or Cancer Root...or Squaw Root)

Conopholis americana breaks one of the fundamental rules you learned about plants in biology: it has no chlorophyll. It doesn't photosynthesize.

bear corn
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
But it is a plant -- a parasitic one. It latches on to the roots of oak trees and steals nutrients.

The Latin name Conopholis is nicely descriptive: a scaly (pholis) cone. Not needing to photosynthesize, the plants don't have true leaves. But they do have little scales growing along their length.

This is the time of year that we notice this plant the most, because we're looking for morels. From the corner of your eye, it's about the right size and color for a really big, juicy morel. It always makes me look.

Conopholis does prove one botanical rule: sometimes a plant has so many common names, it can be better just to stick with the Latin. Squawroot might be the most commonly-known common name. I'm not sure where that one comes from, but many people find the term "squaw" offensive.

And there are better options. Parasitism can cause large knobs to form on oak roots, giving Conopholis the name cancer root. But my favorite name comes from the fact that black bears are said to forage on these plants when they come out of hibernation: bear corn.

Squaw root, Conopholis americana
Photo credit: Janet Powell

But it will be a few months before bear corn looks like corn. In a month or two, the plants will bloom, sending out a little white flower above each scale. After that, they'll make little seedpods where each flower was. Lined up along the stalk they do look a little bit like corn.

And it's all from energy stolen from a tree.

Conopholis americana
Photo credit: dogtooth77
Have you seen bear corn this year? Know any other tales about this unusual plant? Leave us a comment!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Turn off your computer and get outside...

Transparent screen attempt
Photo credit: jpstanley
It's Screen Free Week. They couldn't have picked a better time of year. Hat tip to the Grass Stain Guru for reminding us, and for her ideas of things to do instead of staring at a screen.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Calendar: Earth Day (April 22)

Whether you're celebrating Good Friday or Earth Day, there's no school on Friday. Several local organizations have planned accordingly.

Earth Day [112:365]
Photo credit: Michael Daines
Rock Creek Park has two special events scheduled to celebrate the day on Friday: a migratory bird walk at 9:00, and a woodland trail walk at 3:00. Plus there's always their regular Friday Creature Feature animal feeding at 4:00.

Brookside Nature Center is sponsoring a hike on the Billy Goat A Trail near Great Falls in the morning, and a tree walk at the nature center on Friday afternoon.

And the US Botanic Garden is hosting an Earth Day Celebration Friday from 10:00 to 2:00 at their space on the Mall.

You can search the Earth Day Network for more events...and as always, there's lots more on our calendar for the weekend!

Friday, April 15, 2011

LOOK FOR: Dogwood Flowers

Dogwoods are one native flowering tree that has really made it as an ornamental landscape tree. Trees in sunny spots and the warmer parts of our urban heat island should start blooming soon.

But how closely have you looked at a dogwood lately? There was something very basic about the structure of dogwood flowers that I never realized until I really started studying plants. See if you can guess what it was from this picture:

dogwood (ハナミズキ) #3421
Photo credit: Nemo's great uncle
Those big white petals? Technically they're not really petals at all; they're called bracts. The actual flowers are collected in the center, and have tiny little greenish petals. I'm reminded of a quote by Georgia O'Keeffe, who spent an awful lot of time looking at flowers:

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time - like to have a friend takes time.

May we all remember to take the time to look closely this spring!

Elizabeth biking through the dogwoods on the C&O Canal in mid-April

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Our newest hobby

I try to stay away from blogging about our garden on the Natural Capital -- so many people already do that so well. But I just can't resist sharing the newest addition to our backyard: a beehive! Here's a video of Matt putting in the bees.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Calendar: Animal City (April 16-17)

This week's picks are three unique opportunities to see wild animals in different ways.

Smithsonian Naturalist Museum - Leesburg, VA
Smithsonian Naturalist Center
Photo credit: mediafury
Saturday from 11 to 4 is an open house "draw-in" at the Smithsonian Naturalist Center in Leesburg, VA. The center houses thousands of specimens -- including many animals that you can use as models. Professional artists will be on hand to demonstrate drawing techniques, answer questions, and offer advice. Ages 10+. Free.

Sunday at 9 AM, the Ancestral Knowledge Tracking Club will practice animal track identification, aging, and interpretation. "The ability to identify animals by their tracks gives you the opportunity to become the animal and see through their eyes. You will experience the story as it unfolds: who was the fox chasing? how did the rabbit respond?" $5-10 donation.

Sunday from 12 to 3, at Barnard Hill (Eastern Avenue and Randolf Street, NE) - Animal City USA! "Drop by to learn about area wildlife, feel animal furs, and meet a ranger’s best hiking companion at this little-known unit of Rock Creek Park!" Free.

As always there are also many birding outings and other hikes and activities on our calendar. Enjoy!

Friday, April 8, 2011

LOOK FOR: Garlic Mustard, Invasive and Delicious

In the title to this post, I was tempted to call garlic mustard "evil." But I'll stop short of that. Every plant is just trying its best to take over the world.

Photo credit: Olivia and Mike
So you can't really blame garlic mustard, I guess, for the way it has evolved multiple seedpods that broadcast hundreds of seeds per plant, when they're ripe.

Nor for its allelopathic roots, which actually inhibit the growth of other plants growing nearby.

And really, how was it supposed to be responsible for bringing over its own pests from Europe to keep it in check? How was it to know American insects wouldn't eat it?

Turns out garlic mustard is getting really good at taking over. But I'm trying to adopt Patterson Clark's zen attitude: invasive weeds aren't evil...they are an untapped abundance.

This is one abundant plant you should learn to tap. Please, before it takes over the forest floor in all of our local parks.

Garlic Mustard (1st year)
First-year rosette by alumroot
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a biennial plant. In its first year, it hunkers down as a basal rosette of toothed, more or less heart-shaped leaves. The next spring, it starts going vertical, sending up a flowering stalk that can grow over 3 feet tall. The flowers are white, with four petals.

Do the flowers and seedpods remind you of the bittercress I wrote about a couple of weeks ago? They're in the same family, along with mustard greens, broccoli, and lots of other good-for-you vegetables.

GARLIC MUSTARD Alliaria petiolata
Photo credit: natural history man
Before yanking out garlic mustard, make sure you're not confusing it with golden ragwort, which is a lovely, and inedible, native flower. The leaves can be a similar shape, but only garlic mustard smells like garlic when you crush it. And, when they're flowering, they're totally different: golden ragwort has yellow flowers and powderpuffy seeds.

Going out on a garlic mustard pull with people who know what they're doing is one of the best ways to get to know this plant safely, and a great way to help maintain a local park. There are organized efforts throughout our area; check our calendar for invasive plant pulls. Montgomery County even holds an annual Garlic Mustard Challenge -- last year they pulled over 5 tons of garlic mustard from county parks.

And after you go on a garlic mustard pull, you should bring home some of the garlic mustard you pulled, and you should eat it. You can eat the leaves and stems raw or cooked. My favorite method is to substitute garlic mustard for the basil and the garlic in pesto. Or check out the recipes from the Patapsco Garlic Mustard Challenge: how about some garlic mustard ravioli to go with your pesto?

Want another way to tap this abundant resource? Check out this papermaking class.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Potomac River Watershed Cleanup this Saturday, April 9

Bye Bye Beer Can, by Emily Wander.
Winner of the 2010 Photo Contest.

Every April, there's a one-day cleanup at hundreds of sites across DC, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to get trash out of the Potomac River watershed. Last year´s haul came in at 250 tons, including more than 15 tons of recyclables, 21,597 plastic bags, 1,844 tires, 3 canoes and 2 couches!

This year's cleanup is on Saturday morning, April 9.
Find a cleanup site near you
and pitch in.

Want to up the ante? Participate in the Trash-a-Thon, where you can get people to sponsor you to collect that trash.

As always, there's plenty more on our calendar for this weekend. But I hope you'll join us in spending a few hours looking for trash on Saturday morning.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Calendar: Dueling Field Guide Authors (April 5)

I'm in a conundrum about how to spend Tuesday evening.

Gary Lincoff will be this month's speaker at the Mycological Association of Washington. He's author of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and the recently published The Complete Mushroom Hunter. We use several mushroom field guides regularly, but if we're going to carry just one, it's often the Audubon guide. He's a hero among mycologists, with an annual event named after him; he was even on the Martha Stewart Show. This is not a book talk -- the title of Gary's presentation is "The natural and cultural history of the polypores; OR, why we should want to know what they're good for besides decomposing wood."

On the same night (what are the chances??), Richard Crossley will be speaking at the Audubon Naturalist Society. He's the author of the Crossley ID Guide, which I reviewed last week. It's a hugely impressive (if a little overwhelming) book, and this is your chance to hear about his very different approach to creating a field guide. I'd love to ask him how long it took to take the 10,000 photographs that he used. Check out this video for a teaser.

As always there are lots more events on our calendar. In particular, this Saturday is the annual Potomac Watershed Cleanup. We'll have more details on Wednesday.

As for tomorrow night, how to choose? It may come down to a coin toss...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Things to Look For in April

This time of year just makes my heart soar, every year. It's also one of our busiest times: Matt's landscaping business is in full swing, our own garden is plenty of work, and there are so many things we want to look for in the wild!

a passion for morels
Morels by It's Greg
More than any other rite of spring, we look forward to morel season. The search for these well-camouflaged shrooms can be maddening, but it makes the discovery that much more exciting when we find them. They usually start up about mid-April. We're leading two walks to look for them this month (sign up soon; they always fill!). Or check out the forays by the Mycological Association of Washington.

Wood frog eggs
Wood frog eggs by the Natural Capital
Close behind the morel hunt on our list of spring favorites is looking for frog and toad eggs. And even more so, the tadpoles once they come along. It's not quite as challenging as finding the morels -- see our list of places we always find them, or let us know about yours!
Photo credit: dancing nomad
And then there are the bluebells. William Cullinasays 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." We say, amen.

Earth from Galileo (NASA)
And speaking of earth-bound, Earth Day is April 22. It's hard to look for the big-picture earth while you're standing on it, but our post has a way to feel the earth move.

What have you been seeing out there lately? We'd love to hear about it.