Late Winter + Sunny Day =

Hiking Fun at Fernbrook Natural Area

It was early March and we were itching to get out of the house to get our feet moving on a trail after being sick and homebound for most of February. Fernbrook Natural Area is a great little preserve owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. We plan to make it a regular hiking spot.

Orchids in winter:

Puttyroot winter leaf showing distinctive parallel veins. I never can seem to catch these in flower during the growing season!
The intricate veining pattern of the downy rattlesnake-plantain leaf is more eye-catching than its small white summer flowers.
The solitary winter leaf of the cranefly orchid is purple on the reverse. Its flowers are always a delightful summer find that can be easily overlooked.

Early flowers opening on a warm slope:

The first spring beauty of 2017 just beginning to peek through the leaf litter unfurling itself before the sun.

Interesting textures:

Knobby beech that caught our eye. Look to the left of the tree in the lower photo to see raised projections in profile.

Taking a moment of quiet:

The loop trail overlooks the North Fork of the Rivanna River.

More winter foliage:

Overwintering leaves of Hexastylis growing in a rock outcrop along the Rivanna River. Perhaps this is H. minor or little heartleaf, but that is a guess based solely on habitat. Perhaps we will have to check back in the spring for new leaves and little brown jugs for more clues. I have a lot of new plants to learn here in Virginia.
Striped wintergreen popping up everywhere!

Woodpeckers flourish:

We love snags and so do the woodpeckers.
Not too far from the trailhead is this directional sign. Stop here and look all around for the giant oak snags and the tons of woodpeckers. This area is like a Wegman’s for woodpeckers!

Happy Spring from Pete and Beth!


What is that Smell?

Skunk Cabbage: Under-appreciated Denizens of Cold

Skunk cabbage braves the cold to peek its leathery reddish, greenish spathe and fascinating flowers through the muck in late winter.  As a plant lover, I take great delight in spotting these stinky gems because I have been waiting ALL WINTER for flowers and that’s a mighty long time. These are generally the first native plants to say hello to the new year.

I recently spotted some at Choate Sanctuary, Saw Mill River Audubon located in New York. Joining friends and their three children, we embarked on a winter woodpecker hike in hopes of seeing all six species of woodpeckers inhabiting Choate. The children, who were very happy to be outside on a sunny winter day, ran wild with joy climbing trees and scrambling over rocks; burning off three days worth of energy by my best estimates. Needless to say, most of the birds steered clear of our group, so I instead found some plants to share with my friends who now have a new appreciation for skunk cabbage. Who knew?

Skunk Cabbage growing at Choate Sanctuary, Saw Mill River Audubon, NY.

Symplocarpus foetidus or skunk cabbage is common in Virginia often found in mountain bogs. The plant is widely distributed throughout eastern U.S being one of two species in its genus, Symplocarpus. The other species is in northeastern Asia.

A few qualities make this plant unique meaning it has a really neat approach to making a living in this world. First, it can tolerate flowering in the winter because of the flower’s ability to generate its own heat, melting through snow and ice. Huh? Yeah, plant physiology magic. Heat production is also likely related to pollination. Second, skunk cabbage stinks to high heaven to attract just the right pollinators like flies, beetles, or bees; hence, the species name foetidus meaning “that has an ill smell”.

Skunk cabbage growing in a northeast Indiana fen unfurling new leaves. You can see the spadix peeking out of the spathe to the left. The spadix is where all the small flowers are located.

Lastly, large bright green leaves emerge after flowering. Do not be fooled by the word cabbage into thinking this plant is good in your soup and salad lunch.These cabbage like leaves are full of a substance called calcium oxalate which is produced to deter herbivory by buggering up the mouth of the unfortunate soul nibbling its leaves. Hopefully, the skunk cabbages successful defense will keep it alive for another day and said soul will have learned a valuable lesson.

Now layer up and get out for that late-winter hike. It is good for the body, clears the mind, and fills the soul with goodness. Spring ephemerals are beginning to peek from under the leaf litter. You might get lucky and find some in flower already on that warm south aspect slope.



Want to know more? Here are my helpful references:

A Grammatical Dictionary of Botanical Latin (online)

Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont by Timothy P. Spira

Uemura S., et al., 1993. Heat Production and Cross Pollination of the Asian Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus renifolius (Aracea). American Journal of Botany, vol. 80, no. 6, 1993, pp. 635-640., .


Look for the Caterpillars!

So a little story of how, Look for the Caterpillars!, came to be…

In August 2010, I paid a visit to my dearest friends, Steve and Jennifer. Our visits always include a hike somewhere, so we spent an afternoon hiking at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park along the Dyer’s Mill Trail. The three of us always have a great time catching up on whatever. At the time, Steve and I both worked for The Nature Conservancy in similar jobs managing nature preserves. We shared the challenges we faced in our jobs and how sometimes those challenges could get you down. Steve responded in his we ain’t making watches way, “sometimes you just have too look for the caterpillars”. His observation was not only true in our work, but it is true in life. Our conversation inspired me to always look for the caterpillars in life finding the small nugget of goodness somewhere somehow even in the most unexpected of places. Maybe it just spoke to the eternal optimist in me as well and I just needed that little reminder from a good friend. Now I carry it with me each day.

Steve and Jennifer write a blog, The Common Milkweed, where they share their passion for conservation, a love and wonder for all things nature, living a self-sustaining life, and making their dreams happen. Check out their blog post from the day we went looking for spicebush swallowtail caterpillars.