Wild Ideas: In search of spring – and wildflowers

Lately I’ve been walking my dog along a path through the forest near my house, about halfway up the mountain, to see if any wildflowers are blooming there yet.

Plant Sale features native plants

This year’s Rappahannock Plant Sale will once again be at Waterpenny Farm, on U.S. 211 just east of Sperryville, from 9 to 3 Saturday, April 27. According to farm owner Rachel Bynum, “many local growers come to sell a wide variety of high-quality plants,” and it’s also the start of on-farm sales for Waterpenny.

Native plants, from flowering shrubs to annuals and perennials, are a big feature of the sale, but plenty of non-natives, including herb and vegetable starter plants, will also be available. According to Rachel, this year’s vendors include Hill House Farm & Nursery (native plants), Blue Ridge Botanicals (specialty herbs and perennial and annual flowers), Beech Springs Farm (native trees), the Rappahannock Farm-to-Table Program (student-grown plants and vegetables), Persimmon Springs Nursery (flowering shrubs and trees, including many natives), Morningside Farm & Nursery (annual and perennial plants and shrubs, including many natives), Eastwoods Nursery (Japanese maples) and Waterpenny (vegetable, herb and flower starters).

Along with plants, the event offers hand-crafted garden items for sale. And for anyone interested in the Virginia Master Naturalist Program, representatives for our local chapter, Old Rag, will have a table. “We also offer refreshments for sale, good company and gardening advice,” Rachel says. As she aptly puts it, “It’s always a fun community event.”

Last year bloodroot was already in bloom by this time, but was still a no-show last week. Knowing nature always gets a slower start up here on the mountain and impatient to find wildflowers, last Friday I headed for the lower end of Thornton River Trail, in Shenandoah National Park, in search of wildflowers in bloom. I had my newly purchased, used digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) Canon camera in tow to try it out.

It was around 60 degrees by the time I got to the trailhead, and no flowers were in sight for quite a while. Finally, as I walked further down the trail, I started to see small, delicate blossoms, some purplish blue and others white, growing low on the ground among some large, fleshy leaves with three rounded lobes. Judging by the shape of the leaves, I figured these were round-lobed hepatica, one of the early bloomers in the Appalachians.

One more sign of spring was in the air – butterflies. A mourning cloak was soaking up some sun on a tree trunk, and some black ones with blue spots and an orange-and-brown one whizzed past me too fast to ID. The black ones were likely spicebush swallowtails, considering how much spicebush and sassafras, their host plants, are along the trail.

I spent most of my time on the walk trying to get used to my new camera. I had started out as a photojournalist many years ago, using a low-end Canon film SLR system. In covering challenging photo ops  – from gymnastics, where no flash is allowed, to rodeos – I had learned to shoot fast, mostly by feel, but I only had to master aperture and focus rings, and a speed dial.

Facing all the new options, buttons and menus on a DSLR – many more than are on my now-ancient Nikon Coolpix digital camera – is daunting. However, I’m determined to get familiar enough with my new camera to work efficiently and take advantage of the new technology it offers. Not all wildlife will pose as graciously as the mourning cloak.

Round-lobed hepatica, which range in color from purple to white, is one of the earliest bloomers in the Blue Ridge. Photo by Pam Owen,
Round-lobed hepatica, which range in color from purple to white, is one of the earliest bloomers in the Blue Ridge. Photo by Pam Owen,

I’d also brought my new Android phone along on the walk. I’ve loaded it with lots of species-identification and other apps that I hope will be useful in observing nature. Trying to look up species on its small screen is definitely a challenge, and most of the nature apps are too general to totally nail down the ID for many local species, but they still are useful. The app with the most extensive database is the vTree app, which also has a key to aid with identification and will be easier to use once the trees leaf out.

I also have apps for recording audio notes on my observations, for checking the ambient temperature, determining direction and performing other functions helpful in observing nature. None of the apps require connectivity for most features, which is one of the big challenges out here in the land of hills and hollows. While it would be nice to be able to use GPS and access to the Internet, the apps still offer enough benefits and most cost little or nothing.

With a desire to bring wildflowers closer to home, I’m planning to turn a fire ring behind my house into a small garden. Along with native flowers, which will offer color and help native wildlife, particularly pollinators, I plan to plant herbs. With the garden on the windward side of the house, I look forward to lovely herbal scents wafting through the house, hopefully overriding the usual odor of old dog (and old human).

I haven’t gardened for years but, when I did, I got a lot of plants at the annual Rappahannock Plant Sale, now in its 12th year. I look forward to returning this year to stock up for my new garden. I recently stopped by Waterpenny Farm, where the sale is held –  to drop off some cartons for eggs and tangerine boxes for starter plants – and ran into Eric Plaksin, who owns the farm along with his wife, Rachel Bynum. I asked him about this year’s sale, and he said Rachel would email me the details (see box).

On Monday, after a steady warming trend over the weekend, bloodroot had burst open all along the forest trail next to my house. Redbud and dogwood should follow soon. To learn more about native plants, check out the series of columns I wrote about them last March, available at rappnews.com/category/wild-ideas-nature-column. A database of plants that I compiled from several sources, along with links to some great native-plant websites, is also available on my website, NighthawkCommunications.net, under the “Nature Resources” tab. If you have suggestions for additions, please send them to me at wilder.ideas@gmail.com.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”