Wild Ideas: Fall park takes

The hips (fruit) of pasture rose brightens up the subdued earth tones of Big Meadows in November.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
The hips (fruit) of pasture rose brightens up the subdued earth tones of Big Meadows in November.

I’d just finished with some grueling deadlines last Wednesday afternoon and really wanted to take a nap more than anything else, but the day was just too darn nice — sunny and in the mid-70s.

Knowing it could be that last warm day of the year, and that the fall foliage would soon be gone, I grabbed my camera and went up to Shenandoah National Park instead. I knew once I got there my fatigue would disappear, and it did.

After making a few stops at overlooks along the way, finding the light not quite right yet, I moved on to Big Meadows. In trying to identify flowering plants in fall and winter, when their blooms have gone to seed or disappeared, I’ve found few images online or in my print references that help. I had decided to start adding some to my own collection, and I knew Big Meadows would offer some opportunities for that.

I was dismayed, after the lovely sunny ride up, to find clouds were moving in above Big Meadows. My lenses are not that fast to begin with, so dark days can be a challenge. I worked quickly in the remaining sunlight to get shots of some of the many common milkweed with bursting seedpods that were across the access road to Rapidan Camp. A breeze stirred the exposed silky white fluff attached to the exposed seeds. The fluff helps the seeds catch the wind and disperse to other locations.

This ripened seedpod of common milkweed, looking like some bizarre predatory bird, has opened, releasing its seed to the wind.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
This ripened seedpod of common milkweed, looking like some bizarre predatory bird, has opened, releasing its seed to the wind.

After taking photos of the milkweed, and a few of nearby goldenrod that had also gone to seed, I headed back across the access road to the main part of the meadows. On the other side of the road, I stopped to take a photo of native pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), which has smaller blooms than the bull thistle, a common nonnative invasive.

Walking around the meadow, I found a small bush with reddish berries. I wasn’t sure of the species, so took some photos to help with identification when I got home.

The hoary look of this stand of small trees, probably hawthorn, comes from lichen that has engulfed it.Pam Owen
The hoary look of this stand of small trees, probably hawthorn, comes from lichen that has engulfed it.

As I was busy photographing the berries, four birds flew by. In dim light, at first I thought they might be juncos, but I finally caught a bit of bright blue and am pretty sure they were eastern bluebirds. Usually I have my binoculars with me but, with photos more on my mind, had left them in the car.

Not too far from the berry bush, I found what I thought was a Carolina (or pasture) rose (Rosa carolina), also with bright-red fruit, called “hips” on roses. I probably wouldn’t have known what it was if I hadn’t recently seen the same species in the Piedmont mafic prairie I wrote about in my October 29 column. The distinctive leaves were gone on the bush at Big Meadows, but the hips clued me into the plant genus. Big Meadows is kept relatively free of nonnative plants by park staff, and the Carolina rose is a native, so I was pretty sure of the ID.

As I headed toward the center of the meadows, which is a wetlands, I found small, braided streams running throughout the area, crisscrossing each other. In the middle, I came to a stand of small, slender trees that were covered with lichen, so much so that, even if I were good at identifying trees (which I’m not), I would have a hard time with those.

Young park visitors contemplate the view of Rappahannock from the rock outcrop at Hazel Mountain overlook on Skyline Drive.Pam Owen
Young park visitors contemplate the view of Rappahannock from the rock outcrop at Hazel Mountain overlook on Skyline Drive.

To help with ID later, I took some photos of the stand, including close-ups of the lichen. At that point, I was happy to have a cloudy day, so I could more easily catch the detail in the lichen rather than having it washed out by the otherwise bright fall light. The overcast also helped in photographing what looked like a graceful clump of birch nearby, apparently growing out of an old stump.

I saw some white asters on the way back to the car, but I’ve given up on trying to sort out the late-blooming white asters — bush, frost or white wood.

On the way back home along the drive, I stopped at several turnouts on the west side to take some photos of the spectacular views created by the sun’s glowing off the last of the fall foliage on the slopes below and across the Shenandoah Valley to Massanutten Mountain.

The late-afternoon fall light hits the slopes of the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah Valley, beyond.Pam Owen
The late-afternoon fall light hits the slopes of the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah Valley, beyond.

When I got back home, I emailed several photos of the plants whose ID I wasn’t sure of to Jake Hughes, a lead biological science technician for the park. I’d gotten to know Jake, who works in invasive plant management and restoration, several years ago when I helped pull some invasive plants in the park. He’s been a big help in identifying plants I’ve photographed there.

The graceful trunks of a gray birch, rare in Virginia, stand out against the subtle fall colors of Big Meadows.Pam Owen
The graceful trunks of a gray birch, rare in Virginia, stand out against the subtle fall colors of Big Meadows.

In his response, Jake said he thought I was correct on the rose ID. The plant with the red berries was coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus), he wrote, a species unfamiliar to me. The clump of lichen-covered trees are probably hawthorn and the distinctive, birch-like tree, was a gray birch (Betula populifolia). As with some other plant and animal species at Big Meadows, the birch is “a rare species in Virginia that is much more common in the northeastern states,” Jake added.

© 2015 Pam Owen

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