Wild Ideas: Hunting for plants along the Shenandoah

By Pam Owen
Wildflower walk attendees make their way through drifts of Virginia bluebells in a ravine at Calmes Neck. By Pam Owen

I had the great pleasure of taking two wonderful, informative plant walks two weekends ago, both along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, but in very different ecosystems.

By Pam Owen
VNPS plant expert Carrie Blair explains how to identify a basswood tree at the White House Farm Nature Stroll. By Pam Owen

Both walks were led by plant experts from the Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. The first one, on April 9, was at White House Farm, where U.S. 211 crosses the river. Led by Piedmont Chapter member Carrie Blair, it was delayed a bit while we waited for a snow squall with strong winds, which created a near whiteout, to pass.

My friend Robin Williams, a Slate Mills resident and also a Piedmont Chapter member, joined me. When the squall ended, the day was still windy and cold, but Carrie was unperturbed and ready to go.

The historic property is now owned by the nonprofit White House Farm Foundation, which hosted the walk and supports sustainable agriculture and preserving natural resources. The foundation’s executive director, Chris Anderson, joined us.

The walk was billed as a “Naturalist Stroll” along the river to see how spring was progressing, especially plants. Carrie pointed out a variety of native trees, shrubs and forbs, along the river, with a few nonnatives mixed in.

The new, bright-green spring growth of the many native box elders there contrasted with their older, grayish trunks and branches from previous years. Catkins on many of them fluttered in the wind.

Low branches of honey locusts, with their huge, scary thorns topped by smaller thorns, held lots of mantis egg sacs from last year, as did the branches of some shrubs. Also hanging from several tree and shrub branches were bagworms, looking like dead leaves covered with twigs. And webs of eastern tent caterpillars decorated blackhaw viburnum, whose emerging bright-green leaves with red edges were ahead of many of the other woody plants and looked lovely in the sunlight.

The strange-looking bell-shaped, purplish-brown buds of the pawpaws along the river were opening, revealing blooms in brownish-red or bright green. Virginia bluebells, scattered here and there, were also blooming on the ground, some still covered with the morning’s snow.

As we walked, Carrie explained how to tell the trees apart, even with most just starting to leaf out, by looking at old leaf scars, bark and other subtle points of identification. She easily sorted out mockernut hickory, black walnut, linden, cottonwood and others.

The next day, April 10, I saw Carrie again at the Piedmont Chapter’s regular Second Sunday walk, further north along the Shenandoah, in Clarke County at Calmes Neck. This walk focused on early spring ephemeral wildflowers in rich mesic forest and ravines on private property.

Sally Anderson, also from the chapter, led the walk. The lime-rich soil supports a treasure trove of lovely flowering and other plants, from the hillsides down to the alluvial plain along the river.

On the way down the hill, Sally pointed out dwarf larkspur blooming, some in white blossoms and others in deep purple; sessile trillium, with its blood-red buds just starting to open; and twinleaf, in varying stages of opening its small, cuplike white flowers.

As we descended further down the hill, we entered into a huge drift of Virginia bluebells, most at peak bloom. Scattered among them were a few blooming trout lilies and jack-in-the pulpits, along with more sessile trilliums.

Patches squirrel corn and Dutchman’s breeches, which are related, were also in bloom, their puffy white flowers dangling from their branches like laundry on a line. One squirrel corn plant had uprooted, revealing the pinkish tubers that gave it its common name. Nearby were a few squawroot, which also carries the less-offensive but still unattractive common name of “cancer root,” as well as the more polite “bear corn.” In bloom, as it was that day, it resembles a fleshy, brown-and-white pinecone.

Following the drainage into the river’s floodplain, we entered into a sea of bluebells stretching as far as the eye could see along the river. Walking through the drifts of them, we could see the subtle little yellow blooms of the tall, elegant blue cohosh on the hillsides. Squirrel corn was also there, mixed in with large patches of Dutchman’s breeches.

A variety of ferns were also unfurling their new fronds there and up to a rock outcrop at the top of the ridge beyond, the last stop on the walk. One of the most interesting of these was walking fern (Asplenium rhizophuyllum), a distinctive plant that roots in rock crevices and whose new plantlets “grow wherever the arching leaves of the parent touch the ground, creating a walking effect,” as Wikipedia puts it.

Also growing in crevices of the outcrop were wild ginger, with its reddish-brown, cuplike blooms. Virginia saxifrage — its tiny yellow blooms standing up on thin stalks above its foliage — seemed happy to root in any small patch of soil in the crevices or on top of the outcrop.

By the end of the walk, I’d been able to check off most of the 71 plants on the “short” checklist Sally had handed out at the start, thanks to her excellent direction. This stretch of the Shenandoah, which has been protected but is open to VNPS for study and guided walks, is truly special in the richness and beauty of its remarkable flora.

For more opportunities to learn about our native plants, check the VNPS website’s calendar, and for various nature events at White House Farm, check its website.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 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.”