Wild Ideas: Plant expert offers classes and free consultations    

Dressed for an unseasonably cold and snowy day early in April, Carrie Blair leads a walk along the Shenandoah at White House Farm to identify wildflowers and trees. Photo by Pam Owen

A passion for horses brought Carrie Blair to Virginia decades ago, but it was an encounter with an amazing wildflower that sparked a new passion — for plants. Having met Carrie years ago during my conservation work, I finally visited her home near Marshall recently to find out more about her passion for plants and her plans to spread the word about how important they are.

Originally from New Jersey, Carrie says she came to the Middleburg area in the early 1970s, a few years after graduating from Morven Park International Equestrian Institute, to ride and groom horses professionally. During a brief marriage to a tree surgeon, she studied up on trees, but what really got her interested in plants was a trip in the spring of 1993 to G. R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area (WMA), in western Fauquier County. A friend took her there to see millions of native trilliums and other wildflowers in bloom.

Co-leading a fall walk to identify nuts and seeds at Environmental Studies on the Piedmont, Carrie points out the distinctive seedpods that give seedbox, a native plant, its name. Photo by Pam Owen

As Carrie got older, she wanted to shift to inside work, so acquired a horse-blanket cleaning and repair service. At the same time, she continued pursuing her interest in plants, adding to her knowledge of them by attending walks and field trips led by “smart people,” taking a master gardening class and college courses, and attending conferences. But much of what she knows, she says, she learned on her own — “just by buying books, keeping them open every night until midnight,” and out in the field. When she couldn’t ID a plant, she’d bring home a sample to continue sleuthing out its identity.

Carrie is nothing if not thorough and tenacious, and over time, she learned to ID “almost all the herbaceous plants,” she says. She adds that she’s strongest on trees, shrubs, vines and flowers, and less so on grasses, and ferns, and herbs. Identifying trees without their leaves can be tricky, but she can do it by their bark, their growing habit and shape, and the scars left by leaves after they fall off.

After seeing the trillium at Thompson, she joined the Piedmont chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS), serving as president twice. She also developed and often leads or co-leads the chapter’s Second Sunday Walks, held the second Sunday of every month year-round. (See the sidebar for information about the next walk and other nature events coming up soon.)

“I like to encourage people to step out of their comfort zone,” she says. “Go out, even if they don’t know anything, ask questions, take pictures, bring a book, bring binoculars, and start learning.”

Adding to her education and teaching credentials, Carrie became a master naturalist and a docent at the State Arboretum of Virginia in Boyce. This March, at 69 and with a family inheritance to give her some leeway financially, Carrie took her first foray into teaching classes — a five-week primer on trees at the Earth Village Education (EVE), in Marshall, donating her time and the registration fees back to the nonprofit organization.

At her five-acre home near Marshall, Carrie has varied habitat, with more than 100 native plants, including this flowering dogwood. Photo by Pam Owen

She held some sessions on her property, turning the building she had been using for her horse-blanket business into a wonderfully cluttered (yet organized) classroom filled with photos, posters, charts, books, handouts from various sources and plant specimens. “I’m a bit of a fanatic,” she admits, looking at all the resources around her. “I go totally overboard. . . . Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve made a tree list. . . . Other people have different passions; this is mine.”

The light, airy classroom building looks out on five lovely acres of varied habitat with more than 100 native plant species, thanks to Carrie’s management. The property not only serves as an outdoor classroom and laboratory but also demonstrates how even such small properties can be managed to support biodiversity, she says.

The tree course was so well received that Carrie plans to repeat it later this year. In the meantime, she’s starting another four-week course at EVE in May, “Woods and Wildflowers,” about Virginia’s “amazing spring flora.”

Carrie says she’d also like to help landowners learn about the trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers and invasive plants on their property and offers her expertise for free. she wants to spread the word about how richly biodiverse our area is, she says, and invites anyone who is interested to contact her athorseblanketcb@yahoo.com or 540-364-1232.

© 2017 Pam Owen

Spring nature events

Earth Village Education classes:

  • Introduction to Bird Language (Apr. 29, 9-2): Learn from two bird experts how to interpret bird vocalizations and behavior, identify birds based on audible and visual cues, tune in to the environment using a variety of awareness techniques, and “refine your understanding of local ecology and minimize your disturbance of animals as you move across the land.”
  • Permaculture Fundamentals: Food Forest Design and Water Harvesting (Apr. 30, 1-4): Discover how to plant a “food forest” and grow delicious organic food in your own backyard with hardly any maintenance and how to capture, store and use rainwater.
  • Woods and Wildflowers (Thursdays, May 4-June 8, 6-8 p.m.): Join Carrie Blair to explore the flora of Virginia. Each session focuses on a different ecosystem to search for “spring ephemeral flowers, summer blooms, amazing trees, and the animals and insects that rely on them.” Learn about wildflower, shrub and tree species; discover patterns in plant families; and become more comfortable using a variety of field guides to identify plants.

Find more details about these and other EVE classes, and how to register, at earthvillageeducation.org or call 703-828-7443.

VNPS spring wildflower walk (May 7, 1 p.m.): The Piedmont Chapter’s Second Sunday Walk in May is actually on the first Sunday of the month, to coincide with the trillium bloom time. It’s along the Marjorie Arundel Trillium Trail at Thompson WMA, near Linden. Led by chapter president Sally Anderson, it features abundant large-flowered trilliums and other spring flora. A limited group access permit for 12 people is provided for those without their own permit, but RSVP the chapter early at piedmontvnps@gmail.com if you plan to go, letting them know if you have your own permit. Go to vnps.org/events for more information.

Spring native-plant sales: The annual Rappahannock Plant Sale is Saturday (Apr. 29), 9-3 (rain or shine), at Waterpenny Farm, 53 Waterpenny Lane, Sperryville. The Jefferson chapter of VNPS holds its annual plant sale the following day (Apr. 30), 1-3, at the Ivy Creek Natural Area Barn, 1780 Earlysville Road, Charlottesville; find out more at VNPS website.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 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.”

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