Wild Ideas: Enjoying a wetland preserve near Haymarket   

Living in a heavily forested area in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I sometimes yearn to see the ecosystems of open spaces, including wetland meadows. I found such a place this summer near Haymarket.

About three miles west of the growing town, at 16290 Thoroughfare Rd., Leopold’s Preserve surrounds the Villages of Piedmont community. Open to the public, the 380-acre preserve offers a network of seven miles of mostly flat, “natural surface walking trails, pedestrian bridges, viewing platforms and numerous interpretive boards that promote the flora, fauna, geological, hydrological, and historical features of this special property,” as the preserve’s website describes it.

As summer progresses, the wetland meadows on the west side of Leopold’s Preserve begin turning from the verdant green of spring to brown. By Pam Owen

Summer solstice walk

To celebrate this year’s summer solstice (on June 21), I attended a walk at the preserve led by plant expert Carrie Blair, from the Virginia Native Plant Society. The weather had been hot, but cloud cover offered some relief as we started the walk from the parking lot on the west side of Thoroughfare Road. We took a trail that loops around a wet meadow on the eastern side of a more extensive wetland with many small streams and ponds, and a large pond at the north end. An interpretive sign near at the head of the trail tells about Aldo Leopold, for whom the preserve was named (see sidebar below), and the ecosystems there and has a map.

A Peterson wildflower guide in hand, Carrie stopped frequently to discuss and identify some of the plants in the meadow. Most — including Philadelphia fleabane, Queen Anne’s lace and allium — sported subtle spring colors of white to pale blue and pink. They served as accents to the verdant green carpet of grasses and sedges that otherwise dominated the landscape during the spring.

We soon came to a platform offering a good view of the wetland, with interpretive signs explaining its ecological importance. Near the platform, Carrie pointed out some damp-loving shrubs and trees growing along the edge, including winged sumac, which was not yet budding, and sycamore. As she talked, I heard bullfrogs croaking nearby. Few birds were calling, which was not surprising for that time of day.

As we continued down the trail, the clouds broke, bathing us in hot sunlight, so Carrie suggested we head for forest on the other side of the preserve. As we walked across Thoroughfare road, she stopped along its edge to identify the lilac-colored blossoms of wild petunia and the thick pale-yellow spears of mullein. Along one edge of the parking lot were eastern red cedars loaded with blue fruit.

At the far side of the parking lot, we entered a forest that looked like something out of a Tarzan movie: long, thick vines hung from, and wrapped around, many of the trees. Nonnative invasive plants, including the dreaded mile-a-minute vine and lady’s thumb, seemed more prevalent there than in the meadow. But Carrie also pointed a number of native trees, including elms, pines and oaks.

On the other side of the short stretch of forest were more blooming native wildflowers, such as the tousled blue blossoms of wild bergamot and the delicate white clusters of common yarrow and smooth sumac. As we approached a small pond dammed by beavers, eastern pondhawks, widow skimmers and other dragonflies became more numerous. At that point, I’d had about all the heat I could handle for the day, so thanked Carrie and headed home, planning to return to the preserve later in the summer.

August visit

On the sunny but relatively cool morning of Aug. 19, I headed back to Leopold’s Preserve to see what was now blooming. I planned to finish the loop trail on the west side, which I had all to myself. It wound through a shallow wetland but was built up enough that waterproof boots weren’t needed. Nesting boxes for songbirds, ducks and bats had been erected here and there throughout the area.

Winged sumac, my favorite among sumacs, was everywhere along the trail and in every stage of reproduction. The pollinator-attracting clusters of white blossoms on some stood out against the shiny, deep-green leaves and “wings” along the sides of the central stalks of the compound leaves. The fruits on others ran the gamut from lilac to almost red. The foliage on a few of the sumacs was already turning a bright red, a traditional early harbinger of fall in Virginia. The grasses and forbs along the trail were changing from verdant green to various shades of brown.

The south end of the trail borders a wetland forest populated by mostly oak and pine, with diverse shrub species along the edge. I spotted more blooms here and along the section just on the other side of the bend than along the trail behind me. Most of the blooms displayed the intense colors of late summer, including the bright-yellow petals and purple anthers of partridge pea, the intense magenta and yellow of New England aster and the golden glow of sunflowers and goldenrod.

A lone monarch butterfly fluttered by, and skippers and spicebush swallowtails were feeding on nectar-producing blooms. The trail also hosted a bulbous species of mushroom measuring up to eight inches across and varying in color from white mottled with brown (new blooms) to deep brown or black (mature ones). After later consulting my favorite mushroom guide, I decided they were probably purple-spored puffballs.

Eastern pondhawks buzzed around, their powdery blue bodies and green faces making them easy to spot. Another dragonfly had a body that was similar in color but flatter at the end and a black face. After later checking Bug Guide, I figured this was a male slaty skimmer. Other tiny dragonflies and damselflies were also tearing around, so fast I only got a glimpse of them.

I could hear birds singing, including field sparrows, but they were almost drowned out by the loud hum of cicadas, from scissor grinders in the trees to swamp cicadas in the meadows. As loud as the bugs were, the traffic coming from nearby U.S. 55 and Int. 66 offered stiff competition. I thought about how much more peaceful the walk would have been if we all drove electric cars.

Summer Walks in Leopold’s Preserve slideshow

© 2017 Pam Owen

About Aldo Leopold

Leopold’s Preserve was named for the noted conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, writer and outdoor enthusiast Aldo Leopold. He promoted the idea of “land ethic,” “which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature,” according to the Aldo Leopold Foundation website. Leopold is perhaps best known for his 1949 conservation classic, “A Sand County Almanac.”

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.”