Wild Ideas: Summer wildflowers bloom in the Limberlost  

I don’t usually get cabin fever in the summer, but after all the rain and then heat, combined with writing and editing deadlines that kept me glued to my computer, I finally had to get out and enjoy what I was writing about.

Being out of shape, I figured an easy but interesting walk was what I needed. As I often do, I called up my friend and fellow master naturalist Robin Williams to see if she wanted to join me for a walk last Friday (July 13) along the Limberlost Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

White bergamot in various stages of flowering By Pam Owen

I realized I hadn’t walked the trail this time of year for probably 20 years, at least not since I’d become a master naturalist and decided to focus on writing about nature. Adapted for wheelchairs, the mostly flat, 1.1-mile trail loops through what was an ancient hemlock forest until the hemlock woolly adelgid, a nonnative insect, killed most of them. The trail’s surface is good, and wood walkways and bridges have been built over wet areas, which makes this an easy walk more than a hike. The way Robin and I walk it — stopping every few feet to look at and photograph plants and animals we find and often sitting down to check references for information about them — it usually takes us more than two hours for what should be maybe a half hour of easy strolling.

The day was promising to be hot and humid in Sperryville, but at the trail’s elevation, the weather was relatively cool and dry, with clouds occasionally rolling through. While the clouds sometimes presented photographic challenges in what was already a shady walk, I managed to get photos of species that were not already in my catalog and, in some cases, I hadn’t seen in the wild before. Among the native wildflowers that were blooming or had progressed to fruiting were eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and poke milkweed (Asclepias exalta), black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemose), doll’s eyes (Actaea pachypoda), common self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), fly poison (Amianthium muscitoxicum), Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) and white bergamot (Monarda clinopodia).

The last two species were especially interesting to me, because I don’t remember having seen them before and was glad to add them to my catalog. The ghostly Indian pipe, translucent and fleshy, has a flower that’s hardly recognizable as such that bends over into the shape of a pipe. Also called ghost flower, this was the most difficult flower to photograph on the walk because it loves dark places and is often obscured by rotted logs that provide it with nutrients.

I had been going after a shot of an eastern towhee that Robin had spotted when I found the Indian pipe, at which point I changed to my macro lens, the fastest lens (requiring the least light) I have and took a bunch of shots of the bizarre-looking plants. Shooting with and without a flash and with my camera and cell phone, I ended up with only a few that were enough in focus to use, but I was happy to have any.

The white bergamot, which Robin also spotted, was in varying stages of blooming, all of which were gorgeous. This plant has a small flower, so I got out my magnifying tool to help us see more detail in each stage.

Robin and I could only guess about some of the plant names, helped with a couple of wildflower apps I have on my phone. Fortunately, this trail offers plenty of benches to take a break and, in our case, do more research. But I still had several species to look up at home and am still not sure I have them correctly identified, including what I think is an orchid from Europe, the broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine), which has lovely, tiny flowers. It resembles a few tiny native orchids, but the center of the blossom is dark, which the natives don’t appear to have, at least those I’ve checked.

Along with the flowers, we found interrupted fern, a large fern Robin had pointed out to me on another trip to the Limberlost. Its name comes from the shriveled fertile leaflets, loaded down with the plant’s spores, that eventually fall off, creating a gap along the stem among the larger fertile fronds.

We found one rotting hemlock log that had a tiny red mushroom growing in a cavity that made the log look like a alligator with a demonic red eye. Some hemlocks were taken down for safety reasons by the park, and others sprayed for the bug to preserve them as specimens and to possibly reestablish the grove. We saw a few young hemlocks that appeared adelgid free and were sporting new growth, giving hope that the mighty hemlocks will be restored one day.

New growth on a young eastern hemlock gives hope that the Limberlost’s hemlock forest will be restored By Pam Owen

In the meantime, with the death or removal of so many of the hemlocks, the forest canopy opened, enabling more sunlight to come through. The resulting increase in light enabled other species of plants and animals, some new to the area, to thrive, expanding biodiversity in the Limberlost.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 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.”