Thursday, May 26, 2011

Spring Flowers: Purple Virgin's Bower

Clematis occidentalis var. occidentalis (Purple Virgin's Bower, Wild Clematis), a member of the Buttercup family, is a rare one.  It is on several states' endangered species lists, including Maryland's, and is considered extirpated in Ohio and Delaware.  It is not on Virginia's endangered species list, but it in a report on rare plants done by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation in 2004, C. occidentalis is listed in the second rarest category:  only found at between 6 and 20 sites statewide or some other factor that makes it especially vulnerable to extinction in the state.

C. occidentalis is a vine, with large four-petaled purple flowers.  The vines and the flowers are covered in fine hairs and the vines climb by twisting the leaf stalks around other vegetation or structures.  It grows in rocky, dry woods.  It flowers in the spring and later in the summer, it produces a feathery fruit.  The entire plant, flower, fruit, and roots are poisonous and the oil on the leaves can cause skin irritation.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 C. occidentalis with an ant crawling on the flower.
 A more open example of the flower.
 Several flowers on a vine trailing up a tree.
One of the leaves.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Miles and Miles of Flowers: Stony Man Overlook to Hawksbill Summit

We set off in search of flowers yesterday and did we ever find them.  We also picked up a couple of trails that we hadn't been on before.  We started at the Stony Man Overlook near milepost 39 on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.  The flowers started as soon as we got out of the car:  Scattered around the south end overlook were Aquilegia vulgaris (Garden Columbine), a non-native, but lovely flower.  As soon as we entered the woods, we encountered the distinctive smell of Rhododendron roseum (Hoary Azalea).

Our route for most of the day would be the Appalachian Trail.  After less than a quarter mile of walking, we came out into a clearing along the edge of Skyline Drive.  Yesterday was one of the first truly warm days of the year, so we were pretty happy to get to the south end of the clearing and back into the full shade of the woods.  The woods at the elevation of the overlook are completely leafed out and transitioning to early summer.  From there, the trail begins a gradual, pleasant climb up to Little Stony Man, passing the Passamaquoddy Trail along the way.  We spent a few minutes on the rocks of Little Stony Man, before continuing the climb up to Stony Man.  Even though it was warm and we were climbing, there was a nice breeze.  As we got closer to Stony Man, there was less shade since the trees haven't fully leafed out at that elevation. 

We had lunch on Stony Man and even had a few minutes of solitude on the summit.  On the way down the Nature Trail/Appalachian Trail, the forest floor was covered in Houstonia caerulea (Bluets).  We passed Skyland and the horse stables and continued towards Hawksbill, the highest point in Shenandoah.  We had much of this section of the trail to ourselves, only occasionally passing another hiker.  The birds filled the air with songs and we occasionally heard a Pileated Woodpecker crying in the distance.  We passed through groves where Hay Scented Ferns covered the entire forest floor. 

When we reached the Lower Hawksbill parking area, we took the Lower Hawksbill Trail up to the summit.  The weather seemed to be deteriorating and it sort of tried to rain for a little while as we were climbing.  By the time we made it to the summit, however, it had stopped and we had a decent view.  We returned the way we came until we reached Skyland, where we turned west on the Furnace Spring Trail. 

The Furnace Spring Trail does not appear to get used very much, in spite of its proximity to Skyland.  It is one of the least distinct trails I've seen in Shenandoah (I say this having not hiked in the south district very much).  There isn't much to it in the half-mile between the Appalachian Trail and the junction with the Passamaquoddy Trail.  The Passamaquoddy Trail might have the most letters in its name per mile of any trail in the park, especially since it is only a mile long.  That mile was one of the more pleasant of the day.  The trail winds along the cliffs below Stony Man for the first three quarters of a mile.  At one point, we found a tiny waterfall pouring down from a cliff, nearly onto the trail.  As we walked up an indigo bunting flew off.  Behind the waterfall, there was a perfectly flat rock in the cool shade.  We took the opportunity to splash the cold water our faces and took a short break on the rock.  Further on, we passed Little Stony Man and another nice overlook, before returning to the Appalachian Trail and to the car.

We hiked about 14 miles.  It was one of those perfect days with birds singing, flowers blooming, and good timing.  We made it to the car just ahead of a downpour.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Viola pedata (Birds Foot Violet).  This violet is named for the shape of its leaves. 
 Aquilegia vulgaris (Garden Columbine), with Stony Man in the background at the Stony Man Overlook.  Non-native, but very pretty.
 Pedicularis canadensis (Wood Betony, Lousewort).  There are two color varieties of P. canadensis:  Burgundy and yellow (below).  These two were growing right next to each other.

 P. canadensis, Houstonia caerulea, and the leaves of Amianthium muscaetoxicum (Fly Poison) on the Stony Man Nature Trail.
Viola canadensis (Canada Violet).  The backs of the petals are lavender in this variety of violet. 
Micranthes virginiensis (Early Saxifrage) along the Appalachian Trail.
 Actaea pachypoda (White Baneberry, Doll's Eyes). 
 Early Spring near the summit of Hawksbill.
 Packera aureus (Golden Ragwort) on the Appalachian Trail.
 Potentilla canadensis (Dwarf Cinquefoil).
 Ranunculus fascicularis (Early Buttercup)
 Hay-Scented Ferns
The view from the overlook below Little Stony Man on the Passamaquoddy Trail.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Spring Flowers: Yellow Lady Slipper

Cypripedium parviflorum (Yellow Lady Slipper) is a spectacular member of the Orchid Family.  It is found in moist, rich woods throughout the United States.  Usually, a single flower blooms on top of a plant that is about two feet tall, but sometimes a plant will produce two flowers.  The plant has broad, alternating, strongly-veined leaves on a single stalk.  It is such a unique plant, that it can only be confused with other species of Yellow Lady Slippers (there are a few).

C. parviflorum is endangered or threatened in many states.  Some, admiring its beauty, try to transplant it, which nearly always results in death for the plant.  Like most temperate orchids, this one requires a specific type of fungus in the soil to grow. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 C. parviflorum.  This shows the strongly veined leaves.
 A C. parviflorum with a pair of blooms.
 Another example of C. parviflorum.
This is an older picture of mine and isn't perfectly clear, but it does show the inside of the slipper.  The flower is pollinated by insects crawling into the slipper.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Quiet Day on Old Rag and an End-of-Day Rescue

The rain promised a quiet day volunteering on Old Rag with Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS).  It was overcast and rainy when we left DC, but at least it was relatively warm.  Cold rain is my least favorite weather.  It brightened somewhat as we drove and by the time we arrived in the parking lot, it was just dry and cloudy.  Only a few people showed up to hike, but many of those that were there seemed a bit surprised by the weather.  One person actually asked if we knew what time the sun would come out and what time the thunderstorms were supposed to start in the afternoon.  If only I did!

We hiked up the Ridge Trail as a group so we could do training on plants and flowers:  one of my favorite topics.  The forest in the lower areas of the mountain is transitioning from spring flowers to summer flowers, so there aren’t as many flowers as there were a few weeks ago, but some of them are pretty interesting.  The spring flowers are out in full force higher up on the mountain.  

By the time we were approaching the first false summit, we could hear thunder and it had started to rain.  The Ridge Trail is very exposed above the first false summit, so we pitched a tarp in  a
sheltered spot and continued training while the storm howled around us.  We stayed there for about an hour, until the storm moved on to the foothills east of Shenandoah.  As we put away the tarp and started climbing again, we were treated to some amazing views of the clouds and the storm.  The rain cleared the air and the lighting was perfect:  Green leaves contrasting against the purple sky.  As we approached the summit, it became clear that another storm was moving in, so we didn’t linger.  

We had also been listening to a situation develop in another, nearby, area of the park.  A hiker was injured and would likely need to be carried out.  Our lead Steward called and asked if they could use our assistance.  It turned out they did want extra help, so, having finished our patrol, we headed to the boundary trailhead where we were needed.  The challenge with the carryout:  four stream crossings.  By coming from the boundary, we were able to assess the crossings before we met up with the team (who had hiked down from Skyline Drive).  The river was running high and fast due to all of the rain this spring and the safety of the rescuers as well as the patient was our biggest concern.  We scouted the best points to cross, tied safety lines, and helped safely pass the litter over the river.  By the time the patient was loaded into the ambulance, we had missed pizza in Sperryville, but I don’t think anyone was too disappointed.  We were glad to have been able to help with the rescue and to once again work with the awesome National Park Service team.  Old Rag Patrols has a couple of pictures from the rescue.  I didn't have my camera along at that point.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A red eft along the Ridge Trail.  The eastern, or red-spotted newt has three stages of life:  They start out as aquatic tadpoles like other amphibians and return to the water as adult newts.  In between, however, they have a terrestrial juvenile stage, when they are known as efts.  More information can be found here.  This little guy was about four inches long.  
 Viburnum acerifolium (Maple-Leaf Viburnum)
 Orobranche uniflora (One-Flowered Cancerroot). 
 Medola virginiana (Indian Cucumber Root)
 Saxifraga michauxii (Michaux's Saxifrage)
 Thalictrum dioicum (Early Meadow Rue)
Rhododendron prinophyllum (Hoary Azalea)
 After the storm, looking towards the north.
 The storm coming over Stony Man
 The spot where I always take a picture.
 Photina pyrifolia (Red Choke Cherry) on the summit.
 Clouds over Weakley Hollow after the storm.
 Clouds to the south of the summit.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Spring Flowers: Jack-In-The-Pulpit

Arisaema triphyllum (Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Indian Turnip) is an easy flower to miss in the woods.  It is green, often with a little bit of brown, so it blends right in with the rest of the new spring undergrowth in the forest.  To further hide the flowers from view, the leaves of the plants (which can be mistaken for Poison Ivy) grow over the flowers.  They aren't hard to find if you are looking for them, but if you are walking along at a good clip, you'll probably walk right by them.  Newcomb's Wildflower Guide describes the flower as, "...a canopy (spathe) over a club-shaped spadix (the "Jack")..." (1977).  Most members of the family Ariceae (the Arum family) take this form. The true flowers on the plant cover the spadix and are too small to see.  In the fall, the plant produces a cluster of bright red poisonous berries.

A. triphyllum was used medicinally at one time by Native Americans.  In spite of the common name, "Indian Turnip," the plant is not easily safely consumed for food.  The root must be boiled and dried to remove the oxalic acid.  The leaves and berries are not edible. 

A. triphyllum is found in rich, moist woods throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A. triphyllum at Weverton Cliffs, Maryland on Mothers Day, 2011.
 A. triphyllum in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC in March 2010.  The 3-part leaves are visible to the right of the flower.
 A. triphyllum in Rock Creek Park in 2007.  I included this one because of the vine that was starting to grow around the flower.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mother's Day Hike at Weverton Cliffs on the Appalachian Trail

We did another long, strenuous bike ride on Skyline Drive on Saturday, so on Sunday we decided to do an easy out-and-back on the Weverton Cliffs section of the Maryland Appalachian Trail.  Last year, we found all kinds of interesting wildflowers on this section and we hoped this year would be the same.  We started a little later than usual, but the weather was just perfect:  bright, sunny and in the high sixties.  Ten minutes up the trail, we found purple and magenta Tradescantia virginia (Virginia Spiderwort) scattered on a hillside along with Oxalis violacea (Violet Wood Sorrel).  I've seen O. violacea before in Georgia, but not in the mid-Atlantic (which only means I had not been looking the right places or at the right times).

We continued up the hill to the junction with the short Weverton Cliffs trail, where we continued north on the Appalachian Trail.  At the top of the ridge, we stopped on some rocks just off the trail to have lunch.  Something caught my eye on a pine tree:  someone had put a small plaque on it memorializing their dog.  It must have been a place that they enjoyed visiting with their canine companion.  It sort of made us sad since it reminded us of the loss of our four-legged hiking partner last year.  Putting plaques on trees is generally discouraged and I wouldn't do it, but I can understand the sentiment that would lead someone to do so.

Further north, we found the grove of Asimina triloba (Paw Paw Trees) that we saw last year.  We were lucky enough to see them in bloom again.  As I've mentioned before, the larvae of the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly feed only on the leaves of A. triloba.  On the way back through the area at the end of the day, we actually saw one of the butterflies, too.  After about 4.5 miles, we decided we should probably turn around and head back.  It had been a lovely day in the woods, but we had some chores to do.  We did nine miles or so and saw a lot of flowers, one of which was new to me and I still haven't positively identified.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Tradescantia virginia (Virginia Spiderwort)
 Oxalis violacea (Violet Wood Sorrel).  At the bottom center of the photo, the tell-tale shamrock-shaped leaf can be seen.
A decent-sized garter snake near where we took a break.  It was probably 2 feet long, uncoiled (we didn't bother it to find out for sure. 
 Vaccinium stamineum (Deerberry).  This is a relative of blueberries and produces fruit, which are not edible.
 Silene caroliniana (Wild Pink)
 Podophyllum peltatum (Mayapple)
 Asimina triloba (Paw Paw tree)
 A toad trying to avoid detection in the middle of the trail.
Arisaema atrorubens (Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Indian Turnip).
Cypripedium acaule (Pink Lady Slipper)
 Rhododendron nudiflorum (Pink Azaleas, Pinxter) along the trail.
Thanks to the head of Old Rag Mountain Stewards for help with the identification:  Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sasparilla).   This is the flower I haven't been able to identify.  It forms these round clusters (about 1.5 inches in diameter) at the top of a stalk that is about 12 inches tall.  The stalks had several round clusters on them.  The leaves are in the photo below.  Any help would be appreciated.