Friday, March 26, 2010

LOOK FOR: Bloodroot, a Delicate White Flower with a Gory Name

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis
Photo credit: squamatologist
Bloodroot is one of our favorite spring flowers. Each plant blooms only briefly, and there's a window of only a few weeks that the bloodroots bloom at all. It's one more thing that inspires us to spend as much time as possible in the woods at this time of year.

But beyond the ephemeral, catch-it-while-you-can nature of these flowers, why do we like them so much? I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. There's just something beautifully simple about the pure white blooms. The flowers can be about 2 inches wide, with at least 7 petals per flower (and up to 12 petals).

And why the gory name for such a lovely plant? If you were to dig up up a bloodroot plant, you would see that the root is red. In fact, when it is cut, the root oozes red juice that's just about the color of blood. It's downright creepy looking.

But please, just take our word for it -- don't go digging. These lovely flowers are struggling to maintain a foothold against invasive species that crowd them out. Then, once they make it through the gauntlet of English ivy, garlic mustard, and lesser celandine, they've got to evade the overpopulated deer, who are happy to make bloodroot part of their early spring salad mix.

Photo credit: AriCee
But somehow, some bloodroots make it through every year. If you catch them early enough, you can see how the whole bloodroot plant unfurls itself, a single flower bud wrapped inside a single leaf, emerging from the forest floor. That leaf can grow to be as big as an outstretched hand, persisting into the summer. The knobby shape is distinctive long after the flowers have faded away.

You can use those eye-catching leaves to help you find bloodroot seedpods in the summer. They're notable because the seeds include a gooey coating whose entire purpose is to attract ants. Once the seeds fall to the ground, ants will carry them to their nests, eat the coating, and dispose of the seeds intact. William Cullina writes of watching ants carry away an entire seedpod worth of seeds in half an hour.

Native Americans had many medicinal uses for bloodroot root, and they also used it as a red paint and dye. It is still sometimes sought as a medicinal herb, especially as a treatment for skin cancer, but is generally considered toxic -- and sometimes causes a skin reaction similar to poison ivy. Another reason not to dig it up!

Photo credit: Carly & Art
In the wild: Look for bloodroot in areas that have plenty of shade in the summer. You'll find it scattered through many wooded parks in the DC region. It's not uncommon, but the timing can be trickier than the location.

In your yard: Bloodroot would love a spot that will stay shady, cool, and moist (but not wet) in the summer. They're a little tricky to start on your own from seed (the seeds must stay moist), but some native plant nurseries sell them. Check out the native plant sale at the National Arboretum on Saturday!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

C&O: the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area

Bluebells along the C&O Canal towpath
Photo credit: LostBob Photos(Flickr Creative Commons)
This week we're venturing outside the beltway to tell you about one of our favorite places to see spring wildflowers: McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area. It's a sweet little stretch along the C&O Canal that will be bursting with color in April.

This is not the canal of Great Falls and Georgetown. The sides have caved in, the plants have taken over -- it's basically a series of ponds rather than a recognizable canal. But the towpath remains, and the Potomac on the other side of it. On the other side of the canal are fields and woods that are managed mainly for attracting wildlife for hunters. And all around, the flowers.

Photo credit: The Natural Capital
In fact, I suspect there may be more flowers along the canal here because it's bordered by this Wildlife Management Area (and Seneca Creek State Park, which also allows hunting). Allowing people to shoot the deer may be keeping the browsing down a little more here compared to other parks in our area, where the deer population is out of control and eating anything they can get their hooves on. Just a theory.

In addition to the spring, McKee-Beshers is also fun to visit in summer: some of the wildlife-attracting fields are planted with sunflowers, which should be blooming around mid-July.

Hiking and biking: Your main option is to go out and back on the canal, in either direction. Hunting Quarter Road is also lightly used outside hunting season and offers some different scenery (see park map). It's good to be aware of hunting seasons -- wild turkey season starts on April 17.

Golden ragwort along the C&O Canal
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Directions: From the Beltway, take exit 39 for River Road (Rte 190) west, in the direction of Potomac. Go for 11 miles. Where River Road intersects Seneca Road, go left to stay on River Road. Keep going for 4.8 miles, then turn left on Sycamore Landing Road. There's a dirt parking lot near the end. This is the parking area closest to the towpath. (Google Map)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Calendar: Learn About Native Plants, and Buy Some

We're leading a spring wildflowers hike this coming Saturday at Carderock. We're sure to see lots of spring ephemerals, likely including  bloodroot and spring beauties among many others. Along with looking at the pretty flowers, we'll discuss the edibility and other traditional uses of this early spring growth. Register here.

That walk will be done by noon, so you should have time to head over to the National Arboretum for their native plant sale with nurseries from around the region. (Many of the plants in our yard originated at this annual event!) It's free, from 9:30 to 2:00. It's a great excuse to take a walk at the Arboretum and pick up a few plants to take home.

The sale is in conjunction with the Lahr Native Plant Symposium. The program includes William Cullina (author of our favorite books on native plants), nationally-known landscape designer Darrel Morrison, a tour of Fern Valley, a session on biodiversity in your backyard, and more. Registration is required and costs $89.

As always, this is just a fraction of the events on our calendar. Check it out for a group activity or get ideas for something to do on your own. We'll see you out there!