Friday, July 31, 2009

3 Months: How Are We Doing? (And, How You Can Help)

When we started up The Natural Capital three months ago, we made a deal with ourselves that we'd give it six months and see whether it felt like we were actually providing a useful resource for our neighbors in DC. We're at the halfway point of that trial period, and we've already got more readers than we expected -- this seems like a good sign.

But still, we're in a vacuum without your feedback:
  • How are we doing? What would you like to see us do differently?
  • How did you find us? What keeps you coming back?
  • What's your favorite type of post? Which ones are really not helpful or interesting? For example, should we save ourselves the trouble of compiling the weekly calendar, or do you use it regularly?
  • What do you think about the length and frequency of our posts?
Leave a comment below, or email us at

Constructive feedback really is the most helpful thing you can do for us right now. But if you'd like to help The Natural Capital thrive, here are some more ideas:

1. Comment on other posts. Someone alerted us that we were unintentionally making everyone sign into Google to leave a comment when we first started this blog -- this should be fixed now. Comment away! We'd love to see a community develop in here among our readers.

2. Spread the word. Ultimately, the more people who are reading The Natural Capital, the more useful we'll be to this community. And hopefully it will come back to help you, too, with more info contributed in comments. We've now added a "share" tool at the bottom of each post so you can email, post to Twitter and Facebook, call us Delicious, and a bunch of other things that we're not even sure what they are.

3. Write a guest post. Elizabeth is our main writer, and she's travelling a lot for work this summer. Do you have a favorite trail you'd like to write up? Ideas for getting outdoors with kids? Some other outdoor topic you've got burning opinions on? Drop us a line at

4. Visit our "sponsors." This blog is a labor of love, and not really for money. But we do get a little something every time you click on one of our ads, and I have to say, it does sweeten the pot for us to keep going. Some are even for good causes and community organizations -- I know I've seen the Sierra Club and the International Club of DC pop up over there. Please let us know if there are any ads in the margin that seem inappropriate, and we'll have them blocked.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

LOOK FOR: Jewelweed

Jewelweed is a pretty flower, a sparkly wonder, a trailside snack, and a soothing skin treatment. What's not to love?

There are actually two species of jewelweed in our area: Impatiens biflora, which has darker orange flowers, often in pairs, and Impatiens pallida, with paler yellow flowers. Both have darker orange or red spots. And yes, they are relatives of the common garden impatiens (the genus includes hundreds of species) -- but unlike the impatiens in my mom's yard, jewelweed can grow 3-5 feet tall.

Water beads up on the dusky-colored leaves of jewelweed, creating sparkling jewels after a rain. According to Steve Brill, they also look beautiful underwater: the undersides of the leaves will turn silvery.

The flowers and seeds of jewelweed are edible. But you'll have to be careful to collect any seeds. Another common name for jewelweed is "touch-me-not": the seedpods will explode when you touch them. Of course, this is fun in itself -- but if you surround the seedpod with your whole hand and squeeze, it should explode in your hand, and you can try the nutty little seeds.

Jewelweed also provides food for wildlife: the bright, trumpet-shaped flowers can attract hummingbirds and butterflies. If you sit by a patch for a little while, you're sure to at least see bees crawling inside the flowers for the nectar.

The flowers and seeds are just a little nibble for us humans. But jewelweed has been highly valued for centuries as a treatment for skin irritation. It turns out that it includes one of the active components of Preparation H. No special preparation is necessary -- just break a stem or crush up several leaves, and rub the juice on the irritated area.

I have to admit, I have been something of a jewelweed doubter. It is said to soothe bee and wasp stings and mosquito bites -- though of course it's still more comforable to not get stung or bitten in the first place. I never could tell much of a difference after rubbing it on mosquito bites. But recently, I brushed against some stinging nettle, and immediately rubbed the sting with jewelweed. I do think the pain stopped much more quickly than in my previous stinging nettle encounters. The two plants often grow side-by-side: both like moist areas.

Jewelweed is also said to prevent a poison ivy rash, if you rub the area that has been exposed to poison ivy with jewelweed juices soon after exposure. Steve Brill also claims it can be used to soothe warts, bruises, fungal infections, burns, cuts, eczema, acne, and any other skin irritations; his website describes how to make a tincture or ointment to keep at home.

In the wild: Jewelweed is common in this area along streams and in wet areas, typically in partly shady areas.

In your yard: If you have a moist spot, you could try growing some. Jewelweed is said to be easy to start from seed (but we've never tried).

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bookshelf: Wildflower ID

If there's one book we take on walks with us more often than any other, it's a wildflower ID book. After 9 years or so of doing this, the woods are no longer just a big mass of green -- each plant is like an old friend that we're checking in with. When we see something unusual, it jumps out at us. And out comes the ID book.

There are three popular books that cover the flowers of this region well: Newcomb's, Peterson's, and Audubon. Your preference will likely depend on which one you start using first. After learning the Newcomb's system, for example, we find it tedious to ID plants in Peterson's. But we've heard the opposite from folks who started out with Peterson's. And when we recently tested all three books with a couple of Natural Capital readers who happened to be hanging out on our porch, Audubon was a clear favorite. Here's a description of the three books and how they work.

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (1375 species, 490 pages, some color and some black and white illustrations). The key to Newcomb's ID system is a key: a method of identifying certain characteristics about a plant to help you find it quickly in the book. This requires you to look closely at your plant. First, three questions: 1) the type and number of petals, 2) the position of the leaves, and 3) the basic leaf shape. You're then referred to a page with additional questions specific to the set of plants that you could be looking at. As people who really wanted to learn a lot of plants, we found that the investment in learning this ID system was worth it -- we can find most plants much more quickly with the key than by flipping through other guides, and the hands-on attention required to use the ID helps us get to know the plant. To our porch-based test group, however, the key was completely baffling.

Peterson: A Field Guide to Wildflowers (1293 species, 420 pages, color and black and white illustrations). In the introduction to this field guide, Roger Tory Peterson writes, "if one can master them, keys are the proper formal approach to flower identification. But, I am afraid, most of us belong to the picture-matching school, and it is for this audience our Field Guide has been planned." The flowers are organized first by color. At the beginning of each color section, there are some pages with representative types of flowers, to help you narrow your search. The rest of each section includes black-and-white drawings of many more species, organized by flower shape. As with Newcomb's, descriptions of the species pictured are on each facing page. Our testers' main complaint was that the black-and-white drawings made it more difficult to envision whether the drawing was a good match for the plant they were trying to identify.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (658 species, 888 pages, color photographs). Audubon covers half as many species as the other two books, in twice as many pages. With large photographs, only 2 to 3 flowers fit on a page. The species descriptions are also longer; they are in a separate section of the book, which requires some flipping back and forth. Like Peterson's guide, Audubon organizes flowers first by color, then by flower type. The color photographs were a big hit with our testers. And Matt identified a few plants via photographs in here that had been eluding him in the Newcomb's key. As with the bird books we reviewed, however, using photographs can have drawbacks. When a photo is good, you know immediately that you've found the right plant (or a close relative). But for some plants, the photos are limited by focusing only on the flowers; there may be clues in the foliage that are not well illustrated.

The bottom line: The Audubon book seems to be the most appealing to beginners. The photos are nice enough that you may find yourself just browsing through the book, which is a great way to prime yourself to recognize things in the field. But if you want more depth, you may find a book like Newcomb's might also be rewarding, with its much larger coverage of species.

If you want to buy: We got the wildflower books we didn't own from the library to evaluate them, and encourage you to do the same. But if you're ready to buy one, consider supporting The Natural Capital by going through the links in this post -- or use this little store we set up to mirror our own bookshelf of nature books. We'll get a tiny cut off anything you buy there. We also thought it would be a help to Natural Capital readers to set up that virtual bookshelf just so folks could see which books we've found useful. Of course, you're free to buy any of them wherever you like!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Natural Happenings: July 27-August 2

Each week, we list opportunities to get outdoors or learn about nature. Click through to the organization hosting each event for more details -- some events require registration or charge a fee.

This week's highlight: Sunday morning, the Sierra Club is leading a 5 mile hike in Montgomery County that will explore the impact of the Inter-County Connector (ICC) on the Paint Branch Watershed. "We will look at the massive current destruction/construction, and discuss the history of the ICC, impacts to local watersheds, as well as the natural beauty and ecological significance of the area. Paint Branch is unique to the area, for supporting the last remaining native brown trout population, and this is a beautiful hike. Meet at 10 am in the parking lot of Valley Mill Park (1600 Randolph Rd., Silver Spring; 0.8 mi. west of US 29, Columbia Pike). Contact leaders for Metro pick-up. Bring bag lunch to continue conversation. Leaders: Kris Unger, or 301/980-5621, and Mike Darzi, or 301/580-9387."


Sierra Club
Sat: Seneca Creek State Park, Greenway Trail (8.8 mi)

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips.
Tue: AT/Rose River/Big Meadows (17 mi)

Center Hiking Club
Sat: Great Falls (8 mi)
Sun: Hazel Mtn/White Rocks/Swiming hole (10 mi)

Capital Hiking Club
Wed: Woodley Park to U St. (4.5 mi)
Fri: Moonlight hike, C&O Canal (4 mi)
Sat: Harper's Ferry river tubing

Northern Virginia Hiking Club
Sat: Western Maryland Rail Bike Trail (42 mi)

Sun: Elkwallow Circuit via Piney Branch and Piney Ridge (5-11 mi)

Potomac Conservancy
Sun: Dragonfly and Damselfly Walk on the C&O Canal, followed by a barbershop quartet


Rock Creek Park
various planetarium programs
: Creature Feature (all ages)
Sat: Habitat Hunt -- look for animal signs (ages 6-12)
Sun: Ranger-led horseback tour (ages 12+)
Sun: American Indian Games, Native People of the Rock Creek Valley (ages 7+)

Museum of Natural History
Daily feedings in the insect zoo and museum tours.
Tue: Hands-on activities in the Dig It! soil exhibit
Wed: Look at specimens or artifacts with a scientist in the Ocean Hall

Friday, July 24, 2009

"How come it was more fun when you were a kid?"

I spent my elementary school years in rural southern Illinois in the 1970s. I was recently trying to remember how old I was when my friends and I were spending entire days in the woods, on our own. My best friend from the time thinks we started around age six, which now seems outrageously young. Certainly by third grade, we’d make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tie them up in bandanas, which we would tie to the end of sticks and pretend to be hobos, or stranded on a desert island, or any other fantasy that involved not interacting with adults for long stretches of time. The only rule I remember was to be home by dark. Neither of us ever got hurt. I think we really were some of the last kids to grow up the way we did.

Like me, Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, remembers:

I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest -- but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.

For me, one of the most memorable quotes in Louv's book was from his son: "Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?" Ouch.

Matt remembers the shift right in the middle of his childhood. He grew up in Columbia, MD, which was designed to get everyone outside -- there are terrific wooded paths connecting neighborhoods to their schools and shopping centers. He started out walking to school with his older sisters on these paths. He still has a hand-drawn map of the creek near his house, made with his friends over many long days of unsupervised exploring. But at some point, the moms started driving all the kids to school. He remembers hearing about kidnappers, and thinking they were enormous spiders, waiting to pounce on kids from under the bridge over the creek.

Don't get me wrong -- parents have a right to worry about their kids. And spending time outdoors is a fantastic thing for parents to do with their kids. But my worry is three-fold: 1) in this ultra-busy town, ultra-busy parents don't have time to be outside with their kids, so the kids stay indoors; 2) kids play and explore differently under close parental supervision; and 3) the combination of these two facts will result in a generation of children that has less fun outdoors.

What are your thoughts? Do you think you had more freedom to play outdoors than kids do now? Was it, as Michael Louv's son asked, more fun when you were a kid? And what can parents do now to give their kids a taste of the freedom that so many of us grew up with -- and inspire them with the same love of being outdoors?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

LOOK FOR: Cardinal Flowers (and Hummingbirds)

I used to love cardinal flower just because it's a gorgeous flower. It took a few years before I realized that if you sit quietly for long enough by a large patch, a hummingbird will come by. And that takes it to another level.

Lobelia cardinalis has brilliant, deep red flowers. In his book Wildflowers: A Guide to Growing and Propagating Native Flowers of North America, William Cullina describes them like this:

It is as if the flowers catch sunlight inside some sort of secret crystal matrix and let it bounce around for a while until it has been stripped of all but the deepest, purest red imaginable. Then and only then is the light released to burn crimson into our corneas.I will never forget the first time I found one in the wild, just a single plant growing in a low area behind my house. I stood there stunned for about five minutes trying to fathom how such a magical thing had come there.

Chances are, if he stood longer than five minutes, Cullina saw other magical things. The flowers don't have much of a smell. But that brilliant red is mightily attractive not just to humans, but to hummingbirds and butterflies -- especially, I've noticed, to eastern black swallowtail butterflies. If you find a patch, sit a while and see who comes by. Nothing is ever foolproof, but almost every time I have tried it, I have seen one or the other within twenty minutes. Just last week, a hummingbird started coming regularly last week to the patch of cardinal flowers in our yard, for the third year in a row.

Cardinal flowers bloom in a long spike at the top of a stem that can grow up to 4 feet tall. The flowers are worth a close look: they're quite unusual. Plants in the genus Lobelia all have similar asymmetrical tubular flowers, with the tube slit along the upper side. The flower's five anthers are united around the style, forming a silvery-lavender point that itself almost glows against the red of the flowers.

In the wild:Cardinal flower loves wet areas; you'll see it growing along streams or ponds. It's not the most common flower, but if you keep an eye out in these areas you should be able to find some.

In your yard: Cardinal flower is a perfect choice for a rain garden that catches water off your roof or any other wet spot in your yard. It can also be planted in normal, non-wet garden soil, especially with more shade -- it won't thrive during a drought, and it may not form as abundant a patch as it would with water, but it should do just fine. It's fairly easy to start from seed -- but be careful, the seeds are tiny!

Do you know a good cardinal flower patch? Any questions or observations? Leave a comment.

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rainy Day Nature: Museum of Natural History

Sometimes, it's just not a good day to go for a walk. So we thought we'd do some posts on things to do when it's raining -- or just too hot to be outdoors all day.

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History dates back to 1910. With 325,000 square feet of exhibition and public space, and more than 126 million specimens and cultural artifacts in the collection, you're sure to find something of interest. Our strategy is usually to pick two or so exhibits that we want to focus on; more than that, and our eyes start to glaze over.

Permanent Exhibits

The new Ocean Hall is now the museum's largest permanent exhibition. It includes many specimens of ocean creatures, videos, and a tropical fish tank that gets all the toddlers screaming "NEMO!!!". The sit-down movie on deep sea exploration is a nice way to rest your feet. And in one of the display cases on diversity, there's a video on squid camouflage that's pretty incredible. This place is full of sensory overload; you'll probably stumble upon other things that we missed entirely.

The Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals is home to the Hope Diamond as well as 3,500 other specimens including gems, minerals, rocks, and meteorites. We often think of nature as living creatures, but there's just as much of interest in the geological world, and the highlights are concentrated here.

The Insect Zoo is one of the things I still clearly remember from my trip to the museum when I was in second grade. This is indeed a zoo -- all the insects are alive, including pupating butterflies, honeybees coming and going through the wall of the museum into their enclosed hive, and tarantulas, which get fed three times a day. As you emerge from the insect zoo, there is a small butterfly enclosure that you can pay to walk through. It's free on Tuesdays. (There are also a few interesting displays on how butterflies and plants have co-evolved, which you don't have to pay for.)

Birds of D.C. is a permanent exhibit of stuffed birds whose living counterparts may be seen in DC. It's an opportunity to bone up on your bird ID and get a good look at some of the birds that are trickier to spot.

The Discovery Room has hands-on exhibits of fossils, skulls, shells, minerals, and microscope specimens, open for you to put your paws on from 10:30 to 3:30 daily except Mondays.

The Hall of Mammals includes stuffed specimens, skeletons, fossils, and an educational video about evolution under the somewhat corny, but kid-friendly premise of a "mammal family reunion." The animals come from all over the world, and give a sense of species diversity, but aren't as helpful for trying to learn about our local fauna. Similarly, there's a Hall of Reptiles.

Of course, the Hall of Paleontology is even less helpful in learning about modern, local animals. But it's still pretty cool.

Current Special Exhibits:

Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants is primarily an exhibit of really large photographs of ants. But not just any ants: ants that are fighting, farming, and dramatically affecting the environment they live in. There's a small colony of leafcutter ants set up in a contraption of gerbil tubes. More interesting, to me, was a metal casting of a fire ant colony, which at first we thought was just abstract art. Through October 10, 2009.

Dig It! The Secrets of Soil - We haven't made it to this exhibit yet, but it claims to be a "journey into the skin of the earth" in which you will "discover the amazing connections between soils and everyday life, and think about this hidden world in a whole new way." Cool. Through Jan. 2010.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Natural Happenings: July 20-26

Each week, we will list opportunities to get outdoors, to learn about nature, and to do service. We'll list just brief teasers about each one. Please click through to the organization hosting each event for more details. Some events require prior registration; some charge a fee.

This week's highlight: The Audubon Naturalist Society is offering a free program Saturday morning at their Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase. Their high-quality, naturalist-led programs can be a little pricey, so this is a great deal if registration hasn't filled up yet (you must pre-register to attend). Their description: "Join two naturalists for a closer look at the summer web of life in meadows at our Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase, MD. Plenty of species of flowers will be in bloom, attracting butterflies and other pollinators, in addition to the predators of these pollinators - birds, spiders, and mantids. We’ll take the time to identify the sun-loving plants as well as the animals that find food and shelter among them."

Also this week:

Sierra Club
Sat: Gunpowder Falls (14.5 mi; leaves from Greenbelt Metro)
Sat: Loudon Heights/Harpers Ferry multi-language hike (11 mi; leaves from Grosvenor Metro)
Sun: George Washington NF (11.7 mi; leaves from Vienna Metro)

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips.
Tue: Shenandoah NP (17 mi, vigorous)
Thur: Family Hike: Blue Ridge Center, Loudon County (2-3 mi)
Sat: Shenandoah NP (8.3 mi)

Center Hiking Club
Sat: Trout Pond, George Washington NF (10 mi, Vienna Metro)
Sun: Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah NP (10 mi, Vienna Metro)

Capital Hiking Club
Sat: Passamaquoddy Trail, Shenandoah NP (6-9 mi, bus)

Northern Virginia Hiking Club
Sat: AT - Stony Man Mountain (4 mi)

Sun: AT through Shenandoah NP (7.4-10.1 mi; bus)

Audubon Naturalist Society
Wed AM: Huntley Meadows wetlands
Fri: Class: Creating a Nature Journal
Sat: the summer meadow at Woodend (see above)
Sun eve: Hughes Hollow

Mycological Association of Washington
Sun: possible foray to Greenbelt Park (check website)

The Nature Conservancy
Sat: Invasives removal on Plummers Island

DC Audubon Society
Sun: invasives removal at Blue Marsh Nature Trail, Laytonsville

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Sat: Gardens open at 6:30 AM; bird walk at 7:30 AM
Sun: Garden tours


Rock Creek Park
Wed: Art in the Park exploring wildlife (ages 5+)
Thurs: Nature journal (ages 5+)
Fri: Creature Feature (all ages)
Sat: Rapids Bridge hike (2 mi; ages 8+)
Sun: Ranger-led horseback tour (ages 12+)
Sun:Bike hike to Boundary Bridge (ages 8+)

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Thur: Family Hike: Blue Ridge Center, Loudon County (2-3 mi)

Museum of Natural History
Tue: Dig It! The Secrets of Soil activities
Wed: Ask an Expert in the Ocean Hall

Friday, July 17, 2009

Seven Ways to Keep a Nature Journal

I started keeping a journal in third grade, when someone gave me a little blue journal with a brass lock. I didn't start a nature journal until much more recently. But I wish I'd started earlier.

There's no right way to keep a nature journal. But it is a very good thing to keep one. What type you keep depends on your personality and interests. Try a few approaches and see which works for you.

The "five year" journal. In a pre-printed 5-year diary (like these), there is typically one page for each day of the year; each is divided into five sections. You have just a few lines to write down your observations for each day. My grandmother recently received in the mail several five-year journals kept by my great-great-uncle in the early 1900's, and they were fascinating: fiddle gigs, cow mating, losing a finger in a sawmill, that kind of thing. Matt and I were inspired to start our own, focusing on nature observation. We use looseleaf paper in a 3-ring binder, and instead of having 1 page per day, we've collapsed it into 5-day windows (observations for January 1-5 are mixed together on one page). We're just now getting to the place where we started it last summer, and it's been very helpful in planning hikes, berry-collecting expeditions, and posts for this blog!

Longer reflections. Perhaps you'd rather have more space to reflect on your observations. It doesn't take a fancy book -- I've got a $1 composition book from CVS that I use to record my thoughts. The important thing, in my mind, is for it to be small and light enough that you can carry it with you, but big enough that you can write a coherent thought without having to turn the page. It can be rewarding to look back through a journal like this and see all you've learned, or be reminded of the wonderful things you've seen. You may want to keep a separate nature journal, or consider just journaling more about nature in a journal you already keep.

Detailed observations. You can also use journaling as a method for learning about individual plants and animals, in-depth. Carefully drawing a plant or animal is a fantastic way to force yourself to really observe. Watching the same individual over time, and noting your observations, you will learn even more. How do the flowers turn into seed pods? What does the plant look like when it first emerges in the spring?

Photography. Of course, photos can be another tool for recording your nature observations and making statements about what you find beautiful in nature. By taking the time to sort and label our photos (and weed them out!) every time we upload them, we've made our photography habit into another tool for remembering what to look for when. As an added bonus, set your screensaver to make a slideshow of your photos -- you'll look at them more often.

Blog. Many blogs are just online journals. We've got a sporadic one here. Same content as other journals; it's just a different format (after all, blogs started as "web logs"). It's free to set one up on Blogger, Word Press, and other sites. And you can tell your mom and your friends about all the cool things you see. The drawback: it's hard to blog in the field. And the pressure to write things worthy of public consumption may keep you from just jotting things down that you otherwise might want to keep a record of. (Ours often goes months without an update.)

Kids' Journals. Just like adults, kids can use a simplified version of almost any of these methods. Take some drawing supplies on a walk, and draw something while you take a break. Or pick one favorite thing to write about when you get back. Or write down one thing you observed for each sense: the cool water, the sour wood sorrel, the chirping birds, the musty soil, the bright red flower. You can also paste in leaves and dried flowers, make bark rubbings...anything you can think of. A looseleaf binder can give a lot of flexibility for what goes into a kid's journal; or use a sketch pad with blank pages. I promise this will be a treasured keepsake, iif you use it frequently.

Life lists. Somehow keeping life lists (a list of birds or plants you have seen in the wild, over your whole life) just for the sake of generating the longest list possible seems to me to miss the experience of just enjoying whatever comes along, wherever you are. But we do make little notes in the margins of our id books about the first time we identify a species of wildflower or bird, and where we saw it. If we find ourselves identifying the same thing again, it's somehow helpful to have that note and make the association to the last time we saw it -- usually we don't have to look something up more than twice. As another point in favor of keeping a life list, just the act of writing down the name of something you've identified can help you remember it.

Do you keep a nature journal, or just dream of doing it? Have tips on journaling? Leave a comment!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

LOOK FOR: Wineberries

We're generally opposed to the Asian plants that have made it into our local woods, but the wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) might be one exception. For several weeks in July, these relatives of our native raspberries are abundant and delicious. And, if we can get to the berries before the birds do, and keep the plants from spreading, all the better. Get out there and do your part!

You've probably seen wineberries in the woods, but you may not have known what they were. Like other raspberries, wineberries grow on canes that grow up, then arch over to root and start another plant. With this growth habit, they can create large thickets. Unfortunately, their stems are covered in pinkish bristles -- they can give you quite a scratch if you're not careful. All raspberries have leaves of three, but those prickles are a key distinguishing characteristic that will help you tell the difference between wineberries and poison ivy (which has smooth stems). In addition, the undersides of the leaves are much whiter underneath than on top.

But at this time of year, the give-away is the clusters of red berries. They are shiny -- each one is like a collection of little glass balls. Wineberries darken and sweeten as they get riper. In general, though, even when they're very ripe, they're a little tarter than cultivated raspberries. For the sweetest berries, you want the ones that fall right off when you go to pick them, leaving behind the cone-shaped receptacle that they were growing on. Be gentle with them -- they can crush easily.

In the wild: The two most abundant wineberry spots we know of are along the C&O Canal near Chain Bridge, and Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg (Matt will be leading a wild edibles hike there on August 1 -- let's hope the berries are still producing!). But they are scattered throughout other parks as well.

In your yard: Try planting a native raspberry, like the black raspberry, Rubus occidentalis. It ripens a little earlier (ours started in mid-June) and the flavor is sweeter. We love them both, but the blackcaps could use all the help they can get against the invasive wineberries.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Car-free DC: Lake Artemesia

This is the seventh article in a series on hikes in DC that can be reached by public transportation.

Because there aren't any natural lakes inside the beltway, we largely have to content ourselves with the lovely rivers that run through our area. But there are a few human-made lakes, and Lake Artemesia is one of them. The 38-acre lake was created during construction of Metro, when sand and gravel was removed from the area. It's one of the nicest gravel pits you'll ever visit.

If you ride Metro between Greenbelt and College Park regularly, you're already familiar with Lake Artemesia; the tracks run right by the lake. To most of the rest of DC, this spot is unknown. It's a shame; the sunny lake edges are full of native plant species that you may not see in many other places around DC.

The combination of water, woods, and meadows also provides habitat for a rich mix of birds. The PG County Audubon Society has developed interpretive signs around the lake for the 2.2 mile Luther Goldman Birding Trail; this description of birding stops starts from the parking area on Berwyn Rd. Their bird checklist for the area includes over 200 species. You're pretty much guaranteed to see ducks and red-winged blackbirds; on a recent visit, we also saw goldfinches, swallows, gnatcatchers, and bluebirds.

The closest metro station to Lake Artemesia is College Park. You can reach a trail to the park by going in either direction along Paint Branch Parkway from the metro. I couldn't find a good map of how to do this, so I've tried to cobble together information from a few different sources in this map. If you go southeast on Paint Branch Parkway from the metro, turn left into the driveway of the 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant. The Northeast Branch/Indian Creek Trail will be on your right. Follow it around the College Park Airport, over Paint Branch (the creek), and over to the lake.

More info:

Bikes: The paved paths make this a great spot for bikes. The trails hook up to the larger Northeast Branch trail system (pdf map).

Dogs: Allowed in the park, but should stay on leash. Please scoop your poop.

Other activities: No boating or swimming in the lake, but fishing is allowed. You could probably wade in Paint Branch and Indian Creek if you really want to get wet; they don't look very deep.

Lake Artemesia

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Natural Happenings: July 13-19

Our weekly list of nature-oriented events: click through to the organization hosting each event for more details. Some events require prior registration; some charge a fee.

This week's highlight: Matt is leading a hike at Lake Artemesia on Saturday at 9 AM for the Maryland Native Plant Society. Meet in the parking lot on Berwyn Road (map). It will be a leisurely 2-hour walk around the lake with lots of stops to point out sun-loving native plants, including water lotus and all four native species of sumac. We'd love to see you there. Free.

Also: The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens Lotus and Waterlily Festival is also on Saturday, from 10 to 3. The festival is scheduled for what should be the peak of the blooms in Kenilworth's amazing collection of water lilies and lotuses. The day includes special tours of the gardens and greenhouses, workshops, and exhibits by local organizations. Show up early for an 8 AM bird walk led by the DC Audubon Society (walk registration info here). And see our previous post for directions from Metro. Free.

And there's more...

Sierra Club
Sat: Edwards Ferry cleanup on C&O Canal
Sat-Sun: Backpack Shenandoah NP (18 mi over 2 days)
Sun: National Arboretum (4-8 mi)
Sun: Whiteoak Canyon (8 mi+ swimming hole; leaves from Vienna Metro)

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips.
Tue: AT from Front Royal to Ashby Gap (20 mi, vigorous)

Center Hiking Club
Sat: Cunningham Falls (8 mi, Twinbrook Metro)
Sun: White Rock Cliff, George Washington NF (11 mi, Vienna Metro)

Capital Hiking Club
Sat: Gettysburg National Battlefield (5-10 mi; bus)

Northern Virginia Hiking Club
Sat:AT - Hogback Mountain (11 mi)
Sun: Trout Pond Recreation Area (8 mi)

Sun: Shenandoah NP (8-12.5 mi; bus)

Washington Women Outdoors
Sat: AT/Harpers Ferry (9 mi; register by Wednesday)

Audubon Naturalist Society
Thurs & Sat:Ferns and fern alies: evening class and Saturday field trip to Turkey Run
Sun: Butterflies and wildflowers of Harper's Ferry

Mycological Association of Washington
Sat: possible foray to Lake Fairfax Park (check website)

United States Botanical Garden
Thurs eve: Trees of the regional garden

The Nature Conservancy
Sat: Invasives removal at Turkey Run

Potomac Conservancy
Sat: Canoe clean up on Potomac; Orienteering workshop (register by 7/16)
Sun: Tree ID walk on C&O Canal; River talk on history, nature, and geology

Rock Creek Park
Sat: Boundary Bridge hike (3.5 mi; ages 8+)


Rock Creek Park
Wed: Art in the Park exploring wildlife (ages 5+)
Thurs: Nature journal (ages 5+)
Fri: Creature Feature (all ages)
Sat: Native American Hunting (ages 8+)
Sat: Boundary Bridge hike (3.5 mi; ages 8+)
Sun: Ranger-led horseback tour (ages 12+)

Museum of Natural History
Tue: Dig It! The Secrets of Soil activities
Wed: Ask an Expert in the Ocean Hall

Potomac Conservancy
Sat: Orienteering workshop (ages 8+; register by 7/16)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Open Your Eyes: Practice Seeing More

Our natural way of seeing the world is to focus on one thing. While you're reading this blog, you are tuning out your peripheral vision. It's an either-or proposition.

The thing is, if you spend all of your time in nature in this kind of tunnel vision, you may miss out on the opportunity to see some interesting things. Here are three exercises we have learned to practice seeing in different ways.

Shift your focus. With this method, you keep your focused vision, but you move your focus a lot more than you would naturally. Consciously force yourself to shift: near, mid range, and far; treetops, eye level, and ground level. I often make myself do this when I find I've had my eyes looking down on the trail without really thinking about it.

Soften your focus. With this method, you bust open your vision to incorporate a full 180-degree sphere. You will not see specific things as well, but you will find that you can spot motion much more easily. We often use this technique to spot birds we're looking for. To practice, hold your hands out in front of you, shoulder-level, and wiggle your fingers. Now move them apart from each other, to each side, until you can just barely see both of them at once. Put your arms down, but keep your eyes softened in this way. It's a whole different world.

Savor it. Rachel Carson wrote, "if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century or even once in a human generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators." Open yourself to wonder, she said, by asking, "What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?" Perhaps you'd look a little longer, a little closer. Go ahead and do it now.

Do you know other tricks for opening up your vision? Have experiences to share with one of these? Post a comment!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

LOOK FOR: Chantarelles

Chantarelles are a choice culinary mushroom prized by chefs around the world. And they grow in Washington, DC.

The most common chantarelle species in our area, Cantharellus cibarius, generally comes up in July; we've already found several this year. They are golden yellow to yellow-orange (but not pumpkin orange). The gills on the underside of the cap are very distinctive because they continue down the stem, and are not very deep -- it's almost like the mushroom has wrinkles, rather than the gills you'd see on a typical gilled mushroom. The smell is also distinctive -- sweet and fruity, like apricots (some guidebooks also suggest rose and pumpkin).

If you're not already a mushroomer, the safest and most productive way to look for wild mushrooms is to go with people who already know what they're doing. Luckily, we have in this area the Mycological Association of Washington, which organizes forays led by people who have an encyclopedic knowledge of our local fungi. They'll generally schedule hunting expeditions in areas where they've had luck in the past, and will identify any mushrooms found on the hike. Even more luckily, there's a foray this Saturday at Lake Bernard Frank.

If you prefer to go on your own, please, please, please get ahold of a couple of mushroom id books and carefully check anything you pick before you eat it. Also, wild mushrooms should always be cooked before you eat them, and never eat anything that looks bug-ridden or rotten, no matter how tempting. For example, chanterelles often have very buggy stems -- cut that part out and just eat the healthy parts. Many cases of "mushroom" poisoning are actually attributable to eating mushrooms that are past their prime.

In the wild: We have seen chantarelles in both Rock Creek Park and Greenbelt Park, sometimes growing right in a trail. (Of course, we should remind you, it is illegal to remove mushrooms from a National Park.) If you find a good spot, check back every year -- the mycelium (something like fungus roots) stay in the same place and produce new fruits (the mushrooms) every year.

In your yard: Not unless you live in undisturbed woods and are really lucky. No one has figured out how to cultivate chantarelles yet. That's what makes it so special to find them in the wild!

Have you found any chantarelles yet this year? Have any good recipes? Let us know -- even if you're not willing to tell us your spot!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bookshelf: Bringing Nature Home

Food writer Michael Pollan has gotten a lot of mileage out of his three-sentence manifesto: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." If Doug Tallamy had a similar manifesto, it might be this: "Plant native plants. As many as you can. Especially trees."

"As far as wildlife is concerned," Tallamy writes in Bringing Nature Home, "we have shrunk the United States to 1/20 its original size." Worse, the five percent that's left is divided into tiny islands of habitat. Because species loss is typically proportionate to habitat loss, he argues, "When extinction adjusts the number of species to the land area that remains...we will have lost 95% of the species that greeted the Pilgrims." In fact, bird populations have already fallen by 50% since 1966.

In the face of this massive habitat loss, the land preserved as parks is just a drop in the bucket. If we really want to preserve wildlife, we must provide food and shelter in our backyards (and in the shared green spaces of our apartment buildings). And it turns out that what you plant for food really matters.

Plant native plants. Plants have numerous chemical defenses against being eaten. And, over tens of thousands of years, specific insects have evolved the ability to overcome the defenses of specific plants. In fact, 90% of insect herbivores are specialists, relying on just one or a few plants. If you bring in a plant that hasn't grown in this area for tens of thousands of years, chances are, nothing will be able to eat it. This doesn't just matter for the insects, but also for the birds and other critters that rely on insects as their main source of food.

As many as you can. The more diverse and numerous the native plant population, the more numerous and diverse the insect population. And the more numerous and diverse the insect population, the more predators they will attract. That means birds -- and also ladybugs and other predatory insects. In contrast, with less diversity, there may not be a year-round source of food for these animals. And a less-diverse area has less ability to adjust if something goes wrong with a particular plant in a particular year.

Especially trees. Tallamy and his research assistant compiled data on which tree genera support the most wildlife (using butterflies and moths as a proxy). The top five: oak (517 species of butterflies and moths), willow (456 species), cherry and plum (448 species), birch (413 species), and poplar and cottonwood (368 species). But while a single tree can be a tremendous resource for wildlife, it's important to also plant shrubs and perrenials; they'll create even more diversity.

Will my neighbors hate me? No. Native gardens can be just as formal as gardens full of non-native plants. And they'll love the birds and butterflies that you attract to your garden.

Do I have to get rid of my non-native plants? Well, you can start by just adding natives to your existing garden. But consider that your non-native plants may cause habitat loss even in protected areas when they spread their seed by wind or by birds. Our local parks are full of English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, privet, and other non-native plants commonly planted in yards. They are smothering out the natives that wildlife need to survive. (Check here for a list of some of the most problematic invasives in our area.)

Insects? Really?
Throughout the book are some amazing pictures and stories about the insects you might find on native plants. Not just creepy-crawly things, but beautiful butterflies and moths. You can also read about crickets that use the parabolic dish of a leaf to make themselves louder; milkweed bugs that migrate north with the ripening of milkweed seeds; treehoppers that communicate with each other by vibrating twigs; aphids that give birth to live young without a male's involvement; and the origins of Spanish Fly. It's enough to make you want to get out there and take a look. But, first there has to be something to look at. So...plant those native plants. As many as you can. Especially trees.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Natural Happenings: July 6-12

This week's highlight: Opening at the National Museum of American History, Earl Shaffer and the Appalachian Trail. "Earl Shaffer was the first person to walk the entire Appalachian Trail in one continuous hike. Shaffer had no expert advice, no previous footsteps to follow, or even guidebooks to help him. At the time, experts on the Appalachian Trail believed that a hike of the entire Trail was impossible. Shaffer started his walk in April 1948 at Mount Oglethorpe, Georgia, and completed the Trail four months later at Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Shaffer kept a diary, along with photographs taken along the way, to prove to skeptics that he had really accomplished what he claimed. This exhibition features photographs taken along the trail, Shaffer’s diary from the 1948 hike, and maps he used. The exhibition also covers the conception and development of the Appalachian Trail and its larger cultural and environmental impact."

Also...look for berries with Sierra Club or the Wanderbirds; for chanterelles with the Mycological Association; for bats with the Audubon Naturalist Society; or for geese with the Anacostia Watershed Society, or many other activities:

Sierra Club
Sat: River Bend Park (3 mi)
Glen Echo and towpath (5-6 mi)
Sat: Matthew's Arm (fast-paced 9.7 mi + swimming hole)
Sun: Signal Knob (11 mi + blueberries and swimming hole; leaves from Vienna Metro)
Sun: beginner backpacking class

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips.
Tue: Appalachian Trail in PA (17 mi); Family Hike at Great Falls (3.5 mi)

Center Hiking Club
Sat: White Oak Canyon (from Vienna Metro)
Sun: Dumbarton and Taft bridges via Rock Creek Park (3.5 mi, from Dupont Metro)

Capital Hiking Club
Sat: Stony Man/White Oak Canyon/swim (7.3-9.4 mi; bus)

Maryland Outdoor Club
Sat: Day Hike at Gettysburg Battlefield

Northern Virginia Hiking Club
Sat: C&O Canal: Monocacy River to Calico Rocks (10.8 mi); Overall Run/Heiskell Hollow in Shenandoah NP (10 mi)

Sun: Berry hike and ice cream social (13-15 mi; bus)

Washington Women Outdoors
Sun: Mason Neck (3.5 mi)
Wed: registration deadline for Three Ridges Backpacking trip (July 17-19)

Audubon Naturalist Society
Sat-Mon: Natural heritage weekend in West Virginia
Sun: Blockhouse Point Conservation Park

Mycological Association of Washington
Tue eve: Monthly meeting; presentation on toothed fungi
Sat: possible foray at Lake Bernard Frank (check website)

Rock Creek Park
Sun: Milkhouse Ford hike (1.5 mi; ages 8+)
Sun: Ranger-led horseback tour (ages 12+)

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Sat: Gardens open at 6:30 AM; bird walk at 7:30 AM
Sun: Garden tours

Anacostia Watershed Society
Tue-Fri: Count Canada geese for the National Park Service


Audubon Naturalist Society
Sat: learn how Native Americans used their environment (ages 4-6)
Sat eve: Bats and bugs night hike (ages 7+)

Rock Creek Park
Wed: Art in the Park exploring wildlife (ages 5+)
Thurs: Nature journal (ages 5+)
Fri: Creature Feature (all ages)
Sun: Milkhouse Ford hike (1.5 mi; ages 8+)
Sun: Ranger-led horseback tour (ages 12+)

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Tue: Family Hike at Great Falls (3.5 mi)

Museum of Natural History
Tue: Dig It! The Secrets of Soil activities
Wed: Ask an Expert in the Ocean Hall

Friday, July 3, 2009

Our Local National Parks

There's not much that makes me feel more patriotic than our national park system. And although other places in the US may boast larger and grander national parks, I am grateful to live in an urban area where you're never more than a few miles from a park. Check out this map to see what I mean. Or consider this list:

Anacostia Park includes Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens and Kenilworth Marsh, 1200 acres along the Potomac (see our previous car-free post).

C&O Canal National Historic Park (previous post) follows the Potomac River and the C&O Canal for 184.5 miles from Cumberland, MD, to Washington, DC, running right by Great Falls Park, another gem of the DC-area National Parks.

Rock Creek Park (previous post) is one of the oldest parks in the National Park Service and, at 1754 acres, one of the largest urban forests in the United States. Several other parks are under the jurisdiction of Rock Creek Park, adding even more to the total acreage, including Glover Archbold Park, Montrose Park , Dumbarton Park, Meridian Hill Park, Battery Kemble Park, Palisades Park, and Whitehaven Park.

Greenbelt Park (previous post) is an 1100 acre National Park just inside the beltway in Greenbelt, MD, with hiking and biking trails and a large campground.

The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail will eventually include over 825 miles of trails, from Pittsburgh to the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to the C&O Canal, it includes 15 miles in Loudoun County; 7.7 miles of trails within Riverbend Park, Great Falls Park, and Scott’s Run Nature Preserve in northern Fairfax County; two partially-completed routes within the District of Columbia— including a 23 mile Fort Circle Parks Trail, and a multi-use route between Georgetown and Oxon Cove Park; and the 18.5-mile Mount Vernon Trail and the 10-mile Potomac Heritage Trail within George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Speaking of the GW Parkway, it's not just the narrow corridor around the higway. This National Park property includes several sub-parks along the way, including the beautiful 700-acre Turkey Run, 91-acre Theodore Roosevelt Island (previous post), the 17-acre Ladybird Johnson Park/LBJ Memorial Grove (which is supposed to be a good place to watch the fireworks, though we've never tried it), a marina on Daingerfield Island, 380-acre Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, and more.

The Civil War Defenses of Washington are also run by the NPS. Some of the most notable are Fort Dupont Park (376 acres), Fort Washington Park (341 acres), and Battleground National Cemetery.

Oxon Cove Park/Oxon Hill Farm is a 512 acre working farm with educational programs on farm life, 19th century history, and the environment.

Piscataway Park exists mainly to protect 6 miles along the Potomac that can be seen from Mount Vernon (which, incidentally, is not a National Park). The 5000 acre park is partly privately owned, and part jointly run by the NPS. The part that is open to the public includes a National Colonial Farm.

And then, of course, there is the National Mall and all of its Memorials, all run by the National Park service. NPS also has jurisdiction over many of the smaller parks scattered throughout the city, including Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, and many parks on Capitol Hill.

And don't forget the National Historic Sites -- not so nature-y, but part of the Park Service nonetheless:
Frederick Douglass NHS,
Mary Mcleod Bethune Council House NHS,
The Old Stone House,
Carter G. Woodson Home NHS,
Sewall Belmont House and Museum,
Ford's Theater,
Clara Barton NHS, and
Pennsylvania Ave NHS (aka the White House).

I suspect I've even missed some. So, while we're honoring national heroes this weekend, don't forget to include the ones at the National Park Service.

What's your favorite park on this list? Did we miss any? Leave a comment.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

LOOK FOR: Common Milkweed

Milkweed is a beautiful, once-common roadside plant that is struggling in modern times. If you love monarch butterflies, you should show milkweed some love. Their lives depend on it: monarch larvae can only survive by eating milkweed leaves.

In June, common milkweed starts to form clusters of green balls -- the flower buds. And later in the month, these buds burst open into showy balls of tubular pink flowers. At 3-6 feet tall, with multiple flower clusters per stalk, this can be a very showy plant. On the few occasions I've come across a really large field of common milkweed, I've been intoxicated by the fragrance and the multitudes of pollinators dancing about. It's a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

There are many species of milkweed in the genus Asclepias. All share the property that when you break a leaf or stem of the plant, a white latex oozes out. (A 3-year-old friend recently tried to explain to me how cows get this "milk" into the milkweed, but I didn't quite follow it all.) Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, apparently got its scientific name through a botanical mix-up in the 1600's with a plant from the middle east (thus the Syrian epithet). Actually, this plant is all-American, and widespread east of the Rockies.

But not as widespread as it once was. Development and roadside mowing have dramatically reduced the milkweed available for hungry monarch caterpillars. Though logging in the monarchs' Mexican wintering grounds gets more attention, they also have less and less habitat for raising young here in the north every summer. Some states have started to catch on that by mowing roadsides just once or twice a year in spring and fall, they can save money and help wildlife at the same time. Let's hope this trend spreads.

In addition to supporting monarchs and many other pollinators, common milkweed was a staple plant for many Native Americans. At this time of year, the flower buds (pictured to the right) can be cooked much like broccoli. However, if you are going to eat milkweed, it is important to learn to distinguish it from poisonous dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum, aka indian hemp), which can look similar (same height, milky sap but less of it, similar shaped leaves but smaller). Dogbane has different flowers and no fuzz on the stem or undersides of the leaves as milkweed has. The most important difference is that dogbane is very bitter, while milkweed should taste like a sweet green vegetable. It really is quite good.

In the wild: Milkweed likes the sun -- look around unmowed open fields, power line clearcuts, and roadsides. For those of you around Takoma Park, there's quite a bit growing downhill from the track at Takoma Middle School, making a valiant stand against the invasive kudzu and porcelain berry.

In your yard: Common milkweed isn't recommended for yards because it can spread quite aggressively by underground roots. If you have an area like a street box that is self-contained it might work well there. Otherwise, try a less aggressive species, like swamp milkweed (Ascelpias incarnata) or butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Monarch larvae can survive on any species of Asclepias, and we've found them on both of these in our yard. Both are beautiful -- and likely to be the subject of future posts!