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!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

LOOK FOR: Spicebush Flowers, North America's Answer to Forsythia

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Photo credit: PIWO
Along one side of our yard, our neighbor has a forsythia hedge whose cheery yellow flowers are a magnificent joy in spring. But you won't find forsythia in the woods (at least, not yet):  it's from China. Instead, we look every year for the less showy but equally cheery flowers of the spicebush as they emerge to light up the understory of our local forests. On our hike yesterday, they looked like they were ready to burst open any day now.

For us, spicebush is a way to mark the passing of the seasons. We wrote about spicebush last September, when the bright red berries were marking the beginning of fall. Now is the time to look for the flowers that create those berries: they're a harbinger of spring (and much more reliable than groundhogs).

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Photo credit: Wrenaissance
The flowers of spicebush appear in clusters along the stems, before the leaves emerge. Each flower has five small petals. (For comparison, forsythia has only four petals per flower. So does witch hazel, whose wispy yellow flowers otherwise can seem quite similar -- except that they bloom over the winter.)

Between the early spring flowers and the vibrant red berries, we're mystified as to why spicebush isn't a more common plant in yards and other ornamental plantings. It also has high wildlife value -- it serves as a host plant for beautiful spicebush swallowtails and promethea moths, while the berries feed birds and other critters.

The spicy twigs and berries of spicebush (think allspice) also have been used by humans for teas and flavorings for centuries (maybe millenia). They aren't attractive to deer, though -- which likely explains why spicebush remains common in our local woods even as the out-of-balance deer population is stripping out most of the rest of the understory.

If the deer are going to leave us just one shrub, we'll take spicebush, and with pleasure. It's a great way to greet the spring.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Photo credit: Janet Powell
In the wild: Spicebush is one of our dominant understory shrubs.  One of the most impressive areas we know is in Rock Creek Park, in the section east of Boundary Bridge. But you'll probably see some spicebush in just about any woods in the DC metro area.

In your yard: Spicebush needs shade, but a few hours of sun will encourage them to flower more and set more fruit. They can also suffer if they get too dry, especially as they're getting established -- they'll do best with reasonably moist soil.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Learn Your Wildflowers and Wild Edibles: Sign Up for Walks with The Natural Capital

For several years, we've been leading walks in the DC area with a heavy emphasis on plant identification and wild edibles.* Sign up for a walk, learn to identify lots of plants (and hopefully some fungi), and find out that some of them are actually pretty tasty to eat! We've got four scheduled for spring and early summer:

March 27, 2010 -- Spring Wildflowers Walk, Carderock, MD.  Come out and enjoy the first signs of spring: trout lilies, bloodroot, toothwort, spring beauties, spicebush, and other early plants coming up from the ground. Learn about edibility and other traditional uses of the early bounty of new growth. Walking up to 3 miles on unpaved trails.  Fee: $15. Register here (via Matt's Habitats).

April 24, 2010 -- Spring Wild Edibles Walk, Scott's Run in McClean,VA. Last year we found a good amount of morel mushrooms at Scott's Run. Hopefully nature will display them again! In addition to morels, we will see wild ramps (a.k.a. wild leeks), nettles, and other edible plants and spring wildflowers. Hiking 3-4 miles over unpaved and hilly steep trails. Fee: $20. Register here (via Matt's Habitats).

May 22, 2010 -- Mountain Laurel Walk, Northwest Branch, Montgomery County. A stunning hillside of mountain laurels in full bloom overlooking the Northwest Branch is our destination (providing mother nature cooperates).  On the way, we'll exercise our identification skills as we explore plants growing from riverine habitats up to dryer upland habitat. We'll walk a total of 1-2 miles with a steep hill or two and a stream crossing. FREE. Register here (via the Maryland Native Plant Society).

Photo credit: leedav
June 12, 2010 -- Early Summer Wild Fruit Fest, Upper NW, DC. The first fruit of the summer season is ripening. We'll snack on serviceberries and munch on mulberries. After our fruit fix, we'll find lots more that mother nature has to offer, be it edibles or other interesting plants and fungi. Hiking 2-3 miles on streets and unpaved trails. Fee: $15. Register here (via Matt's Habitats).

*Gathering of edibles will only take place in places where it is permitted, and sampling of native species will only occur where abundant populations exist. We want to keep doing this for many years!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Calendar: The Potomac Heritage Trail

The City Paper's "Best of DC" poll ends tomorrow. Have you voted for your favorite local blog yet? Click here to vote for the Natural Capital!

Potomac River from Chain Bridge
The Potomac Heritage Trail is a relatively new resource to the DC area that deserves a full Natural Capital write-up sometime in the near future. In the meantime, there are two hikes on the trail this Sunday. They get bonus points for starting from Roosevelt Island, which is accessible from the Rosslyn Metro (see our directions here).

Roosevelt Island to the Chain Bridge & Back - On Sunday (3/21), a 9 mile route with folks from the Sierra Club following the Potomac Heritage Trail out, and the C&O Towpath back, stopping for lunch at Clyde's in Georgetown and then back to Roosevelt Island.

Potomac Heritage Trail - Also on Sunday, also leaving from Roosevelt Island, but with the Center Hiking Club, and about 45 minutes after the Sierra Club folks. This will be an 11-12 mile hike stopping for lunch at one of DC's Civil War forts.

See our full calendar for full details and RSVP info, or for the many, many great sounding trips and classes this week. And don't forget about the Environmental Film Festival!

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

Friday, March 12, 2010

LOOK FOR: Fairy Spuds, More Commonly Known as Spring Beauties

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Photo credit: PIWO
Spring beauties are not a showy flower, but we find their little blooms dainty and adorable. They're one of the first to bloom among the flowers called spring ephemerals: perennial flowers that emerge every spring on the forest floor, before the trees leaf out, then fade into the background (or die back entirely to the ground) until next spring. They're also one of the longer-lasting blooms, so you've got a wider window of opportunity to find them.

We actually start looking for spring beauties in January. Not the flowers, but the little leaves. They're skinny like a little blade of grass, but more succulent -- spring beauties are actually related to purslane. (And like purslane, the leaves are edible.)

Photo credit: Cowtools
By mid-March, the spring beauties are blooming. The flowers are small (maybe 3/4" wide) and low to the ground -- the entire plant usually doesn't grow any taller than 4 to 6 inches. At any other time of year, they'd be easy to overlook. In early spring, though, they're a major part of the show before other things start blooming.

The flowers have 5 petals that can be white or light pink. If you look closely, you'll see they're candy-striped with thin pink lines pointing to the center of the flower. And just in case that doesn't tip off the pollinators well enough, the center opening of the flower is highlighted with little yellow spots.

Watch for how the flowers react to the weather. On a sunny day, they'll open wide. But with clouds, the petals fold back up and wait for better weather. It's another thing we love about these plants.

Photo credit: cyanocorax
By early summer, the flowers and leaves of spring beauty will shrivel up and die back to the ground. But several inches below the ground, the plant is storing energy for next spring in a little corm that can be as much as 6 inches underground. We've heard these tubers called fairy spuds -- they're starchy and edible when cooked, but each one is tiny. It would take an awful lot of energy to dig up enough fairy spuds to make any kind of meal. But apparently Native Americans and early colonists found them excellent.

We've tried a few fairy spuds from our yard -- but I think I prefer to see the flowers.

Photo credit: jbaker5(Flickr Creative Commons)
In the woods: Spring beauties can be prolific where they're not overgrazed by deer. We've come across areas that are carpeted with them, especially on hillsides where it's harder for deer to stop for a succulent snack. They'll bloom first on slopes that face south.

In your yard:  We love the spring beauties we've planted in a shady spot in our backyard. They're a great reminder to get out into the woods and see what else is coming up.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In pictures: Waiting for Spring

Spring is coming, I promise. But this week folks were still posting pictures of late winter.

Beech leaves in winter
At Wheaton Regional Park. Photo credit: izik (Flickr Creative Commons)

At Nolte Park, Silver Spring. Photo credit: brhefele (Flickr Creative Commons)

Beech leaves in winter
Photo credit: Brian Hefele (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Environmental Film Festival: March 16-28

Environmental Film Festival logoThe DC Environmental Film Festival is a twelve-day extravaganza showing films that are generally unavailable in commercial theaters. They can be challenging, funny, educational, whimsical -- and often stunningly beautiful. This year there will be 155 films in just two weeks, spread across 56 venues: embassies, theaters, museums and more. Many are free, and many will be attended by the filmmakers.

The festivities kick off with a launch party on Wednesday, March 10 (that's tomorrow). For a $20 cover there's hors d'ouvres, an open bar with eco-friendly vodka, and a silent auction with some pretty cool stuff.

There are a few films on the schedule that have some local interest:

THE GREEN HOUSE: DESIGN IT. BUILD IT. LIVE IT. (USA, 2010, 90 min., World Premiere) "This illuminating documentary chronicles the building of the first carbon-neutral house and the designing of the first green show house in the Washington, D.C. area. The building of the house in McLean, Virginia was captured from start to finish, from the monumental groundbreaking to the exquisitely furnished show home decorated by eco-conscious designers." 3/17/10 7:00 pm, E Street Cinema. Tickets, $10, available ONLY at E Street Cinema Box office beginning March 8.

THE MEANINGFUL WATERSHED EDUCATION EXPERIENCE (USA, 2006, 10 min.) and WHEN LEARNING COMES NATURALLY (USA, 2009, 30 min.) A 10 min film on environmental education programs on the Anacostia, paired with a longer film on innovative outdoor-education programs that "help children understand and experience the wonders and joys of nature." Followed by a panel discussion. 3/19/10 12:00 pm, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library. FREE.

WHO KILLED CRASSOSTREA VIRGINICA: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHESAPEAKE BAY OYSTERS (USA, 2010, 58 min.) "The decline of the Chesapeake Bay oyster fishery devastated the economy of traditional tidewater communities in Maryland and Virginia. And the destruction of the oyster reef system with its immense water-filtering power also altered the ecology of the entire ecosystem." Discussion with filmmaker Michael Fincham and oyster biologist Ken Paynter and skipjack captain Ed Farley, both featured in the film, follows screening. 3/21/10 1:30 pm, Carnegie Institution for Science. FREE.

COAL COUNTRY (USA, 2009, 40 min.) "Most Americans are shocked to learn that nearly half of the electricity used in the United States today is produced by coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Coal Country reveals the truth about modern coal mining. The story is told by people directly involved, both working miners and activists, who are battling the coal companies in Appalachia. Tensions are families and communities are deeply split over mountaintop removal mining." 3/23/10 7:30 pm, St. Columba's Episcopal Church. FREE, with suggested donation of $5.

"RIVER OF HOPE": WELCOME TO OUR CITY, MR. PRESIDENT (USA, 2009, 25 min.) and NOT A DISTANT BEAST (USA, 2009, 10 min.) River of Hope "spotlights the positive transformation of formerly committed youth participating in D.C.’s Civic Justice Corps....seeking to reclaim their lives and the Anacostia River.” Not a Distant Beast follows "Carl Cole, a lifelong Washington, D.C. resident, [who] formed a deep relationship with the city’s most polluted natural resource, the Anacostia River, which led him to become a water sportman and an activist and steward of the river." 3/27/10 2:30 pm, Carnegie Institution for Science. FREE.

Beyond that, there are beautiful-looking nature documentaries from all over the world, a Finnish epic drama, animation for kids, stories of destruction, stories of redemption...and a fantastic-looking series on food and agriculture issues, including a movie about Nora Pouillon of DC's Restaurant Nora, and FRESH!, which includes segments on Joel Salatin, who markets meat and eggs in the DC area..  Check out the catalog. What films are you looking forward to?

Do you like getting information like this from the Natural Capital? Want to let other folks know about us? Click here to vote for the Natural Capital in the City Paper's "Best of DC" poll!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Calendar: Visit Two Threatened Creeks

There are two different Sierra Club hikes on Sunday afternoon exploring areas threatened by two different road projects.

Paint Branch stream
Photo credit: Binary Dreams (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Many activists have been concerned about the impact of the Inter-County Connector in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. On Sunday morning, join a group hiking 5 miles in the Paint Branch watershed. The hike description says, "We will look at the construction project, and discuss the history of the ICC and its potential ecological impacts. Paint Branch is unique in this area for supporting the last remaining native brown trout population."  

The Sierra Club of Maryland is also working hard to protect Mattawoman Creek, a beautiful tributary of the Potomac River 20 miles south of DC in Charles County. It's an important area for birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians, but is threatened by runoff and development from the Charles County Cross County Connector. Come check out the area with a 3 mile hike in Smallwood State Park. The hike description says, "[this] is the last best remnant of what Chesapeake Bay rivers were like when the Bay teemed with life. Come enjoy its tranquil beauty, and help save this last refuge. Hike meandering trails through hardwood forest, passing natural and historical points of interest with viewing opportunities for upland and water species of birds and critters."

See our full calendar to RSVP and get directions -- or to check out the many other great activities going on this week. We'll see you out there!

Do you like our calendar? Want to let other folks know about it? Vote for the Natural Capital in the City Paper's "Best of DC" poll!

Friday, March 5, 2010

LOOK FOR: Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

yellow bellied sapsucker on tree
Photo credit: Beth Fishkind
As we get all excited about the sap running, so do other critters. Perhaps first among them is the yellow-bellied sapsucker, who winters in the south. Around now, the sapsuckers start migrating north, following this rich food source as each successive latitude warms up enough to start the flow.

Sapsuckers make a series of round holes in a tree's bark, usually lined up in efficient little rows. They then lap up the sap that comes out -- sometimes returning to holes over and over as the sap continues to ooze.

In addition to their their distinctive holes, sapsuckers are a distinctive-looking bird. Like other woodpeckers, they've got mottled black and whitish feathers on their back and wings. Both males and females have a red spot on the top of their head; males also have a red throat. The belly has just a hint of yellow that you won't be able to detect without exactly the right light -- the picture above may be the yellowest I've ever seen.

yellow-bellied sapsucker and holes
Photo credit: New Jersey Birds
The yellow-bellied sapsucker is considered a "keystone" species by some ecologists because many other birds rely on them. It's a hard time of year to find food, and other species -- including kinglets, warblers, phoebes, and even hummingbirds -- will follow behind the sapsuckers to lap up sap or insects.

But sapsuckers don't subsist entirely on sugar -- good thing, because the sap doesn't flow all year.  The sapsucker may also make rectangular holes that allow them to get to the tree's phloem, which they eat. And, like other woodpeckers, they eat a lot of insects. Even when the sap is running, many insects either get uncovered by drilling into the tree, or are themselves attracted to the sap.

But no other woodpecker in our area makes such systematic holes in the trees. If you see a tidy little row, it was probably a sapsucker.

sapsucker holes
Photo credit: we'moon in the woods
In the wild: You can find sapsuckers throughout the open woods of our region. If you see some holes actively oozing sap, hang out quietly for a little while and see who comes by.

In your yard: Don't worry, sapsuckers generally do not cause serious damage to trees -- the wounds they make are pretty shallow. Sapsuckers come to the large oak tree in our backyard all the time, and it's going strong.

We read of one photographer who attracted sapsuckers to his yard by drilling holes in an upright log and filling them with corn syrup. Cheating? You decide. It must have been quite a sugar rush for the birds!

Have you seen sapsuckers lately? Let us know.

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

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

In Pictures: Thaw

You may have noticed that we use a lot of pictures from folks who have shared photos on Flickr under a Creative Commons license. We're going to try an experiment: looking for local nature-themed photos that have been posted recently, and publishing a few of our favorites on (at least some) Wednesdays. Like? Dislike? Want to help curate? Leave us a comment below.

Can you name these three locations?

Photo credit: ehpien

Photo credit: cuttlefish

Photo credit: brownpau

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New & Improved Natural Capital: Thanks for Your Feedback!

ripples in water
Photo credit: Claudio.Ar
Thanks again to everyone who participated in our survey over the last several weeks! We're feeling all warm and fuzzy, because your comments were overwhelmingly positive, with a good dose of constructive ideas. (Although one reader called the rest of you "lame" for not commenting more on our posts!) We're so glad you think we're mostly on the right track.  And a few lucky winners will get their native plant seeds in just in time for the spring thaw. (They've been contacted, so if you haven't heard from us, try again next time.)

Here's what we heard from you, and what we're doing about it:
  • Your favorite posts are the "look for" series and posts about local places to go. We'll keep lots of those coming.
  • The calendar is used heavily by some of you, but some of you aren't really interested in group activities. We'll keep that part of the website going for now. But in keeping with our local focus, we are going to simplify by listing only trips that are close to the DC area -- "close" being a subjective term that may vary from month to month. We've also added a copy of the calendar as a permanent fixture in the right hand column of the blog.  (Bear with us while we figure out how to make it match our color scheme!). Even if you don't want to go out in a group just to go hiking, there are often workshops and lectures mixed in that you might find interesting.
  • Links are less interesting to many of you. We'll stop putting them into stand-alone posts. But we can't help it:  there's a lot of cool stuff out there, and we like to share. So we'll keep posting things we find interesting via Twitter. If you have no interest in joining the "Twitterverse," you can find the links we've shared most recently in a feed in our right-hand column. Check them out when you feel like surfing.
  • You like the photos, and wish there were more. Stay tuned for an experiment on that tomorrow.
  • We didn't think to ask about this, but we've been working on our layout and design. If you're reading us by RSS or email, stop by and check out the new look! Let us know what you think.
Thank you so much for helping us make the Natural Capital a little better.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Calendar: Some of our Favorite Places

This Sunday afternoon, local groups are taking walks at some of our favorite parks. Join one of them, find something else to do on our calendar, or venture out on your own...

Sugarloaf Mountain, MD
Photo credit: Shira Golding
Sugarloaf Mountain - As an Audubon Naturalist Society hike, this will be slow and information-packed. Their description:  "Explore the winter woods of Sugarloaf Mountain with the co-authors/illustrators of two books on this monadnock’s natural and cultural history. We’ll hike from 1-3 miles, depending on trail and weather conditions, stopping to identify woody plants along the way, including oak species, heath family members, and the summit’s noteworthy table mountain pines. We’ll keep an eye out for seasonal birds, including chickadees, kinglets, woodpeckers, and even tundra swans. Melanie will talk about the mountain’s history and geology. Tina will share tips on gathering field information for your art/nature journal. Our hike will include some uphill/downhill walking and, depending on trail conditions, a fairly steep ¼ mile hike up to the summit - all at a slow pace." Members: $23; Nonmembers: $32 Registration required.

Great Blue Heron over C&O Canal
Photo credit: Carly & Art
Carderock/Gold Mine Tract - If you're up for a longer hike, the Sierra Club is leading a walk along a beautiful stretch of the C&O Canal and surrounding areas. Their description:  "Easy 7-mile walk along C&O Towpath and the Gold Mine Tract to Great Falls Tavern, return via towpath. We will extend this hike ~1 mile to observe bald eagles and great blue heron feeding chicks - bring binoculars." See our calendar entry for meeting location and contact information for the trip leader.

Huntley Meadows
Photo credit: geopungo
Huntley Meadows - For a slow and flat walk, with a carpool from the Metro, check out the Center Hiking Club's trip to Huntley Meadows. They promise a "2-3 mile meander" through this beautiful park. See our calendar entry for info on how to meet up at Huntington Metro, and contact information for the trip leader.

For all three trips, it's wise to check with the trip leader and make sure everything's still on, given recent trail conditions. Even if the trails are clear of snow, expect mud. Happy spring!

Friday, February 26, 2010

LOOK FOR: Skunk Cabbage, First Flower of the Year

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year...There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.  -- Henry David Thoreau

skunk cabbage spadix inside the spathe
Photo credit: gareandkitty
So much of the diversity in the natural world is the result of plants and animals figuring out how to survive in territory where others can't. A few weeks ago, we talked about rock tripe and how it manages to pluck enough moisture and nutrients from the air that it can colonize rock surfaces. Today, we bring you skunk cabbage -- which not only survives in a wetland environment many plants find inhospitable, but manages to attract pollinators in late winter, when nothing else is flowering.

To attract those pollinators, skunk cabbage relies more on guile than on charm. The skunk cabbage flower is no sweet-smelling bull's eye like most of the flowers we'll see later in the year. In fact, it stinks. Somehow, this plant has figured out how to make the molecules cadaverine (normally put off by rotting flesh) and skatole (otherwise found in scat). And with them, it attracts flies and beetles seeking a meal.

skunk cabbage spathes
Photo credit: cyanocorax
The flowers continue their deception with a streaky reddish-purple spathe (the hood-shaped bract around the flowers) that is not unlike the color of carrion these insects are seeking. Inside that hood is a spadix made up of dozens of flowers, which get inadvertently pollinated by insects seeking a stinky bite to eat.

And skunk cabbage has one more trick up its sleeve (or should we say, spathe). Amazingly, it produces its own heat -- it may be 50 degrees or more above the ambient air temperature when the female flowers are in full bloom. This brings in more insects. For one thing, the warmth makes the stinky carrion smells more volatile. And insects might expect a piece of carrion to be warm, because of the heat released by the bacteria that are breaking it down.

skunk cabbage in snow
Photo credit: Hljod.Huskona
But some insects just seem to want a little vacation from winter, like the rest of us do. Skunk cabbage can be warm enough to melt snow and ice, which surely feels good to insects trying to make a living at this time of year. The flowering season for skunk cabbage can vary by the weather, but in the Washington DC area they can start flowering in January and may go as late as March.

So, if you've been feeling the melancholy of the season, or having trouble seeing the summer's a great time to start looking for flowers.

skunk cabbage flowers
Photo credit: Colin Purrington
In the wild: Skunk cabbage tends to grow in relatively flat areas that stay wet or muddy for most of the year. Look along small streams and seeps -- perhaps even growing in shallow water. There are many patches of skunk cabbage in Rock Creek Park and lots of other local parks. You may have noticed it in the summer with its large clumps of 2-foot-long leaves growing close to the ground. Right now you won't see much hint of the leaves -- you're just looking for the purplish spathes poking up from the ground.

In your yard: You won't have much luck growing skunk cabbage unless you've got a wetland in your backyard. If you do, go for it -- skunk cabbage are deer resistant, and that foliage is hard to beat.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Last Call - Feedback and Flowers by Friday

Thanks to all of you who have already filled out our reader survey. If you haven't yet, you've got until Friday. Why not take a minute now? As a little incentive, we'll select three responses at random to receive some seeds from some of our favorite native plants: cardinal flower, rose mallow, and Joe Pye weed. Start them in your yard, or scatter them in a wild place you visit.

We'll be back next week with the results.

Just answer the 7 questions below, and be sure to click the "done" button when you're done. (If you don't see a survey below, click here.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Natural Happenings: the Moon, George Washington, Bones, Frogs, and More

frog on the moon
Four random events for you this weekend, selected from our calendar:

This weekend will be the full moon. The full moon hikes at the National Arboretum are sold out -- sign up now for future months! There's also a full moon hike with the Sierra Club on the National Mall on Friday.

This week is also the actual birthday of George Washington. The Center Hiking Club is celebrating on Saturday with a 10-mile hike from Huntington Metro to Mount Vernon.

If your kids would rather look into dead animals than dead presidents, there's a program on animal bones at Huntley Meadows on Sunday. It's aimed at ages 9-12.

And, if they'd rather celebrate life, there's a program at Gulf Branch Nature Center called "Get Ready for Wood Frogs!" on Sunday. It's aimed at ages 5+.

Of course, there's lots more going on this week -- check out the calendar.

Mouse over for credits for the goofy photo; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

LOOK FOR: Maple Sap (and Pancakes)

maple sap coming out of spile
Photo credit: sighthound
Every spring, as temperatures rise, trees start to wake up from their dormancy. They've been storing energy  all winter as starch in their wood. But now, they want to use it to start producing leaves. And the way they get that energy to their leaves? Sap.

There's a particular window of opportunity for maple sap that is determined by temperature. When the temperature of the wood rises to the mid-30s, enzymes start to convert the stored starch into sugar. And once the tree warms up to about 45 degrees, the starch stops converting into sugar. In between, when days are relatively warm but the nights are relatively cold, pressure builds up in the tree, and the sap comes pouring out of any wounds -- particularly a wound that was put there intentionally to direct that sap into a bucket.

tasting maple sap from the spile
If you taste the sap when it comes out of a tree, it will be only very slightly sweet; the sap is usually less than 3 percent sugar. In contrast, maple syrup is typically around 66 percent sugar. To get from 3 to 66 percent, you have to boil off an enormous amount of water. A single tap may release 10 to 20 gallons of sap from a tree over the several weeks that the sap is running. But that 20 gallons of sap boils down to less than a gallon of syrup. No wonder it's so expensive!

maple sap bucket
Photo credit: Lolly Knit
Several local parks have demonstrations of making maple syrup -- browse our calendar for many of them. But perhaps most noteworthy is the one that's going on Feb 20-21 at Wheaton Regional Park (11 to 3 on both Saturday and Sunday). They'll have someone to explain the whole process and opportunities to taste both fresh sap and finished maple syrup, the latter ladled over little pancakes for your tasting pleasure. Weather permitting, they'll have a vat of sap boiling over the fire all weekend. We may see you there!

Do you have any maple syrup stories to share? Leave us a comment.

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Car Free DC: Wheaton Regional Park

trees and water, Brookside GardensAt 536 acres, Wheaton Regional Park is one of the largest parks in Montgomery County, and probably the most diverse in recreational opportunities. On the western edge of the park is a humongous playground area, a 1915 carousel, and a kids' train. On the south side of the park, there is an athletic complex, an ice skating rink, and a half-acre dog park. To the north are stables and the beautiful Brookside Gardens (which deserves its own post).

And surrounded by all this recreational development? The woods. Wheaton Regional Park boasts 11 miles of trails, with about half being paved and half unpaved (see the park map). Those trails also link up to the Northwest Branch trail and the paved Sligo Creek trail, expanding your options far beyond the park.

Stop by Brookside Nature Center for some guaranteed critter sightings -- they usually have some box turtles and other reptiles and amphibians inside. They've also got interactive stations along the boardwalk that leads up to the nature center, including bird songs and smells for you to identify.

Brookside Maple Sugar Festival 2009The Nature Center also leads lots of activities. Coming up this weekend (Feb. 20-21): their Maple Sugar Festival (11:00-3:00 Saturday and Sunday, rain or shine). Start out with a movie and a short talk on the process of sap and making syrup at the nature center. Then head down the trail to a historic log cabin, where you can see trees that have been tapped, then watch the sap boiling over an open fire. Perhaps most importantly, you can compare the taste of homemade maple syrup against commercial brands on (silver-dollar-sized) pancakes. It's all free, and it's a great excuse to come check out some of the other things this great park has to offer.

people on trailHiking: Our favorite trails are the unpaved network of trails (purple on the park map) that link into the Brookside Nature Center. Pine Lake is also nice, and contrary to what the map shows, it is possible to walk all the way around it if you're willing to brave a little mud.

Bikes: Are allowed on the paved trails and some of the unpaved trails, but not the ones immediately around the Nature Center (this is noted on trail markers). There are sometimes large trees down in some of the trails; be prepared for the possibility that you may have to get your bike over a tree, or turn back around.

Dogs: Are allowed in most of the park, on leash, but are not allowed in Brookside Gardens.

Fishing: Is allowed in Pine Lake, with a Maryland fishing license.

Glenmont MetroGetting there by public transportation: Glenmont Metro is about a mile away from the entrance to Brookside Gardens and the playground entrance. There are bus routes that can get you even closer.

To the Brookside entrance (#2 on the park map): Catch Ride On bus 10 or Metrobus C8 -- they will take you to the intersection of Randolph Road and Heurich Road, about .2 miles from the Brookside entrance.

To the playground entrance (#1 on the park map): Glenmont Metro station is about a mile away. You can catch Metrobus Y8/9 to the intersection of Georgia and Shorefield, about .3 miles from the park entrance.

If you're going on a weekday, you can also catch a bus that will leave you on the eastern edge of the park. You want Ride On bus 31, which runs between Glenmont and Wheaton. It has stops along Kemp Mill Road at Randolph Road (near the horse stables, #5 on the park map) and also at Kemp Mill Forest Road (not shown on the map).

Brookside Nature Center     Wheaton Regional Park
1400 Glenallan Ave.      2000 Shorefield Road
Wheaton, MD 20902      Wheaton, MD 20902
301-962-1480     301-680-3803

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer's website.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Natural Happenings: Learn About Winter Trees, and Taste Them

winter tree
There are three, count them, THREE, winter tree identification workshops on our calendar this week. It was enough to get me to check when Arbor Day is! (Not until April.)

On Saturday morning, Cris Fleming will lead a tree ID workshop at the Audubon Naturalist Society's Woodend Sanctuary ($28-$39; registration required).

At 1:00 on Saturday, Karyn Molines is leading one at Jug Bay for the Maryland Native Plant Society. (Free - register by Friday).

And also at 1:00 on Saturday, Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author of a book about DC's trees, is leading a winter tree tour on the grounds of the US Capitol for the US Botanic Garden ($8 for non-members; registration required).

You can't go wrong with any one of these walks -- all three trip leaders are experts and super-nice people as well.

On Sunday, there's an event for ages 6 to 8 at Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington, called "Trees are Tree-mendous!" It looks like this session will include a little winter tree identification as well as learning about the importance of trees.

And then, there are the maples. As we've mentioned before, this weekend is the Maple Sugar Festival at Wheaton Regional Park (11 to 3 on both Saturday and Sunday). They'll have someone there to explain the whole process and opportunities to taste both fresh sap and finished maple syrup, the latter ladled over little pancakes for your tasting pleasure. Weather permitting, they'll have a vat of sap boiling over the fire all weekend. It's all free.

Also getting in on the sugaring action: Meadowside Nature Center has sessions on Wednesday and Friday, and Brookside Nature Center has one on Friday.

And, as always, there are plenty more activities on our calendar. We'll see you out there!

Thursday, February 11, 2010


We were going to tell you about skunk cabbage this week, because we saw them blooming about this time last year. But even with their ability to generate their own heat, it may take a little while for them to melt their way through all this snow. (More on that later.)

Our world is transformed. What have you seen? Leave us your stories, or links to your pictures, in the comments section!


squirrel tracks in snow

street in the snow

wren eating walnut in the snow


Also see:
Our pictures from last week of the Northwest Branch in the snow.
Lists of sledding hills in the DC area: Washington Family;

All pictures by the Natural Capital. Click on any of them to go to the photo's page on Flickr.