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!

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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.