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My Favorite Local Wild Areas in Spring

Carex jamesii on the floodplain slope. See the Common Hackberry trunk?

Photo: Carex jamesii on the floodplain slope. See the Common Hackberry trunk?

This has been an exceptionally brilliant spring. With cool temperature and frequent rains, our native early Carex species and ephemerals bloomed profusely. One of my favorite sites of spring is this floodplain forest near Manassas. The forest is known for calcareous and mafic rocks, and the slopes on the above photo host many attractive native plants.

On top, Witch Hazel and Maple-Leaf viburnum dominate the forest. Closer to the ground, Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum). What really interests me is the kind of vegetation on the slope. The slope is sparsely vegetated, almost always moist with thin moss visible throughout the year. The ground covers are mostly Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis) and Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia). In late April and early May, the yellow bloom of Rattlesnake Hawkweed (Hieracium venosum) steals the show. It's fun also to find American Almroot (Heuchera americana) and Lyre-leaved Sage (Salvia lyrata). The real joy to spot is, however, this unassuming and yet gorgeous Wild Pink (Silene caroliniana). It is almost always found hanging precariously on the rocky slope, and once the flower is done, it becomes practically invisible.

Further down following small streams, vegetation gets lush with Star Sedges (Carex rosea and Carex radiata) and with dignified Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) holding firm. I walk on the ever-so-resilient Path Rush (Juncus tenuis) right on the path, noting for the first time that even among Japanese Honeysuckle our native perennial vine, Yellow Passionflower (Passiflora lutea) tries to take hold. I have never seen Solomon's Seal, Solomon's Flume, and Bellwort (Uvularia spp.) so exuberant like this year. So are Krigia dandelion!

I keep walking slightly upward towards the bigger slope facing the large stream. The entire slope is lush with beautiful James's Sedge (Carex jamesii) dotted with Wood Phlox (Phlox divaricata) and Virginia Wildrye and Fowl Manna Grass (Glyceria striata). Then down on the floodplain near the stream banks, the ubiquitous Virginia Bluebells, flower already gone, just lanky yellow stems.

These individual plants are not anything remarkable by themselves on their own, but together in their own plant community like this, the whole place shines. The plant community as a single coherent unit tells a deep historical story about the formation of the forest. If we lose the habitats like this, we will render all these individual plants as homeless and rootless. The reason that I go back to the same habitats again and again for two decades is somehow I want to witness and protect them. As if by watching them somehow ensures their security.

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Banner: Late October in a mixed stand of hickories, oaks, and American beech at Fountainhead Regional Park, on the northern shore of the Occoquan River, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Chris Bright. 

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