Thursday, April 21, 2011

Shangri La

Local native plant aficionados know of a certain secret place along the C&O Canal that enchants lucky visitors with an unusual diversity of native plants. Some of the plants are rare to Maryland and prefer more northern climes. The gully where these plants grow rests between limestone cliffs facing the river, and due to the undulations of the Potomac, has a northern exposure, which makes for a chilly microclimate. One of the best times to visit is April through May, to see a breath-taking progression of spring woodland flowers, called ephemerals, for their short-lived and delicate nature. Here is what a friend and I saw on March 20.

The first photo is Bloodroot. One of the first spring ephemerals to appear. It's roots when crushed supply a bright red orange fluid and is said to have been used as body paint by Native Americans and as dye by early European immigrants. The bloom emerges clasped by fleshly leaves that protect it from the wind and cold of April until just the right moment when the sun is warm and the air still.

Dutchman's Breeches, so-called for the resemblance to voluminous pantaloons hanging upside down as if on a clothesline. These flowers are pollinated primarily by bumblebees, since some muscle and size is needed to push through the opening of the flower. The bees sometimes bite through the "ankles" of the breeches to obtain the nectar.

Shangri La boasts a variety of ferns including Christmas Fern, Maidenhair Fern, Blunt-lobed Woodsia, Bulbet Fern. One of the most marvelous is Walking Fern. The leaves of the fern are long and thin, extend out in a more or less radial fashion, and the tip of the leaf literally plants itself it a new spot, growing another fern. In this way, it 'walks" over the surface of the mossy rocks where it grows.

Adder's Tongue or Trout Lily. Not blooming yet, but there were hundreds, maybe even thousands of these leaves emerging. The common name refers to the spotted appearance and shape of the leaves. In a few weeks I will return to see drooping yellow lilies polka-dotting the forest floor.

Sedum, a dainty succulent.

More Walking Fern.

And finally, a newly revealed Mayapple. Its leaves unfurl like the canopy of an umbrella.

Salamander Nursery

These photos were taken on March 19, 2011 at an old pond situated in the woods at a nearby state park where I'm working as a seasonal naturalist. I have the pleasure of studying the different stages of nature as they occur in the various microclimates and habitats in the park. I had a hunch that salamanders might breed in this old pond as it functions quite like a vernal pool. Sure enough the pond was dotted with slimy globs embedded with black eggs. I wasn't sure if they were frogs or salamanders, but later I found that my photos matched the images of eggs laid by the Spotted Salamander. This is a common salamander, but one who could become endangered as its woodland habitat becomes scarcer due to development and as climate change makes vernal pools dry up.