Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Botanizing Weverton Cliffs

I am very fortunate to live close to the Appalachian Trail.  One of the nearby highlights is Weverton cliffs.  At  about 850 ft elevation they stand over 500 ft above the Potomac River and provide beautiful views toward Short Hill Mountain in Virginia to the south and west.  I took the easy way and parked at the trailhead in Weverton so the climb was only about 400 ft.  The hill side was heavily forested and there were not many long views until you make it to the actual cliffs so I focused on trying to recognize the variety of plants along the trail.
View from Weverton cliffs to the southwest overlooking the Potomac river.  At the far right is the Shenandoah river.

Most of the lower slopes are moist with rich soil. As you climb the soil gets rockier and drier.  This is reflected in the type of vegetation you see along the zig-zag trail.  Being mid-July there were not a lot of flowers in bloom.  On the way up I passed by patches of bellwort, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and false Solomon's seal.  There were also a surprising variety of ferns, a few I figured out and some that remain a mystery to me.

There were many clumps of lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) along the way.  One of the first ferns I need to look up was a Massachusetts fern (Thelypteris simulata).  One ID clue is that the blade is broadest in the center and slightly taperd at the base.  The other fern here was harder to ID.  I think it is mountain woodsia (Woodia scopulina).    
A Massachusetts fern (right) and possibly mountain woodsia (left) growing next to the trail.
Here is the back side of what I believed to be a Woodsia.  
On further checking and finding more of these I'm pretty 
sure that this is log fern, Dryopteris celsa.
I would need to go back with a fern ID book in hand to be more certain about this one.  (I would appreciate any help on figuring this one out.)

In some of the sunnier openings there were large masses of a coarse leafy plant.  It looked like an invasive species the way it monopolized the space.  Each large leaf was divided into 5 coarse lobes and the flowers  had no petals to speak of, though there were 5 green sepals around each one.  I was able to key this out as Small-flowered leafcup, Polymnia canadensis, a woodland native found in much of the East and Mid-West.
The small-flowered leaf cup appear to have no petals on the flowers.
It may have been a little early as the buds were just opening up.

 As I approached the top of the ridge the soil became thinner and rockier.  The plant population began to change in response.  I noticed some ericaceous plants like low bush blueberries and mountain laurel.  At the top of cliffs the dominant tree is the Table Mountain Pine (Pinus pungens).  This is a two-needle pine with short, slightly twisty needles.  This Appalachian native is a beautiful, sculptural tree.  Its twisted form is enhanced by the weather at the top of the ridge.  Although, I have seen one in a protected location that shared some of this sculptural character.

Table Mountain Pine is adapted for growing in thin, rocky acidic soils.

One of my favorite plants is the native annual false pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides).  I was pleased to find some growing up at the top of the cliffs.  It is often found in disturbed areas, such as along paths, where you can pick out its intense sharply minty scent when it is disturbed.
False pennyroyal, a member of the mint family,
has opposite leaves and an intense smell when touched.

I didn't think I would find anything new on the way back down, but I was wrong.  The change in perspective revealed almost as many new plants as on the way up.  The first one I noticed was narrow-leaved Houstonia (Houstonia tenuifolia).  What I noticed were the bright little flowers seemingly floating in space.  The leaves are so narrow you could easily miss seeing them.
Narrow-leaved Houstonia has white to pale lavender flowers.
The broad leaves on the ground belong to a different plant.

Another plant that revealed itself on the way down was fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata). The most noticeable flowers were on a long panicle held above the foliage.  
Each of the yellow flowers were nodding, defying an easy photo op.

Back at the trail head I continued on toward the river to see what was growing in this more 'civilized' environment.  There were many more non-native and invasive species like Japanese stilt grass, tree of heaven and rose of Sharon.  Mixed in were a some native species.  On a large rock near the US 340 underpass was a large patch of common polypody (Polypodium virginianum).
Common polypody is an evergreen fern commonly found growing on rocks,
particularly in shaded, north-facing areas.

Since my first vist there was so productive, I will make a point of going back in a couple of months to see how it has changed.  I'm pretty sure I saw a number of goldenrods and asters.  these are hard to distinguish when not in bloom.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Green Milkweed

I've been planting more milkweeds (Asclepias sp,) around our property with mixed success.  Butterfly milkweed, A. tuberosa, has done well and looks great with its showy orange flowers.  Swamp or rose milkweed, A. incarnata, has had trouble.  My deer, for some reason, seen to like to eat up the young plants I put in.  I've resorted to putting wire cages around them so the have a change to get established.  On the wild side we have a small patch of common milkweed, A. syriaca, which are ignored by the deer and doing quite well.

The other day while mowing I was surprised to find a different species of milkweed.  Not as tall as common milkweed and with drooping green flower clusters, I was sure this was something new (to me).

Green milkweed is noted for it's thick oval leaves and
green nodding flower clusters that hang from the leaf axils.

I checked a couple of guide books and am pretty sure what I found is Green Milkweed, A. viridiflora.  This is a fairly common species, usually found in dry lightly shaded locations, including roadsides, prairies and clearings.  My plant is near the edge of a wooded are, mostly in the open with average moisture soil.

While not showy for us, it does attract pollinators, particularly bees to its sweetly scented flowers and it does provide food for the monarch butterfly caterpillars.  So far I've only seen this one, but I'm watching for more.