Where Have All The Monarchs Gone?


Come to Hidden Oaks to watch the amazing growth of recently hatched monarch caterpillars.

Monarchs munching milkweed at Hidden Oaks

Monarchs munching milkweed at Hidden Oaks

The caterpillars are approximately 3-5 days old and range in size from .25 to .50 inches. They are feasting on native common milkweed leaves and are on public display at the front desk. As they mature they will be in a six foot tent in the classroom.

We are too early in summer for monarchs to be developing from eggs laid on our milkweeds. These caterpillars were purchased from Monarch Watch. These caterpillars are in their first of five instars. For each instar, the caterpillar molts, and usually eats the molted layer. Caterpillars, as in all insects, have their skeletons on the outside. These caterpillars will each eat about eighteen inches of milkweed over two weeks and then will metamorphose into a chrysalis. After about ten days a monarch butterfly will emerge and within a day be ready to fly.

Encourage monarchs to visit your yard, office or school by planting native milkweeds. To find out more about the challenges monarch butterflies are facing go to http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/resource-management/monarch-butterflies.htm

You can be part of the solution! Ask at the front desk at Hidden Oaks Nature Center for your complimentary native swamp milkweed seed packet. www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/hidden-oaks


What you plant makes a big difference

Revel in a flower’s color and shape or in the twitter and flight of birds. at beauty of sight and sound in our gardens depends on something very small.

Insects. Bugs that move pollen from plant to plant.

Asclepias tuberosaThe common milkweed boasts the largest leaves, but other species may be more welcome in your garden. The common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, grows into a gangly, five foot stalk. The more compact swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnate, tops out at 2-4 feet and displays crowns of rosy purple flowers. The commonly-known butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is even smaller at the mature height of 1-3 feet. Thomas Jefferson favored this species, which sports orange or yellow flowers, for Monticello’s garden. All these native species support monarch butterflies, but the larger plants display more surface area for the caterpillars.


One of those insects is in trouble. The population of the monarch butterfly, an insect that is itself a work of art, is in steep decline because there aren’t enough of the right plants growing in the right places.

Many butterflies can sip nectar from a variety of flowers, and their caterpillars happily munch different plants; not so with the monarch butterfly. This iconic black and orange beauty is monophagus — as a caterpillar, the larvae can eat only milkweed. That means the female monarch has to find milkweed leaves on which to deposit her eggs. No milkweed, no monarchs.

And it takes a village full of milkweed. A monarch can lay about 700 eggs over a few weeks, but each caterpillar needs more than six inches of plant to develop properly. That’s 350 feet of plant growth needed for a single butterfly’s egg-laying efforts.

That much milkweed isn’t out there anymore. Unfortunately, many gardeners consider milkweeds mere “weeds” unfit for a proper garden.

What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fortune of the Republic, 1878

This is where you come in.

The main reason for the decline of the monarch butterfly is loss of habitat. You can make a natural difference by just planting milkweed seeds, and the Fairfax County Park Authority is working with conservation groups to make that easy for you. This spring, these park sites will be distributing free swamp milkweed seeds to visitors on request while supplies last:

Directions: Place your seeds in moist paper towels and refrigerate for four weeks. Check the bag regularly for signs of sprouting. Plant the newly-spouted seeds under ¼-inch of soil in full sun and water regularly. The milkweed should mature to its full size within a few years. It is well-behaved since it does not spread as dramatically as common milkweed.

MonarchThere are 110 species of milkweed native to North America, however relatively few are native to Fairfax County. The name implies milk, but it actually derives from the leaves’ latex sap, which is distasteful to other animals because it contains toxic cardiac glycosides, compounds that can interfere with the workings of the heart. Monarchs store this compound in their wings and exoskeletons, which makes the insect noxious to predators.

Once established, milkweed can spread through its roots as well as seeds while sporting surprisingly beautiful flowers of orange, purple, pink or white that attract many other pollinators.

If you plant milkweed or butterfly weed, native pollinators will join the monarch butterflies in thanking you for protecting the monarch migration phenomenon across the eastern United States.

There’s more information on monarch butterflies on the Park Authority website

Author Suzanne Holland is the Visitor Services Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, Va.





One Perspective: The Personal Benefits of Volunteer Service

Olivia Richardson Author Olivia Richardson is a Youth Volunteer at Sully Historic Site. She will be attending Princeton University in fall 2015, and she used her volunteer experience at Sully as part of her university application process. 

Princeton requests that applicants write an essay of about 500 words constructed around a theme selected from a list the school suggests to the applicant. Using the theme as a starting point, the applicant is instructed to “write about a person, event, or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world.” This is the theme Olivia selected:

“’Princeton in the Nation’s Service’ was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.”

The Park Authority is grateful to Olivia for sharing her application essay with us.

I was taught about service by my parents, who both strongly believe in the value of giving your time to a cause. Both came from humble beginnings, and they have always instilled in me a sense of compassion, a strong work ethic, and a sense of responsibility to my community. More importantly, they taught me through example the power of service and the impact I can have through small acts. But an old historic house represents a place where I learned first-hand the importance of giving back to my community.

I first started volunteering when I was nine, teaching 18th century games to young children at Sully Historic Site, a historic house museum in Fairfax County, Virginia. I was awkward, shy, timid, and above all, completely unsure of myself. Uncomfortable period dress made me stand out when I was so used to blending in. But the excitement I saw when other children learned about a new game or activity made it worthwhile. It was during this time that I realized how much service truly meant to me, and I was determined to serve in any way possible.

An opportunity arose a couple years later to interpret slave life at the museum. The damp slave quarter was very different from the warm fields I was used to, and I seemed to be the only young person talking about slave life at Sully. I spent many hours memorizing my information, which opened my eyes to the importance of telling the story of the enslaved. I was giving a voice to the slaves who had been neglected because it is a history that is uncomfortable and difficult for some people. I then took it upon myself to educate as many people as I could on the subject. Sometimes the slave quarter would become packed with adults, nerve-racking but exciting at the same time. I became more comfortable with talking in front of crowds as I realized that presenting was a skill that came naturally to me. Slave interpretation led to the opportunity to learn and teach visitors about slave medicine. After receiving a few new packets of information, I got straight to work, reading up on all of these fascinating medical procedures. I was hooked.

My presentation on slave medicine went so well I was able to do more programs about home remedies and general historical medical interpretation. My presentation went from being about a minute with assistance, to full-fledged discussions where I led a section of the program, something I would have previously never thought possible. I became more confident in my ability to teach, and my 18th century clothes were becoming a lot more comfortable. No longer was I a timid, shy person, rather a strong, confident historical interpreter.

Even as I served long hours, Sully gave me so much more than I could ever give. I was able to learn how to speak in public, with people of all ages and backgrounds. Where I used to be timid, I would actively go up to people and engage them. I was able to share my love of history and medicine, and I started to carry myself better. With my newfound self-confidence, I found myself succeeding more in school, becoming more confident in my academic abilities and able to take on more leadership roles.

Sully for me has been a place where I could grow and become a more confident young adult. Many of my hours have gone undocumented, because I wanted to give without receiving anything in return. I enjoyed that experience so much I found myself helping others in many other ways, from tutoring to mission work through my church. Service for me has become something that I do every day, almost without realizing it. Service can be volunteering at a 1794 historic site, but it can also be simply extending a hand to someone who needs it that day.


Sully Historic Site, located at 3650 Historic Sully Way,  Chantilly, Virginia,  is the 1794 home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first representative to Congress. 

National Kids to Parks Day: K2PD is May 16

IMHO, PPL, YOLO, so avoid FOMO and enjoy K2PD! *

Kids to Parks DayBy now you know. We don’t have to cite the numerous studies and the statistics. Kids need more time outdoors.

Okay, parents, here’s your call to action. Thousands of folks are committing to head outdoors on May 16, Kids to Parks Day (K2PD). The Fairfax County Park Authority will have a weekend full of family events then, and if you make an online pledge to head out that day, you might have a chance to win a Nikon COOLPIX L830 camera from the National Park Trust.

There are a couple of ways to find out what’s going on in local parks that weekend. Fairfax County Park Authority activities are listed on the K2PD website and in the FCPA Calendar. Either spot will get you where you need to be.

Here’s a start – 10 things to do in the parks on May 15-16-17:

There are also 12 county parks with fishing, 59 with tennis courts, 125 with bike trails, 238 with hiking trails, 130 with picnic facilities, 165 with playgrounds, eight golf courses, five nature centers, four skate parks, three boating facilities, two campgrounds, and a screech owl in an oak tree.

See you in a park on May 16.

* It means: In my humble opinion, people, you only live once, so avoid fear of missing out and enjoy Kids To Parks Day. If you knew this, you probably need less time on social media and more in a park.

Stewardship of Vernal Pools

Anybody ever say to you, “Look, but don’t touch?”

A lot of Fairfax County Park Authority programs are look-and-touch programs, but there are times that the no-touch guideline is critical.

There’s a new wayside information sign at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) with information on it about salamanders and frogs. The sign, along the south side of the gas line that runs through the north end of the park, includes life-size photos of salamanders and frogs and QR codes that link to frog calls.

ECLP has been working closely with the Virginia Herpetological Society (VHS) to design and install the sign, which also has information about the best ways to interact with vernal pools and to protect those pools.

So, what’s a vernal pool, and what do they have to do with signs about frogs and salamanders and the no-touch guideline?

Vernal pools are temporary puddles and ponds of water that are large in the spring and dry later in the year. When the water is there, they teem with life. Spotted salamanders, wood frogs, American and fowler toads breed in them. There are also small insects – dragonfly larvae, water bugs, fairy shrimp and plants. Because there’s so much going on in these pools, protection of them is part of good natural resource stewardship.

ECLP Naturalist and Historian Tony Bulmer has monitored vernal pools for the past 14 years. “The best way for the public to interact with vernal pools is to stay out of them,” Bulmer said. “If they sit quietly and just watch, they will see frogs, tadpoles and salamander larvae.”

That’s the “look” part of “look but don’t touch.” Everything is working as it should.

“Many people think they are doing a good thing by catching tadpoles and relocating them,” Bulmer said. “They are afraid the pool is going to dry up. But relocating them can hurt the tadpoles, especially if they are relocated to an area that has fish.” This has been an issue in large parks like Burke Lake and unstaffed parks, where people have removed tadpoles and salamanders and taken them home. Remember, removing anything from a park violates park rules and can impact the park’s natural resources.

Bulmer says people sometimes move tadpoles to deeper water that may have pollution that the human eye cannot detect. That’s why he suggests sitting quietly and watching the magic of the vernal pools. If that desire to help is overwhelming, volunteer to be an egg mass counter or sign up for park programs about amphibians.

Habitats like vernal pools are avenues to learning about amphibians living in our forests. So are signs like the one at ECLP that grew out of the partnership between VHS and the Park Authority. It’s a terrific partnership, and VHS is an information source for FCPA employees on the front lines of stewardship in the parks. The VHS website can be a go-to place for information about reptiles and amphibians.

There’s more information online about Ellanor C. Lawrence Park and the Virginia Herpetological Society, and the Park Authority has a video on the Hidden Pond web page about frogs and their calls.


Cracked Shaft Stops Grinding Temporarily At Colvin Run Mill

Update:  April 20, 2015


The official grand re-opening of the mill was held on April 19, 2015, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that took place next to the mill while corn was being ground.

Colvin Run Mill is Grinding Again

Site Manager Mike Henry says visitors often ask why it took nine years, 1802-1811, to build the massive mill that still grinds today at Colvin Run Historic Site. He’s quick to answer that it took us over 40 years to reconstruct it.

Colvin Run Mill today is as close to its historic origins as it has ever been.

The broken shaft discovered last year has been replaced. The final phase of reconstruction, which started in 2014, is complete. And this marvel of history is grinding once again.

The official grand re-opening of the mill was held on April 19, 2015, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that took place next to the mill while corn was being ground. The long-planned restoration is complete, and Colvin Run Mill is ready to run at full capacity for the first time in decades.

Colvin Run is part of a rare group of historic sites. Normally a visitor to a historic site looks and sees what was there. But at Colvin Run Mill, you can experience the exact same smells, sounds and sights that people of 200 years ago experienced. This was American industry and American life in the 1800s.

Colvin Run Mill is at 10017 Colvin Run Road in Great Falls, Va.

Grinding takes place at the mill from noon to 3 p.m. on the first and third Sundays of each month, April through October.



UPDATE: February 6, 2015

A new main shaft was delivered to Colvin Run Mill Historic Site.

A new main shaft was delivered to Colvin Run Mill Historic Site.

It is a beautiful piece of wood. Colvin Run Mill Site Manager Mike Henry says the white oak that arrived at the park on Feb. 3 is perfectly straight and doesn’t have a knot in it.

The tree was felled in New York State during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. It’s finding a second life as a main shaft at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. It will create its place in history this spring, and site staffers hope to have the mill grinding again in April.

The replacement was needed after Miller Mason Maddox found a crack in the old shaft during a routine inspection. When the old shaft was removed, Henry said staff learned that wood rot fungus had taken hold where moisture had penetrated the wood, so the crack was a timely discovery in a shaft that had limited life remaining.

Henry said the new shaft will be kept under wraps and out of the weather while given time to acclimatize to its environment. Millwright Ben Hassett has braced the mill’s water wheel, and removed and supported the greater face gear in the gear pit. Metal gudgeons will attached to the ends of the new shaft, and metal bands will wrap around the shaft to keep the gudgeons in place.

Fingers are crossed, but the massive project that began last year at the mill is still on track for a scheduled April 19, 2015, gathering to celebrate the completion of a long-planned restoration that will have the mill running at full capacity.

Broken Shaft


The staff at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site was hosting a lunch for its volunteers and was planning to unleash its waters for a spin of the big wheel and the grinding of some flour when miller Mason Maddox delivered the bad news. He’d found a crack in the axle of the mill’s main water wheel.

The water wheel can’t spin on a cracked shaft, which leaves no way to capture any power from the water flowing through the millrace. Tours and interpretation continue at the mill, and a smaller system at the historic site can be used to grind flour for sale, but there will be no grinding with the mill’s big stones for several months.

The 6,000-pound shaft that cracked was made from the trunk of a single white oak tree and was installed as part of an update at the mill in 2001 when the existing water wheel was built. Its demise was not unexpected. Although some last longer, the lifespan of woodwork like this is typically 10-to-15 years, and it’s been 12 years since this wheel was installed. In addition, the wood had a fungus growing on it, and it had become infested with woodborer beetles.

There’s work ahead to determine how long the mill will be sidelined. The water wheel will be disengaged and the broken shaft removed. Colvin Run’s Assistant Site Administrator Ann Korzeniewski says that, in a perfect world, a new shaft simply would be slid in place, although that’s not a simple operation. In addition, the spokes and the wheel were also installed in 2001, and those spokes are attached to the bug-infested axle that broke.   Until all the parts are removed and analyzed, staff won’t know how much of the mechanism will need to be replaced.

The Park Authority is researching options for funding the project, estimated to cost approximately $83,000. There may be limited funding available because the current restoration that is taking place at the mill appears to be coming in under budget.

There is good news in the midst of the problem. Because millwright Ben Hassett is already working on a restoration project at the mill, arranging a time for B.E. Hassett-Millwrights, Inc. to take on the new project may be just a matter of adding time to the current project. Pending any further setbacks, replacement of the cracked shaft would likely take about 75-90 days. In addition, there is another white oak tree trunk immediately available at a lumber yard. That alone will save a year of time finding a suitable tree, felling it and curing the wood.

The restoration project to restore the second grinding stone at the mill, already well under way, will continue. That project will allow the mill to run at full capacity for the first time in decades, however that new installation cannot be tested until the water wheel shaft is replaced and the big wheel is turning again.

Colvin Run Mill Site Manager Mike Henry says “There are a lot of wild cards in this mix,” but he is hopeful that with a little luck the historic site still will be able to hold its planned April 19, 2015 ceremony to celebrate the completion of a long-planned restoration that will have the mill running at full capacity.

October 19, 2014 is Friends of Colvin Run Mill Day at Colvin Run Historic Site. Any visitors at the mill that day who sign up to join the Friends group will receive a free Four Floor tour – a rare chance to see the entire mill, including areas not usually open to the public.

To help fund the mill restoration and repairs, contact the Fairfax County Park Foundation at 703-324-8582 or email.

Author David Ochs is the manager of stewardship communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Digging Old Colchester Park and Preserve

There’s a group of people who, in recent years, have dug up facts about Fairfax County history. Check out this summary of what Fairfax County archaeologists and volunteers have found at Old Colchester Park and Preserve.

image001Old Colchester Park and Preserve is in southern Fairfax County. The Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) acquired the 150-acre wooded area in 2006. It’s a strategic location near the junction of the Occoquan and Potomac Rivers and along the main land route travelers used when passing through early Virginia. That location makes this area rich with history.

Archaeological investigations completed by the FCPA’s Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) at Old Colchester Park during 2013 uncovered a stone foundation and a multitude of artifacts which date to the later part of the 18th century. The park soon will have walking trails with informational panels about the various natural and cultural resources that are there.

CART has a blog for weekly informational posts about Old Colchester Park artifacts, archaeology happenings and lab processing.

Colchester was established in 1753. It was a small shipping town which moved tobacco and other goods from farms further upriver to markets along the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. There’s a 3-D model of what Colchester looked like around 1820 that illustrates the area’s structures such as barns, houses, warehouses and ordinaries. You can see it through a virtual tour online.

Blacksmiths, coopers, sailors, a vintner and tobacco inspectors lived and worked in the town during its heyday, but moved away by the 1840s when the port silted in and trade became more difficult.


Click on the photo to take a 3-D, virtual tour of Old Colchester.

image005During the Revolutionary War, French General Jean Baptiste de Rochambeau passed through the area of Colchester in 1781 and 1782, crossing the Occoquan River and passing through the town of Colchester. His map notes the Occoquan River and Colchester along with a camp north of the town. The map contains no scale, but structures were noted along the intersection of Furnace Road and Old Colchester Road. The town of Colchester was well established by the last quarter of the 18th century, so the buildings could represent homes and other structures, which Rochambeau drew to mark the busy port town.

The nearby Enyedi property is a 1.45 acre tract of land on the north side of Old Colchester Road near the intersection of Old Colchester Road and Furnace Road. The Park Authority acquired it in 2012. Located on this property are a large metal barn, a house, and a small shed. The core of the house dates to the 1870s, and it was built by a family named Clark. Archaeologists recovered various artifacts and 18th century concentrations of artifacts near the house and near the intersection of Furnace Road and Old Colchester Road.

image007In a place like Old Colchester Park or on the Enyedi property, archaeologists explore small sample areas in great detail. For example, they excavate a one-meter-by-one-meter area on hands and knees with the smallest of tools. When full meter-by-meter test units were opened in the Enyedi property, they discovered a stone wall. Each layer of the fill near the stone wall contained mortar, slate, window glass and brick fragments that indicated the material that was used to build the structure. The bottom of the feature fill was about a meter below the ground surface and exposed a charred structural timber there along with the stone wall. That led interpreters to note that this structure at the corner of Furnace Road and Old Colchester Road is similar to a structure still standing which was built as an ordinary for the Town of Colchester.

Wrought nails, glass and ceramics, including creamware, pearlware, tin glaze and agateware, were the majority of the artifacts recovered, and the deposit was dated to the 18th century. A large metal hinge was recovered near the bottom of the feature fill. This hinge is over a meter long and contained six hand wrought nails, some of them clinched at the end. A hinge of this size would be used for large doors like a barn door or, possibly, a large cellar door to a bulk head entrance.


Artifacts of bone, ceramics, glass, and nails recovered during CART excavations in 2012.

This is where archaeologists put their discoveries in perspective and become interpreters. They have a map of the area from 1782 with a stone foundation marked on it. That foundation was capped and filled with layers which date to the late 18th or early 19th century. The foundation’s building was erected alongside a colonial port town with the same foundation construction as a standing historic building. All of this leads to the conclusion that the stone wall is associated with another domestic dwelling that was used about 1753 to 1840. More information about the function and full size of the structure will need future archaeological research, as only two meters were exposed during a 2012 excavation by CART. A small excavation under the pines, at the intersection of Old Colchester Road and Furnace Road, has answered some questions and, of course, raised more questions about the historic happenings within southern colonial Fairfax County.

Author Megan Veness is the Field Director for the Colchester Archaeological Research Team working at Old Colchester Park and Preserve.


Bluebell Watch Returns at Riverbend Park

Update:  April 8, 2015

image001Blue is the color of April at Riverbend Park. The Virginia Bluebells are bursting into bloom and the Eastern Bluebirds are busy checking out nest boxes as they search for a good nesting site. On Saturday April 4 only a few bluebell plants were flowering, but as the warmer weather continues more and more are beginning to open. By April 8 approximately 20% were in bloom. Before they open the flower buds are a pinkish blue. Once the flowers are fully open they are a beautiful light blue, and as they fade after pollination they may turn slightly pink again. Look closely and you may see some pink or white flowers amidst the mass of blue. As the warmer weather continues look for bumblebees visiting the flowers and hanging upside down under the blooms or hovering nearby as they insert their long “tongue”, or proboscis, into the blossom in search of nectar and pollen. Bumblebees are popular pollinators in the spring ephemeral world, in part because they can be found flying at temperatures as low as 41 degrees which makes them ideal pollinators for these early spring bloomers. The bumblebee also benefits by collecting pollen and nectar with which to stock her new nest.

The new leaves are beginning to turn green as they develop

New leaves are beginning to turn green as they develop

Virginia Bluebells in bloom along the floodplain

Other spring ephemerals are also beginning to put on a show. Spring Beauties are springing up everywhere, on the floodplain and woodland banks alike. The showy but fragile Bloodroot (Sanguinaria candensis) is making an appearance on some of the drier parts of the Potomac Heritage Trail. These lovely plants have a single leaf which clasps the stem and which persists long after the flower has vanished, increasing in size for many weeks as it produces food for winter storage in the underground rhizome. The many petaled flowers are very striking but are also subject to changes in the weather. A heavy rain or wind storm will see the end of these flowers and so they must be pollinated and set seed as soon as possible.

Bloodroot flower

Bloodroot leaf

Like many of our native wildflowers Bloodroot seeds are dispersed by ants which are attracted to a small fat body – the Eliasome – that is attached to the seed. The ants carry off the seed to their nest, where they eat the eliasome and discard the seed in or around the colony, where it is free to germinate in the rich ground.

And let’s not forget the Eastern Bluebirds (Sialis sialis) busily prospecting for desirable spring residences, zipping around in their smart blue and red spring plumage. Check out some of our many nest boxes near the Visitor Center and in the Meadow and you may see a Bluebird sitting on top of the box scanning for insects.

Bluebirds are quite sociable little birds and can often be seen on top of the boxes near the picnic areas. They prefer boxes that face an open meadow or green space, where they can easily see their insect prey. Last year one bird even took a fancy to the wing mirror of one of our naturalists’ cars and spent many happy hours perched there surveying the parking lot. Riverbend Park’s Bluebird boxes are monitored throughout the summer by volunteer monitors, and this is a fun way to learn more about these and some of our other cavity nesting birds such as Chickadees and Tree Swallows.

Eastern Bluebird in spring plumage

Bluebird perched on car wing mirror

If you are interested in becoming a Bluebird box monitor contact Marijke Gate at Riverbend Park at 703-7598-9018.

For more information on these or any of our spring activities call 703-759-9018 or view our website at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/riverbend

Check back for regular updates on the Bluebells’ progress.

Marijke Gate, Naturalist at Riverbend Park


Update:  March 30, 2015

The Bluebells Make Their Debut

Virginia Bluebells are coming up everywhere along the banks of the Potomac. On March 15 we saw the emergence of the first purple leaves through the sand and dead leaves littering the floodplain. The deep purple color rapidly turns to green as the leaves develop. Just one week later the first buds were spotted, protected by the new leaves, and schoolchildren on a field trip were excitedly pointing out the hundreds of plants dotting the bare winter earth. Soon the plants will cover the ground with their large green leaves and the buds will blossom into beautiful blue flowers. Although called Bluebells they are not related to the bluebells of the English countryside, or the harebells of Scotland. Members of the Borage family, they are also known as the Virginia Cowslip. The drooping nature of the flowers helps to protect the pollen and nectar on rainy days.


 The tiny purple shoots that emerge from the soil soon become greenish leaves

Within days the first flower buds can be seen

Within days the first flower buds can be seen

The Bluebells are accompanied by the bright green shoots of Ramps or the Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum). These can be easily identified by breaking off a piece of the leaf and sniffing. It has a very pungent onion smell and is a great favorite as a spring food. All parts of the plant can be used like garlic or onion, and there are hundreds of Ramps recipes. There are even Ramps festivals in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. The word Ramps is thought to come from the old English word ransom. Ramps are unusual in that the leaves develop during the spring and form large clumps, and then die back in early summer. The white, onion-like flowers then appear in June and July.



Ramps leaves form large clumps in spring before dying back and giving way to the white flowers produced in summer.

Spring has come late this year, and the first wildflower blooms were only seen in late March with the appearance of the tiny flowers of Harbinger of Spring (Erigenia bulbosa). This tiny plant is one of our earliest spring bloomers and can only be spotted by careful examination of the leaf litter in drier areas of the river bank. Once you have seen one you will be able to see hundreds of the plants with their five tiny white petals, deep red stamens and deep green, divided leaves. Like many of our native spring ephemerals, such as Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), the Harbinger of Spring develops from a small underground bulb or corm. The corm and other parts of the plant were once chewed to alleviate toothache.

Spring Beauty, aka Fairy Spuds, a common companion plant to both Virginia Bluebells and Harbinger of Spring, is also becoming visible along the floodplain. The small white or pink flower is open on sunny days but closes when it’s shady or when it rains. This helps to protect the pollen and nectar for the small flies and other early insects that help to pollinate the plants. Look for the small, grass-like leaves of the Spring Beauty scattered throughout the floodplain and the nearby woodland areas. In a few weeks you will be able to see large swaths of Spring Beauty carpeting the banks of the Potomac. The corms would be dug up and roasted to provide a spring treat for Native Americans.

Harbinger of Spring

Harbinger of Spring

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty

The Potomac River is also showing signs of spring. The air is filled with the call of Ring-Billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) as they float down the river and then fly back upstream, snapping up the Stoneflies that are emerging from the water in massive numbers. Pairs of Common Merganser (Mergus merganser), strikingly beautiful fish-eating ducks, are beginning their courtship in preparation for nesting, and perky little Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are still dashing about the river in search of food before heading north to their breeding grounds. Spring warblers will be moving in any day and Eastern Bluebirds are prospecting nest boxes to complete nature’s buffet that is Riverbend Park in the spring.

Don’t forget to join us on Saturday April 11, 2015, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for our third annual Bluebell Festival. Come celebrate the return of the Bluebells and the arrival of spring with activities for all the family including wildflower walks, face painting, live animals, wagon rides, live music and other family fun activities.

Naturalist led Spring Wildflower Walks at Riverbend Park on April 4 and Scotts Run Nature Preserve on April 23 are a great way to get to know these lovely spring flowers and discover the folklore associated with them.

For more information on these or any of our spring activities call 703-759-9018 or view our website at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/riverbend

Check back for regular updates on the Bluebells’ progress.

Written by Marijke Gate, Naturalist at Riverbend Park






The Bluebells are coming. There’s still some snow on the ground and the wind chills have been at record levels, so it may seem strange to be thinking about Bluebells, but spring will soon be upon us despite the dire predictions of the groundhog. Our spring ephemerals are getting ready to put on their annual show and in a few weeks the floodplains of Riverbend Park will be carpeted in blue as the Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) reach their peak. They are already preparing to send their early purple shoots up into the light, along with the many other species of native spring wildflowers that grace the banks of the Potomac River. The rich floodplain soils are host to numerous wildflower species, such as Spring Beauty, Bloodroot and Trout Lily, that take advantage of the early spring sunlight that falls to the forest floor before the trees have fully leafed out.

The Virginia Bluebell, also known as the Oysterleaf (for the faint taste of oysters released by chewing the mature leaves) and the Lungwort (for its supposed efficacy in treating lung ailments), produces masses of drooping blue flowers for several weeks in the spring.

Flower buds of the Red Maple tree primed for blooming

Flower buds of the Red Maple tree primed for blooming

The plant thrives in the moist soil of the floodplain and is one our most showy spring blooms. Unlike the Cherry blossoms, peak Bluebell blooming can be difficult to predict so watch this space for regular updates on the plants’ progress.

While waiting for the Bluebells to appear take a walk along the trails of Riverbend Park and you will find some early signs of spring. Look up to see the flower buds of the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) ready to burst into bloom on the next warm day.

Look down as you walk along a stream or creek and you may find signs of our earliest wildflower, the Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetida), as it pushes its brownish-purple spathe through the snow and ice.

Skunk cabbage (break off one of its leaves later in the season and you will understand why it is so named) generates enough heat to penetrate the frozen winter earth. Look inside the pod-like spathe and you will see the small yellow flowers carried on the spadix, ready to be pollinated by the flies that are attracted by the plant’s foul smell.

Skunk cabbage emerges through the ice and snow of winter

Skunk cabbage emerges through the ice and snow of winter

The pod-like spathe of the Skunk cabbage

The pod-like spathe of the Skunk cabbage

The spadix with tiny yellow flowers

The spadix with tiny yellow flowers

Skunk cabbage leaves appear next to the withering spathe

Skunk cabbage leaves appear next to the withering spathe

A walk along the Potomac Heritage Trail will lead you past Northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin) with its delicate yellow flowers blooming right on the twigs. Gently scratch the bark to release the aromatic scent that gives Spicebush its name. Native Americans used all parts of the plant to make tea and to add spice to their food.

Northern spicebush
Northern spicebush

As spring progresses different wildflower species come to the fore while early bloomers begin to fade. By late spring there will be little trace of these “ephemeral” plants as the more showy summer flowers take their place. Make sure to come out during the spring months to watch the parade of early wildflowers that make Riverbend such a special place. 

Join us on Saturday, April 11, 2015 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for our third annual Bluebell Festival and celebrate the return of the Bluebells and the arrival of spring with activities for all the family including wildflower walks, face painting, live animals, wagon rides, live music and other family fun activities in celebration of spring.  Bluebell Festival:  $5 per person.  Wildflower Walks: $6.

Naturalist led Spring Wildflower Walks at Riverbend Park (April 4) and Scotts Run Nature Preserve (April 23) are a great way to get to know these lovely harbingers of spring, and discover the folklore associated with them.

For more information on these or any of our spring activities call 703-759-9018 or view our website at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/riverbend-park/

Check back for regular updates on the Bluebells’ progress.

Author and photographer Marijke Gate, is a Naturalist at Riverbend Park