Monthly Archives: February 2016

A “Seussical” Natural World

doctorseussDr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel, created fantastic creatures which encouraged children to read, and tickled adults who often found deeper meaning in the silly rhymes. Happy adults read these stories aloud with greater frequency, making Dr. Seuss stories popular with young and old. His Lorax, a pudgy tree-hugger, made his case for environmental responsibility. The naïve Horton followed his conscience and saved Whoville, despite taunts from the popular “kids” of the forest. In his 1957 The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss used only 236 different words, but broke the mold of how educators tackled literacy for early readers. Geisel noted, “It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers.” (

Dr. Seuss’ colorful and curious creatures do boast extraordinary abilities, but real animals in our own backyards exhibit even more impressive talents! Whereas the vain Yertle the Turtle abused other turtles to literally raise himself on the backs of others, native painted turtles climb atop each other for a very different reason. Survival! Painted turtles are often seen in area lakes basking in the sun on a log atop one another. The top painted turtle will quickly dive in the water at the first sign of an approaching animal, alerting all of its fellow sun-worshippers, which scamper and dive to safer depths. Another local turtle, the musk, is the opposite of vain. This species emits a powerful smelly scent to convince potential predators, or people who harass them, to avoid this easily riled turtle.

DSC_0047Horton, the elephant with a strong paternal instinct, suffered through the winter freeze with icicles hanging off him to keep the mysterious egg warm and safe. How much better is our painted turtle which hatches out in the fall and knows to stay in its soil nest through the winter? Scientists now question if these hatchlings have a natural antifreeze which enables up to 50% of their body’s water between the cells to freeze, or if they have skin lipids which protect them from the ice in the surrounding dirt. ( Young painted turtles emerge in the spring ready to find their way in the world without the help of anyone needing to keep them warm.

Other native turtle species survive the winter by burying themselves in the mud at the bottom of lakes and ponds. They obtain oxygen through special cells in their neck and anal area. Never saw a Dr. Seuss character with those abilities!

Mother Nature has bountifully provided her creatures with defense strategies. Some appear as vain as Gertrude McFuzz with garish colors and patterns. The indigo buntings, goldfinches and bluebirds sport colorful plumage. Behavioral adaptations flow from physical adaptations, which enable animals to find their niche. Dr. Seuss’ delightful creations make us smile, think and even read. Our furry, feathered and scaly neighbors can achieve that, and so much more. They can inspire, educate and motivate us to protect our natural environment.

Celebrate Dr. Seuss’ Birthday Extravaganza at Hidden Oaks Nature Center, Sunday, February 28 at 2 p.m.


Author Suzanne Holland is the Assistant Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale.

It’s Witch Hazel Season at Green Spring

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There are creams and purples, brilliant yellow, bold red, and bright copper. They are the witch hazels of winter, and they are in bloom into March at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

Witch hazels are deciduous shrubs, often winter bloomers, that bring showy, spider-shaped flowers to months often viewed as pale in nature compared to other seasons. Some add a pleasing, spicy scent of allspice and honey.

They’re easy to grow, and they do well in a variety of soil and light conditions. They have no serious disease or insect problems, and if you’re looking to add something to your native garden, the hardiest among them is the common, fall-blooming witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana.

Green Spring Gardens has more than 200 specimens of native, Asian and hybrid witch hazels. They comprise a nationally-recognized collection that has been developed as an accredited collection in partnership with the Plant Collections Network (PCN), a program run by the American Public Gardens Association. PCN is a network of botanical gardens and arboreta that coordinate preservation of germplasm, the living tissue from which a plant can grow, i.e. seed or a plant part. Member gardens make germplasm available for studies, evaluation, breeding and research. Green Spring Gardens has one of three national collections of witch hazels.

It’s an appropriate group of plants (genus) for Green Spring, because early American botanist Reverend John Banister discovered the common witch hazel in Virginia. He’d arrived in the Americas in 1678, and as a student of nature he sent to England hundreds of drawings and descriptions as well as seeds.

Visit Green Spring’s web page at to see a slideshow of witch hazels in bloom, then head to the park to see them in person. They are reliable and often pretty winter bloomers. You’ll see some as you drive into the park. Ask at the front desk of the horticulture center for more information about their locations and what’s in bloom.




More than 200 witch hazels beckon you to visit Green Spring Gardens during their peak bloom season, January through March. Green Spring is at 4603 Green Spring Road in Annandale.


It’s Time to Boil Down Sap Into Syrup at Colvin Run Mill

It’s called a spile. You probably don’t have one lying around the house unless, perhaps, you grew up in Vermont. You’ll see them, though, at the Colvin Run Mill Maple Syrup Boil Down.

A spile is the draining tube that is drilled into maple trees in the first step that starts the long, slow late winter/early spring process of making the maple syrup that puts the zing in morning pancakes. This is not the artificially flavored stuff. This is the real thing.

Tapping maple trees is the process of getting the sap out of a tree and, eventually, onto a waffle. It’s done in the late winter/early spring, when sap starts to flow as the trees prepare for spring growth. February, when daytime temperatures are above freezing but nighttime temperatures are not, is the usual time in Fairfax County. Weather conditions can affect the timing.

A small hole is drilled into a tree – not very far, just under the bark. Often the best place is below a large branch or above a large root. Three feet or so off the ground will do. The spile goes into the hole, and a food-grade bucket is hung below the spile. A lid goes over the bucket to keep out debris like dust and leaves. Sweet and simple. Tapping stops when buds start forming on the tree.

Sap, which is clear and looks like water, may start running immediately. Depending on the tree and how much sap is rising through it on a given day, there could be a slow drip or a flow heavy enough to fill the bucket in a day. The sap is then kept cool, but not frozen, until the boil down.

The sap can be tasted straight from the tree, but like most things in nature, that’s not a particularly good idea because it might contain bacteria you don’t want exploring your body. Boiling takes care of that. More boiling is needed to make syrup. A lot more.

maple syrup boil down at Colvin Run MillSyrup is the goal of the maple tree tapping and the maple syrup boil down that takes place each year at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. To turn that sap into maple syrup, the sap is filtered, perhaps through cheesecloth, and then has to have a lot of excess water removed. The boil-down ratio to remove that excess water for sugar maples in northern states is 40-to-1. It will take 10 gallons of sap to make a quart of syrup – 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. Colvin Run Miller Mason Maddox, your guide at the boil down, says Colvin Run’s rate is 60-to-1 – 15 gallons of sap per quart of syrup.

By the way, if you make syrup at home, don’t boil the sap indoors. At a 60-to-1 ratio, that’s a lot of steam rolling into your house. If you boil outdoors – follow laws and make fire safety the first priority. The syrup can be filtered again with a food-grade filter before being bottled.

Each spring, Colvin Run Mill taps trees and hosts a trio of boil downs where you can enjoy a crisp day outdoors, watch the steaming cauldron of sap turning into syrup, enjoy some snacks, mix with neighbors, and even taste pure maple syrup over cornbread while supplies last. No reservations are needed. The cost is $5 per person. The boil-downs are 12 noon to 2 p.m. on three upcoming Sundays – February 7 and 21 and March 6.  

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