Monthly Archives: March 2016

Bluebell Watch 2016

UPDATE:  3/28/16  Bluebell Watch Continues

BluebellThe three Bs of spring – blooming bluebells, bald eagle chicks and black bear sightings. These all herald the start of warmer weather in our area. At Riverbend Park the Virginia Bluebells are certainly fulfilling their promise with most of the plants in bud, and some beginning to bloom in the warmer, sunnier spots.

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 proboscis or “tongue” into the blossom in search of nectar and pollen. Bumblebees are popular pollinators in the spring ephemeral world, not least 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 getting pollen and nectar with which to stock its new nest.

Bumblebees are not the only pollinators; other bee species, bee flies – flies that mimic bees and pollinate many of our spring ephemerals, butterflies and even hummingbirds can be seen hovering around the Bluebells. Once the blooming is really underway find a quiet spot and sit and watch a Bluebell patch for a few minutes and see which pollinators are visiting the flowers.

image003As the plants grow the purple leaves turn a grayish green and become quite large. These smooth, oval shaped leaves persist for several weeks after the flowers have set seed and withered. This is the case with many of the spring ephemerals; in fact in some species, such as the Bloodroot, the leaves continue to grow and produce food which is stored in the underground rhizomes or corms for use in the following spring. The Virginia Bluebells have a rhizome which acts as a food store.

As spring progresses more wildflower species begin to bloom. The first Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) was spotted yesterday and the forest floor is rapidly being covered by the spotted leaves of this important plant. Trout Lily colonies can be very large and old and help to stabilize the soil. The Trout Lily only blooms when the plant has two leaves and only a few plants in the colony will bloom each year. The deep red flowers of Sessile Trillium, or Toadshade, (Trillium sessile) are making an appearance, and the twin leaves of Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) are pushing through the soil. Part of the fun of spring wildflower watching is seeing the different species begin to bloom one after the other.

Look up as you walk along the Potomac Heritage Trail and you will see many other signs of spring. Spring bird migration is underway and a group of Yellow Rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) was spotted flitting through the trees in search of insects to fuel their journey. 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. Riverbend’s 23 Bluebird boxes are monitored throughout the summer by volunteer monitors.


When you visit Riverbend Park drop into the Visitor Center and pick up a spring wildflower sheet to help you identify the different species.

Join us on Saturday, April 16, 2016 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. for our fourth Annual Bluebell Festival and celebrate the arrival of spring with wildflower walks, live animal demonstrations, wagon rides, live music and other family fun activities.

Naturalist led Spring Wildflower Walks at Scotts Run Nature Preserve (April 9th)   and Riverbend Park (April 17th) are a great way to get to know these lovely harbingers of spring, and discover the folklore associated with them.

For more information call 703-759-9018 or view our website at

Written by Marijke Gate, Naturalist at Riverbend Park



Bluebell Watch 2016


Spring has finally arrived and the first Virginia Bluebell blooms have been spotted at Riverbend Park, heralding one of the most spectacular seasons in our part of the Potomac Gorge. The deep purple shoots pushed their way through the winter debris littering the floodplain during the last few days of February and this week the first flowers were seen. Look in the sunny spots for plants in bloom, those in the shade are still small clumps of green and purple leaves with just a few flower buds visible. In a couple of weeks the whole floodplain will be covered in a sea of green and blue.

The beautiful blue flowers that carpet the banks of the Potomac River make spring a very special time at Riverbend Park. The large, bright green leaves contrast with the drooping, bell like flowers. Most of the flowers are a clear sky blue but occasionally a white or pink blossom can be found. Before the flowers fully open they are a deep pink color and gradually change to the lovely blue of the mature bloom. The individual flowers hang downwards to protect the pollen from the rain and allow only certain pollinators such as the bumblebee access to the nectar.

Virginia Bluebells or Mertensia virginica, are not the Bluebells of the English woodlands or the Bluebonnets of Texas but are members of the Borage or Forget-me-not family and are sometimes known as the Virginia Cowslip. Other names are the Oysterleaf for the faint taste of the sea when the leaves are chewed, or Lungwort for the belief that the plant could cure lung ailments. These perennial plants can be grown in moist soils, especially those which are in dappled shade. Like other spring ephemerals Virginia Bluebells appear and bloom before the trees are fully leafed out and take advantage of the early spring sunlight hitting the forest floor. Plants can be purchased at native plant sales and from some garden centers but be warned that that they can take many years to become established so don’t expect a spectacular show of blue in the first few years.

Spring at Riverbend Park is not only about Bluebells. Many other native spring wildflowers can be found lining the river banks. Right now you can find delicate Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), sometimes called Fairy Spuds for their tiny, potato-like corms, and tiny Harbinger of Spring (Erigenia bulbosa). The flashy but short-lived blooms of the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) can be found on sunny banks, and Northern Spicebush bushes(Lindera benzoin) are covered with yellow flowers that can be seen on the twigs before the leaves make their appearance. As the spring progresses different plants will begin to flower. Check back for more updates on the spring ephemeral progression.

Spring wildflowers are not the only signs of spring along the Potomac. Eastern Phoebes are making their distinctive call all along the riverbank and a Tufted Titmouse was seen vigorously displaying to a potential mate. Bluebird boxes are ready for a new batch of chicks and the Red Maple trees are coloring the tree canopy with a cloud of deep red flowers.

Join us on Saturday April 16, 2016 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for our fourth Annual Bluebell Festival and celebrate the return of the Bluebells and the arrival of spring with wildflower walks, live animal demonstrations, wagon rides, live music and other family fun activities in celebration of spring.

Naturalist led Spring Wildflower Walks at Scotts Run Nature Preserve (April 9th)   and Riverbend Park (April 17th) 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

Check back for regular updates on the Bluebells’ progress.


Written by Marijke Gate, Naturalist at Riverbend Park


Butterfly_072313_0172Winter is over. At least, that is my hope. Mother Nature can be fickle. Last year, when I became a certified Green Spring Master Gardener (GSMG) I learned two important lessons. First, I didn’t know as much about gardening as I thought and, second, you can’t predict what Mother Nature will do.

All my classes for the GSMG program were outstanding. Since completing the program, I have planted more Virginia native plants in my garden. I am now interested in attracting more butterflies and providing an inviting environment that will keep them around. In the past I’ve had butterflies, but they never stayed long enough to make my garden their home. They liked the flowering plants, but my garden wasn’t their sanctuary. My new goal is to attract a variety of butterflies while providing a place where they can grow and multiply. I now know that most flowering plants will attract them but not keep them around. All flowers are not equal in their compound eyes. They want flowers that will feed them but also allow them to lay eggs. Plants must fulfill one of their two requirements – nectar plants that will provide energy and food plants that feed caterpillars.

Alonson Abugatto, a Master Gardener, Virginia Master Naturalist, and co-founder of the Washington Area Butterfly Club, says that butterflies’ favorite flower colors include purple, yellow, white and blue. Red is not usually visible to many species of butterflies. They also prefer fragrant flowers.

bitterfly2aAs I plan my spring garden, I’m reading and researching butterflies. The Virginia Cooperative Extension has a good publication on creating habitats. Most flowering plants will provide nectar, but I’ve learned that you need to find what works best in your location. Since some plants will serve as both nectar and caterpillar food, I want to plant these and provide double duty offerings for my guests. The wider range of nectar plants, the more species I’ll attract. Butterflies like gardens that imitate the way plants grow in the wild and provide shelter. My structured garden needs work, although I do have lots of trees and shrubs where they can shelter for the night to hide from predators. I have available water, puddling stations and essential sunlight.

I have joined the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). The organization has a great deal of information on Butterfly Garden Guides, blogs, Monarchs, and even Butterfly Garden plants. I’ve determined that I’ll add some plants to my plantings that the NABA suggests. I signed on for some blogs, but I caution that the intensity of some of these butterfly lovers includes demonstrating at local construction sites to protect the environment.

The NABA also offers a “Butterfly Garden Certification Program.” Perhaps one day my garden will qualify for it. I’m continuing to plan my garden, increasing my butterfly knowledge on what to plant, and realizing that I must convince my husband that we need to move and get more gardening space. I will check out the Master Gardener talks to see if there are any on butterflies.

If you want to see butterflies in our area this summer, visit Green Spring Gardens at 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria. Those are gardens with butterfly variety!

Happy garden planning. Spring arrives March 20.


Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Gardens Master Gardener.


Friends Working Together to Benefit All

Everywhere we look in nature there is collaboration. For example, ants and bees work together for the benefit of their colonies and hives. The natural world is filled with such instances of cooperation for the benefit of all, and Friends of the Fairfax County Park Authority are following nature’s lead. They’re uniting for common causes.

Nearly two dozen Fairfax County Park Authority sites have Friends groups that support individual parks through fundraising, volunteer service and other actions. Those individual groups are looking for ways to work together, and on February 27, 2016, representatives of the Federation of Friends held a joint meeting with leaders of the Park Authority and the Fairfax County Park Foundation at Huntley Meadows Park to learn what they can accomplish through shared goals.

“It was one of the most productive, collaborative Friends group meetings that highlighted the need for everyone to work together,” said Park Authority Deputy Director Aimee Vosper. “The groups were able to share what they were doing and talk about collaboration.”

That sentiment was echoed by Federation founder Harry Glasgow, a board member of both the Fairfax County Park Foundation and the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park, who said, “The meeting was an enormous success.” Park Foundation Executive Director Roberta Longworth added, “On behalf of the Park Foundation, I’m grateful for the ongoing dedication of all the FCPA Friends groups.”


At the meeting, the Federation of Friends members were presented with information about the parks they support. They learned more than 17 million people visit the park system annually, and the Park Authority’s recent Needs Assessment Survey shows that more than 90% of Fairfax County residents think parks are extremely or very important to their quality of life. Attendees also heard from Park Authority Director Kirk Kincannon about the county’s proposed Fiscal Year 2017 budget. After these presentations, each Friends group took a few minutes to talk about its own activities and their shared passion for parks.

Glasgow noted, “The meeting’s goal was to get Friends to speak for the entire park budget and the well-being of all parks.” That collective approach will help each group’s individual causes.

Cathy Ledec, the president of the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park, which hosted the gathering, said, “There is always such great enthusiasm in the room, and each Friends group is so different in its goals and objectives. I enjoy interacting and learning from our shared experiences.” The hope is that those shared experiences and shared values lead to effective advocacy and continued success systemwide.


Director Kincannon explained the distinction between education and information passage and advocacy, noting that county staff is prohibited from lobbying for the Park Bond, advocating for the budget or fundraising. He also explained that it was entirely appropriate for the Friends groups and members of the Park Authority Board to advocate on behalf of the Park Authority. In fact, Friends groups and other park stakeholders can become a voice of advocacy for parks. The Friends groups are organized by citizens who want to help parks, and those groups can raise funds that they may donate through the Park Foundation for projects in parks, such as the RecPAC summer camps, Arts in the Parks, stewardship education for school children, Take 12 Steps for Health, Chessie’s Big Backyard at Lee District RECenter, Pirate Fest and many others.

Input from the Federation and cooperation among Friends groups is invaluable. “They have a unique perspective as advocates for the park system as a whole and as stakeholders and users at distinct sites,” noted the Park Authority’s Public Information Officer, Judy Pedersen. “They are well positioned to speak for the park system to officials as well as fellow citizens and park users.”

Cindy Walsh, the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division Director, said the Federation has become “a more cohesive group of folks” and its members are realizing they are “all stronger as a team.”


Information about the Federation of Friends and park advocacy is on the Park Foundation’s website.