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

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

3 thoughts on “Bluebell Watch 2016

  1. Wayne Powell

    A date on the time this article was written would be very helpful….I’m trying to figure out when the peak will be. Thanks for all you do.

  2. Ralph D. Jeffords

    Today, March 28, I checked out the bluebells along the northeast side of Cub Run in the Cub Run Stream Valley Park in Centreville, between the “Fairweather Crossing” in the Gas Pipeline clearing and the confluence of Round Lick Branch with Cub Run and they looked to be about 50% of full bloom. For this area I think the peak will be in about another 7 to 10 days. This seems to be a largely unknown area and for the last 5 years whenever I’ve walked in the area during the bluebell bloom I’ve encountered just a few people in spite of the fact that in some places you are surrounded by bluebells for as far as you can see on the small unofficial “deer trail” that leads through the area.

  3. Marijke Gate

    Peak Blooming. This week – April 3rd -10th should be the best time to visit the Bluebells. Most plants are flowering, although there are a few plants still in bud. They will continue to bloom for a week or two, but for the best viewing get out there now. Many of the other “companion” spring ephemerals are also blooming and the riverbank is a sea of blue interspersed with pink Spring Beauties, white Dutchman’s Breeches, and the deep red of the Sessile Tirllium.


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