Nature Edited

Virginia bluebells. Photo by Ann Rohlfing.

I snatched five minutes from my work day to visit the Lower Blockston Branch, a favorite springtime destination. The thought struck me as I walked that green settles lowest first. The haze of forest floor viewed from the first bridge pulled into sharper focus closer up: spring beauty, skunk cabbage, Virginia bluebells, and ragwort, followed by a generous blanket of moss along the streambed. Higher in the trees, the first leaves unfolded, but their green heyday hadn’t yet arrived.

For those of us impatient for spring, the bare trees seem in opposition to the date. Maybe this is nature’s way of pulling us in for a closer look; secrets revealed slowly hold our attention longer than those displayed all at once. Or, to quote English author Henry Green, “The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” 

by Jenny Houghton
Assistant Director

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Soup ‘n Walk Report: March 16, 2019

Note: The next Soup ‘n Walk program is this coming Saturday, April 20. Just a few spots remain! Click here for more information and to register.


Volunteers and guests prepare for the guided walk.

Today we had a cool sunny day for our walk in the woods with the temp in the 40s and a slight breeze. We had a full signup of 30 guests who were eager to walk in the woods. Our theme was to look for the pink and purple blooms and listen for frogs and birds. Margan G. gave the introduction and found out that some had not been on this walk before.

We split into two groups. My group went to the bridge overlooking the parking lot, where construction was progressing to improve stormwater runoff with swales and a rain garden as well as pavers for parking. There will be some new plants as well. By fall, we will see much progress. We also checked on the beavers’ activity and the storage of branches in the stream. Many trees have been protected with chicken wire fencing from their voracious appetite.

From here, we headed to the persimmon trail past the bluebird house and stopped to admire the dogwood’s buds and checkered bark.

Peering over the bridge in search of skunk cabbage
Skunk cabbage bloom

Looking over the railing at the bridge, we checked for skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) leaves and a few blooms. Going on, we checked the paw paw (Asimina triloba) leaf tips, which are like a cat’s paw and very soft. Many green leaves of golden groundsel (Packera aurea)  and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) were showing, which is a preview of the blooms to come next month. At the next bridge, we noted the winding path of the creek through the wooded floodplain, which allows the water to deposit sand and also slows its path to the Tuckahoe and, finally, the Chesapeake Bay.

Cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) leaves were still quite green with purple underneath since there are no upper-story leaves to block the sunlight. More green leaves were visible as we passed our evergreen Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), which is getting ready to put up its fiddle heads for new leaves soon. We turned down the South Tuckahoe trail and noted the large pink buds on the blueberry bush.

Early fiddleheads

Scraping a few leaves near the trail gave us a view of downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens) leaves on our way to the spice bush bridge. The rattlesnake markings of white on green give it the name. Here, the bridge goes over a very wet area due to all the rain this year. The spice bush (Lindera benzoin) and nearby early spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) were not blooming but should be visible next month in this warm microclimate.

Guests savor the delicious lunch.

Back at the Visitor’s Center, we could smell the delicious kale and chicken soup with lemon served with a sauerkraut salad, flaxseed wheat bread with raspberry jam, and Black Forest cake with cherries. These recipes represent the plants we saw on the trail, such as the skunk cabbage, pink buds, and checkered bark . We discussed the recipes and answered questions about nutrition. A handout on the grandparents’ diet was in the packet. This was a way of saying that some of our foods, such as beef, lead to a lot of CO2 in our atmosphere and by eating less meat and more vegetables and fruit, we might be saving the planet for our grandchildren. Guests were from many of the surrounding counties, and some were from across the bridge. Many were interested in cookbooks, since someone mentioned how good it was. This was a welcome surprise for me. Part of my reason for doing the S&W is to encourage people to enjoy our natives and do some healthy cooking, too. Nature, nurture, and nutrition.

Our wonderful volunteers were Pat B., Margan G., Joyce A., Sheila D., Tawna M., Gail R., and Al M. The staff was very helpful. and most of the work was done before we got there. Thanks to everyone.

by Julianna Pax
Maryland Master Naturalist, Arboretum docent

Good Eating

As winter lingers, the Arboretum’s beavers continue to satiate their appetite for fresh wood. Preferred species include willow, sweetgum, red maple, and silky dogwood. They’ve also sampled ash, oak, two ironwoods, river birch, tulip poplar, and a small holly. Some magnolias and alders were nibbled, but precautionary wire saved these trees from all-out beaver annihilation. Although there is an abundance of buttonbush in the wetland, the beavers seem disinclined to dine on it.

The majority of recent beaver-chewed trees at the Arboretum have been five inches in diameter or less, which would take a beaver about 30 minutes to fell. The largest Arboretum trees so far to become fodder for Mr. and Mrs. Nibbles were two sweetgums with a ten-inch diameter.

Like all rodents, beavers’ incisors grow constantly, which means they must chew constantly. Beaver teeth are made up of two layers: orange enamel on front, soft white dentine on back. Because the dentine wears away faster than the enamel, their teeth are self-sharpening.

Nathan, our Chesapeake Bay Trust Conservation Corps Member, assures us that the fresh green shoots of spring will lure the beavers away from established trees. We surely hope so, particularly in light of the new trees that are being planted as part of the Arboretum’s bioretention project underway in the parking lot.

Written by Jenny Houghton; research provided by Nathan Simmons

A Soup ‘n Walk Report—Saturday, February 16

Today was breezy and in the low 40s. What a wonderful day for a walk in the woods to discover greens and look at the barks of trees. We had 31 guests registered, and some were new to the Soup ’n Walk program. Al Moored and I each led half the group.

Beaver stores

My group started at the second bridge over the wetlands, where a pair of beavers has built two houses on the bank of the creek. We peered at the water and saw many twigs and logs put there by the industrious beavers. The twigs were stuck in the mud at the bottom. These will be harvested as needed for food. Leaving the beavers, we passed a green female juniper Juniperus virginiana with blue berries.

Continuing on our trek, we passed the reddish bark of a redbud tree (Cercis canadensis) and then walked the persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) trail. These were planted in honor of a master naturalist who had passed away. The persimmon and paw paw (Asimina triloba) are our native fruit trees. They both get fruit but later have lovely yellow leaves for fall color. Entering the woods, we looked at a dogwood (Cornus americana) with a few buds showing for next year. Not very many, however, like last year.

Passing over the Blockston Branch bridge, we saw many skunk cabbage leaves (Symplocarpus foetidus) and a few lovely purple blooms that have the ability to raise their temperature to melt snow and/or draw flies for pollination. We continued on the upland trail and viewed the mossy green paths on either side. These are not to be trod, as they are a nursery for ephemerals to come in the spring. Many oak tree barks are visible. The red and black oak family has dark grooved bark patterns, whereas the white oaks have a distinct flaky bark.

White oak bark and moss

We passed a huge white oak (Quercus alba) with limbs looking like they were lifting their arms to pray, as in Joyce Kilmer’s poem about trees. This oak has a mossy covering that we could feel. It was probably used as an absorbent material in earlier times. The white oak acorns also have less tannic acid than those in the black oak family. We observed that same brown tea-colored tannic acid in the creek water. This tannic acid is a chelate and carries minerals downstream as it travels through the leaves to the creek and onward downstream.

Cranefly orchid leaves

A nice patch of cranefly orchid leaves (Tipularia discolor) is now visible poking through the oak leaves. The upper-story tree leaves are gone, and this allows these leaves to capture sunlight. Lifting a leaf reveals its lovely purple underside, which may protect the leaf just like anthocyanins can protect us from free radicals produced during photosynthesis. Further along, we saw beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) with their smooth gray bark and the smooth but gnarled bark of the ironwood tree (Carpinus caroliniana) arching over our path. More greens were visible in the hearts a’ bursting (Euonymous americana) and the greenbrier patch (Smilax rotundifolia). These branches are green with chlorophyll all year to generate food for the plant. The thorny vines of the greenbrier patch provide shelter for ground-nesting birds. Patches of green were also evident in the Christmas fern (Polystichum achrostichoides), princess pine (Lycopodium sp), and holly trees (Ilex americana) along the trail. A young sweet gum (Liquidamber styraciflua) had a very knobby pattern to its bark, a result of its very rapid growth. Finally, we left the wood by some older persimmons with their checkered bark and the sassafras (Sassafras albidum) with a different grooved pattern.

Christmas fern
Persimmon bark

Now we were in the mood for some hot drinks and the hot red beet and cabbage soup at the visitor’s center. The purple color represents the purple we saw in the woods, while a green salad with walnuts and oranges and spinach spread on anadama bread were reminiscent of the greens and bark. And, of course a purple dessert!  It was a blueberry green tea smoothie just brimming with healthy phytochemicals and—oh, yes—it was delicious. We had a bouquet of greens from my yard with red winterberries, green Foster’s holly leaves, green juniper, spice bush, and hearts a’ bursting branches. Some are going to try to sprout the branches. There were samples on the tables that the guests volunteered to identify. They were from Caroline, Talbot, Queen Anne’s, Anne Arundel, and Howard counties.  We discussed the recipes that the guests received to take home and make these great dishes again. I received many thanks and promises that our guests will return.

Thanks to all the staff and volunteers who make this event a success. Volunteers were Pat B., Al M., Betty M., Tawna M., Martha S., Emily C., Suzanne Z., and Sheila D. This takes the work of many people, and I thank all, each and every one, who make this possible. The next Soup ‘n Walk is March 16. I hope to see everyone!

by Julianna Pax
Maryland Master Naturalist

Cabin Fever

If you were afflicted with cabin fever during the last polar vortex, you were in good company. Following days of being confined to their icy lodge, the Arboretum’s beavers reveled in warmer weather with an all-out feeding frenzy. Just 24 hours after the thaw, daylight revealed evidence of their spree in the form of numerous gnawed and felled trees.

The Arboretum remains resolute in its resolve to coexist with the beavers and is using wire to safeguard certain trees while leaving others for the beavers’ dining pleasure. Alder seems to be a particular favorite. Astoundingly, beavers can fell a five-inch diameter tree in only thirty minutes. The wetland is the epicenter of the beavers’ activity, but Mr. Nibbles has been spotted in the woodlands, too.

Last year, prior to the beavers’ arrival, the Arboretum’s Assistant Director presented a “Beaver Blast” workshop at the annual conference for Maryland Association of Environmental and Outdoor Educators. Apparently, if you blast it, they will come.