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A Walk on the Wild Side – Part 2

An Explorer’s Journal of Native Plants in the Landscape

I explored the MD side of Great Falls this time (okay, so technically the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park), and hiked the 1.7-mile first section of the Billy Goat Trail.

Billy Goat Trail

The trail’s description wasn’t kidding when it mentioned there would be a lot of scrambling over rocks – sometimes I had to put the camera away and hold on with both hands. I was surprised at the different plants I found here versus the VA side along much of the same stretch of river. Maybe it is simply due to the different sun exposures each side gets.

Chionanthus virginicus

Fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus) were in bloom everywhere, growing mostly in rock crevices and easy to spot with their fragrant white flower clusters.

Eubotrys racemosa

Similarly abundant was Coastal Fetterbush (Eubotrys racemosa), whose flowers looked a lot like Leucothoe to me…upon researching this, I find that it is indeed a re-naming of Swamp Dog-hobble, Leucothoe racemosa. Despite having “swamp” in its common name, this was mainly growing in rock crevices out in the open – but then again, I realize, most plants growing near the river have little else to choose from, and maybe less competition than in their other haunts.

There were two Viburnums that were easy to identify, Hobblebush (V. lantanoides) and Mapleleaf (V. acerifolium); the Hobblebush, which looks a lot like the non-native Doublefile Viburnum, happened to be at the woods’ edge right in front of my parking spot; the Mapleleaf was growing – you guessed it – in a rock crevice, though in the woods this time. I found another surprise in a rock crevice in the woods: Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), which is the parent species for varieties such as ‘Annabelle.’

I have read that some wild forms do have the sterile flowers like ‘Annabelle,’ though most are petal-less and fertile-flowered; these plants were still budded, but I’m curious as to which they would be. The hydrangeas and Mapleleaf Viburnum were found along Berma Road, a bicycling path above the towpath and further from the river.

Amelanchier

There were a couple of shrubs that I could only partially identify: some type of Serviceberry (Amelanchier) was starting to bear fruit, still a rosy-red; some type of deciduous holly, though probably not winterberry, was flowering on some low sandy banks of the river. Also in sandy or rocky places, but higher above the river, was some type of St. Johnswort (Hypericum).

In one spot where the trail was low enough to forge a stream, a few Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) were budded about 7’ high or so. In another spot, where I didn’t even see a colony, a few seedlings were germinating in a bed of moss under Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum). A blueberry cousin, its flowers are shaped more like bells than barrels, and it gets its name from the apparent fact that while deer eat the fruits, people find them unpalatable.

Salvia lyrata

The flowers were prolific and certainly showy, so I wonder why they aren’t cultivated…maybe because they probably don’t handle heavy clay soils well. Well, okay, neither do many of the other plants we grow, come to think of it. Two other perennials were found in the sandy, moist soil by the shaded stream: a clump of Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) and what I think I have identified as Lyre-leaf Sage (Salvia lyrata). All of the other individuals of this sage were in seemingly drier soils with a bit more sun.

In a place I would have least expected it, a water lily-like native named Yellow Spatterdock (Nuphar advena) was ready to flower nestled in a rock pool of rainwater. Another small pool held a colony of duckweed and a green frog. A couple of those wet areas harbored a few of the Leucothoe and even buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

As for more perennials, I ran across a couple Prickly-pears (Opuntia humifusa) and Purple Woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea) with neat purple-banded leaves. Tucked away under a rocky overhang was the occasional Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum).

Tradescantia virginiana

Colonies of Spiderwort (Tradescantia) were blooming in amongst rocks in the sun. On sunny slopes next to the towpath I saw Golden Alexanders (Zizea aurea), which is a host plant for the Black Swallowtail.

Antennaria plantaginifolia

In the shade amongst fallen pine needles were a few colonies of Plantain-leaved Pusseytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia); it’s one of the host plants for the Painted Lady butterfly.

Hierachium venosum

Scattered here and there along the trail was Rattlesnake Weed (Hierachium venosum); I wondered how it got that name…according to the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Eastern Wildflowers, apparently it occurs most commonly in areas where rattlesnakes are found. Well, that’s comforting…but the leaves do have an interesting reddish pattern of veins.

I did see a few plants here that were more common on the other side of the river: Bluets, Wild Ginger, Heuchera, Woodland Phlox, Eastern Ninebark and what I think is Carolina Moonseed (Menispermum canadense), a vine with unusual leaves and which is toxic if eaten.

I saw a few “critters” in my travels as well. A few Gray Treefrogs were calling high in the trees…fortunately for me, “high” in some of the trees was not too much over my head, since they were growing amongst the rocks. Broad-headed Skinks and Eastern Fence Lizards were running about, chasing insects and each other around on the rocks near the woods. Another pool of rainwater high up in the rocks held a hundred or so tadpoles…I wonder suppose they’ll mature before the pool dries up? Life on the edge, indeed.

Read part three here: – Great Falls National Park – Part 3 – July 2, 2010

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