Rare Flowers and Rattlesnakes on Naked Mountain!!

July 3rd was one of the most enjoyable days I have had in 25 years of owning and protecting nearly 300 acres of Naked Mountain in Nelson County, Virginia.  The MOST exciting day of all was the discovery of thousands of blooming Shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) in the warren of barrens on the Southeastern face of the mountain.  But July 3rd was second best!  The reason – the preserve was visited by three highly experienced experts to find, on the one hand, a rare flower that exists in only 50-100 sites in the world and, on the other hand, gestating and possibly den sites for timber rattlesnakes!

The rationale for the joint expedition arose because on two previous occasions when Gary Fleming, Senior Vegetation Ecologist with the Natural Heritage Division of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and I ventured down into the barrens to try and find the rare flower – Pycnanthemum torreyi, or Torrey’s Mountain Mint – we were stopped by the rattlesnake pictured below.

Timer Rattlesnake in barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

For the plant search, Gary engaged a colleague at Natural Heritage, Chris Ludwig, Chief Biologist at DCR-Natural Heritage and an author of the recently published Flora of Virginia. Chris had found the Torrey’s Mountain Mint in 2005 when he first explored the barrens of Naked Mountain, along with several local colleagues, to see if the vegetation there, and other ecological features of the property, warranted protection by the state of Virginia. Chris was puzzled by a few mountain mint plants that differed from the two other mountain mint species blooming in the barrens. He was unsure if it was truly Torrey’s or a hybrid. He took a specimen back to Richmond and showed it to Gary.  Gary was convinced it was not a hybrid, but the very rare Torrey’s Mountain Mint found in just 14 limited sites in Virginia and ranked as a G2, “imperiled” by Natureserve. He has wanted to “re-find” it ever since and send a specimen to the herbarium for documentation.  Like the Shooting stars, this would be a “first” for Nelson County.

For the timber rattlesnake search, Gary engaged a different colleague, William “Marty” Martin, a retired federal park ranger who is the mid-Atlantic’s best timber rattlesnake expert.  He has conducted research for 35 years in Northern Virginia in the Bull Run Mountains under the auspices of the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy.  You can read more about Marty’s research and the knowledge he has contributed to our understanding of this fascinating species that is quickly disappearing from its home range in the Piedmont of Virginia and surrounding states here.  It was a privilege to have Marty and his Bull Run Mountains Conservancy colleagues on Naked Mountain last week.

Here is a group photo of our joint expedition:

Our July 3rd expedition (please note snake chaps!): Left to Right — Anna Ritter, BRM Conservancy; Michael Kieffer, Ex. Dir. BRM Conservancy; Lance Benedict, Assistant to Mr. Martin; author; Chris Ludwig, Chief Biologist, VA DCR-Natural Heritage Div.; Adam Christie, Steward, VA DCR-Natural Heritage Div.; Gary Fleming, Senior Vegetation Ecologist, VA DCR-Natural Heritage Div.; William Martin, Herpetologist/Timber Rattlesnake expert.

So what did we find?  PYCNANTHEMUM TORREYI!!  As in 2005, there were only three mature, blooming plants and a few immature stems.  Here are two photos by Gary Fleming.

Pycnanthemum torreyi blooming in the barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming.

Close-up of Pycnanthemum torreyi on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming.

We also found TIMBER RATTLESNAKES!!  One large pregnant female was found in a different site than Gary and I discovered three years ago.  She disappeared under a rock before we could photograph her.  She never rattled at anyone, just took cover.  Then Marty took his crew to a neighbor’s property that has the largest open barren on the Southeastern face of Naked Mountain.  There they found another pregnant female rattlesnake that also ducked under a rock.  Nearby was a pregnant copperhead.  Both were basking in the sun on the rock outcrop before being disturbed by the search crew.

So, a very successful day – one of the best!  A friend videotaped the expedition and interviewed Marty, Lance and Michael about their research efforts and understanding of timber rattlesnakes, and Chris and Gary about Pycnanthemum torreyi.  I will be posting the video on this website in the coming weeks (or months) once it is edited.

Gary took a few more photos of other plants blooming in the preserve.  The Milk Vetch (Astragalus Canadensis), according to the Flora of Virginia, is rare in the mountains and infrequent in the Piedmont and on the Coastal Plain.  Nevertheless, it is blooming in profusion under my powerline. The Appalachian Fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolius), which grows in a barren near the summit of Naked Mountain, refused to open up for Gary’s camera, but the picture shows the habitat the plant thrives in – basically almost no soil, dry, exposed rock.  Each bloom, a knock-your-socks off vibrant magenta with 10-20 bright yellow stamens, opens for just one afternoon then quickly evolves into fruit.  The plant is infrequent to rare in the Piedmont.

Milk Vetch (Astragalas canadensis) blooming in profusion under powerline on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

Appalachian Fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolium) blooming (almost!) in a barren near the summit of Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

And finally, below is a photo of a plant several of us passed by in the woodlands surrounding the barrens: Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana). This plant really lived up to its name; it was at least four feet tall!

Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana) blooming in the woodland near the barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by author

 

Fracking Pipeline Threatens Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve!

I am in shock!  Yesterday I received a certified letter from Dominion Transmission, Inc., aka “Dominion” notifying me that they are proposing to run a natural gas pipeline from the fracking fields of West Virginia through precious, unspoiled rural areas of Virginia – including my property – and on to the shipping ports of North Carolina. Here are the key paragraphs:

“I am writing on behalf of …”Dominion” to tell you about a new natural gas pipeline project that Dominion is researching as a possibility for your area. We are referring to this pipeline as the “Southeast Reliability Project.” The purpose of the pipeline is to increase the availability of natural gas supplies in parts of the Southeast, including Virginia, thereby helping promote stable energy prices and economic development.

Typically, the first step in a new project is to conduct surveys and environmerital studies along a potential route corridor. Your property has been identified as being in this corridor and we are notifying you so that we can begin keeping you informed throughout this process and because surveys will be conducted on your property.”

The letter goes on to request my permission to conduct the survey, but this is merely a polite formality.  I am told maps of this project bring the pipeline up over the top of Naked Mountain and right through the barrens where the beautiful Shooting Stars bloom and where the rare Torrey’s Mountain Mint grows.

Here are some photos, taken this spring, of what is threatened by this project:

Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) blooming with Small-flowered Phacelia (Phacelia dubia) in the barrens on Naked Mountain. Many thousands bloom in a warren of barrens across the Southeastern face of Naked Mountain. Click on photo to enlarge.

Small-flowered Phacelia (Phacelia dubia) was blooming in profusion in many open spots across Naked Mountain this spring. Click on photo to enlarge.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginia) and Phacelia blooming in the barren on the ridge top near my home.

Yellow Pimpernel (Taenidia integerrima) blooming along my upper road.

Fortunately for me, and for the plants, birds and animals that call Naked Mountain their home, my property is under conservation easement with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.  As one of the state’s designated Natural Area Preserves, my property is protected from “takings” for energy transmission lines and pipelines, but not without a fight.  I also intend to join Friends of Nelson (County) to help all the citizens that live in this beautiful, rural area fight this pipeline proposal.  If you want to help, search google for Friends of Nelson which will have a web site up and running very soon.

 

Woodcock Encounter During Garlic Mustard Pull

You never know what surprises you may encounter when you venture out deep into the spring woods of Virginia.

Female American Woodcock laying very still in the leaf litter on Naked Mountain hoping I don’t see her. She has one chick huddled near her — see the photo below

Yesterday’s walk in the woods was mission driven.  It was the scheduled date for my steward, Ryan Klopf, from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program (DCR-VNHP), to help me pull Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolara) on Naked Mountain.  Garlic Mustard is an aggressive invasive plant that thrives in Virginia’s forests and woodlands and can easily overwhelm native species if it is not dealt with.  Fortunately, it is easy to pull out of the ground, but this must be done before it goes to seed and the entire plant must be removed from the site it has invaded.  You can read more about Garlic Mustard here.

Ryan arrived with a very special visitor, Adam Christie, the newly hired DCR-VNHP steward for the recently established Shenandoah Valley stewardship region. Adam will be my new steward for the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve, and an immense help to Ryan and the entire effort that the Natural Heritage Program enterprise is making across the commonwealth. Ryan was struggling to cover an area from Floyd County near the North Carolina border to Frederick County near the West Virginia-Maryland border encompassing 20 Natural Area Preserves, many threatened with invasive species like Garlic Mustard, Ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima) and worse.  Across Virginia, since 2002, the Natural Area Preserve (NAP) system has added 29 new NAPs and 35,270 acres, yet the budget of the Natural Heritage Program has been cut over this same timeframe.  A welcome recent small increase in the budget allowed the agency to hire Adam and give Ryan, and the precious lands he struggles to manage, a break.  Now both Ryan and Adam can give the preserves in their jurisdictions better management attention.  But there are many, many additional needs; so much more could be done and discovered and the dedicated staff at the agency is anxious to undertake and meet that challenge.  You can read more about the Virginia Natural Heritage Program and its wonderful work and contributions, including authorship of the recently published Flora of Virginia, here.

Ryan Klopf (left) and Adam Christie (right), stewards with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program, help me pull Garlic Mustard on Naked Mountain.

We arrived at our Garlic Mustard site by making a steep descent from the summit of Naked Mountain down a rocky face strewn with downed trees onto a flat saddle area that links the mountain with nearby ridges.  Adam noted the maturity of the trees at the site; he guessed they were about 100 years old, and the richness of the soil:  full of worms, black and loamy.  Not surprisingly, the flora was exhibiting richness as well – the floor of the saddle was thick with May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) now in fruit, Cut-leaved Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), blooming yellow violets (? subspecies), not yet blooming Wild Ginger (Asarum candense) and emerging Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa). I wish I had ventured down into this saddle to see the bloodroot two weeks ago – what a show it must have put on!  But I plan not to miss the Black Cohosh show this summer.

The forest floor at this site on Naked Mountain where a saddle, extending north about 300 feet below the summit, connects the mountain with nearby ridges. See the text for notation of plants in photo. See any others? What are they?

Then Adam called out to Ryan and me to come see a bird that was sitting completely still on the forest floor, a lone quiet chick at her side.  It was a female American Woodcock!  She and her chick were beautifully camouflaged and her confidence in this trait let me get pretty close to take a few pictures. It’s no wonder she was there – probably using that impressive beak to probe for those plentiful, nutritious worms.  Later, as we moved away and resumed our invasive plant work, she performed a sort of broken-wing display – labored wingbeats, dragged legs – to keep us distracted away from her chick.  We were very compliant!

American Woodcock chick on Naked Mountain. The chick is facing away from the camera; its mother is to its left, you can see her russet brown belly.

You can both read about and listen to sounds of the fascinating courtship behavior of a displaying male American Woodcock here.  Their wings make a distinct twittering sound as they rise up from a grassy area at dusk, or dawn and make higher and higher and tighter and tighter circles and then descend in a zig-zag flight pattern chirping nicely on the way down and back to their initial grassy spot.  All this is for the benefit of a nearly female.  I used to see this behavior while sitting on a bench at the edge of the small barren just a few feet from my house.  But then it stopped; I found a pile of feathers where the Woodcock used to court his lady… sigh.

At Last — Spring Has Come to Naked Mountain

It has been a long wait for spring this year.  What a winter!  Naked Mountain had lots of snow and impeded my progress a number of times.  One time, my car got completely stuck at the very bottom of my road.  I loaded three days of fresh groceries into my backpack and hiked the two and a half miles up to the house in the snow.  It was tiring, but I was pleased with myself that I could do it without too much trouble at the age of 66!

But now comes the reward – spring!  I ventured out onto the summit to look for spring ephemerals.  I didn’t have to go very far; they were everywhere! In peak bloom were acres of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and Cut-leaved Toothwort (Dentaria lacinata).

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooming on Naked Mountain.

 

Cut-leaved Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata) blooming on Naked Mountain.

Here is a photo of a lovely blooming patch of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea ripens).  This is not technically on Naked Mountain, but rather on the banks of Dutch Creek which flows at the Northeastern base of Naked Mountain.  It offers a fragrant welcome to all who make the sharp left turn up my road.

I also checked out the progress of a small colony of Shooting Stars (Primula meadia) on the edge of a small barren on the ridge top near the house and was surprised to see how many were popping up. Six years ago there were only two plants, now there are 16.  So, this colony is beginning to take off.  Naked Mountain is unusual for its massive quantities of Shooting Stars numbering at least ten thousand.

Shooting Stars (Primulus meadia) emerging on Naked Mountain.

I stumble on colonies in various places on the mountain and have been watching the progress of this one near the house.  The soil seems to favor their growth as it has a mafic substrate, specifically amphibolite, which has been metamorphosed from basalt.  So, the soil has higher concentrations of calcium and magnesium, similar to limestone, which is where Shooting Stars are more frequently found.  According to samples collected by Natural Heritage Program staff, it also happens to have lower concentrations of iron compared to most soils on mafic substrates.  I discussed this with Gary Fleming, senior vegetation ecologist with the Virginia Natural Heritage Program (DCR) who posits that since Shooting Stars are a prairie flower, the pathways to its distribution East in Virginia are limited by the barrier of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shooting Stars must have the right alkaline soils, lower elevations, both of which describe Naked Mountain, and access to a prairie pathway.

How about that railway in the valley at the base of the Southeastern slope of Naked Mountain? Maybe, but it goes South, not West.  So, a delightful mystery!

 

 

Gratification!

Yesterday was a day to relish.  I traveled sixty miles from my home to Johns Hopkins Hospital to have what I hoped would be a final follow-up visit at the Kelly Gynecologic Oncology Service where I had been treated five years before for advanced ovarian cancer.  And my hopes were realized.

Dr. G. said that he had no real recommendation for further follow-up for me.  I was five years post-treatment and had not had a detectable recurrence of my disease. He said, “This is when we begin using words like cured.”  He said while oncologists never talk in terms of a 100 percent likelihood of cure, he could say I have a 90 percent chance of never experiencing a recurrence.  He said I was extremely lucky and it was a very happy moment for everyone concerned.  I thanked him for his help and said I owed my successful survival to everyone on the Hopkins team.  It was very clear to me the care was superb and critical to my outcome.

Dr. G. demurred a bit saying he would like to take credit when his patients do well, but some of this is also likely due to genetic make-up.  A friend in the room then asked him about any related cancers, that is, if one has had ovarian cancer, is there a likelihood of secondary, related disease.  Dr. G. said for those with the BRCA 1 or 2 mutations, breast cancer would be related.  He also noted that the BRCA genes, at least for ovarian cancer, seem to provide a protective quality making the cancer more sensitive to the chemotherapy drugs given to destroy it.  He said he often wonders about BRCA mutations when a patient has achieved a five year anniversary with no recurrence of disease. He then asked about my family history of breast and ovarian cancer.  This issue had been thoroughly discussed with my first GYN- oncologist, Dr. Bristow.  My family history is not without breast cancer victims, but all were stuck by the disease in their fifties, some generations skipped disease altogether, and no one but me had developed ovarian cancer.  This is not the typical disease profile for a family with BRCA mutated genes.  Dr. G. said I might want to talk with the Breast and Ovarian Surveillance Service and Genetic Testing group at Hopkins for the sake of my family members to see what they think.  I said I would.

Dr. G. said another related cancer is leukemia, a consequence of chemotherapy, but this was a small likelihood.  I had read about this in a fascinating book on the history of cancer and its treatment called, The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010.  I also knew that leukemia can be caused by too much radiation absorbed by CT scans, or other radiological tests, and especially as a consequence of radiation therapy.

But these small risks were worth the fight to defeat ovarian cancer.  That disease was going to kill me in a matter of a year or so.  I may never develop leukemia and I never miss a mammogram.  So, as Dr. G. said, I am now at the same risk as everyone else in the population for cancers like colon and lung.  It may sound strange to say this, but that sounds good to me!

As I left the exam room and gave my paperwork to the clerk to check me out, she asked me if I needed another appointment.  She could not have known how gratifying it was to answer, “No.”

 

Today is my Five Year Anniversary Post-Ovarian Cancer Treatment!

This is a momentous day for me and for anyone who has suffered from cancer.  Today marks the fifth anniversary since I finished treatment for advanced ovarian cancer – epithelial, stage IIIC. I was diagnosed in March of 2008 and received eight months of treatment involving two major laparotomies and nine cycles of both intravenous and intraperitoneal chemotherapy. I have been followed every six months since finishing treatment.  For three years, this meant a CT scan, plus a CA 125 blood test, an internal exam and careful questioning about symptoms.  At my three year anniversary, without signs of a recurrence of my cancer, I elected not to receive any more CT scans. From the time of diagnosis through my three year follow-up I had received a total of ten and had growing anxiety about hurting my apparent, and hard-won, good health by subjecting my body to pretty high doses of radiation with each CT scan.  I discussed this with my oncologist who acquiesced to my decision as long as I watched and reported any symptoms and continued to be followed with blood tests.  If symptoms occurred, or the CA 125 began to steadily rise, we would then do a CT scan to provide additional information.

I had my intravenous port taken out just last May, four and a half years after finishing treatment.  Given my diagnosis, the chances of a recurrence were over 75 percent, I was urged to keep the port as an “insurance policy.”  So, I did, faithfully getting it flushed every 1-2 months all those years. I paid out-of-pocket for these flushes as well as the CT scans since I had an individual insurance policy with a high deductible.  My total out-of-pocket costs in a year amounted to $20,000 before finally getting on Medicare last December.  What a relief!

I will travel to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore today to see the third gynecologic oncologist I have had since I began treatment, the other two have since left Hopkins for other venues.  This doctor was part of the team that treated me in 2008, so he saw me in clinic at least once and dealt with an infection in my abdominal medi-port site.  I don’t know if he will consider me “cancer free” at this five year mark without a CT scan, but I fervently hope so.  I am hoping he will say I am discharged from the Kelly Gynecologic Oncology Service to the annual care of a local gynecologist.  We will see.

This is a day for reflection.  The first thoughts and feelings I have are extreme gratitude for my apparent good health.  I have been able to truly push the anxieties of having had cancer into the deeper recesses of my psyche where it has only surfaced around my six month follow-up visits.  Much more difficult has been dealing with the profound feelings of loss after my husband’s death from pancreatic cancer just six months after finishing my own treatment.  He became ill the week before my last chemotherapy and had emergency surgery for a completely blocked gastrointestinal system the night before that last treatment.  It took three weeks to get a definitive diagnosis, and the completely devastating news that he had advanced pancreatic cancer.  That news was delivered to us in a room on the same floor, just steps down the hallway from where I saw my GYN- oncologist – my destination today.  So my hope and feelings of gratitude are tinged with sadness for my husband who died in otherwise excellent health at age 59.  Life, for sure, isn’t fair!

My gratitude goes first to the doctors and nurses and other members of my care team at Johns Hopkins who gave me top notch expert care.  This article published in the New York Times last March explains why that expertise is so critical to a good outcome.  The study featured in the piece involved more than 13,000 ovarian patients and found that two-thirds did not receive standard care recommended by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.  Dr. Bristow, the lead author on the study, used to head the Kelly Gynecologic Oncology Center at Johns Hopkins, and he was my gynecologic oncologist all during the active treatment phase of my care.  I not only had excellent, expert “search and destroy” surgery, I also had aggressive chemotherapy involving both intravenous and intraperitoneal delivery of chemotherapy drugs which research has definitively shown significantly improves survival.

Two paragraphs from the article offer, I think, surprising and strong reasons for ovarian cancer sufferers to feel hopeful:

“Ovarian cancer has unusual traits that make it more treatable than some other cancers. It is less likely to spread through the bloodstream and lymph system to distant organs like the lungs and brain. The tumors do spread, but usually within the abdomen and pelvis, where they tend to coat other organs but not eat into them and destroy them, said Dr. Matthew A. Powell, a gynecologic oncologist and associate professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

 And most ovarian cancers are extremely sensitive to chemotherapy, experts said.”

My gratitude goes secondly to my family and friends without whose steadfast support I could not have sustained the difficult journey of being diagnosed with a late-stage cancer, undergoing debilitating surgeries and chemotherapy, followed quickly and unbelievably by the illness and death of my closest best supporter, my husband.  Without these people in my life, I believe my medical team would not have been able to succeed as well as it seems they have.

Today we will see if I am done with this nightmare and can finally truly and completely move on.

 

Help Has Arrived!

Faced with a whole mountain infested with Ailanthus sprouts, the legacy of 10,000 mature trees killed over a three year period between 2005-2008, (see September 12, 2013 post) I called out for help.  And I got it today.  Ryan Klopf, PhD, Mountain Region Steward for the Natural Heritage Program , a Division of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation which holds the conservation easement on Naked Mountain, and Wes Paulos, Mountain Region Steward Operations staff came armed with backpack sprayers.

Ryan Klopf, PhD and Wes Paulos, stewards with the Virginia Natural Heritage Program treating Ailanthus sprouts on Naked Mountain

Together we surveyed about a fifteen acre area to treat with diluted Round-up (Glyphosate).  I scouted for what we hoped would be the margins of the infestation, and Ryan and Wes treated the small sprouts with the herbicide. Unfortunately, I never found the margin; Ailanthus sprouts showed up no matter how far down the North or the South slope I traveled.  Very discouraging.  But, we have a plan to treat the whole mountain, section by section next season, or as much of it as we can.  Ryan will equip me with a backpack sprayer that works; I have an old one that doesn’t.  I was impressed today that their approach is much more efficient than my painstaking hand-pulling method.  Ryan and Wes covered three times the area I have covered after 16 hours of work!  I have my pesticide certification, so this is something I am familiar with and I know how to apply the chemical as safely as possible to protect native plant species, pollinators and human species.

While I was scouting I saw a gorgeous Late Purple Aster with knock-your-socks off color.  I assume the species is Symphyotrichum patens, but could it be S. phlogifolium which Flora of Virginia notes occurs mainly in rich upland forests and dry calcareous woodlands?  That would describe Naked Mountain.

Late Purple Aster (? S. patens or S. phlogifolium) Blooming on Naked Mountain. Click on photo to enlarge.

I also encountered a small but very distinguished critter.  He, or she, was the size of my pinky finger, about ¾ inch thick, maybe ten inches long and curled up on the root ball of a downed tree taking a sun bath.

Baby Timber Rattlesnake curled up in the sun on Naked Mountain. Click on photo to enlarge.

Last evening as I was returning home from a fascinating short course on Pollinator Conservation Planning provided jointly by the Xerces Society and the Natural Resources Conservation Services agency of the US Department of Agriculture, I spotted an interesting plant blooming next to my lower gate.  Here it is blown up.  Can you see the pollinators at work? Click on the photo to enlarge it.  Do you know what this rather common, but gorgeous species is?

Finally, I need to tell you that I am now in receipt of my fabulous 65th birthday present from a very dear friend.  Here it is:

Lara Call Gastinger, the extremely talented botanical artist who produced it and recently visited Naked Mountain (See September 12, 2013 post) was also the featured speaker at the annual meeting of the Virginia Native Plant Society.  What a treasure this gift is!

Oh, by the way, I was elected Chair of the Conservation Committee at the VNPS annual meeting.  Looking forward to the challenge to serve an absolutely fabulous organization!

 

Special Visitor Comes to Naked Mountain

I had a very special visitor come to Naked Mountain last week:  Lara Gastinger, the principal artist for the Flora of Virginia.

Flora of Virginia artist, Lara Gastinger, on my deck on Naked Mountain.

Lara has received a commission from a friend of mine, a 65th birthday gift, to paint a watercolor portrait of a plant of my choosing.  Since I have so many wonderful plants to choose from on Naked Mountain, I asked Gary Fleming to help me decide.  Gary, senior vegetation ecologist with the Natural Heritage Program within Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, has visited Naked Mountain several times and knows its flora well.  Gary suggested I choose Phemeranthes teretifolius (Fameflower) because it only grows in the Piedmont on mafic barrens.  Naked Mountain has many of those and several support this unusual plant.  The plant is unusual because each flower only blooms for one sunny afternoon and then progresses rapidly to fruit.  Lara wanted to visit the plant in person to help her complete her portrait.  I can’t wait to see it.  Lara is a truly fabulous botanical artist which a peruse of the Flora will immediately evidence.  You can read more about Lara and see her exquisite work on her website here.

During our visit, Lara and I took a short hike up to the summit of Naked Mountain.  She was interested in seeing the flora that were blooming in the thin, mostly Quercus prinus (Chestnut Oak) woodland that grows in the sparse soils between the lichen-covered rocks.  Below is a sampling of what we saw.

Gerardia laevigata (Entire-leaved False Foxglove). Photo by Lara Gastinger. Click on photo to enlarge.

Campanula rotundifolia (Harebell). Photo by author. Click on photo to enlarge.

One of the tasks I have been engaged in for two weeks is pulling literally thousands of Ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima) seedlings.  I first realized the problem when I checked the area around a tree on the ridgeline that had blown down in the July, 2012 derecho. I found 50-100 Ailanthus seedlings sprouting.  I then began checking all the blow down sights near the summit of Naked Mountain and began pulling dozens up to hundreds of seedlings in each site. Clearly, the damage from the derecho and this summer’s record rainfall has created excellent conditions for the Ailanthus seed bank to explode.  This is very discouraging since my husband and I killed probably 10,000 mature Ailanthus trees over a three year period from 2004-2007.  A check last summer (See the August 12, 2012 post) revealed almost no Ailanthus trees or saplings growing on Naked Mountain and the few that were found were treated with Garlon 3a via a hack and squirt technique around the base of each stem.  To now find that thousands of seeds are sprouting is overwhelming as I must try and monitor infested sites over nearly three hundred acres, much of it on very difficult, steep and rocky terrain.  But I am trying very hard to do this.  

 

One benefit of this lonely task is that it forces me to go out into tough terrain and so I see some interesting and completely new parts of the mountain.  I discovered, for instance, a second drift of Eurybia macrophylla (Large-leaved Aster).  This one is smaller than the one right at the summit that is about 20 feet by 20 feet in size.  Here is a photo of a selection of probably 100 plants in full bloom tucked in and around an old log.

Aster Macrophyllus (Large-leaved Aster). Photo by author.

I also discovered a rock cliff, covered with beautiful plants – grasses, ferns, flowers. on the top of the Northwest slope near the summit.  Several Fringe trees grew on top of the cliff. Here are a couple of photos from that discovery today:

Rock cliff on Northwest slope of Naked Mountain. Photo by author.

 

Rock cliff and Aster divaricatus (White Wood Aster). Photo by author.

 

 

 

Cardinal Flowers Galore!

When I returned to Naked Mountain from another summer family trip, this time to Cleveland, Ohio for a lovely wedding that took place on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie as the sun set and gulls soared overhead calling out their approval, another beautiful surprise awaited.  In a small seep right next to the road and measuring about twenty-five feet by eight feet, cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) were in full bloom.  As I photographed them I counted 87 plants in this small, wet space.  Most summers, this seep in August is damp, but not flowing.  This year much of the Eastern U.S. has experienced above average rainfall and the seep was running like it does in the spring.

Not so wonderful was the proliferation of Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) in the seep.  For six years, I have diligently pulled every blade I could find of this horrible invasive in late August, just before it goes to seed.  I have frequently had help in this work from local Master Naturalists.  We were making good progress:  Every year the infestation was noticeably less.  But this year, maybe because of the excessive rainfall, it was like starting over again –an explosion of the stuff.  So, after taking the photographs, I began a four hour session of pulling microstegium and only finished half the seep.  I will work on this again until I am satisfied it is clean! You can read more about Japanese Stiltgrass here.

A special benefit of spending quiet time doing this not-so-unpleasant task in the middle of a natural area preserve is appreciating being in a natural place.  Three Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio troilus) worked the cardinal flowers for nectar as I pulled out the weed beneath them that would harm the plants’ ability to thrive and so diminish a helpful food source for the butterflies.

Naked Mountain Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly sipping nectar on a Cardinal flower.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another one…

 

Spicebush Swallowtails are easy to identify because they have two rows of orange spots on the undersides of their hindwings and they are the only black butterfly to flicker its wings as it perches on a flower. That makes photographing them a special challenge!  Their host plant is spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafrass (Sassafrass albidum) both of which are in abundance on Naked Mountain.  You can read more about Spicebush Swallowtail butterfies here.

Then, I heard the distinctive buzz of a hummingbird’s wings.  I looked up to see a tiny bird that looked more like a bee hovering — checking me out.  I guess it didn’t like dealing with a human in the middle of a favorite nectar spot – it flew off.  I am sure it came back for a good meal after I left.

Sunflowers and Nodding Wild Onion Greet My Return!

Woodland Sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus) and Nodding Wild Onions blooming on Naked Mountain

I returned to Naked Mountain after a three week absence spent visiting family and friends in New England.  What a welcome I received!  The small barren that is just a short walk from my house up a foot-tramped path is ablaze with masses of blooming Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) and Nodding Wild Onion (Alluim cernuum). What a show!  Tucked in along the edges of the rock were a few dozen Fameflowers (Phemeranthus teretifolius).  They were mostly already in fruit, but a few had pink buds that will open only on a sunny afternoon, and only for a few hours for exactly one day —  that’s it until next year.  Also blooming were a dozen or so Orange-grass, or Pineweed plants (Hypericum genitanoides).

Close up of Nodding Wild Onion Plants (Allium cernuum).

This little barren is such a pleasure – just steps away and a continuing display of gorgeous Virginia native plants.  The trees you see in the background are mixed Chestnut Oak (Quercus Montana) and (I think) Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra).  The small tree that is growing right out of the rock is a Persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) and it is covered with fruit. Also plentiful, but hard to see in this photo are Fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus).  They put on quite a display in May, but I will wait until then to show this to you. The grasses include Poverty Oatgrass (Danthonia spicata) and other species that I have not yet identified.  I also know nothing yet about the various mosses and lichens that are plentiful in this barren – more fun discovery work!

I checked on the bluebird box and, as expected, it was empty:  The nestlings had fledged.  I took the box down and cleaned it out, disposing of the nest.  Under the nest I found hundred of tiny ants that probably made life pretty unpleasant for the little baby birds. That sort of insect infestation is a common occurrence in nest boxes.  I scrubbed the bottom and sides of the box with a wire brush.  Then I scrubbed it with a sponge dipped in mild bleach solution to disinfect.  I let the box dry thoroughly in the sunshine and then remounted the box – all ready for another brood.

Last evening, while I was dining on my deck as the sun set, a little flock of bluebirds flew over my head. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the little family that had its beginnings a few steps away in the nest box in the small barren where the sunflowers and nodding wild onion are now blooming….