Blooming Cardinal Flowers

I awoke today to a typically hot, hazy August day on Naked Mountain.  The view of the Blue Ridge Mountains is soft, vague, muted by humid air.  The evening sunsets over the past few days have been like a Japanese print:  a red ball sun, almost like a cardboard cut-out, hanging in a smooth, blue-gray sky over a similarly colored landscape. 

Hot, summer weather brings out the cicadas.  They seem to be particularly numerous this year, possibly due to the emergence of the Blue Ridge Brood, a 17 year cycle cicada that occurs in the upland areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and West Virginia.  Brood cicadas live underground for either 13 or 17 years depending on the specific population.  They hibernate in a nymph stage and survive by sucking on nutrients in the roots of trees.  When they are ready to emerge to mate and lay their eggs they do so by the tens of thousands, sometimes by the millions. 

Male cicadas “sing” to attract females using a complex process involving contraction of their abdominal muscles causing ribbed membranes, called tymbals, to make loud clicking sounds.  First a tymbal on one side of the abdomen is contracted and released, then the same movement is made with the tymbal on the other side of the abdomen.   The resulting sound is a loud, pulsating scream that lasts several minutes before softening and lowering a bit in pitch, but then it often starts right up again.  When a “singing” male cicada is perched on a sunny tree branch near you, it is hard to hear yourself think!  You have to raise your voice to be heard by someone standing right next to you.   You can read more about these fascinating insects here. 

Earlier today I drove down my 2.4 mile gravel road to complete an errand in Lovingston.  Lovingston, the Nelson County seat and the location of the nearest grocery store, is a good ten miles from my house on top of Naked Mountain.  About half way down the mountain, at about an elevation of 1100 feet, a flash of bright red

Cardinal Flowers Blooming on Naked Mountain

on my right caught my eye.  I stopped the car to investigate.  There in a small seep next to the road were dozens of blooming cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). You can read more about the ecology of seeps in Virginia here.  I counted 75 plants, each nearly three feet tall, in an area no bigger than 30 feet by 20 feet.  Wonderful!   


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