I timed it. In just eight minutes I can drive from my house to Pandapas Pond, one of the best family nature spots I’ve ever visited – living in Blacksburg is the best!
We go there fairly often, but not often enough. I say this because the trails around Pandapas (called the Poverty Creek trail system – over 17 miles of hiking) are full of rhododendrons and I have still not been up there when they’re all in bloom. Four years as an undergrad at Virginia Tech, one as a young newlywed, and now three years as a townie, and I haven’t seen the rhodies in bloom. Unacceptable. And now, with our move date only a year away, I’m down to my last two springs, my last two chances.
Here in town, the rhododendrons are just finishing bloom. So, doing my handy-dandy elevation math, with Pandapas at 2,196 feet and Blacksburg at 2,080 feet, and spring climbing the mountain at 100 feet per day (heaven help me, I’m writing a word problem – and I so hated math class) I was about to miss them again!
So yesterday evening we hopped in the car and went. No plans, no packs, just decent walking shoes and the golden sunlight of evening. Perfect.
Except the rhodies weren’t blooming. Actually, we did see one, on the way out, in deep shade and in full, glorious bloom. But it turned out to be the cherry on the sundae, because everything else going on at the pond pushed the rhododendrons right out of my mind within five minutes of being there.
My daughter, Abbey, recorded over 30 different plants and animals in her nature notebook. (FYI, if you want to slow an eight-year-old kid down so you can have a leisurely nature walk, give her a waterproof camera and a nature notebook. Works like a charm.) I’m not going to review all 30 here because it’s a beautiful day and I want to get outside, but here are the highlights:
These are what made me temporarily forget the rhododendrons. The mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) were blooming everywhere in shades of delicate pink pretty enough to make just about anything slip your mind. This is one of my favorite parts of nature – that it can so occupy the senses that the mind has no room left to process worries.
Mountain laurel also goes by the names “spoonwood”, because early Americans made spoons from its wood (again, nature names are often utilitarian or descriptive) or “lambkill”. Want to guess at the origin of that second one? Yep, lambs that ate mountain laurel could end up dead. Mountain laurel is toxic to livestock and to humans, so much so that even eating honey made from the nectar of its flowers could give you a bad case of stomach upset. Not that you would, thankfully, because the honey is very bitter.
The poison within the plant is called grayanotoxin. Various Native American tribes made use of the plant externally as an analgesic or anti-inflammatory, and I hope that somewhere in a lab they’ve got this stuff stocked away for further study as to its medical uses. After they get rid of the hideous diarrhea and vomiting side effects of course.
Not that that’s what I want you to remember about mountain laurel. Remember this, please: oooohhhhh, pretty, pretty, pretty – so pink and pretty!
Canada Geese & Goslings
Pandapas is a year-round haunt for Canada geese (Branta canadensis). They’re rather tame, too, and will even follow you at a safe distance on the off chance that you’ll drop a crumb of bread or toddler’s Cheerio. We didn’t feed them (not that I’m morally opposed to it; I’d just use birdseed rather than bread) but they let us get close enough to take good photographs of the goslings still in their fluffy baby feathers.
The only notice they took of us was a little perfunctory head bobbing and hissing performed by one of the adult geese in the group when we got within three feet. Did I say rather tame? I meant very tame. A wilder goose would likely have spread his wings to look bigger and chased us off, snapping its bill. They’ve even been known to bite (though they don’t have real teeth, so it’s more like a vicious pinch). Not these geese, though; they treated us like the possibly-profitable/possibly-annoying tourists that we were.
Black Locust Blossoms
Moving on around the pond’s flat, graveled, one mile loop trail, we ran right into some low hanging black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) blossoms. They look like lacy frills from far away, but up close they’re velvety and sumptuous, the color of cream sauce with tiny floating pools of butter. (Yes, I’m writing at lunch time again.) I photographed the blossoms on the left a little further around the trail in a sunny spot. The first ones we saw were in shade and a bit to high to get a really good picture. (I’m still bitter about the poor quality of zoomed photos from my phone.) Abbey took a fairly good shot of these, though, with the “real” camera, which I’m using with her permission here on the right.
Cockspur Hawthorn Blossoms
Not to be outdone by the locust trees, just across the path we were stunned by some small (20′) trees absolutely covered with tiny white flowers. The five-petaled blooms gave me the hint that this tree is in the rose family, just like so many other wild fruit trees, such as black cherry, crabapple, and beach plum, but it just didn’t “look right” to be any of those. Closer examination of the photos we took, showing large thorns among the blooms, and a bit of research in my identification books makes me believe it’s cockspur hawthorn (Cragaegus crus-galli). If you know better, please post in the comment section!
Eastern Tent Caterpillar
The tents in the trees are looking brown and tattered, so it’s no surprise that we found a fully-grown Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) out of its webby nest and crawling across the path in search of a place to pupate. The caterpillar is much more colorful than the beige moth it will become, with a bright white stripe down its back flanked by alternating yellow, black, and periwinkle blue stripes on its sides. It even has a row of half-moon eyespots running the length of each side of its body, and the whole caterpillar is covered with fine, yellow hairs.
In general, hairy or “tufted” caterpillars are best left untouched, as their hairs or bristles can give a nasty sting, but there are no warnings on this one in my caterpillars guide book. Still, my husband gently lifted the caterpillar with a stick (let it crawl on, don’t scrape it up!) so we could examine it more closely. Gorgeous. Made me dislike the trashy looking tents much less!
Okay, we’ve barely rounded the first corner of the loop trail and look how much we’ve seen! I’m starving though, so stand by for part two, which I hope to publish later this evening, or at least after some lunch!