What’s Blooming Now: A Wildflower Gallery

This post could be 14,000 words long.

Or I could use 14 pictures and give them all captions that will tell you a bit about the flower pictured, then get myself back out into the gorgeous weather to experience more nature.

Yeah, that’s way better.

This particular cluster of elder flowers is only half-bloomed.  Later, the blossoms will give way to tiny, purple-black berries that are a staple food source for wild birds.  If you can beat the birds to them, the berries can be used to make jelly or, even better, wine!

This particular cluster of elder flowers is only half-bloomed. Later, the blossoms will give way to tiny, purple-black berries that are a staple food source for wild birds. If you can beat the birds to them, the berries can be used to make jelly or, even better, wine!

The elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)  bushes are blooming in flat topped clusters of tiny white flowers.  Look for them in moist forests and at road sides.

The elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) bushes are blooming in flat topped clusters of tiny white flowers. Look for them in moist forests and at road sides.

Wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) from afar looks like a dusting of gold on top of tall (5-6 foot), flat elf umbrellas.  Look for it in open fields and on roadsides.

Wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) from afar looks like a dusting of gold on top of tall (5-6 foot), flat elf umbrellas. Look for it in open fields and on roadsides.

The wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) is also in the carrot family and, therefore, resembles the poisonous water hemlock except for the gorgeous citrine flowers.  Though held in the same loose umbel (umbrella-like cluster of flowers), the golden blossoms are a standout.  Unfortunately, water hemlock and wild parsnip have been confused by too many people in the past, leading to human consumption of a hemlock root and deadly results.

The wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) is also in the carrot family and, therefore, resembles the poisonous water hemlock except for the gorgeous citrine flowers. Though held in the same loose umbel (umbrella-like cluster of flowers), the golden blossoms are a standout. Unfortunately, water hemlock (see below) and wild parsnip have been confused by too many people in the past, leading to human consumption of a hemlock root and deadly results.

The field thistles (Cirsium discolor) are just beginning to blossom, but the butterflies and bees have already found them.  This cabbage white butterfly (Find a thistle and you'll find a treasure trove of pollinators to study.  You'll also likely spy an American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) checking the plant for any ripe seeds, which are their main source of food; it isn't until the thistle blooms that the goldfinches will breed - they want to be sure of a steady food source for their nestlings.

The field thistles (Cirsium discolor) are just beginning to blossom, but the butterflies and bees have already found them. This cabbage white butterfly (Find a thistle and you’ll find a treasure trove of pollinators to study. You’ll also likely spy an American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) checking the plant for any ripe seeds, which are their main source of food; it isn’t until the thistle blooms that the goldfinches will breed – they want to be sure of a steady food source for their nestlings.

Just before I aimed my camera at this lovely patch of field thistle, a brilliantly yellow and black male American goldfinch took off from one of the stalks.  The energy of his lemon feathers against the purple of the thistle was electric.

Just before I aimed my camera at this lovely patch of field thistle, a brilliantly yellow and black male American goldfinch took off from one of the stalks. The energy of his lemon feathers against the purple of the thistle was electric.

From afar, water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) looks like delicate, white, fluffy tufts.  It stands about five feet tall and, though it's related to the edible carrot, it can kill with just a nibble.

From afar, water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) looks like delicate, white, fluffy tufts. It stands about five feet tall and, though it’s related to the edible carrot, it can kill with just a nibble.

This is what a water hemlock plant (Cicuta maculata) looks like.  Pretty to the eyes but not to be eaten - all parts of the plant are deadly poisonous, and it only takes a small quantity to kill a grown person.  Cattle, horses, and other livestock have died from grazing on it.

This is what a water hemlock plant (Cicuta maculata) looks like. Pretty to the eyes but not to be eaten – all parts of the plant are deadly poisonous, and it only takes a small quantity to kill a grown person. Cattle, horses, and other livestock have died from grazing on it.

A beloved summertime treat of my childhood, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is actually a non-native.  Introduced from Asia, this invasive climbing vine has made itself quite at home in the USA.  The only way I stop myself from being upset over the fact that it's an invader is by realizing that this means we should drink the nectar from as many flowers as possible to prevent the plant from spreading by seed.  I'm on it!

A beloved summertime treat of my childhood, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is actually a non-native. Introduced from Asia, this invasive climbing vine has made itself quite at home in the USA. The only way I stop myself from being upset over the fact that it’s an invader is by realizing that this means we should drink the nectar from as many flowers as possible to prevent the plant from spreading by seed. I’m on it!

How could they name a plant this pretty

How could they name a plant this pretty “spiderwort”; I’m a gal that loves spiders and I still cringe at the “wort” part. However, etymologists tell us that the word “wort” comes from old English and, in fact, means “good”. The only association with spiders is that (to someone who had good intentions, I’m sure) the angular arrangement of spiderwort’s (Tradescantia virginiana) leaves looked like a sitting spider.

If you’ve driven on a highway lately, you’ve likely noticed that the hillsides seem covered with a lacy pink blanket. This is crown vetch (Coronilla varia). It’s a member of the pea family and a cousin of red clover (Trifolium pratense), which you might mistake it for as you whiz down the road. Crown vetch, though, was imported from Europe and used to stabilize hillsides (hence its appearance next to highways). Though it’s an invasive import, I still like it better than the other vine imported to stabilize hillsides, kudzu. Not only is crown vetch prettier, but it’s not eating the entire southeast the way kudzu is!

One more pretty poison is in blossom right now, the bittersweet nightshade vine (Solanum dulcamara).  It is a member of the nightshade family  introduced from Europe.  Europeans first colonizing the Americas were treated to two wonderful, edible members of the nightshade family, tomatoes and potatoes, which they didn't trust at first because their experience with nightshade included the many poisonous plants of the family.

One more pretty poison is in blossom right now, the bittersweet nightshade vine (Solanum dulcamara). It is a member of the nightshade family
introduced from Europe. Europeans first colonizing the Americas were treated to two wonderful, edible members of the nightshade family, tomatoes and potatoes, which they didn’t trust at first because their experience with nightshade included the many poisonous plants of the family.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is, perhaps, my favorite wildflower.  I just can't get over its color - more blue than purple, more bright than pastel, delicate and powerful all at the same time.  And, if that weren't enough, the chicory root can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute (or blended with regular coffee - very popular in the deep south).  If you see a blue haze of flowers floating over a pasture nearby in the next couple of months, stop to look up close at a chicory flower - I know you'll love it, too!

Saved the best for last!  Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is, perhaps, my favorite wildflower. I just can’t get over its color – more blue than purple, more bright than pastel, delicate and powerful all at the same time. And, if that weren’t enough, the chicory root can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute (or blended with regular coffee – very popular in the deep south).

If you see a blue haze of flowers floating over a pasture nearby in the next couple of months, stop to look up close at a chicory flower - I know you'll love it, too!

If you see a blue haze of flowers floating over a pasture nearby in the next couple of months, stop to look up close at a chicory flower – I know you’ll love it, too!

Pandapas Pond – Part Two

Wednesday.  I’m in my house and should be sorting laundry or cleaning the kitchen or writing the grocery list.

But I promised a second part to our little trip to Pandapas Pond, and I’m a woman of honor, so I’m going to skip those other things and write about nature instead.

For you.  Because I’m selfless and committed like that.

Now let’s see. . .where were we at the end of part one?  Oh, yes, 2,196 feet high in the Jefferson National Forest, one quarter of the way around man-and-beaver-made Pandapas Pond with the golden evening sun pouring through the trees on the mountainside.

This photograph of a daisy (Chrysanthemum spp.) shows a honey bee having her fill of sweet nectar.  I captured this shot in 2013.

This photograph of a daisy (Chrysanthemum spp.) shows a honey bee having her fill of sweet nectar.

Five petals and plenty of thorns - you can bet this blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is related to the wild rose.  I took this photo in Louisiana in March of 2012; they bloom two months earlier that far south.

Five petals and plenty of thorns – you can bet this blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is related to the wild rose.

We walked past blackberry vines in bloom (Rubus allegheniensis, another member of the rose family of plants – five petaled flowers and fruit that follows, just like cherry and crabapple trees and cockspur hawthorn we talked about) and oxeye daisies (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) showing their friendly faces.

The bright orange native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea) is so gorgeous it makes me wonder why we bother with the nursery hybrid azaleas.  This beauty is blooming at Pandapas right now.

The bright orange native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea) is so gorgeous it makes me wonder why we bother with the nursery hybrid azaleas. This beauty is blooming at Pandapas right now.

We were drawn across the first bridge of this figure eight shaped pond by something that seemed to have been set aflame by slanted rays of the setting sun, but was, in fact, a flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea or Rhododendron calendulaceum depending on which book you reference) in full bloom, pictured at left.

Though the flowers have little smell and the blossom color can vary from soft yellow to muted red, hummingbirds and other pollinators have no trouble finding this native nectar source.

I’m growing a flame azalea in my back yard next to the deck stairs; I bought it at a local nursery that specializes in native plants.  It’s only about two feet tall right now, but someday it will reach 12 feet, and the bright orange, trumpet shaped flowers will be at eye level as I stand on the deck, which means that the hummingbirds visiting it will be at eye level, too!

More great information and excellent pictures of the flame azalea is available at another excellent blog, Virginia Wildflowers.

I’ve just realized that I’m straying from my usual bold title and underlying description format.  I’ll get back on track for the rest of the post.

Our next stop was the wetland boardwalk (the top of the figure eight, looking back into the wetlands that stretch into woods) where we sat, looked, and listened for almost an hour with birds overhead and fish beneath our feet.  Here are the rest of the highlights from our Sunday nature walk at Pandapas:

The star of the wetland songbird stage, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) trills its high notes all summer.  Photo provided by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

The star of the wetland songbird stage, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) trills its high notes all summer. Photo provided by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-winged Blackbird

“Conk-ka-reeeee” sang a male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) from the top of a nearby snag.  There are several dead trees (called “snags”) in the wetland area at the back of Pandapas, and the male was using the closest one as a stage, flashing his scarlet and gold epaulets.  He must have been singing for an all female audience in the nearby woods, because we didn’t see a single female respond.  That didn’t stop the gallant soloist, though, and my dear husband swears he heard a few new trills previously undocumented for the red-winged blackbird.  I doubt that in our family hour we made a minor discovery in wildlife biology, but I heard the different trill, too – a long trill that went up and back down like a shallow bowl turned over – and my interest is piqued!

This tail-wagging member of the flycatcher family of birds was fabulous to watch even if I never got a decent photo.  This excellent shot was provided by Manjithkaini via Wikimedia Commons.

This tail-wagging member of the flycatcher family of birds was fabulous to watch even if I never got a decent photo. This excellent shot of an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) was provided by Manjithkaini via Wikimedia Commons.

Eastern Phoebe

“Oooh, look over there, what’s that little bird?” my daughter asked.  My first answer?  It’s an LBB.

Ahh, the LBBs (Little Black Birds and Little Brown Birds) – they’re hard to distinguish from one another!  I never got close enough to be 100% certain that this was an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) and not an Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens), and heaven knows the zoom on my phone was no help (not that I’m bitter), but I got close enough to see the shape, size (about as long as my hand from base of palm to tip of middle finger), and behavior of the bird, so I’m fairly certain I’ve got it right.  The first thing you notice about a phoebe is that it’s a tail wagger, constantly pumping its tail up and down, and this little fellow was definitely wagging.  It was also perched on a low branch near the wetland boardwalk bridge, and phoebes nest under bridges and other overhangs.  The birdy never sang, but it did fly out and fly back to its perch on several insect-snatching sorties.  What this LBB lacks in size it makes up for in speed and maneuverability, which is too bad for the insects, who make up its meals.

This mallard mama is obviously more used to humans than the one we encountered at Pandapas.  I never got a clear shot of her and the ducklings, but Alan D. Wilson came through with this beautiful photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)mama is obviously more used to humans than the one we encountered at Pandapas. I never got a clear shot of her and the ducklings, but Alan D. Wilson came through with this beautiful photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Mystery Mallards

As we sat and watched Abbey sally forth up and down the boardwalk, spotting perch and Eastern newts in the tea-brown water, we kept an eye and ear on the field of cattails in the marsh.  And then they moved.  Suddenly.  Not blown by the wind, but by some not-tiny animal moving within them.  We all got excited.  I don’t know about the other two, but as I held my breath I wished for beavers.  Lots and lots of people have seen the beavers at Pandapas, but I haven’t.  Their lodge and dam work is obvious to all, but I’ve yet to spot the furry brown builders themselves.

I didn’t this time, either.  What did come waddling into a clearing was a mama mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and her half dozen ducklings.  And it didn’t matter that they weren’t beavers or that I’ve seen hundreds of them before, my face split into an instinctive grin at the fussing mother and the wandering, wobbling, fuzzy little babies.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) we saw was a female, like the one pictured here, but had less sparkly and duller green feathers because she was flying in the shade.  This fabulous specimen was captured by Dick Daniels and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) we saw was a female, like the one pictured here, but had less sparkly and duller green feathers because she was flying in the shade. This fabulous specimen was captured by Dick Daniels and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m extra glad for the noisy mallards that kept my eyes focused on the cattails because that gave me another gift – the sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).  The ruby-throat, as they’re often known, is the only hummingbird that visits us here in the mid-Atlantic region of North America.  I have planted lots of native, hummingbird friendly plants (coral honeysuckle, liatris, wild columbine, bee balm/monarda, and more) and have even hung a hummingbird feeder, so I know they’re out there, but still a sighting is rare.  They’re little green birds – well, if phoebes are little, then these are actually tiny – that dart so quickly through the landscape it’s hard to catch them.  In fact, they’re the only birds that are so maneuverable that they can fly backwards!

I thank my lucky stars that I saw this one, a female, I think, because I didn’t see the ruby throat that indicates a male, because she was gathering cattail fluff to tuck into her nest!  I saw her pluck fluffy seeds from the spent cattail flower stalk, fly to a second stalk, grab even more, and then carry it off in her beak as she flew away to the woods’ edge.  That kind of sighting, well, for a nature nerd like me, it’s enough to make your whole week!

And it did:  I’m still grinning.  But, on the other hand, it’s not going to get the laundry done, so off I go!

Spring at the Top of the Mountain

Spring green has reached the top of Brush Mountain!

I live just off of Prices Fork Road, so whenever I leave home, I get to drive parallel to Brush Mountain and have a good view of it over the fields of corn (right now they’re just fields of yellow cress) and grazing cattle.

A view of Brush Mountain from Heritage Park in Blacksburg, VA on April 22, 2015.

A view of Brush Mountain from Heritage Park in Blacksburg, VA on April 22, 2015.

I watch the mountain, see the seasons change over its great, sloping face, that looks somehow like a great expanse of clay shaped by a massive hand whose fingers carved the hollows, squeezing ridges up between them.

My husband swears that my love of nature will have me drive the car off the road one day.  He’s probably right.  I can’t honestly swear that my attention is fully focused on the road when I’m looking out my driver’s side window exclaiming “Look!  At the crest of the mountain!  One of the trees has gone bright green!”

But today it has!  I must get out to hike the Gateway Trail up the side of the mountain this afternoon to see how spring is spreading – watch the weeks reverse as I climb higher and higher.  Brush Mountain peaks at 3,100 feet, while Blacksburg sits at 2,080 feet.  My internet research says that spring moves up the mountainside at 100 feet per day. A little bit of math tells me that with each step up the mountain, I’ll travel backward in time over the last week and a half, seeing:

  1. Trees at the bottom mostly leafed out, with half-size, peridot green leaves obscuring the view of birds’ nests already
    White trillium blooming in Falls Ridge Nature Preserve near Blacksburg, VA in late April 2015.

    White trillium blooming in Falls Ridge Nature Preserve near Blacksburg, VA in late April 2015.

    made, some full of eggs, some with fledglings already squawking at mom and dad for food.  Dogwoods here are in full bloom or just past it.  Yellow and white violets blooming all over the forest floor, and maybe white and pink trilliums, too.

  2. Higher up I’ll see trees just beginning to leaf out, their seeds (“helicopter” samaras on the maples, dangling catkins on the birches) more prominent than their leaves, making the trees appear more yellow or orange than green.  Dogwood bracts (what look like the petals of their flowers are actually specialized leaves) smaller and still growing.  Redbuds and trees in the fruit family (cherries, apples, and pears) in full bloom.
  3. Up at the crest there will be but one or two trees showing green, most still those
    The colors of early spring blossoming on the trees of Sinking Creek mountain in Giles County, VA in early April 2012.

    The colors of early spring blossoming on the trees of Sinking Creek mountain in Giles County, VA in early April 2012.

    precious gem colors of earliest spring’s blossoms – ruby and garnet reds for the red maples, citrine for the sugar maples.  Yes, maples blossom first around here; their sap starts running in late winter (which is why maple syrup harvesters – heaven bless them – freeze themselves going out to check their taps as early as February).

And the thought of hiking to the top of Brush Mountain only makes me long to check out the even higher mountaintops.   Today I’ll hike the Gateway Trail, this weekend I’ll aim for the trails around Mountain Lake, situated on Salt Pond Mountain, which peaks at 4,360 feet – so high it’s called a “sky island”.

I’d like to see what’s blooming in the “sky”, and feel the pure pleasure of walking into spring on the way back down.