I was a little worried when I woke up Saturday to an overcast sky, but eventually it ended up being a beautiful day for my second field trip of the year (with quite a lovely group of women). I had planned to take them to see trailing arbutus in bloom (I'd never seen the flowers before) but unfortunately the trail where it was growing was closed off. Luckily there were still several things to see in the park and the views of the York River were gorgeous.
There were many, many trees in bloom, and pollen everywhere. Many wind pollinated trees bloom early in the spring before leaves come out including oaks, maple, ironwood and pine. They're not particularly noticeable except for red maples which can have striking deep red flower clusters. Here's the bloom and emerging leaves of a red oak—soon gutters everwhere will be clogged by huge masses of fallen oak flowers.
Showier plants at the park included two members of the Laureaceae family: Spicebush and Sassafras. The Laureaceae family includes plants such as cinnamon, avacado and bay laurel.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) comes from a fairly big genus within Lauraceae—there about 80-100 different Lindera species, though only 3 in North America. If you've been driving along the Colonial Parkway recently, you might have noticed their pale yellow haze along the road. This shrub, which can be used for tea, has a pleasant citrusy smell if you crush the leaves or scrape the branches. It's dioecious, so you'll need a female if you want the attractive red fruits in the fall (which contrast nicely with the yellow autumn leaf color). I'd recommend buying this plant in the autumn, unless you're a very discerning person and able to differentiate between the male and female flowers.
In contrast to the spicebush, Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a very small genus with only three members. Its pale yellow flowers can be quite eye-catching on a densely flowering specimen grown in full sun. This one was growing in a somewhat shady spot.
Like spicebush, it also has culinary uses: it's crushed leaves are the main ingredient in gumbo filé, and the roots were used for the flavoring of tea and root beer until it was found that the safrole oil they contained was carcinogenic. The leaves don't contain safrole.
Wandering along the edge of the woods we also saw a few mayapples popping up here and there. I was quite surprised to find out this plant is a member of the Berberidaceae family and is related to nandina, barberry and mahonia. I guess the deeply divided leaves are a bit reminiscent of mahonia. Mayapple will have a pretty white flower a little later in the spring, but only on those plants containing two leaves. After blooming it produces and edible fruit, which I have yet to see (or taste).Another wildflower we stumbled across was bluets (Houstonia caerulea). In another surprise these Rubiaceae family members are related to both coffee and gardenia. Who could've guessed! These little guys seem to pop up everwhere—lawns, woods, you name it. Individually they don't look like much but when they form a dense colony, the can create a striking blue haze along the ground.
Towards the end of the walk, we took a path down to the shore of the York River. Growing on the steep banks were a couple of serviceberries in bloom. This pretty small tree has gangly white flowers which only last for a short time. There are two species in our area: A. arborea and A. canadensis. I'm not sure which one this is. Anyone know how to tell the difference?Serviceberries develop a small, edible red fruit in late spring. Once, when I was a grad student at UVA a friend and I collected the fruit from some trees outside the architecture building and made a delicious pie. I think we mixed it with blueberries and it had a delicious cherry flavor.
The steep slope the serviceberries were growing on revealed evidence of the calcareous soils we sometimes find in our area. These soils, covered by more recent soils and exposed by erosion, are loaded with fossil shells deposited in ancient seas. The soils provide habitat for several species of mountain disjuncts, plants that are normally found in the mountainous areas in the western part of the state.
Growing among the shells, I was very happy to find a nice colony early saxifrage for our final plant. I thought they were actually a better find than the arbutus—I'd never seen them before. These Saxifragacea family members are related to coral bells, foamflower, and astilbe, and this time I could definitely see the family resemblance. Because of the shells, I thought they might be mountain disjuncts, but according to the Virginia Digital Atlas, they seem to be widely distributed throughout the state.Frustrated about not seeing the arbutus, I headed back to the park a few days later and did manage to find a couple specimens in bloom. In contrast to mountain disjuncts, these Ericacea members prefer acidic soils. Though the flowers were pretty, the leaves on the plant seemed to have taken quite a beating over the winter (haven't we all?). There were almost as many brown leaves as green ones.
You can see the rest of the pictures from the field trip here.