Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Nature Walk with Melanie Choukas-Bradley

If you want to enjoy an informative, fun nature walk in the D.C. area, you have to go on one with Melanie Choukas-Bradley. For two years in a row, she has led a walk in Rock Creek Park for the Women of Dartmouth Club in Washington, D.C. I went last year and loved it, so I decided to go again this past weekend. While the weather was a bit gray and cool, we still had a lovely walk, and we had the chance to see the first signs of spring!

I didn't take notes the first time I did this walk, and of course I didn't remember anything! So this time I made sure to write down any facts Melanie shared with us. I didn't take any pictures, but I've tried to include photos that show what we saw. Here's what we learned:

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American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
I already could recognize this tree on my own, but I didn't know that the leaves are called "marcescent," meaning they stay on the tree even though once they've died they serve no purpose. Those light tan leaves do make the tree really easy to identify!

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Boxelder (Acer negundo)
This tree is also known as the Ashleaf Maple, and frequently has large, gnarly lumps on the bark, which create whorls when the tree is cut. In the spring, this tree can be identified by the green twigs coming out of it with opposite buds (and the leaves have 3-5 leaflets; the three leaflets make it look almost like poison ivy! [here are some other poison-ivy look-alikes]).

Female Cottonwood. Image found here
Male Cottonwood Catkins. Image found here
Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
These trees can be found all the way from the East coast to the plains in the middle of the country. They have thick, ridged bark, and in the spring you can see their red catkins (which is a new word for me. Catkins are usually elongated flowers (with no petals) that contain pollen for regeneration. A tree usually has male or female catkins, but catkins can also be unisexual.). The female catkins of the Eastern Cottonwood have fluffy hairs, hence the name of the tree (like the picture above, although we did not see any trees that day that had the fluff.).

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Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
I can identify this tree when it is in bloom (fun fact: the flowers are not actually made of petals, but of "bracts;" the center of those bracts is the real flower!), but Melanie pointed out that the buds look like little onions. Good tip!

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Image found here
Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)
Like you can see in the two pictures above, this species has braided bark, and during the spring, there are large buds at the end of the stem/branches.

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Hop-Hornbeam catkins. Image found here

Eastern Hop-Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiaiana)
The bark of this tree looks like a cat scratched it, and in the spring its catkins are quite long. The fruit cluster looks like a hop, so that's how the tree got its name.

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Ironwood catkins. Image found here

American Hornbeam (also known as Ironwood or Musclewood) (Carpinus caroliniana)
Another tree I already knew, the gray bark almost looks like it has muscles, and the wood seems very dense and strong. This tree is in the birch family, and also has noticeable catkins in the spring.

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Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
These trees have opposite, red samara. (I didn't see any, but we may have been a little too early in the season.) This is another good word: samaras are winged fruit, so when you see those little helicopter things falling from the trees, now you know their official name!

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Image found here
[Northern] Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
I knew that red oaks (and black oaks) have pointy leaves, so that's helpful to know. The caps of the acorns of this tree are flat, like little saucers, and the fluted trunk has "ski-track" bark on it.

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White Oak (Quercus alba)
About the only tree I know the Latin name of, white oaks are very easy to spot because of their lobed leaves. This is also the official tree of Maryland!

Yes, the Pawpaw buds are pretty tiny at first! Image found here
Pawpaw (Asiminia triloba)
I can spot this tree a mile away when it has leaves on it (very long, large leaves), but it's trickier to identify in the early spring when all the leaves are gone. We spotted this one by the dark, sphere buds on the branches; the flowers are burgundy once they bloom, so it makes sense that the buds would be dark red (almost black) as well. The female catkins are really soft, so if you see one, you should pet it! Another fact that I already knew but is still very interesting: this is the host plant of the zebra swallowtail butterfly.

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Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
We saw several of these in the park, and their pink/purple flowers make them easy to spot! The flowers grow right from the middle of the branch (rather than at the end of the stems like most flowers), so that's a dead give-away. I've also heard that the flowers are edible, although I've never tried to eat one! This tree is in the pea family, so maybe it makes sense that you could eat it?

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Image found here
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
I had heard of spicebush before, but I never knew how to identify it! During the spring, it has tiny yellow flowers on it; there's almost a "yellow haze" in the forest if there are enough of this plant in one area. I also noticed that the bark is almost polka-dotted with tiny white spots, so that can be a helpful identifier, too. Once you've identified the plant as a spicebush, gently scratch one of the twigs: it should be very fragrant! Deer don't eat this plant (maybe because of that spicy flavor?), so there are a lot of these in the area.
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American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
This is one of the first trees I learned to identify because of its very distinctive bark. The bark looks a bit like military camouflage, and as you look higher in the tree, the trunk and branches begin to turn white. A fun way to remember this tree is that the bark, since it's kind of peely looking, is "sick," and then you'll think "sycamore." These trees are frequently found near the water, but if you see something like it in the city, it's probably a London Plane tree, which is a hybrid between a sycamore and an oriental plane tree. (FYI: They are all over Bryant Park in NYC!)

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Tulip-Tree or Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
This is another easy-to-spot tree, especially when it's flowering. It was too early for the flowers, but even the buds are tulip-shaped. These trees are usually very tall and straight, so sometimes they can be hard to identify when the leaves/buds/flowers are SO high up!

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Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Although these are smaller trees or shrubs, they can still be very old! This tree is related to the cherry tree. It's "alligator" bark is a good identifier, and its little flower buds look like miniature broccoli. We didn't see any fruit yet, but the fruit is usually dark blue or black.

I couldn't find any good pictures of this plant in early spring, but here are the leaves! Image found here
Maple-Leaved Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)
This shrub has light green leaf buds with a red outline. Yep, that's all I wrote down!

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Linden Viburnum (Viburnum dilatatum)
Melanie was hesitant to point out this plant because it is a non-native invasive (i.e. it's not from here, and it can replace native species within the ecosystem, which is not good!). But I asked her specifically about it because the leaves are so distinctive. (They look like the leaves of the linden tree, hence the name of this plant.)


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Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Like the name suggests, the liquid inside the roots is a rusty blood color. The plant has white flowers with yellow centers, and is in the poppy family.

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Cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor)
The orchids hadn't bloomed yet, but even without the flower, you can identify this plant by turning the leaves over; the underside of the leaves is a vibrant purple! The leaves die back before the plant flowers.

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Cut-Leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata; Dentaria laciniata)
The jagged leaves are a quick way to spot this plant (and to remember the name, since it's toothy-looking!). We didn't see any flowering yet, but you can see the flowers in the photo above.

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*Invasive: Lesser Celandrine (Fig Buttercup) (Ranunculus ficaria; Ficaria verna)
This was one invasive that Melanie HAD to point out because it was everywhere! Parts of the park have been treated, and it's amazing the difference you can see between the different areas: the parts that have not been treated are covered in this green carpet with yellow flowers. It's very pretty, but it takes over the ecosystem to the point that other wildflowers can't grow.

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Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)
The umbrella-like leaves of this wildflower make it really easy to identify. We even got to see these "umbrellas" in different stages; some were wide open, while others were still furled closed. This plant flowers later in the spring, but Melanie told us that it has waxy white flowers and green/gold berries. Except for the berries, this plant is very poisonous. But that's why hundreds of years ago it was used medicinally: just like in today's medicine, the most toxic poisons can make the strongest medicines.

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Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
This wildflower gets its name from its leaves, which are spotted like a trout. The flowers are yellow, and the back of the petals alternate between brown and yellow.

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Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
I saw a million of these at Riverbend Park a few springs ago. They are so beautiful! These blue flowers are related to forget-me-nots. Melanie pointed out that water beads on the leaves after a rain, so that's quite pretty, too!

Other fun facts:
-In the D.C. area, because of all the red catkins, samaras, etc., another naturalist claims that the color of spring in D.C. is red, not green.
-The Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) is the official tree of Washington, D.C.
-How can you tell the difference between a shrub and a tree? Trees are usually at least 20 feet tall with one main trunk, while shrubs are shorter and are multi-trunked.
-We saw a cocklebur (Xanthium), which had white stalks/vines and very prickly cones.

*Here's a great article Melanie wrote for the Washington Post about phenology: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/worried-about-the-cherry-blossoms-you-may-have-phenology-anxiety/2017/03/24/0db2719a-0b1d-11e7-b77c-0047d15a24e0_story.html?tid=ss_mail

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