Native plants in public spaces

Article by Plant NOVA Natives

Shopping center parking lots and other public spaces can be tree-lined havens from the summer heat, with beautiful blossoms to induce people to linger. Imagine yourself resting on a shaded bench, listening to the birds as you enjoy watching the people stroll by.  Do the commercial spaces in your town look like this, or do you find yourself hurrying from car to building to get out of the glaring heat? Wouldn’t you prefer to do your shopping at the place with more greenery? 

Commercial establishments across the region are starting to appreciate the return on investment of native plants. There are practical reasons related to the fact that they are adapted to the Virginia climate. Native Virginia plants require less watering (once established) than rows of annuals and only need to be planted once. Native shrubs such as Virginia Sweetspire require no pruning and provide more natural-looking alternatives to conventional landscaping choices that get leggy with continuous trimming. No fertilizers and pesticides are needed, either. Beyond the practicalities, though, companies that choose native plants are signaling to the public that they are good corporate citizens who care about our common home and are working to preserve our heritage. 

In many cases, property managers are taking the simple step of swapping out the non-native in their curbside beds for reliable natives such as Threadleaf Coreopsis, Common Yucca, Black-Eyed Susan and Common Yarrow. Winterberry Holly, with its bright red berries, has become a popular choice to place next to buildings. Some landscapers are installing innovative designs that give the property a whole new look, incorporating a wide variety of shrubs and ornamental trees such as Redbud and great swaths of native grasses such as Switchgrass waving in the breeze. An example of that can be seen at Caboose Commons in Fairfax, where imaginative landscaping adds a new dimension to the dining experience. Still other establishments such as Vienna Vintner have planted extensive pollinator gardens leading up to their entrances, with flowers that bloom in succession and attract butterflies from early spring to late fall. 

You may have noticed sidewalks and parking lots that have sunken islands. Stormwater retention areas, which are mandatory for new development, provide an opportunity for creative landscaping. Water and drought tolerant trees such as Red Maple and Serviceberry can provide shade while their roots absorb the runoff. Native grasses, perennials and shrubs help clean the water while adding color and interest to the design. 

Photos and details about landscaping with native plants in commercial spaces can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website. The Caboose Commons project is highlighted in the first Plant NOVA Natives video for landscape professionals. Produced by volunteer Joe Bruncsak, owner of Blue Land Media, this series of very short videos will feature projects that exemplify landscape design at its best.

Book Club: Braiding Sweetgrass

The Clifton Institute, 6712 Blantyre Rd., Marshall, VA, 20115

Thursday, January 30, 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM

For their second book club, Clifton Institute is switching from birds to plants and reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. You’ll gather around the fire with warm drinks in hand and discuss the book with fellow nature lovers.

Get excited to learn about other ways of experiencing and understanding nature than the scientific perspective we’ve been trained in. The book is available at the Open Book in Old Town in Warrenton… Didn’t finish the book? Come anyway!


Help Virginia Working Landscapes help grassland birds

Photo by Ana Ka’ahanui

Virginia Working Landscapes is aware of the concern surrounding recent research highlighting the troubling decline of North America’s birds. Among those, grassland birds have been hit hardest.  

Working alongside a dedicated network of landowners, citizen scientists and partners, VWL has been at the forefront of identifying ways that private lands can help support this region’s grassland birds.  

For example, recent research provides insights into altering grassland management practices to promote habitat for overwintering birds. With these studies, VWL can create recommendations to help landowners make decisions about how they manage their properties, like these guidelines released in Spring 2019. And just this year, they’ve embarked on a groundbreaking project to track the local movements of eastern meadowlarks, one of our most iconic grassland species.   

They receive no federal support for their programs, and all activities are funded by donors.
This year, VWL will continue unraveling mysteries of eastern meadowlark movements; identifying best practices for establishing and managing resilient grasslands; developing science-based action items for protecting grassland birds and other wildlife; and training the next generation of conservationists.

Consider volunteering. VWL partners with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and FMN volunteers receive service projects credit under S182. Look for more stories on how to volunteer in December.

Want people to adopt climate-friendly behaviors? Understand what motivates them.

Reposted from the Rare blog

Brett Jenks

In her column this week, Axios’ Amy Harder offers “confessions of an energy reporter,” and admits that even she — someone fluent in facts about climate change — isn’t likely to adopt climate-friendly behaviors unless she is incentivized economically to do so.

Harder cited research Rare conducted that identified seven behaviors which, if adopted by 10 percent of Americans, could help us meet our greenhouse gas reduction obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement. These behaviors, drawn from the great work done by Project Drawdown, are things individual people and households can do — things like adopting a plant-rich diet, purchasing an electric vehicle, installing rooftop solar, and purchasing carbon offsets.

But Harder is skeptical:

Voluntary action can be helpful and inspiring. But ultimately most experts agree systemic change on a global scale — led by governments implementing economic policies — is necessary to adequately address climate change. So, I’m not losing sleep over my flying and eating habits — and I’ll only make big changes if the price tags get a lot bigger.

I loved Harder’s column for a couple of reasons. And not just because she referenced Rare, the conservation nonprofit I run.

First, she crystallizes what has been missing from efforts to drive individuals to adopt more sustainable behaviors — our understanding of human behavior and motivation.

Take the example Harder’s cites — a study that says economic incentives are more effective than moral persuasion at getting people to reduce their energy consumption. If you dig into that study, you’ll see it violates the cardinal rule of behavior change: failing to understand what motivates the target actor. The economists drafting this study attempting to “morally persuade” people with the following text message:

“Substantial energy conservation will be required for the society in ‘critical peak-demand hours’ on summer and winter peak-demand days, in which electricity supply will be very limited relative to demand.”

This might convince a robot, but it is far from compelling for the rest of us.

I would instead look at energy consumption studies that test messages that are morally compelling for the target actors.

Take, for example, this study which compares how much energy people conserve when they are told about the money they could save versus their impact on childhood asthma and cancer. Now, if people only respond to financial incentives, then we would expect to see energy reduction in the first case and no effect in the second. But what the study found is that people consume far less when they consider the health impact of their behavior on themselves and others. By focusing on, and taking seriously people’s motivations, we can achieve greater changes in behavior than simply focusing on economic consequences.

Second, her reflections include motivations outside of the moral versus economic dichotomy. As Harder points out, her own health, and her family traditions — not just economics — influence her decisions.

When I’m home on my family’s cattle ranch in Washington state, I eat beef almost daily. Burgers. Steak. Prime rib. Pot roast. Hot dogs. Meatloaf. Cube steak. You get the point.

So, what if those around Harder changed their behavior? Would she still wait for an economic incentive? Social science suggests not. After all, we are social animals who move with the herd. We all know what happens to the wildebeest who is left behind.

All this goes to show how our understanding of people’s motivations and human decision-making is the game-changer for driving personal action on climate change.

For decades, the environmentalist’s toolkit for promoting pro-environment behaviors has generally depended on passing laws and regulations, running awareness campaigns, or offering economic incentives or disincentives

But what if we could design interventions that are more closely aligned with how people actually make decisions and understand what truly motivates them? At Rare, we’re working to weave three strategies that take into account human behavior and motivation into the climate playbook:

  • Appeal to people’s emotions. People are predictably irrational. Using emotions, especially positive ones like pride can effectively drive people to adopt sustainable behaviors. We see that on display in spades in the study I referred to earlier. By understanding that people find health, particularly the health of children, to be emotionally compelling meant that appealing to those concerns was far more effective at reducing energy consumption than appealing to financial benefits.
  • Shift social norms. People are social animals. We move with the herd. Recent research into “dynamic norms” suggests that people are more likely to adopt climate-friendly behaviors if they sense that others are starting to adopt them — that norms are shifting. Take reducing water or energy consumption as an example. Numerousstudieshave found that when people are shown that they are consuming more than their neighbors, they reduce their own consumption.
  • Redesign the context around choices. Changing the context and timing around a decision can influence the choice a consumer makes. This is called “choice architecture.” Take switching to a green energy provider. A study in Germany found that setting the green energy option, which was notably more costly, as the default option increased adoption by almost tenfold. This default didn’t change anything financially but took into account that people’s choice is influenced by how that choice is presented.

We are in a golden age of understanding human behavior and decision-making. And the application of behavioral economics, psychology, and other social sciences is gaining steam. Just look at Richard Thaler recently winning the Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics. Or the proliferation of government offices designing interventions based on behavioral science, or “nudge” units, in governments around the world.

Don’t get me wrong. We do need systemic change at the international and national level. But let’s face it, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. And in the meantime, we’re not powerless. We’re not limited to voting every couple of years. We know individual behavior can have an impact. And we know that understanding human behavior and motivations, and designing behavior-centered solutions, is a way to get climate-friendly behaviors adopted.

Human behavior helped get us into this climate mess. Hopefully, our understanding of it will help get us out of it.

Some natural observations and a shout-out to the work of master naturalists

Article by Lisa Bright, Co-founder and Executive Director of Earth Sangha

In my line of work, I engage in extensive, if casual, surveying of native flora in the wild areas of Northern Virginia. For nearly twenty years, I’ve made it my job checking on the general conditions of our region’s wild areas, or rather the remnants of once wild areas, in every season. Mind you, my kind of survey is a non-scientific activity. Just a visual survey with the understanding of a hobby-naturalist.

Yet, you get to learn a lot from this repeated observations over the same areas. I take the trouble visiting all the nooks and crannies of our public and non-public lands where native plants are growing. And repeatedly over the years. I’ve noticed how the topography change over time and how plants interact with both natural and artificial physical changes. The overall picture I’ve gotten from my observations is not that pretty. Here is one fact that I cannot ignore: In our increasingly urbanized and suburbanized region, driven largely by human convenience and immediate economic returns, the native plants are the ones who are losing ground. Literally, that is.

I am sad to note that once common native plant species such as White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) and Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) and Cornel-leaf Whitetop Aster (Doellingeria infirma), to just name a few, have become harder and harder to find in our woodlands. They are still there but not in any sizable quantities. They barely hang on. I name these species because of the simple fact that they are the foundation species in healthy woodlands and that they were once widely represented. Even ten short years ago, they were commonly found in any woodlands nearby. They are now in serious decline. Their habitats are degraded, and in many instances they lost outright the entire habitats by development. I’m not going to name other native plants who were once abundant but are now in decline.

This comes at a time when our wild areas and native flora are finally getting the recognition they deserve from the general public. There are growing number of people and organizations who band together to protect the wild habitats for native flora and fauna. I believe that if we work together, harder and smarter, we can reverse the trend. It’s not too late.

The habitats once lost are gone forever. You can’t recreate natural areas. If anyone claims that it can be done is either ignorant or plain kidding himself. Our hope then lies in rehabilitating the habitats in decline.

Then it is all the more useful to see how the natural habitats are being destroyed and what we could do about it. I’m no expert on this, but I think there are several immediate and specific issues that can be addressed:


1. An issue of poor management. The land owners, public or private, rely too much on the judgment or discretion of hired contractors who understand next to nothing about wild habitats or plants in general. They were told to go kill trees that might interfere with the power lines, and they damn kill everything in sight. Who could blame their diligence? I’ve witnessed countless times how these contractors steadily shrink the forest edges by chopping off indiscriminately any living woody plants. In their wake, a long line of dead Mountain Laurels (Kalmia latifolia) along the forest edges. These contractors desperately need the qualified and quantified instructions and tighter supervision by the land owners.

Take look at the two photos above. The plot is about 4 acres of narrow but long neighborhood woodlands (presumably belonged to a nearby HOA community) in Centerville. A contractor hired by either the VDOT or a power company chopped off trees on the edges of Rt. 29, and just dumped all the tree trunks and branches unceremoniously into the woodlands just across the trail and left. The contractors did this every time, and nobody raised an issue. It’s a forgotten place. The forest floor once featured one of the better habitats for White Wood Aster and Blue-stemmed Goldenrod in this acidic Oak-Hickory forest remnant. Now I cannot find a single Aster or Goldenrod. Those numerous Pinxter Bloom Azaleas along the edge were also long gone. In their place invasive Alianthus altissima (Tree of Heaven) and Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) have appeared. This is just one example which repeats itself everywhere. The feature photo heading this article shows what our woodland floor would look like when left alone. It’s taken from a nearby park.

2. An issue of excessive mowing and untimely mowing. When it comes to open meadow areas, mowing is a necessary tool for managing the habitat. The problem is that the heavy tractor mowers with low deck not just cut the plants but they cut into the ground, thereby making it easy for weedy invasive plants entering. I’ve noticed that the Manassas Battlefield National Park contractors do a far better job at just cutting the plants without necessarily disturbing the ground, compared to power line easement meadows. One reason is that at Manassas Battlefield the contractors are harvesting hays, and the best way to continue harvesting good-quality hays is not to disturb the ground. On the other hand, the main reason for mowing in the power line meadow is to destroy plants. That is one reason why the quality of flora is widely different from one power line easement to the next. And from one year to the next.
Still, the best native herbaceous vegetation in our region can be found under these power lines because we’ve essentially lost our edge-of-wood meadows to various human activities and development.

One of my pet peeves is mowing unnecessarily and at wrong time. It would be better if we let the plants complete its life cycle. If seeds are allowed to form and be dropped and eaten by animals, mowing can be a useful management tool.

3. Let’s limit the recreational use of wild habitats.It is hard to believe that at this critical juncture where the environmental degradation threatens the very systems on which our life is dependent, we regard public parks only as recreational resources. There are some parks that I no longer visit because there is nothing left to discover. These parks are known for deluxe parking lots and luxurious trails, after killing off a group of healthy and mature canopy trees. These parks have become a sad place botanically. Some smaller neighborly parks often suffer from excessive accommodation of exercise equipments. At one of our neighborly parks, a series of them are installed at every 50-feet intervals by well-intentioned but ill-informed Scouts or other volunteer groups. A whole lot of native shrubs and herbaceous plants had to be killed to give the rooms for these exercise equipments. Many Viburnum dentatum (Arrowwood Viburnum) and Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum) were sacrificed for these installations. They are left unused anyway. If the mountain biker groups ask for building bike trails, we don’t have to give away the pristine section of forests where the Blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) and Black Huckleberry (Gaylucassia bachata) have formed colonies over several centuries. I don’t think the bikers were asking for a pristine site!

It is high time we view our natural habitats as what they are. It’s a living organism who plays a critical role in the natural ecosystems. To simply put, we are facing an ecological crisis where a lack of healthy native plant communities creates all kinds of problems. Just look at all the damages from stormwater runoff. Only healthy forests could absorb, hold, filter, and regulate the rainfall and rain flow. We’ve effectively destroyed that natural system.
There aren’t enough forests in our region to handle all the water and air pollutions. Also our forests, our parklands, are not in the best form. They need a lot of attention, but our park systems don’t receive enough funding.

4. Controlling invasive plants and early detection of such invasion. Eradicating invasive plants may be impractical given the pervasiveness of the problem. But we can manage to control them by focusing on protecting the best areas first and increase the presence of native plants in targeted spots and then to expand their holdings. I’ve seen many successfully managed habitats where conscientious park managers diligently work and where Master Naturalists adopt certain sites and have kept on working on these sites.

In large public parks, we need some sharp-eyed and knowledgeable naturalist-volunteers to detect a new appearance of invasive plants early on to immediately eradicate them. A season or two later, they take hold and become expensive to control. We need more trained Master Naturalists to help our over-strained park managers. If you are retired or retiring and looking for doing something worthwhile, please be a Master Naturalist!

5. Our parks are seriously underfunded and under-staffed. A lot of people are wondering why park systems and park managers seem to ignore the problems of invasive plants in their neighborhood parks. The park managers are not ignoring them. The Natural Resource Protection teams have been doing extensive work to develop natural resource management plans, but they don’t have the necessary funding to implement these plans. The sad truth is that they are borrowing money to do even the basic maintenance work. In the case of Fairfax County, the Park Authority is the poorest agency whose chronic under-funding is glaringly obvious. If you want the Natural Resource Protection department have more funding so that they can implement their visions, please call your District Supervisors. They are elected officials and have the power to influence the distribution of the County’s general fund.

6. Raising concerns and communicate. Let us become the voice of natural habitats and plant communities. They struggle and quietly suffer. The nature-loving people tend to be solitary types and they don’t always raise their concerns out loud. I think, however, it is changing. We witness now more concerted efforts to protect the wild habitats among different citizen groups. We see more lively debates on best methods, more activism in general. There are also more scientific datas available, and people are busy sharing the information and pressuring the elected officials. This is hugely encouraging. I’d like to think it is not too late to reverse the trend. We can save our forests and improve their qualities.

A Simple Tree

Photo (c) by Barbara J. Saffir

Essay by Barbara J. Saffir

My life is about to change soon.  Not in a big way.  No cancer, divorce, or job loss.  (I count my blessings!) But it will still change in a meaningful way.  My apartment manager is going to cut down the cherry tree in front of my home.  No big deal?  That’s bad news for the cheery, cherry-red cardinals who perch there when they feed their fluffy-feathered babies.  It’s a big loss for the happy hummingbirds who hunker down there in a storm.  It’s where our Olympic gymnasts of birds — white-breasted nuthatches — perform head-first acrobatics racing down the tree trunk.  That’s where red-bellied, hairy, and downy woodpeckers hold their “coffee klatches.”  Where teensy, tufted titmouses with fawn-like eyes seemingly pose by the tree’s sweet-smelling white flowers each spring.  Where eastern gray squirrels stretch out in the 90-degree days of July and huddle together during February’s frigid days.  And each fall, its sunshine yellow leaves linger briefly, reminding me that all good (and bad) things eventually end.

If this were only one lone tree, then it would mainly affect me. It’s part of my daily life. I delight in watching and photographing the critters’ antics in the tree from the picture window in my home office.  But at least 50 species of birds and other cute creatures’ lives partially depend on it.

It’s not the only tree to bite the dust recently.  Miles upon miles of trees are now being annihilated for the I-66 toll-lane widening.  “In the last two decades, over thirty-five percent of Northern Virginia’s urban forest has been bulldozed and chainsawed,” says the nonprofit Fairfax ReLeaf.

Why do we even need trees?  “Without them, life on earth would be very different,” says the Virginia Department of Forestry. Most importantly we need their oxygen. Trees clean the air.  They provide temperature-lowering shade. They provide privacy. We thrive on the beauty of the wildly diverse types and sizes and shapes and colors of trees in all four seasons.  They increase the value of human houses and they provide safe homes to cute creatures like northern flickers with crayon-yellow feathers, rusty-colored screech owls, and pint-sized flying squirrels, who nest and rest in their trunks and on their branches.  Their flowers help provide pollen to Virginia’s and Maryland’s 400 species of native bees.  Trees help cut flooding and clean our drinking water.

But trees are not a focus of my large apartment complex. As a long-term renter, I twice appealed to the corporate office and even offered to donate native plants to replace the mid-sized tree with no luck. I’ll admit that the tree needs replacement but the questionable pruning methods over the years probably hastened its unhealthy state. If it were on my own property, I might cut it down halfway to leave it for woodpeckers and nuthatches to live in and snack on the ants and other life-sustaining bugs that dwell in its innards. But alas, life is very short and one has to pick one’s battles.

I will miss “my” cherry tree.  But I won’t hold a funeral.  I’ll try not to grieve too long. But it would sure make me and the critters feel better if someone would replace it with a new native tree!
Readers, are you also grieving for a favorite dead tree or plants at your apartment, in your neighborhood, or at a public park? Please feel free to share this little story to help educate your friends and neighbors about the crucial need for trees. Please also share your frustrations and successes in the comments section below along with your ideas for how to keep this from happening elsewhere.

Using native plants to deal with drought (and deluges)

Margaret Fisher

Neither droughts nor deluges are new to Northern Virginia, but as everyone has noticed, weather extremes are becoming more common. The prolonged drought this year that followed a wet 2018 was particularly hard on plants, as roots that have been weakened by too much water and accompanying fungi are more vulnerable the following year. When choosing which species to plant, we need to keep in mind the likelihood of these stressors repeating themselves in the future.

People living in the western part of the United States are more used to xeriscaping – planting for a dry environment – than those of us on the east coast. Lawns in California are being converted to native plantings at a rapid rate. But Virginians have been lulled by plentiful rainfall into settling for empty expanses of turf grass as the default landscaping choice, and those lawns start to look pretty peaked after weeks of drought. Fortunately, most native Virginia plants that have been installed in appropriate conditions held up quite well during our recent long dry spell. The gorgeous asters and goldenrods that define our fall landscape were no less beautiful this year. Having evolved here, they are used to both wet and dry summers. The exceptions tended to be plant species that have been experiencing ongoing stresses from disease, such as the Flowering Dogwood, and new plantings – all plants need appropriate amounts of water until they get established. By “appropriate,” we mean “not too much!” After the first few days, rainfall may indeed provide all that is needed during a wet spell, and supplying so much water that the plant never dries out is a good way to kill many native plants.

Determining which plants can withstand drought is not entirely straightforward. For instance, some of the best trees for dry, compacted soil are ones such as Baldcypress that normally live in swamps. They tolerate standing water not so much because they need the extra moisture but because they can deal with conditions of low oxygen. One way to quickly assemble a list of drought-tolerant plants is to look at recommendations for rain gardens. Rain gardens are designed to hold water for a couple days after a storm but then to absorb the water into the soil, leaving the plants dry in between. Another good reference is the plant lists for professionals page on the Plant NOVA Natives website. The plants in bold have been curated to include those that are particularly reliable as well as widely available, with detailed notations about their cultural needs.

Are you puzzling over where to install native plants instead of turf grass? Start where it is difficult or dangerous to mow, or where grass is growing poorly already. Or simply plop some shade trees in the middle of your lawn. In time, the summer temperatures in your yard will be noticeably lower.

Synopsis of the Fairfax County Recycling Program presented September 16th

On Monday, September 16th, Erica Carter, the Fairfax County Recycling Coordinator spoke to the Fairfax Master Naturalists at their quarterly meeting. The bottom line: Recycling in Fairfax County is very complicated! One reason it is complicated is that Fairfax County has standards for what can and cannot be recycled in their facilities based on what products its brokers will purchase. However, curbside haulers who use different brokers or buyers for their recycled items may have different standards. A RESIDENT MUST CHECK WITH THEIR OWN CURBSIDE HAULER TO DETERMINE THE STANDARDS FOR THEIR RECYCLING. E.g., American Disposal (call (703) 368-0500) and Republic do not use Fairfax County standards because they have their own buyers for processed recycling.

Glass breaks and contaminates other recycling so it is no longer accepted in County single stream recycling. Large purple containers are located near many County government centers where glass is collected for recycling.  Learn more here.

Any kind of clothes hangers, hoses, cords and plastic bags are huge problems for the recycling facilities because they catch in the machines and must be detangled by hand. In addition, dirty diapers, takeout food containers and shredded paper cause other problems.  PLEASE DON’T RECYCLE THESE ITEMS!

Good news about the receptacles for plastic bags located outside of grocery stores!  Bubble wrap, plastic packing tear off balloons, and zip-lock bags which are clean and dry are also acceptable.

Buyers seek out recycled plastic when oil prices are high because it is less expensive than making new plastic; when oil prices are low recycled plastic is less in demand.

Fairfax County is currently recycling about 50% of the items that come to its two transfer stations. There is no landfill in Fairfax County. Unrecyclable material is incinerated and the resulting energy is used to provide electricity to 80,000 homes.

Review of The Songs of Insects

Jerry Nissley

The Songs of Insects by Lang Elliott and Will Hershberger

On September 11, 2019, Friends of Dyke Marsh (FODM) hosted speaker Will Hershberger, co-author of The Songs of Insects (2007). The evening presentation was given in the visitor’s center at Huntley Meadows Park, followed by a night walk through Huntley Meadow’s woods and wetland to actually hear the calls, chirps, tics, and trills of the insects. Mr. Hershberger has been recording insect sounds for many years and has amassed a vast collection of insect images and recordings, first published in his book and now maintained on his fascinating website. He is an avid naturalist, award-winning nature photographer, nature sound recordist, and author. He and his wife, Donna, formed Nature Images and Sounds, LLC, and photograph a wide variety of animals in addition to insects. He is an entertaining public speaker as well.

The presentation explored the world of singing insects and explained how to distinguish individual species of crickets, katydids, and cicadas. I learned a lot about what we hear day and night during each season of the year. What I am hearing at night now, which I thought to be frogs, may well indeed be insects, especially the Snowy Tree Cricket, Davis’s Tree Cricket, and the Northern Mole Cricket. (See Hershberger’s Guide to Species.) You may be as amazed as I was.

My big take-away was something we perhaps all know but don’t think about all the time: Animal songs are seasonal and specific to one predominant purpose–mating. In general, the frog-calling season is late winter through spring, birds carry us through summer, and late summer (now) through early winter is insect time. The sounds we are hearing now are most likely insects. Each season carries some overlap, of course. Birds are the ones we hear most across all seasons but even their calls/songs change. Now is the time of the insects.

Seasonality explains why now I don’t hear frogs during the evening Mason Neck kayak tours, where earlier in the year I couldn’t talk over the frog ruckus. Now I hear the three-part harmony of crickets, katydids, and cicadas. Each sound interesting in its own right, which The Songs of Insects re-enforces beautifully.

When is a jewel not a gem?

Jerry Nissley

When is a jewel not a gem? When it’s a weed—at least that’s what I thought at first. Alas, the common jewelweed.

So what, then? Jewelweed is a common widespread plant that occurs in most moist, semi-shady areas throughout northern and eastern North America. Some people may call it an invasive native plant. So why take the time to write about it? Well, here’s what happened to me one day this summer, which may be an all too familiar occurrence for you as well. 

Photo 1, by Jerry Nissley

Friends and family know I recently completed the VMN program and frequently send me pictures of plants or animals to identify. Does that happen to you too? But no worries—I love the challenge. So one day a friend sends a single, iPhone picture depicting a lovely specimen she found of what she thinks is a yellow lady slipper. “Please confirm?” she asks. 

I know only enough to know it does not look like one of the three lady slippers known to grow in Northern Virginia. So I send the picture to Martha Garcia, a fellow VMN who happened to present her wonderful FMN final class project on Lady Slippers, from which I learned that Lady Slippers are orchids. Martha did not believe it to be a lady slipper, but the picture looked enough like an orchid that she was interested in additional photos. 

“Yay,” I say—an opportunity for “field work”! I grab my SLR and tripod to hunt down the suspect at the obscure Kirk Park in Alexandria. Of course, I am looking for something of magnificent splendor tucked beside a log but nothing like that do I find.  Eventually my eyes refocus with a wider aperture and catch glimpse of little orange dots on a bushy vine by the side of the path (see Photo 1).  The flowers are not even an inch across, they are tiny, and they are on a bush. Alas, my chance at fame and fortune melted away with the summer heat after realizing I was not about to discover a new orchid. Ha, of course not—why would I even think that?

Photo 2, by Jerry Nissley

However, upon returning home (and to reality), I reviewed the photos, looked up information, and discovered the plant to be a jewelweed, a.k.a. touch-me-not or orange balsam. It soothes poison ivy rash, the seeds explode into the air when touched, hummingbirds are the primary pollinator, it has the face of an orchid (sort of), and the leaves shimmer under water—what is not to like?  I found the so-what factor, and why I came to consider it a hidden gem after all follows.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

It often forms dense, pure stands in floodplain forests and around the forested edges of marshes and bogs. Jewelweed also colonizes disturbed habitats such as ditches and road cuts. It can be an aggressive competitor in its favored habitats, and is one of the few native North American plants that has been shown to compete successfully against garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a non-native invasive weed that threatens many eastern North American forests.

 Jewelweed is an herbaceous plant that grows 3 to 5 feet tall and blooms from late spring to early fall. The flowers are orange (sometimes blood orange or rarely yellow) with a three-lobed corolla; one of the calyx lobes is colored similarly to the corolla and forms a hooked conical spur at the back of the flower (see Photo 2). Plants may also produce non-showy cleistogamous flowers, which do not require cross-pollination. The principal advantage of cleistogamy (closed flowers) is that it requires fewer plant resources to produce seeds than chasmogamy (open flowers), because development of petals, nectar and large amounts of pollen is not required. This efficiency makes cleistogamy particularly useful for seed production on unfavorable sites or in adverse conditions. Impatiens capensis has been observed to produce only cleistogamous flowers after being severely damaged by grazing. 

Photo 3, by Jerry Nissley

The round stems are smooth and succulent, semi-ranslucent, with swollen or darkened nodes on some plants. The leaves are alternate and simple and have teeth on the margins. The seed pods have five valves which coil back rapidly to eject the seeds in a process called explosive dehiscence. This reaction is where the name ‘touch-me-not’ comes from; in mature seed pods, dehiscence can easily be triggered with a light touch. The leaves appear to be silver-blue or ‘jeweled’ when held underwater or in morning dew (see Photo 3), which is possibly where the jewelweed name comes from. 

 Nectar spurs are tubular elongations of petals and sepals of certain flowers that usually contain nectar (see Photo 4). Flowers of Impatiens capensis have these nectar spurs. Nectar spurs are thought to have played a role in plant-pollinator coevolution. Curvature angles of nectar spurs of Impatiens capensis are variable. Research shows this angle varies from 0 degrees to 270 degrees. The angle of the nectar spur is very important in the pollination of the flower and in determining

the most efficient pollinator. Hummingbirds are major pollinators. They remove more pollen per visit from flowers with curved nectar spurs than with perpendicular nectar spurs. Ruby-Throated hummingbirds are not the only pollinators of Impatiens capensis. The flowers attract long-tongued bees, including bumblebees and honeybees. Swallowtail butterflies are occasional visitors. Sometimes bumblebees will steal nectar by chewing holes near the spur of the flower. Various smaller insects (e.g., Syrphid flies and ants) will visit the same holes to steal nectar. The caterpillars of several moths feed on the foliage, including Euchlaena obtusaria (Obtuse Euchlaena), Spilosoma latipennis (Pink-Legged Tiger Moth), Trichodezia albovittata (White-Striped Black), and Xanthorhoe lacustrata (Toothed Brown Carpet). Seeds are eaten by birds and mice and White-Tailed Deer browse on the foliage. Photo 5 shows an ant taking a morning sip of nectar.

Figure 4. Photo by Jerry Nissley

Figure 5. Photo by Jerry Nissley

Along with other species of jewelweed, the juice of the leaves and stems is a traditional Native
Peoples remedy for skin rashes, including poison ivy. The effectiveness of its use to prevent the development of a rash after short-term exposure to poison ivy has been supported by peer-reviewed study and is likely due to the plant containing saponins. These studies also found that some individuals have sensitivity to jewelweed which can cause a more severe rash. To treat a rash, gather some of the whole jewelweed plant and macerate well until it becomes wet in your hands. Apply the wet plant matter to the rash area directly. Leave on and repeat applications as needed. Jewelweed helps counterbalance the oils in poison ivy. It has also been used as an agent to promote blood flow, for post-childbirth, joint pain, bruises and swelling, and athlete’s foot. 

As an aside, most saponins, which readily dissolve in water, are poisonous to fish. Therefore, in ethnobotany, they are primarily known for their use by indigenous people in obtaining aquatic food sources. Cultures throughout the world have used fish-killing plants, mostly those containing saponins, for fishing. Although now prohibited by law, fish-poison plants are still widely used by indigenous tribes in Guyana. Many of California’s Native People tribes traditionally used soaproot, (genus Chlorogalum) and/or the root of various yucca species, which contain saponin, as a fish poison. They would pulverize the roots, mixing in water to create foam and then add the suds to a stream. This would kill, or incapacitate, the fish, which could be gathered easily from the surface of the water.

Jewelweed makes a lovely addition to native plant gardens that are located in moist, partially shaded areas. Not only are the flowers aesthetically pleasing, so are the hummingbirds, bumblebees, and butterflies that are attracted to the flowers. Jewelweed can be used to fill in empty spaces in the garden that might otherwise be taken over by non-native weeds. Jewelweed can be propagated easily by direct sowing of fresh seed in early fall. Once established, a patch of jewelweed will maintain itself through annual seed production.

So there you have it. Once again, something that may have gone unnoticed because of its diminutive size or under-appreciated because it’s “just another woodland weed,” indeed turns out to be a resource for native insects, animals, and humans. But who would have known? I had to become aware, get out there, take a look, and do my homework to understand the intricacies of everything jewelweed. At the risk of sounding corny, moments like this are my reward for getting involved with the VMN program. I may have never taken the time to discover the importance of this tiny jewel of the forest. So maybe it was a new discovery after all, if perhaps only for me. How many more ‘new discoveries’ are out there?