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?


Faith in action

Photo by Ana Ka’ahanui

Margaret Fisher

A commitment to stewardship of the Earth has a spiritual foundation in most faith communities. In recent years, many have come to understand that their responsibility for nature begins at home, at their places of worship. The true residents of churches, temples and mosques are not the humans using the buildings, which often sit empty for much of the week, but the birds, butterflies, frogs and a host of other small congregants who share the property. When faith leaders ask “Who are our neighbors?”, they do not have far to look.

As you drive around Northern Virginia, you may notice more and more places of worship that are incorporating native plants into their landscaping. Six communities were given an extra hand with that process when the Audubon-at-Home program and Plant NOVA Natives awarded them grants provided by the National Audubon Society’s Coleman and Susan Burke Center for Native Plants. Members of each community created landscaping projects in visible areas of the property with signs to explain that native plants support birds and other wildlife. The new plantings were part of a greater educational process to demonstrate to congregants how they can take action on their own properties to save the local wildlife. As places of worship often include large areas of impervious surfaces, converting sections of lawn to conservation landscaping can bring significant benefits to our streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

Grace Presbyterian now has several very visible pollinator gardens buzzing with bees. Organizer Dave Lincoln reports, “It seems every few weeks one of our Pastors brings up our obligations as stewards of God’s Creation, and most times they mention the importance of restoring productivity in our landscaping choices.”

According to Nancy Davis at Beth El Hebrew Congregation, “Service to the community is a basic part of Judaism. Our planting day with students in grades three through seven was a tremendous success. With the help of master gardeners, the students put in hundreds of native species purchased with money from the Audubon Burke grant, in a little more than two hours. Each student planted from one to three plugs or plants. Preschoolers did some planting on another day.”

Steve Wharton of St. Peter’s in the Woods writes, “Reaction to the Pollinator Garden has been very positive. This past Sunday the minister, Reverend Susan, stopped me to tell me that she usually pauses as she enters or leaves and takes a moment to see what is visiting the flowers. She said, “Yesterday there were the usual Bees, a Monarch Butterfly and a Hummingbird all in the garden at once.”  She was quite excited about it.  On my way out I was pleased to see a clear winged “hummingbird” moth. The bergamot in particular really draws in a wide variety of pollinators.  Cannot wait to see what the garden attracts when the garden is more mature a couple years from now.”

The planting of native plants on the grounds of Our Lady Good Counsel Church and School has enhanced the awareness of nature particularly for families of preschool and elementary grade children. This focus on environmental stewardship is advocated by Pope Francis.

Crossroads United Methodist has long been involved in educating their own congregation and the surrounding community about the value of native plants. In 2017, they held a public screening of the movie Hometown Habitat, targeted at homeowners associations. They made use of the Burke Grant by converting large areas of lawn to native plantings near the church office entry. Beautiful sun and shade gardens now grace those areas.

McLean Islamic Center and Mosque held two plantings, one for the mosque’s entrance beds and one for the Gild Scout troop bed, and both were well attended. The Community Service Committee and the Sunday School followed up with a day that they initially called “How Green is your Deen?” “Deen” refers to religion, and children learned about the importance Islam places on preserving the environment and caring for other creatures.

For more details and many photos of these projects as well as ones at other places of worship, see the faith community section of the Plant NOVA Natives website. This web section is designed to help faith communities decide how to use native plants in their landscaping and how to educate themselves and the greater community about the importance of providing sanctuary on our own properties for our fellow beings. To see a few of those creatures in a church garden, watch this one minute video.

Nature’s fine methods

Jerry Nissley

I recently attended a family reunion at my cousin’s restored farm house in Southampton County, Virginia. Standing sentinel to the house is a massive eastern white oak (Quercus alba) dramatically adorned with resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides). I was taken with this newly discovered (if only to me) fern and later sat down to research and write an article about the fern. 

Figure 1 House and oak tree

As I fondly rehashed conversations with the four generations at the reunion about how the land was recently recovered and the house rebuilt, and then discovered facts about the resurrection fern, what was originally an article revealed itself as a story. A story not only about a fern but more so of, well, resurrection—land into a distinguished Virginia farm, a house rebuilt into a home, and the recognition of a great white oak that has witnessed 350 years of history unfold. The symbolism of resurrection was inescapable.

The story parts blend so homogeneously with the first credo FMN students are introduced to: Awareness leads to knowledge which leads to appreciation which leads to conservation.

This story is an allegory of that credo. It tells of an initial awareness of the importance of the land and ensuing knowledge of its man-made and natural elements. It represents the appreciation of the forefather’s vision in developing the homestead and the innate desire of the current caretakers to preserve structures and conserve the beauty and integrity of the land’s natural treasures. One could loosely associate Jared Diamond’s warning about landscape amnesia—where people lose knowledge of how the natural world once was, with each succeeding generation accepting a degraded environment as the status quo (Diamond, 2005). That would not be the case with these people, with this environment.

As FMNers, we all love field trips right? So please, I invite you on a short, figurative field trip. One in which we will briefly discover some Virginia history, celebrate a sentinel oak, and then explore specific details about the resurrection fern.

The House 

We begin our field trip at the house in Southampton County, Virginia. The property has been in the Hart family for over 150 years and is now a registered Virginia Century Farm. Originally the farmers raised livestock on open land; rotated peanuts, corn, cotton, and soybeans to maintain soil quality; and designated large portions for timber.

Even though the property has been continually farmed by the family, as generations passed, the main house and farm buildings were at times rented out to achieve the greatest economic potential. The main house was adequately maintained, but the auxiliary buildings not so much. A few were lost to time and lack of maintenance, but the barn and blacksmith shed faired better.

My cousins, Patricia and Paul Milteer, were able to make the property their permanent home and tirelessly restored the farm house, barn, and blacksmith’s shed. They later applied to the Virginia Century Farm Program, and the farm is now officially registered by the state as The Hart Farm.

As stated on the program’s web-site, the Virginia Century Farm Program recognizes and honors those farms that have been in operation for at least 100 consecutive years and the Virginia farm families whose diligent and dedicated efforts have maintained these farms, provided nourishment to their fellow citizens and contributed so greatly to the economy of the Commonwealth. 

Figure 2 The Milteers’ Oak: Points: 366; Trunk circumference: 19’6”; Height: 100’; Average spread: 120’; Estimated age: 350 years

The family owners of farms designated as Virginia Century Farms receive a certificate signed by the Governor and the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, along with a sign for outdoor display (Century Farms, n.d.). 

The Tree 

Our field trip continues just out the front door. We can sit on the porch and consider the tree. Once the house and auxiliary buildings were restored functionally and aesthetically, the Milteers were able to focus on the massive eastern white oak standing as gatekeeper to their home. The oak provides home and food to a variety of animals. A barn owl (Tyto alba) nests in the branches and bats take sanctuary in the folds of the bark. 

The acorns take only one growing season to develop unlike those of the red oak group, which require at least 18 months for maturation. They are much less bitter than acorns of red oaks so they are preferred by a wider variety of wildlife. They are small relative to most oaks, but are a valuable annual food notably for turkeys, wood ducks, pheasants, grackles, jays, nuthatches, thrushes, woodpeckers, rabbits, and deer. The white oak is the only known food plant for the Bucculatrix luteella and Bucculatrix ochrisuffusa caterpillars. (Q. Alba, n.d.)

Recognizing the tree’s impressive size, the Milteers reached out to The Virginia Big Tree Program, an educational program within the Virginia Cooperative Extension that started out as a 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) project in 1970. Today the program is coordinated by the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech. Their mission is to increase the care and appreciation for all trees—big and small—and educate the Commonwealth about the value of trees and forests. The Virginia Big Tree Program maintains a register of the five largest specimens of more than 300 native, non-native, and naturalized tree species. The register includes information about each tree’s size, location, and unique characteristics. (Virginia Cooperative Extension, n.d.)

Trees are ranked on a point system measuring height, crown spread, and trunk circumference. The 500-year-old national record holder for Q. alba grows in Brunswick, Virginia and scored 451 points in 2012. The next highest scoringVirginia Q. alba scored 398 (Southampton), 397 (Lee), and 396 (Albemarle) respectively. (Big trees, n.d.)

Byron Carmean and Gary Williamson, volunteers for Virginia Big Tree Program, scored the Milteer’s tree at 366, so it probably will not make the top five (maybe the top ten).

The Fern

Let’s move our field trip just off the porch to contemplate the fern. Field trips don’t get easier than this, folks! 

Pleopeltis polypodioides (Andrews & Windham), also known as the resurrection fern, is a species of creeping, coarse-textured fern native to the Americas and Africa. The leathery, yellow-green pinnae (leaflets) are deeply pinnatifid and oblong. It attaches to its host with a branching, creeping, slender rhizome, which grows to 2 mm in diameter (P. Polypodioides, n.d.). The fern is facultative to North American Atlantic and Gulf Coast Plain physiographical areas.

Figure 3: Resurrection fern

This fern is not parasitic. It is an epiphyte or air plant. It attaches itself to a host and collects nourishment from air and water and nutrients that collect on the outer surface of the host. The resurrection fern lives commensalistically on the branches of large trees such as cypresses and may often be seen carpeting the shady areas on limbs of large oak trees as pictured on the Milteer’s tree. It also grows on rock surfaces and dead logs. In the southeastern United States, it is often found in the company of other epiphytic plants such as Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and is always found with some type of moss (phylum Bryophyta). The fern has spores (sori) on the bottom of the fronds and sporulates in summer and early fall (Oak and Fern, n.d.). Interestingly, rhizome sections are also viable offspring and can root themselves in new medium.

 The resurrection fern gets its name because it can survive long periods of drought by curling up its fronds and appearing desiccated, grey-brown and dead. However, when just a little water is presented, the fern will uncurl and reopen, appearing to “resurrect” and restores itself to a vivid green color in as little as three hours. Studies suggest these ferns could last 100 years without water and still revive after a single exposure. 

When the fronds “dry” as shown in Figure 4 (2 weeks after the reunion), they curl with their bottom sides upwards. In this way, they rehydrate more quickly when rain comes, as most of the water is absorbed on the underside of the pinnae. Experiments have shown they are able to lose almost all their free water (up to 97%) and remain viable, though more typically they lose around 76% in dry spells. For comparison, most other plants may die after losing only 8-12%. When drying, the fern synthesizes the protein dehydrin, which allows cell walls to fold in a way that can be easily reversed later (Plant Signaling, n.d.).

Figure 4 Dry fronds

Even more life, in forms that aren’t visible to the naked eye, may call the fern a community home. Stems, leaves, and flowers host microorganisms, creating a habitat called a phyllosphere, a term used in microbiology to refer to all above-ground portions of plants as habitat for microorganisms. The phyllosphere is subdivided into the caulosphere (stems), phylloplane (leaves), anthosphere (flowers), and carposphere (fruits). The below-ground microbial habitats (i.e., the thin-volume of soil surrounding root or subterranean stem surfaces) are referred to as the rhizosphere and laimosphere, respectively. Most plants host diverse communities of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, archaea, and protists. Some are beneficial to the plant; others function as plant pathogens and may damage the host plant or even kill it. However, the majority of microbial colonists on any given plant have no detectable effect on plant growth or function. Plant phyllospheres in general are considered a hostile environment for microorganisms to live due to the variation in ultra-violet radiation, temperature, water, and nutrient contents. The phyllosphere of P. polypodioides is considered even more extreme due to the mercurial environmental conditions this epiphyte is typically found in and the dry/wet states it cycles through (Phyllosphere, n.d.).

Microorganisms do indeed survive in the phyllosphere of P. polypodioides though, even during its dry periods. In “Changes in the phyllosphere community of the resurrection fern, Polypodium polypodioides associated with rainfall and wetting”, Jackson (2006) found the micro-organism community changes as the resurrection fern moves from a dry state to wet state. Additionally, the researchers found that certain populations of microorganisms increase their enzyme activity after the fern revives. The researchers concluded that these microorganisms are responding to the secretion of sugary organics released through the plant’s surface once the fern is back to its robust, green state. Changes in phyllosphere extracellular enzyme activity are seen first as an initial burst of activity following rainfall and a subsequent burst approximately 48 hours later as additional nutrient sources emerge.

Figure 5 Revived fern

Cultural studies have shown that Native peoples historically recognized the significance of the resurrection fern. It has been used as a diuretic, a remedy for heart problems, and as a treatment for infections. Benefits of the resurrection fern are not lost on the modern pharmaceutical industry. Recent medical research confirming these cultural reports have shown that extracts from the fern have anti-arrhythmic cardiac properties—truly a potential for resurrection of the heart.

Figure 6 Resurrection Fern up close

Thanks in part to the training provided by dedicated FMN program instructors, in this case our resident dendrologist Jim McGlone, I am aware of trees like never before. I see trees, I see what lives in trees, I see ferns, and I see the need for conservation. What I need to see more clearly and we all need to experience is the indelible, spiritual, personal relationship people need to have with nature. People are the caretakers of the gifts we have been given on earth, and people need to be the stimulus for conservation. As John Muir (1911) elegantly journaled, “How fine Nature’s methods! How deeply with beauty is beauty overlaid!” It is inspiring to me that something as small as a fern encouraged awareness, understanding, appreciation and, yes, resurrection of “nature’s fine methods”.


Works Cited

Big trees. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Century Farms. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Diamond, J. M. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Viking.

Jackson, E. F. (2006). Changes in the phyllosphere community of the resurrection fern, Polypodium polypodioides, associated with rainfall and wetting. FEMS microbiology ecology 58.2, 236-246.

Muir, J. (1911). My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Miffin.

Oak and Fern. (n.d.). Retrieved from

P. Polypodioides. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Phyllosphere. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Plant Signaling. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Q. Alba. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Virginia Cooperative Extension (n.d.). Virginia Big Tree Program. Retrieved from

Summer is for visiting native plant gardens

Margaret Fisher

Are you feeling inspired by the plants in the Native Plants for Northern Virginia guide but want to see them in a garden setting before choosing ones for your yard? Northern Virginia has numerous native plant gardens that are open to the public and which can be located using the new map on the Plant NOVA Natives website. They range from public gardens and demonstration gardens maintained by professionals or by Master Gardeners, to landscaping projects at places of business or places of worship, and from formal grounds to a cottage garden look. The summer vacation season is a great time to see the panoply of gardening choices that can include native plants.

If you are travelling up or down the East Coast this summer, public gardens are a great place to stop. Many of the species of plants that are native to Northern Virginia can also be found north or south of here. More and more public gardens are incorporating sections of natives into their designs, and several gardens use native plants exclusively.

Do you know of any native plant gardens or landscaping projects that are missing from our map? Please email the name with a description – and photos if you have them – to [email protected].

There is one location that you might never guess: the Dale City rest stop on northbound I95 has a huge native meadow that was planted and maintained by volunteers. There is also a smaller monarch waystation at the southbound rest stop. Check out our one-and-a-half minute video about the critters that take advantage of those oases.


The Evolution of the National Wildlife Refuge System: One Manager’s Perspective

Imagining “wild” spaces in and around a busy metropolitan area like Fairfax County might feel like an exercise in futility, but we are actually have several wildlife refuges within driving distance: Mason Neck and Patuxent Research Refuge, for example.

How did these areas become protected and what’s next for the National Wildlife Refuge System that cares for them?

On May 11, at the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District’s Green Breakfast in Fairfax, Patuxent Wildlife Refuge Manager Brad Knudsen discussed the evolution of the National Wildlife Refuge System. He told stories about the important wildlife resources the NWRS conserves, how the NWRS has grown in its 116 years, and how legislation and public involvement have impacted the direction of the system.

He closed with a glimpse at what the future holds, including decisions driven by science and a mission to take the refuges to the people. Luckily, he’s allowed us to post his slides so that folks who couldn’t come, can still get a sense of what he talked about, and work to preserve our natural national heritage.


What I learned during the 2019 City Nature Challenge

Bill Hafker

Participating in the City Nature Challenge was an enlightening and enjoyable experience in several ways.

First, I was somewhat surprised at how many unique living things you can spot when you are really intent on trying to find as many as you can, and you slow down and “get into the weeds” looking for things!

Wool sower gall wasp (Callirhytis seminator), by Bill Hafker

Second, I found that looking at the species identified by others participating in the Challenge was a good source of information for identifying things that I saw. A good example is when I found what I believe now is the wool sower gall wasp. I really had no idea where to start looking to see what this colorful little ball might be, but I found a picture of it in the species list identified by others. Several days have passed and no one has confirmed my ID, alas. Although my pictures are a bit blurry, I think there’s nothing else this could be. I found who the leading identifier of this species was, hoping to engage him in its identification, but could not find a way in iNaturalist to try to contact him.

In addition to looking into how to work with other identifiers, I’ve learned other things to improve my performance next year. This year, I limited myself to submitting only one observation of a species, even if I saw it in more than one area to make observations. I now know that multiple observations are a good way to help define spatial distributions of observed species.

I also realized that, while I received training in how to make observations in iNaturalist prior to the event, I should have sought out training in how to do identifications so I could more actively participate in that aspect of it, also.

Resources for working with native seed mixes in large areas

This resource is meant to be a living document that our community can enrich as they learn. Thank you for sharing generously. If you have additions, go ahead and suggest them in comments, and we’ll update the post.

Seed Companies

Earth Sangha 
May be able to supply a large amount of native plants to plant including seeds if you give them a year to first grow them at the nursery

Ernst Seeds
Virginia Northern Piedmont Mix:


Preparation of the site and the exhaustion of the bank of weed seeds will be critical. Tilling will release a trove of weeds. Future mowing regimens should also be established to mow the annual cool-season weeds in Spring but before the warm-season perennials have taken off.  Mowing will also keep the woodies at bay.

 Consider using seeds for the grasses/flowers, but later use plugs for other flowers, as your budget allows. The flower plugs allow you to have more of an immediate visual impact without breaking the bank. The grasses become the foundation of your planting with the flowers as a smaller, but important, component. (Source: Joe Gorney, President, Fairfax Master Naturalists)

Notes from October 2018 issue of The Acorn, Earth Sangha

Additional notes on plants and conditions, courtesy of Lisa Bright, Executive Director, Earth Sangha 

For meadow-type gardens, you would need sunny and dry-tolerant species to partial-sun and moist-loving species:

  • Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
  • Andropogon virginicus (Broomsedge Bluestem)
  • Purple-top Grass (Tridens Flavus)
  • Beaked Panic Grass (Coleataenia anceps)
  • Southeastern Wildrye (Elymus glabriflorus)
  • Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
  • Purplelove Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis)
  • Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)
  • Roundleaf Thoroughwort (Eupatorium rotundifolium)
  • Hyssop-leaved Boneset (Eupatorium hyssopifolium)
  • Flat-topped White Aster (Doellingeria umbellata)
  • Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  • Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida)
  • Late Purple Aster (Symphyotrichum patens)
  • Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea)
  • Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis)
  • Narrow-leaved goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)
  • Wild Bergamort (Monarda fistulosa)

For edge of meadow bordering woodlands (sunny most of the time):

  • Deertongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum)
  • Squarrose Sedge (Carex squarrosa)
  • Slender Oatgrass (Chasmantium laxum)
  • Georgia Bulrush (Scirpus georgianus)
  • Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix)
  • Common Patridge Pea (Chaemecrista fasciculata)
  • Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum)
  • Rough Boneset (Eupatorium pilosum)
  • Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus sturumosus) & (Helianthus divaricatus)
  • Broadleaf Ironweed (Vernonia glauca)
  • Carolina Wild Petunia (Ruelia caroliniensis)
  • Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea)
  • Hyssop Skullcap (Scutellaria integrifolia)
  • Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda punctata)
  • Rough-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)
  • New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-anglie)
  • Lyre-leaf Sage (Salvia lyrata)
  • Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Partial-sun woodlands: 

  • Slender Oatgrass (Chasmantium laxum)
  • Wood Sedge (Carex blanda)
  • Long-awned Wood Grass (Brachelytrum erectum)
  • Cattail Sedge (Carex typhina)
  • Virginia Wildrye (Elymus virginicus)
  • Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix)
  • Riverbank Wildrye (Elymus riperius)
  • Poverty Oatgrass (Danthonia spicata)
  • White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata)
  • Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia)
  • Common Dittany (Cunila origanoides)
  • American Alumroot (Heuchera americana)
  • Erect Goldenrod (Solidago erecta)
  • Silverrod (Solidago bicolor)

Streamside woodland edges, full to partial sun: 

  • Deertongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum)
  • Georgia Bulrush (Scirpus georgianus)
  • Common Wood Reedgrass (Cinna anundinacea)
  • Lurid Sedge (Carex lurida)
  • Northern Long Sedge (Carex crinita)
  • Redtop Panic Grass (Coleataenia rigidula)
  • Crown Grass (Paspalum floridanum)
  • New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
  • Blue Swamp Verbena (Verbena hastata)
  • Canada Germander (Teucrium canadensis)
  • Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum)
  • Crooked-stem Aster (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides)
  • Green Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)
  • Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
  • Common Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Rain garden: 

  • Deertongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum)
  • Crown Grass (Paspalum floridanum)
  • Lurid Sedge (Carex lurida)
  • Frank’s Sedge (Carex frankii)
  • Georgia Bulrush (Scirpus georgianus)
  • Beaked Panic Grass (Coleataenia anceps)
  • Redtop Panic Grass (Coleataenia rigidula)
  • Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
  • Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris)
  • Blue Swamp Verbena (Verbena hastata)
  • Green Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)
  • Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale & H. flexuosum)
  • Allegheny Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens)
  • Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
  • Fall Phlox (Phlox paniculata)


If “large area” means more than 2500 square feet, including a 10 foot buffer around the bed and any disturbed access to the site, it is a land disturbing activity and may require a permit from the county.

If a “run off” pond is connected to a perennial stream, it may also have a Resource Protection Area (RPA) defined; again you would need a permit. Contact the Fairfax County Land Development Services before proceeding if the project is in Fairfax. Prince William and Arlington Counties have similar restrictions. Loudoun does not have RPAs but does have restrictions on land disturbance. (Source: Jim McGlone, VA Dept of Forestry)

Seeding a large area can turn into disaster, one gigantic weedy mess. Look at the meadows others have tried that just turned into a mass of Japanese stiltgrass. Who is going to spend the hours and hours necessary to do the weeding? An alternative strategy would be to start with a small area and expand over the years, or start with one or two species of grass and absolutely nothing else, get that established, then add the forba later. The fewer the species, the easier the weeding job for people who are not botanists. Spend the first year or so simply killing what is there already, letting more weeds sprout, then killing them as well, before doing any planting at all.

In a public setting, most people do better with a more traditional landscaping approach, using mulch initially between plants and not using seeds. For covering very large areas, there is a lot to be said for using shrub and trees with nice wide paths, plus some groundcover wherever you can afford to pay for enough plugs, and a manageable size pollinator garden somewhere in the mix. (Source: Margaret Fisher, Plant NOVA Natives)

Further Reading

Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, by Larry Weaner

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Rick Darke

Native groundcovers

Margaret Fisher, Plant NOVA Natives

Are you seeking a groundcover that is both beautiful and friendly to the ecosystem? Try looking beyond the old standbys to the new trend in gardening circles: native Virginia plants.

Bare ground in a garden is an invitation to weeds and erosion. The conventional landscaping solutions are either to pile on wood mulch or to plant an aggressive plant – such as English ivy, Japanese pachysandra, Vinca, spreading Liriope, or Yellow Archangel – then let it take over. The problem with those plants is that they take over more than just our gardens: they spread where they are not wanted by inexorably creeping along and by producing seeds that allow them to leap into our few remaining natural areas, where they crowd out the native plants and ruin the local ecosystem.

To prevent these unintended consequences, landscapers are now turning to plants that evolved locally, of which there are numerous examples that provide the “look” we are used to: a dense, low-growing monoculture for shade or part shade areas. Some are evergreen, others deciduous. A few have the additional feature of colorful spring flowers. Some can tolerate the bone-dry conditions under a tree; others prefer constant moisture. With the exception of Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) and Common Violet (Viola sororia), none would be accused of being aggressive. Isn’t it nicer to have a beautiful groundcover that supports the ecosystem than to have a bare mulch garden? Details and photos can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website.

2018 in review for Fairfax Master Naturalists

Our year in numbers, courtesy of Michelle Prysby, Director, Virginia Master Naturalist Program

Heres’s the flyer

2018 infographic of FMN accomplishments