An Explorer’s Journal of Native Plants in the Landscape
Great Falls National Park – July 2, 2010
I decided to continue my explorations this time by hiking the 1.4-mile second section of the Billy Goat Trail on the MD side of Great Falls (Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park). The first half of the trail was further from the river than I expected, being a wooded and mostly flat trail riddled with tree roots and some rocks. Later on, the trail got closer to the water, and the soil became sandier and sunnier. All along both sections were patches of Pawpaw and Hornbeam (also known as Ironwood), and the tall canopy trees above them included Hackberries, Hickory, Sycamore, and several species of Oak.
My most memorable surprise was in stumbling across one of our native Passionflowers, Passiflora lutea. I honesty wouldn’t have recognized it if it weren’t blooming, as I was trying to identify this mystery vine growing over a fallen tree. The greenish-yellow blooms are only about 1” wide, but were unmistakably Passionflower. If anything, I was hoping to find the purple species, P. incarnata, so I was especially surprised and thrilled to find this one. The plant was only about 5’ high, and had climbed through surrounding perennials under dappled shade about 15’ from the water’s edge.
At another point where the wooded trail cuts down to the water, I found a Phlox in full bloom. My guess is Phlox paniculata, though I’m not sure. The flowers were a rich violet-purple and had a light fragrance. Although hard to tell from the steepness of the bank, I think the plant was 3’ tall, and at the time was exposed to mostly sun. Nearby, where the trees cast more shade, was a colony of Wild Germander (Teucrium canadense) in bloom.
The habitat around the rockier areas of trail that was sunny and nearer the water yielded a few more surprises. Starry Campion (Silene stellata) and a couple of other non-native Campions scattered about near the shore, both in the sun and under leggy shrubs. A few Blue Mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum; now under the genus Conoclinium) were blooming, along with a species of Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum), drawing lots of pollinators. I even discovered Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum) and what I believe to be a Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis). At the water’s edge was American Water-willow (Justicia americana) with its small purple and white flowers.
On the wooded section of trail headed back to the towpath, I saw some leaves of Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) dying back for the summer. One or two had seed pods; hopefully next spring I can catch them in flower, as I’ve never run into them in the wild before. A shrub named Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), while unassuming in appearance most of the year, was also setting seed in its characteristic air-filled papery husks. I also ran across a young tree of Hophornbeam, Ostrya virginiana, with developing hop-like seed clusters.
The hike brought me encounters with lots of dragonflies, plus a few butterflies that I rarely see, like the Hackberry Emperor. Blue Herons were also out and about, stalking fish in the canal. And, as common as they are nowadays, it was still amazing to see a group of deer cross the trail not 30 feet in front of me, foraging in the woods.
Read part 4 here – Great Falls National Park – September 9 & 11, 2010
By Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer/Manager