May flowers (and rain)

Hi, Rachael again.

I said bring on the April showers, not May showers!

Here at the C&O Canal, we’ve had enough rain to wash out culverts, roads, parts of the towpath, and cause landslides. Many of the popular trails near the river had been flooded, and were too dangerous to access. The power of a flood-motivated river is amazing, though! Whole trees tumbled downstream and you can’t help but watch water roar through what is usually a quiet run. We placed sandbags around one of the Visitor’s center, but thankfully the river crested at a lower level than anticipated.

Hopefully this weather takes a break soon, or else I won’t get to find those floodplain plants!

Although not a roaring flood, these silver maples are usually dry up on the riverbank

But it is spring, so let’s see what’s growing (other than puddles).

Early in May was the best time to spot trout lilies or fawn lilies (Erythronium spp.). The white trout lilies are rare here in Maryland.

I am trying not to be mad aboutmissing them in flower (seriously, there are records for where they grow throughout the park, and I found ABSOLUTELY NO E. albidum open). They are still identifiable by the stigma, style, and capsule, which I guess I can call a happy compromise (no beautiful white petals, but at least they didn’t hide from me).

Erythronium albidum; Notice the white style topped by a conspicuously three-pronged stigma

Close enough! E. albidum flower

Erythronium americanum has a yellow stigma and style. The stigma is not conspicuously three-pronged.

E. americanum

Easy enough, right? Until a seasoned botanist suggests there might be an occurrence of another species of Erythronium that hadn’t been recorded here. Honestly I spent hours pouring through various Floras and websites and poking at the patches of leaves and capsules until I decided to sleep on it. Species identification can get far more complex than it needs to be, especially since living things are not as cleanly defined as text from a page.

The other species of Erythronium also has a yellow style, but Erythronium umbilicatum, unlike E. americanum, does not have auricled petals. Many of the physical characteristics for these two species of Erythronium, such as capsule shape and anther color are variable, which makes telling them apart tricky. According to the regional botanist, the style on E. umbilicatum is not persistent, and therefore the trout lilies in question were probably not Erythronium umbilicatum.

Enough about flowers-without-flowers. I promise there some easy-on-the-eyes plants, because that’s what everyone raves about when they hear I’m a botanist. Oh!–the wildflowers!

Trilium erectum (yep, I had to put this one on Instagram)

While I’m at it, I’d like to appreciate the enthusiasm I’ve seen for the plants in this park. Not only from staff and members of a native plant society, but visitors that just want some exercise do want to hear that there is something worth protecting. It’s nice to see a community that cares about their strip of wildlife, and individuals who want to learn about their park.

Tradescantia virginiana – spiderwort

Let me interrupt the flower photos with a copperhead molting on the towpath

Podophyllum peltatum — all parts of mayapple is poisonous, unless the fruit is perfectly ripe.

Paw paw flowers, which, I’ve been told, are pollinated by flies

There is concern about the number of paw paw ‘trees’ growing in what should be successional forests, since other seedlings such as maples and hickories have a hard time competing with paw paw. Deer do not like to eat these guys, so there is no natural control. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have something with a taller canopy so the understory can develop, with the ash trees dying out from effects of the emerald ash borer, and no more american chestnut trees. After that meeting with the regional inventory and monitoring team, I realized that I am not just learning about protecting rare plants here, but how to keep the forests healthy for future inhabitants. This park goes beyond us and beyond the canal’s locks and dams, which is important to remind myself when I think of the more direct ways I could be helping people.

Many of the rare and watchlisted herbaceous plants (that are not in the floodplain) grow in the understory in places with larger trees. While not as exciting as seeing them in person, I’ve got some photos for you!

Primula meadia — shooting star, formerly Dodecatheon meadia, an S3 in Maryland. The white flowers are Micranthes virginiensis.

Delphinium tricorne S3

Phacelia purshii, S3, miami mist (more of a floodplain/low area plant)

Phacelia covillei, S2, which looks similar to Nemophila aphylla, but the bracts of P. covillei are longer, and the capsule is flatter than round (grows like a weed)

Maianthemum stellatum, S2 (grows on riverbanks and forests, which are at stake)

Because I am sure there are enough flower photos on here;

Dead man’s fingers! 
“If you can bring nothing to this place / but your carcass, keep out” — William Carlos Williams “Dedication for a Plot of Ground”

Thanks for spending time with this post, and keep up the hard work!


Monocacy Aqueduct, the “unbreakable aqueduct”



April showers? Bring it on!

I’ve already been here for a month? That’s amazing!

Hello! Rachael here.

It seems like everything is blooming a little later this year, which has been both frustrating and quite useful for catching up. The data on rare plants is usually accompanied by a field log, where the intern or employee explains the environment they are in, emphasizing the rare plants and those either competing or coexisting nearby, as well as what is in flower. That’s been helpful for learning the area.

Many rare plants are not so unique that they can be identified without the flower. For example, Erythronium, or the trout lily genus are abundant in the park and state of Maryland, but the white trout lilies are listed as S2.

Here is an Erythronium species leaf, and then a flowering Erythronium americanum found at a different location.

Erythronium species leaf

Erythronium americanum

These have just started flowering. The rare white trout lilies should also flower soon.

I enjoy being able to visit so many sites within the park, but revisiting them at a later point in the season is an added experience. A few weeks ago, the few plants out of the ground were bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and hepatica (Anemone americana). Because of the leaf shape, A. americana is one of my favorites. They are so cute and simple (I don’t think my photo does it justice, though…)

Anemone americana

There was still snow then. It was cold, beautiful, and I had no idea what I could have been stepping on. Needless to say, not much useful data was recorded.

The next time I visited the same site, Dirca palustris, commonly known as leatherwood, was in flower. This shrub is super flexible, and the coloring of the stems is lighter. It’s a unique plant that’s pretty hard to miss, especially if it’s reaching onto the trail (it grabbed my face on an incline) with those little flowers.

Dirca palustris in flower

But back to challenges, because what fun would it be to have every rare plant clearly identifiable from the trail?

A lot of my time in the office is either spent figuring the best way to visit a site (at the best time) and updating myself on how to differentiate between rockcress. The kicker here is that some of the rockresses that used to be Arabis are now Boechera or Arabidopsis, and it seems the rare plant community accepts the synonyms (or maybe I’m under the wrong impression).

But aside from having multiple names and multiple species, rockcresses aren’t easy to differentiate unless they are a little more developed than the ones I’ve included in photos here. The basal and cauline leaves have characteristics that separate the species, but are variable and rather similar to each other. In order to tell them apart for an accurate identification, I’ll wait for flowers and fruits. That should be soon if not sometime this week!

Arabis? Boechera? Too soon to tell! –And is that Micranthes on the left?

Anyway, I am feeling a little better now about the whole Arabis/Boechera struggle after consulting both the regional and Maryland botanist about it. They also gave me some career advice, and asked me what I’d like to do. My answer is usually “eventually I’ll get to grad school, but I want to explore my options and work outside for as long as I can. Let’s look at some plants!”

A man (park volunteer?) came up to me while I was working the other day, explaining how picking up trash was good exercise (he was about to pull a tire from the river). After loading five or so trash bags full of beer cans, wine bottles, silver-side-out chip bags, muddy shoes, etc… into his car, he found out I was a wanna-be botanist, and he posed an ID question: it’s got these shiny sort-of leaves (makes hand motion like rubbing dimes together) and alien-like flowers. White at the top, yellow beak, bizarre thing, really, those flowers.

I told him I couldn’t match anything to that description. Alright, he pulled some (please don’t pull plants! You can’t have those.) out of his car. It was a rather car-heat-stroke looking Dicentra cucullaria. Dutchman’s breeches! What a name. They are flowering all over the place.

Dutchmans breeches

Speaking of native plants, my last post featured Mertensia virginica, but these are in flower. I sent a pic home saying they reminded me of Mom, and the response asked if they have thorns. *sigh* I was trying to be nice…

Virginia bluebells

Last week, another intern (through a different program) came along for a day out in the field. We drove down to a pretty popular trail (after hanging some signs for a rabid raccoon)(at the site where the man was picking up trash and Dutchman’s breeches). This section of the Billy Goat Trail is definitely a cool area. It transitions from rocky outcroppings to sandy riparian beach to swampy to forest within a mile or so. Because of this and its proximity to highly populated areas, the plants are pretty diverse. The downside is the constant threat of invasive plants and the risk of rare plants being trampled.

We spotted flowers (finally!) and rare plants along the trail, so I’ll have to get back to explore the whole area.

Stellaria pubera–giant chickweed, stitchwort

Phlox subulata–moss phlox

I am having a great time, and interacting with others reminds me why I wanted to be here: to learn and to serve, basically. I have the opportunity to work outside as much as I want and understand how to better protect the environment and history through the vegetation. That’s my job. Plant protector (in a way) in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park; that’s my internship.

I came across a great couple of lines the other day from Gwendolyn Brooks’ “An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire” dedicated to LaBoehm Brown:


“You rise. Although / genial, you are in yourself again.”


The Potomac, still, across from where I am staying.

Still can’t believe we’ve been more than halfway through April all day…


First of the Season

Hello CLM bloggers and scientists; happy spring!

I’ve gotten a hearty welcome here in Maryland at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park, and have a feeling I’m going to learn quite a few plants here.

I’ve also learned (in the barely-one-week-and-a-half I’ve been here) a bit about snakehead fish finding their way into the canal, about the collaboration necessary to re-route a trail then add a sturdier bridge, about aqueducts and mule-towed boats.

Back in the canal’s heyday, mules walked along the towpath tugging a cargo boat up the canal (which would be opposite the river, to the left of the towpath, and out of photo). Here’s a photo of the towpath and the Potomac River.

I had the opportunity to head into the park and check out some sites where construction would impact the land by driving heavy machinery, dumping soil, or clearing trees. We didn’t find any rare plants, so business continues.

What about some botany? What am I doing? Rare plant surveys! Identifying and keying  to be sure what I’ve found is rare. Counting and keeping data. Looking for any effects invasive species and land use might have on historically documented vegetation communities.

The neat thing about the Chesapeake and Ohio canal National Historical Park is the diversity of the flora. Because it spans communities from bustling metropolis to historic farm villages with a few people per mile, there is a chance for many types of habitats to foster introduced and native species, as well as those not found in many other places. I get to look for those not often found elsewhere.
Challenge accepted!

Gosh the anticipation of getting out into the field is killing me, mostly because the more time I spend leafing through the Flora of Virginia, the less competent I feel. I know that’s just winter. I’m not saying the snow isn’t beautiful, especially with at least a half foot of it lining the Potomac right now, but I miss being engulfed in the green seasons.  I thought Maryland doesn’t usually get much snow…

Anyway, here is a photo of a native plant I captured a few days ago, Mertensia virginica, or Virginia bluebells. It’s not flowering yet, but we’ll get there!

Here’s to a great season!




By the way, anything I post in this blog is my opinion, and not necessarily that of NPS or CBG.