Creature Feature: Common Buckeye

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Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

Common Buckeye

Junonia coenia

Family: Nymphalidae

Distinguishing Features/Description

Common buckeyes are medium sized, brightly colored and strikingly patterned butterflies.  Each of the buckeye’s four wings have two dark colored eye spots circled in a thin band of yellow.  The eye spots are positioned along the edges of the wings, and the two central ones on each side of the body are the largest.  The large eye spots on the forewings are surrounded by a thick white band, the shape and color of which are important identification features for separating this species from the other two North American buckeyes.  The leading edges of the forewings between the body and these white patches are brown, interrupted by two orange to red vertical lines parallel to the body.  The hindwings are mostly brown around the eye spots, with orange and yellow bands on the trailing edges.  The underside of the forewings is similar to the upperside, while the underside of the hindwings is much duller, with smaller less colorful eye spots and less patterning.  In the fall you might see common buckeyes “Rosa” form, with much brighter, pinkish hindwings.

The common buckeye is named after the resemblance of its eye spots to the eyes of male deer (bucks).  Interestingly, Native Americans named the buckeye trees with an indigenous word meaning buck eye, due to the nuts’ resemblance to bucks’ eyes, but there is no other apparent connection between the tree and the butterfly.

Common buckeye is the only buckeye in Virginia, so it is difficult to confuse with other butterflies in the state.  Two other buckeye species do live in the United States however, the mangrove buckeye in Florida and the tropical buckeye in Florida, Texas and the Southwest.  Both other buckeye species are duller, with smaller eye spots and not as bright colors compared to common.  Mangrove buckeye has orange instead of white bands on the forewings, which are bordered on the inside by black.  Tropical buckeye has very thin pinkish bands on the forewings and is much darker than common in general. 

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Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

Distribution and Habitat

Common buckeyes can be found throughout the southern United States year-round, but their range extends up to southern Canada in the summer months.  They are absent from much of the west, including Montana, Idaho and the surrounding states.  They are also present in Mexico and some of the Caribbean.

In Virginia common buckeyes can be found in a variety of open sunny habitats throughout the state.  They are present in many disturbed habitats, such as roadsides and pastures, as well as the many types of natural grasslands in the state, such as woodlands, savannas and prairies.  Common buckeyes can be found anywhere their generally prairie affiliated host plants can be found.

Ecology

Caterpillars are generalists on a wide variety of herbaceous plants, including plantain and wild-petunia.  Adults feed on nectar from a variety of plants, but the Asteraceae seems to be a favorite family.

On September 26th, 2018 CUH surveyed a piedmont prairie growing in a powerline right of way in Albemarle County.  We observed common buckeye caterpillars feeding on Agalinis purpurea (purple false foxglove), and adults in great numbers on Euthamia graminifolia (common flat-topped goldenrod).  The flat-topped goldenrod was growing in a large patch in the middle of a large and exceptionally biodiverse piedmont prairie remnant in a high-tension powerline right of way.  It was in the peak of its bloom, and the flat clouds of yellow flowers stood out from the surrounding broomsedge and other prairie grasses. Butterflies, moths and other insects including fiery skippers and swarms of common buckeyes fed from the flowers. Almost every flat-topped goldenrod flower had several buckeyes on it, the eye spots on their wings reflecting the sunlight in a dazzling array of iridescent colors.

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Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) on Common Flat-topped Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

The scene above illustrates a couple of ecological relationships between the Piedmont prairie plant community and the common buckeye.  Many possible host plants for the buckeye grow in the prairie, including wild petunia and purple false foxglove, the latter of which we directly observed the buckeye caterpillar eating.  The prairie is also full of good nectar plants for migrating and resident adult butterflies, with the flat-topped goldenrod stealing the show in this scene.  The buckeyes, like other insects that feed on nectar, are inadvertently pollinating the plants they are feeding on.

Although we did not observe any predation of adults or caterpillars, they undoubtable serve as food sources for birds and predatory insects living in the powerline right-of-way.  The caterpillars are covered with thick dark spines, possibly serving as a physical defense from such predation, and of course the adult butterflies have the brightly colored eye-spots, which may serve as a distraction to predators.

Like the famous monarch, common buckeyes are at least partially migratory, with the first brood in the south of their range moving up into the northern US and southern Canada in the spring.  Different individuals fly back south in the fall, causing a peak in the numbers of common buckeyes in Virginia during their migration period.  Common buckeyes fly in Virginia roughly from May to October, with pupae surviving the winter.  They fly all year in the deep south but only briefly and sporadically in the northern part of their range during summer.

Creature Feature: Northern Bobwhite

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Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Photo by Baxter Beamer.

Northern Bobwhite

Colinus virginianus

Family: Odontophoridae

Other common names: Bobwhite Quail, Virginia Quail

Distinguishing Features/Description

Northern bobwhites are a small, round bodied species of quail with short legs and tails. Their bodies are finely patterned with bold rufous, brown, black and white markings. Most bobwhite populations have a striped white and black head, with a white throat, dark eye stripe, white supercilium and dark crown. The only exception to this head coloration is the endangered subspecies masked bobwhite (C. v. ridgwayi) of southern Arizona, which has an entirely black head.

The coloration of male northern bobwhites varies significantly across their range, while females look similar. Eastern males have rich rufous colored chests and flanks and a light brown back. Males from the Southeastern U. S. are much darker overall, with a nearly black chest and very little rufous on the flanks. Western birds are paler, with some light rufous underneath and a pale gray back.

Northern bobwhites are the only quail throughout the eastern part of their range; however, they do overlap with scaled and Gambel’s quail in the West. Where they overlap with other quail species, bobwhites can be easily identified by their smaller size and brighter coloration, including their rufous chest and striped head.

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Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata)

Distribution and Habitat

Northern bobwhites occur naturally in most of the eastern United States, roughly from Massachusetts to South Dakota and south through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to Florida. They also can be found on many of the Caribbean Islands and south through Mexico to Guatemala. Bobwhites have also been introduced to other parts of the world — including the Pacific Northwest and Europe — as a game bird.

In Virginia, northern bobwhites can be found statewide, although in many areas native populations have declined precipitously since the 1970s. Bobwhites are fairly rare in the Shenandoah Valley, becoming increasingly frequent as you travel east through the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. There are quite a few around Scottsville in eastern Albemarle, although some of these birds are likely hunting releases.

Northern bobwhites need early successional habitats — various natural grasslands and savannas — to do well, and the decline of these habitats in Virginia is probably a large cause of their decline. These kinds of prairies and open forests are maintained by disturbances, such as clear cutting or burning. Two plant communities that bobwhites rely on in Virginia are Piedmont prairie and loblolly pine savanna. Difficult Creek Natural Area and Piney Grove Preserve are two preserves in Virginia that exemplify these two plant communities respectively.

Piedmont prairies are a particularly diverse form of natural grassland, which makes them great habitat for bobwhites. The rich assemblage of flora that can be found in these disturbed habitats is often dominated by many species of grasses, legumes and asters. Since there are so many species of native plants, there are also many insects and seeds for the bobwhites to eat. The dense herb layer also provides cover from predators.

The diversity of flowering plants found in good bobwhite habitat also makes great habitat for pollinators. Many species of native butterflies, bees and wasps would also benefit from the restoration of natural grasslands.

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Piedmont Prairie at Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve

Ecology and Life History

Bobwhites feed mostly on seeds and nuts in the fall and winter, but in the summer when they are raising chicks, they also eat many insects. Preferred seed sources include asters, legumes, grasses, pines and oaks.

Like other quail species, bobwhites live in groups — called coveys — of 3-20 birds. Coveys feed and sleep together, and they get along peacefully for most of the year, except during the breeding season when males fight for mates.

Nests are a shallow, grass lined scrape on the ground. Bobwhites often weave grasses over the nest into a canopy, forming a dome like shape. Typically, there is only one brood per season, but up to three have been recorded. Clutch size is large, usually more than 10 eggs. The young fledge after two weeks.

Notes

As mentioned above, northern bobwhites used to be a common bird in the eastern United States, but their populations have declined by 85% in the past 40 years, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The IUCN Red List currently considers them “near threatened”. These declines have been attributed to widespread loss of the early successional habitat that bobwhites favor to development, forest succession, and more land intensive farming practices. Historically, the Piedmont of Virginia held extensive natural grasslands. What little remain today are widely scattered and fragmented. Bobwhites are only one of the many animals and plant species that rely on these incredibly biodiverse habitats.

Native Orchids in Cranberry Glades Botanical Area

This past weekend my family and I made our now annual trip to the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest.  I first heard about Cranberry Glades several years ago — from an orchid book by Stanley Bentley called Native Orchids of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and a blog I read called floraofohio.blogspot.com by Andrew Gibson — and we have gone every year since then.

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Cranberry Glades is a series of large, high elevation peat bogs at around 3400 feet, which contains many plants typically found in more northern regions.  Some of these plants are relicts of the last Ice Age, surviving only in this high montane valley and no where else in the Southern Appalachians.  Many species of native orchid can also be found  in and around the glades, including swamp pink, rose pogonia, large purple fringed orchid, ragged fringed orchid, and their hybrid, Keenan’s fringed orchid.

The air felt warm and fresh as we got out of the car, a noticeable difference from the mugginess of the lower elevations we had left behind.  We walked onto the half mile boardwalk that traverses part of Round and Flag Glades.  Near the parking lot, the canopy was closed with red spruce, eastern hemlock, yellow birch and black birch.  Thickets of speckled alder grew along the stream.  The ground was slightly swampy, covered in dense skunk cabbage and meadow rue growing above clumps of Sphagnum moss.  The canopy opened up around us as the boardwalk led out into the bog.  Dense tussocks of Sphagnum carpeted the ground, with both small and large cranberries growing out of them in clumps.  It was amazing to think of the many feet of dead Sphagnum and other plant materials below us — called peat— holding water like a gigantic sponge.  Bog-rosemary, one of the plants reaching the southernmost limit of its range at Cranberry Glades, grew along the edges of the boardwalk.  Small sprigs of a chokeberry species waved in the air a couple feet off the ground.  Soon the tiny, delicate pink flowers of grass pinks and rose pogonias began to appear amid the tangle of cranberry vines.

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Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides).  Unfortunately none of the pogonia plants were close enough to the boardwalk to photograph this year, so this is a photo of a plant I am growing at home.

We rounded a bend into a second glade, this one filled with clumps of giant cinnamon fern growing out of the Sphagnum.  Grass pinks bloomed beneath the ferns outstretched fronds.  As I was photographing a round leaved sundew, I heard a group of people come up behind us, eagerly searching for one of the insect-eating sundews.  They had clearly  heard about them but couldn’t find any.  I thought this was funny because sundews are all over the ground there, but they are so tiny that if you don’t bend down and look closely you can’t see them.   I pointed out sundews and the also carnivorous purple pitcher plants to the group and they were very grateful.

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Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus)

After lunch we decided to walk the cowpasture trail, which goes all the way around the glades through spruce woodlands and open, wet clearings.  In past years, we had found several species of orchids along it.

The wide, level cowpasture trail led into the woods from the road.  Magnolia and Canada warblers sang from the spruce, hemlock and rhododendron that lined the path.  I heard the slow, nasal call of a red-breasted nuthatch.  Not long after the start of the trail, the forest opened up into a large mountain meadow.  Meadowsweets and goldenrods grew thickly in the drier areas, while the wet seep in the center of the clearing was filled with rushes and sedges.  A pair of mating eastern red damsels perched briefly in front of me.

Back in the forest, mountain wood sorrel and various northern clubhouses appeared along the edges of the trail.  We arrived at a smaller clearing, and the wet ditch beside the trail exploded with vegetation.  Sorting carefully through the lush foliage, I was able to find the inconspicuous green flower stalk of a northern tubercled orchid.  It became apparent there were many more in this small ditch, the only place I have ever seen them.

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Northern Tubercled Orchid (Platanthera flava var. herbolia)

We continued hiking down the trail, listening to the songs of breeding birds that are rare in Virginia, such as hermit thrushes and several species of warblers.  I saw some of the wide, round leaves of pad-leaved orchid growing on a dirt bank under hemlocks, but unfortunately there were no flowers.  In another clearing I found one blooming ragged fringed orchid, along with one that had been eaten by a deer.

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Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Some time later we emerged back onto the road.  As we were walking towards our car, a pick up truck pulled up and a man got out and began to inspect the road bank.  My mom, always on the look out for helpful local knowledge, asked him what he was looking for.  He showed us a patch of ragged fringed orchid further up the road that we probably would have missed.

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Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera)

He told us he’d met Stanley Bentley, the author of the book from which I learned about Cranberry Glades in the first place, and about the orchids that grew right in his back yard.   In the end, he gave us directions to his “secret spot” for a patch of about 40 large purple fringed orchids, although he warned us they were “a little spent.”  This information was especially exciting because I had searched for this species every time we came, but had never found it.

 

After a bit of a treasure hunt trying to follow his directions, we thought we found the spot and parked.  We climbed over a guard rail and down the slope into a marsh.  Sphagnum grew on the ground, and there were even a few cattails.  Stunted red spruce trees grew around the edges.  The first large purple fringed orchids we found were two old withered flower stalks, almost completely obscured by a bush.  I was getting worried as I walked towards the other end of the marsh.  Where were the orchids?  Luckily it turned out they were all clustered at the other end.  Many even still had very good looking flowers.

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Large Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera grandiflora)

 

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What a beautiful plant!

Flora Feature: Ragged Fringed Orchid

Center for Urban Habitats recently discovered two ragged fringed orchids (Platanthera lacera) on a survey of an acidic powerline prairie in eastern Albemarle.  We found the orchid in a powerline corridor holding a remarkably diverse prairie remnant, especially notable for having multiple plants not previously recorded in Albemarle County with coastal plain affiliations.  Such typically coastal plain plants include narrow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) and dog-fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

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Picture of the site

The goals for the June 19th survey included adding to the site’s flora list and looking for more regionally rare coastal plain disjuncts that could be growing in association with the sunflower.  The day’s survey team, Devin, Drew and I, spent the morning at the site, walking back and forth across the powerline every ten feet.  We found many species new for the location, including a couple of panic grasses previously reported only from the coastal plain.  We also stumbled across the ragged fringed orchid, growing in a sunny seep at the center of the powerline corridor.  We were particularly excited as we had predicted this species might be present there.

Ragged fringed orchid is considered globally secure, with a large range spanning most of the eastern United States and Canada.  Even so, this discovery has local significance, as there is only one other confirmed site for the species in the county.  This native orchid grows in wet, often acidic sunny areas, especially bogs, prairies and the edges of wooded wetlands.  It is in bloom from the middle of June in the Piedmont through late July high in the mountains.

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Ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Ragged fringed orchids range in size from a little less than half a foot to more than two feet tall, although most seem to be a bit more than one foot.  The stems are topped with a beautiful, loosely packed, cylindrical inflorescence of several to many flowers.  As is suggested by the specific Latin name, the orchid’s pale green lip is deeply divided into three heavily fringed or “lacerated” lobes.  The thin, pale green nectar spur that extends behind the flower ranges in length from 11 to 23 millimeters.

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Ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Although there are a few different species of orchid in Virginia with green flowers — small green wood orchid (P. clavellata), rein orchid (P. flava) and large round-leaved orchid (P. orbiculate) — only ragged fringed orchid has such a deeply divided and finely fringed lip, making it quite distinctive in the field.

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Ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Ragged fringed orchids are pollinated at dawn and dusk by several species of Sphinx and Noctuid moths, including celery looper and unspotted looper, as well as the commonly seen, day flying, hummingbird clearwing.

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Hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), is a pollinator of ragged fringed orchid.

Exploring the Millboro Shale Formation: A Treasure Hunt for Endemic Plants

I had been wanting to make a trip to Bath County to explore shale-barrens for a couple of years, so I was very excited to finally be visiting one.  Drew and I climbed up a steep slope, trying not to dig our feet into the loose shale too much, towards the light green of the herb layer ahead.  The canopy opened up around us as we neared the top of the mountain.  The only trees in site were gnarled old eastern redcedars growing out of the rocky ground, and the occasional chestnut oak, northern red oak or Virginia pine.  Large rock outcroppings pierced the shaley ground, covered in blunt-lobed woodsia and rock spikemoss.  Would we find what we were looking for?

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Shale-barren in Bath County.  Note the shale-barren wild buckwheat (the big fuzzy leaves and stalks growing on the center of the big rock).

Shale-barrens occur on hot, dry, south facing slopes in the Mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia.  They are characterized by shaley soils, with many small pieces of broken up shale on the surface of the ground.  Shale-barrens are too dry for most tree species to grow, leading to a very sparse, open canopy.  However, many species of herbaceous plants are specifically adapted to shale-barrens, growing in no other habitats.  These shale-barren endemics are confined by the small range of their habitat, so many of them have relatively few populations, making them vulnerable to extinction.

Two of the shale-barren endemics I was most excited about seeing were the white-haired and Millboro Leatherflowers (Clematis albicoma and C. viticaulis respectively).  Both occur only on shale-barrens, C. albicoma only in Virginia and adjacent West Virginia, and C. viticaulis only in Bath, Augusta and Rockbridge Counties in Virginia.  They are both small, semi-woody plants.  They have opposite rounded leaves, beautiful drooping flowers and incredible spiraled seed-heads.

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Clematis albicoma seed-head in its full glory.

On our drive out, we had watched the road bank for interesting flowers on the long, winding road in Bath County.  Suddenly a splash of pink appeared, perhaps a phlox of some type?  We marked the spot in our memory so we could check it out on the way back.  We passed several places where the road banks were covered in loose shale flakes, telling us we were now on a shale formation.

Once we emerged from the forest onto the shale barren, we began to look around for the white-haired leatherflower, and I soon spotted a large clump growing on a nearby rock.  We were disappointed to find it had already flowered, but its elegant spiraled seeds made up for it.

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White-haired Leatherflower (Clematis albicoma)

As we were photographing the white-haired leatherflower, I noticed several clumps of Kate’s mountain clover growing on the rock above it.  Kate’s mountain clover (Trifolium virginicum) is endemic to rock outcrops in the Mid-Atlantic states, but unlike many other shale-barren plants, it can grow on types of rock other than shale.  For instance, at a site in Loudoun County that I wrote about earlier this year, it grows on a diabase outcropping.

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Kate’s Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum)

We continued to carefully pick our way through the barren, pausing here and there to examine plants.  Large mats of shale-barren pussytoes (Antennaria virginica) grew everywhere — sometimes we had to work hard to avoid stepping on them.  Clumps of shale-barren wild buckwheat (Eriogonum allenii) were also abundant; their large, leathery leaves stood out against the wiry leaves of the pussytoes.  The brilliant purple and yellow flowers of downy wood mint and Maryland hawkweed added the occasional splash of color to the scene.  I examined one of the large rocks closely, finding maidenhair spleenwort and moss phlox mixed in with the blunt-lobed woodsia and thick mats of rock spikemoss.

All too soon it was time to go, as we had one more important stop planned.  As we drove back down the road, we kept our eyes out for the mystery phlox we’d seen on the way in.  Suddenly a flash of bright pink appeared on the road bank.  We scrambled out to take a look.  This plant had brilliant pink, five-petaled flowers and super narrow, lance-shaped leaves.  A quick look at the key in the Flora of Virginia confirmed our suspicions: this was the state rare sword-leaved phlox (Phlox buckleyi), an endemic of shale woodlands.

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Sword-leaved Phlox (Phlox buckleyi)

Our final stop of the day was another road bank, also in Bath County.  This stop was the site for Millboro leatherflower, one of the rarest plants we could see that day.  We hoped it would sill be blooming, as its seeds are not nearly as beautiful as white-haired leatherflower, in my opinion.  We turned onto the road and began slowly driving up it, scanning the shaley banks on either side for leatherflowers.  We were getting close to the end of the road when Drew spotted the first one.  We leapt out of the car and ran over to check it out.  It was still blooming, its drooping, purple, tube-shaped flowers in pristine condition.  Soon we found several more nearby.

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Millboro leatherflower (Clematis viticaulis)

The Millboro leatherflowers were growing right out of the shale flakes with common wild quinine and New Jersey tea.  The leatherflowers were so close to the roadside that it looked like one bad land slide was all that it would take to destroy the population.  I wondered how many other sites for this rare and beautiful flower there could be given its very specific habitat requirements and its tiny, three county range.  They seemed to be thriving on that road bank despite conditions too harsh for many other plants.  Hopefully they will continue to do well…

 

Spring Butterflies at Quarry Gardens

The hairstreaks and elfins in the genus Callophrys are some of my favorite butterflies.  They are tiny, usually not much bigger than a dime.  Their wings range in color from brilliant green to iridescent brown, blue and even pinkish.  Elfins especially fly only early in the season, so I was anxious to try to see and photograph some before they disappeared for the year.  A late April trip to Quarry Gardens at Schuyler provided the perfect opportunity.  Extensive stands of short-leaf and Virginia pine with eastern juniper in the understory — the host plants of pine elfin and juniper hairstreak — grow there.  Brown elfins have also been recorded, although their host plants, blueberries, are less numerous.

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Golden Ragwort at Quarry Gardens

Quarry Gardens is a botanical garden designed to showcase the flora and fauna native to Schuyler, VA and the surrounding area.  The Center for Urban Habitats inventoried the plants and animals naturally occurring there, and used that information to design and plant gardens representative of particular native plant communities.  It lies partly on top of a formation of soapstone rock, and several abandoned, water-filled, soapstone quarries are on the property.  It is home to fragments of a state rare plant community — ultramafic woodland — which only grows on magnesium rich (ultramafic) rocks like soapstone.  Many locally and regionally uncommon species have been documented there.  For more information about Quarry Gardens’ unique history, geology, plants and animals, see my older post: Quarry Gardens: Ecosystem Modeling Under Geological Constraints.

Bernice Thieblot and Devin Floyd — the owner of Quarry Gardens and the director of the Center for Urban Habitats, respectively — met my brother, Theo, and me at the gates.  My friend Drew and a photographer named Emily soon arrived.  We walked down to the visitor center, where a large patch of golden ragwort was in full bloom.  We hoped to find elfins nectaring on the ragwort, as Devin had seen them there last year.  Juvenal’s dusky-wings and native bees buzzed around.  It wasn’t long before we spotted what would be the first of many juniper hairstreaks, drinking from a ragwort flower.  We all pressed forward, hoping to get a picture of this stunningly green little butterfly.

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Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus) on golden ragwort (Packera aurea)

We decided to meander down the path that led around the old quarry pits.  It was cool and shady under a thick canopy of pines.  Lichens carpeted the ground in places.  The mulch covered trail led down rock steps into an area planted with rich forest spring ephemerals.  Mayapples, Solomon’s seals, wild geraniums, dwarf larkspur and wild ginger bloomed near the path.

We emerged from the trees into a small meadow, sloping down towards the edge of the water in the quarry pit to our right.  The white flowers of pussytoes and wild strawberries were just beginning to open.  Suddenly, Theo called out that he saw an elfin.  Drew and I rushed over, and we watched it land on a barely opened pussytoes flower.  One of its hindwings was damaged, but it was able to fly well enough to make getting a good photo difficult.  Eventually it settled down, and we watched as the brown elfin tilted its wings into the sun.  For a moment, the color seemed to change from plain brown to a rich assortment of pinkish and orangey hues.

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Brown Elfin (Callophrys augustinus) on pussytoes (Antennaria sp.)

We left the brown elfin and continued down the trail.  We looked for mountain bellwort, one of the rare plants growing at Quarry Gardens.  We were excited to discover all 10 of the plants growing there in full bloom.

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Mountain Bellwort (Uvularia puberula)

Drew, Theo and I walked to a swale planting, filled with golden ragwort, swamp rose, marsh marigold, skunk cabbage and various sedges.  Emily, who had been wandering around separately from us, showed us a picture of a pine elfin she had just seen.  Pine elfins look like brown elfins, but their wings are covered with intricate pink and brown mottling.  They are also less common and more difficult to see than brown elfins.  We fanned out, scanning the ground and the sky trying to re-find it.  I decided to walk down by the edge of the quarry pits, where I found my first of year Selys’ sundragon, but no pine elfin.

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Selys’ Sundragon (Helocordulia selysii)

Just as I was getting back toward the seep, I heard Theo yelling his head off about a pine elfin.  I ran toward him, and arrived just as he lost the butterfly into the trees.  We set about walking around once again, desperately trying to re-find it.  I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  Turning, I saw a nickel sized butterfly bouncing away from me.  We chased after it, and soon the pine elfin landed.  The sunlight sparkled off of its metallic wings in a way that photos never seem to do justice to.  The white bands and mottling flashed in the light.  Then, before I could even reach for my camera, it was gone.

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Pine Elfin (Callophrys niphon), Photo by Emily Luebke.

As I was walking back, still hoping for another pine elfin to photograph, I looked at a small brownish butterfly sitting on an American holly leaf.  I assumed it would be another juniper hairstreak — they were one of the most common butterflies out — or a brown elfin.  To my surprise, I saw a white band on the hindwing, meaning it was not a brown but a Henry’s elfin — a first Quarry Gardens record!

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Brown Elfin (Callophrys henrici) on American Holly (Ilex opaca)

In retrospect, I probably should have realized it might have been a Henry’s sooner, as it was sitting on a holly leaf, which is a host plant for Henry’s elfin.  With three species of elfins in one day, I was ready to forego my dreams of perfect pine elfin photos.  Maybe next year…

El Quetzal de Mindo Chocolate Tour

Every day that we were in Mindo it rained, usually starting around 1 pm.  Despite the constant downpour, we still went out after long mornings of birding to hike, hoping to see even more birds.  Towards the end of our trip, though, the rain and our tiredness made my brother and me more receptive to a suggestion my parents had made on our first day: take a chocolate tour.  That afternoon, we walked to El Quetzal de Mindo, a restaurant, artisanal chocolate factory, and lodge on the edge of town.

Our tour was led by an energetic Portuguese man named Sergio.  He started the tour by showing us examples of cacao in various stages of production, and giving us a brief overview of the process.

Sergio then led us out into the central courtyard of the chocolate factory, and to a small garden.  They had a few young cacao trees on display in the garden, as examples of what they look like, since Mindo is too high and cold for chocolate to do well.

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Cacao (Theobroma cacao)

The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is a small, compact tree, at least when it’s cultivated.  It has broad, glossy leaves and flowers consistently throughout the year, as is typical of many tropical trees that do not have to worry about seasons.

The flowers are tiny and pop right out of the trunk and larger branches, giving the tree an abnormal appearance.

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Cacao Flower

If a flower is pollinated by a cacao midge — various species in the genus Forcipomyia — it ripens into a long, grooved, orange, pod.

One of the other people on the chocolate tour mentioned that they’d heard that chocolate was in danger of going extinct.  Sergio said something about the cacao midge declining, worrying Ecuadorian authorities.  This statement piqued my curiosity, so I did a little research.  It soon became obvious that cacao is in no danger as a species, but there are some concerns for the well-being of the cacao industry.  Climate change is likely to move and reduce suitable habitat for both cacao and its only pollinator.  Cacao does best in humid climates with lots of rain and warm, stable temperatures — it is well adapted to its home in the lowland rainforests of South and Central America.   Despite cacao’s origin and long history of use in tropical America, the majority of industrial cacao production is in West Africa.

One frequently cited study forecasts that the region suitable for cacao production in West Africa, where two thirds of the world’s cacao is produced, will move uphill into the mountains as the climate becomes drier, due to climate change.   This smaller and more inaccessible territory would be a problem for the Ivory Coast, especially, as according to Wikipedia, 40% of their national export income is from cacao.   Drier conditions are also a serious problem for cacao midges (Forcipomyia), the only bugs that can pollinate cacao.  They are adapted to moist, shady conditions, as is the cacao plant itself.  They need rich, damp leaf litter to complete their life-cycles.  The midges’ need for moisture is already causing the chocolate industry problems due to the industry’s favored growing technique of large monoculture plantations.  When cacao is planted in large plantations with no other trees, it creates a drier micro-climate, without good leaf-litter.  These dry conditions result in the pollination rate of plantation cacao flowers being only .3%.

Both present and future problems with cacao production could be partially addressed by cultivating cacao under a canopy of native rainforest trees on smaller farms instead of on large monoculture plantations.  The additional trees create a damper microclimate, which the cacao trees need to thrive.  Shade grown cacao farms have a much higher pollination rate, because the cacao midges also prefer the dampness and leaf litter that the larger trees offer.  Shade growing cacao could also help combat the effects of climate change on the cacao industry by creating damper conditions in an overall drier climate.  Furthermore, trees in cacao “agroforests” sequester more carbon than cacao monocultures, providing an opportunity to address climate change at its roots.

Although agroforests are not a substitute for primary rainforest, their greater plant diversity provides much better habitat for many species of insects, amphibians, birds and other creatures than plantations, while still producing a similar cacao bean yield.   Shifting from plantations to shade grown cacao could become increasingly important in the future if pressures continue to reduce primary rainforest habitat.   Many species of neo-tropical migrant songbirds, such as the warblers that breed in the Appalachian Mountains near where I live, need rainforest in Central and South America for wintering habitat and agroforests could meet some, but by no means all, of this need.

“Bird friendly” shade grown coffee has become relatively well-known recently, with several organizations developing certification programs so that buyers know they are getting a more environmentally friendly product, and growers can charge a premium price.  Certifications for shade grown cacao don’t seem to have made it as much into the main stream, although I did find one program, Forest Chocolate, that certifies organic and shade grown chocolate.  Fair trade chocolate, in general, is more likely to be shade grown since it comes from smaller producers.

Back in the chocolate factory, Sergio showed us the ripe, unprocessed cacao pods.  The cacao “beans” were lined up in rows, and coated with thick, white pulp.

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Opened Cacao Pod

Sergio pulled a seed out of the pod and gave it to us to suck.  The pulp tasted like a fruit and not at all chocolatey.  The first step in making the chocolate is to scoop all the pulp and cacao “beans” out of the pods and dump them into a sealed cedar box to ferment.

Once the chocolate pulp has fermented for a few days, it is scooped out of the boxes onto open trays in a greenhouse to dry.  By this point, most of the pulp has rotted off, and the inside of the beans is beginning to smell similar to chocolate.

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Drying Cacao Beans

When the cacao is dry, it is ground and roasted with hand-made simple machines.  The ground and roasted pieces of cacao are blown through a tunnel, where the heavier insides of the cacao fall to the floor while the lighter shells blow out the front.  These lightly ground, shell less, roasted chunks of cacao are called cacao nibs.  The cacao nibs are ground into a finer paste, which is either pressed into cacao powder and cacao butter or exposed to high pressures and temperatures which liquify it.  Liquid chocolate is then hand tempered, so the crystals inside the chocolate form in a way that allows the finished chocolate bar to break cleanly.  The chocolate is poured into molds, and the finished bars are hand-wrapped.  El Quetzal makes 87%, 77%, and 67% pure chocolate bars.  Sergio said that the only thing added to the chocolate was organic sugar, and in some cases flavorings, such as macadamia nuts, hot pepper, and ginger.

After the tour, Sergio brought us a host of delicious looking chocolate products to try.  I don’t eat chocolate, out of a possibly irrational paranoia that it causes my migraines, but I was seriously tempted to try some.  We were offered all the different bars in many different flavors.  Once the pieces of bars had been eaten, unfortunately not by me, Sergio gave us each one of EL Quetzal’s famous brownies.  My mom ate mine with pleasure.

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El Quetzal Chocolate Products

Loudoun County Piedmont Diabase Barren: A Rare Ecosystem Faces Threats from Development

I have been fascinated by plants and the natural world for as long as I can remember. Since I was a toddler, my mom would take my little brother and me to a nearby park almost every day to play in the woods, fields, and creeks.  These days, a fellow plant-loving friend and I meticulously research and plan trips all around the state to look for new plants and plant communities.  More than a year in advance, we planned a trip to the amphibolite outcrops of Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve to see hundreds of blazing star plants in bloom.  That trip was soon followed by an exciting late May trip to Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve to see the diverse southern piedmont prairie and search for rare tall Barbara’s buttons (which we found!)  Piney Grove Preserve, Chub Sandhill Natural Area Preserve, Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, and Grayson Highlands State Park are some of the other preserves and natural areas that I have visited this year looking for plants.  

One reason I like plants so much is because they form the basic, tangible foundation for nature.  Native plants create and define different ecological communities, which host all the other life forms, which have co-evolved with the plant species in the community.  Witnessing the seemingly never-ending diversity of plants and the rich multi-species relationships of native plant communities is a source of great joy and mystery for me.  There are few things I find more rewarding than researching and planning a trip to find a rare plant and then successfully discovering it growing where I thought it would.  I also love the challenge of learning and identifying the huge number of plants native to our state.  

I recently learned that Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors is voting on January 18th on a proposal to raze a Piedmont Mafic Barren growing on a diabase formation on the banks of Goose Creek, in order to build a 750,000 square-foot data center.  These barrens consist of two small separated outcroppings of diabase bedrock.  Around the two barrens grows a stunted forest of eastern redcedar, white ash, eastern redbud, and fragrant sumac.  The outcrops themselves are covered in dense patches of mosses and lichens, and sparse herbaceous plants such as Appalachian phacelia, awned flatsedge, and the state rare Central Appalachian endemic, Kate’s mountain clover.  

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Kates Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum) © Lonnie Murray

I was greatly disturbed by this news, as there are only 10 documented occurrences of Piedmont Mafic Barrens in the world, all of them in the Piedmont of Virginia.  The Goose Creek site has the additional distinction of being the most northern example of this plant community, defining its range.  The Piedmont Mafic Barren plant community is ranked by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation as G1/S1, which means that it is critically imperiled globally.

Virginia is broadly divided into five physiographic provinces.  From east to west, these are the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Allegheny Plateau provinces.  The landform, geology, and plant community types define the character of each of these regions in much the same way that historic buildings and architectural districts define the distinct character of cities and towns.  Loudoun County, of course, is in the Piedmont province.  Destroying the plant communities that make the Piedmont unique, such as the Piedmont Mafic Barren in Loudoun, degrades the essence and character of the Piedmont province.

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The Loudoun County Piedmont Mafic Barren, © DCR-DNH, Gary P. Fleming.

I hope the Loudoun Board of Supervisors will deny the rezoning application and do all they can to protect the Piedmont Mafic Barren area.  Whether I ever have the opportunity to visit it or not, its existence enriches my sense of place and offers an open invitation for exploration and discovery.  While I’m interested in all plants, the ones that grow where I live are the most important to me.  Knowing the plant communities of the piedmont makes me feel at home and helps give me a sense of belonging to the natural world.  It heightens my appreciation of my surroundings every time I go outside.

I think if more people had the chance to experience the natural beauty of the Piedmont they would appreciate it more, and work harder to protect it.  While we don’t know all the contributions any particular species or community makes to the ecosystem services we all depend on, we do know that each piece of the puzzle is valuable to the functioning of the whole.  I hope that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors won’t take away the opportunity to experience and learn from the Piedmont Mafic Barren from present and future generations.

Quarry Gardens: Ecosystem Modeling Under Geological Constraints

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The Quarry Gardens property was used as a soapstone quarry between the 1950s and 1970s.  After the soapstone industry abandoned it, the community used it as a dump until Armand and Bernice Thieblot bought it in 1991.  In 2014 the Thieblots embarked on a mission to create a publicly accessible native plant botanical garden, showcasing the unique local native plant communities of the quarry’s soapstone geology.  The Thieblots hired The Center for Urban Habitats (CUH) to plan and plant the gardens.

CUH has a very unique approach to landscaping, ecosystem modeling, which involves replicating naturally occurring plant communities in garden settings.  When CUH approaches an ecosystem modeling project, they observe factors such as geology, topography, elevation, drainage, existing plants, and lighting to help them infer from experience gained during prior surveys elsewhere what plant community is best suited to each exact location.  Their specialty is figuring out the “ecosystem trajectory” of an area based on these existing site conditions.   CUH studied the Quarry Garden project area for six months prior to planting, conducting an extensive biological survey to identify and map the distribution of existing plant communities.

Today, the 40 acre Quarry Gardens consists of nine main sections, each with numerous native plant gardens.  Two huge, semi-rectangular water-filled pits, the remnants of the old quarries, dominate the center.  If you look closely at the tall, vertical soapstone walls of these quarry pits, you can see the grooves in the soapstone left by the quarrying process.  Piles of giant discarded soapstone chunks are distributed around the property.  From the parking lot, the land slopes gently down towards the quarry pits. It continues to slope down on the other side of them, all the way to a small, meandering creek, which flows through a sunny, wet clearing just off the property.  Two gravel roads lead around the quarry pits from the parking lot, one traveling the parameter of the property, and the other forming an inner loop around the quarry pits.  From these roads, one can see most of the beautiful plant communities that have been planted here, from the bright flowers of the viewing platform prairie to the dull greens of the piedmont hardpan forest.  The planted gardens blend perfectly with the surrounding natural plant communities.

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Native landscape installation at the Viewing Platform, including niches for barrens, 
hardpan swales, and prairie.

CUH learned about the geology of Quarry Gardens mainly from observing sections of exposed rock and the existing plants.  They saw piles of soapstone boulders left over from the quarrying process, and the huge portions of rock that were revealed in the walls of the quarry pits.  They also studied the present plant communities to infer the type and location of the underlying geology.  They found that the plant communities could be divided into two main groups based on their tolerance of either ultramafic, a high mineral soil type with more magnesium than calcium, or acidic soil conditions.  Ultramafic soil is so high in magnesium that it is toxic to many plants.  CUH knew that soapstone bedrock, which includes many different types of ultramafic rocks and minerals, had to underlie plants that could tolerate ultramafic conditions.  Similarly, CUH inferred that the Charlottesville Formation, which consists of mineral poor sedimentary rocks, must underlie the observed plants in the “heath” community, which occur in acidic, nutrient poor soils.  Later in their process, CUH conducted soil tests, which provided more details about the geology.

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View from the prairie below the viewing platform. Monarda, Solidago,
Eupatorium, and Pycnanthemum command this view.

The soapstone bedrock that underlies most of Quarry Gardens supports some very rare plant communities, including ultramafic woodland.  Fragments of this nearly vanished plant community, dominated by old post and blackjack oaks over an understory of little bluestem, remain around the parking lot of Quarry Gardens.  The most abundant tree in the ultramafic woodland at Quarry is Virginia pine, a species that under natural fire regimes would have been less prominent.   Ultramafic woodland is so rare in Virginia because it can only be found on ultramafic rocks, like soapstone, and it requires periodic disturbance in the form of fire to keep less fire-adapted plants like the Virginia pine from encroaching.  Since soapstone is such a rare and commercially desirable rock, quarries have almost completely destroyed ultramafic woodland in Virginia.

Two other plant communities that grow over the soapstone bedrock at Quarry are piedmont prairie and hardpan swale.  Gardens showcasing these communities are prominently located in front of and behind a viewing platform that overlooks the large quarry pits.  Under the thin soils of the prairie and hardpan swale lie huge soapstone boulders, remnants of a filled in quarry.  The gaps between the boulders are filled with smaller bits of soapstone, such as pebbles and soapstone silt.  Due to this, the drainage in the viewing platform area varies extremely widely.  The piedmont prairie drains immediately and is hot and dry for most of the year, while the hardpan swale is virtually always wet.

The extreme drainage conditions and high magnesium levels of the prairie combine to make this area only inhabitable by the toughest species growing in piedmont prairies.  CUH chose species that could survive the extremely dry and high magnesium present by selecting piedmont prairie species that have been found growing on serpentine barrens and ultramafic barrens, which share these harsh conditions in an even more dramatic fashion.  Forbs chosen for their toughness and tolerance of magnesium include hoary mountain-mint, gray-goldenrod, tall thoroughwort, white colicroot, and glade wild quinine.  Important grasses included poverty dropseed and little bluestem.

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Center for Urban Habitats staff, Soizic and Rachel, inspect the prairie installation 
during its first season. Non-native grass seedlings and forbs are plucked out and replaced by 
dominant ultramafic prairie species like little bluestem.

Looking at the viewing platform prairie, one would never know how challenging a growing environment it is.  Most of the plants have flourished here, creating a colorful testament to the resiliency of native ecosystems.  Bold clumps of hyssop-leaved thoroughwort with feathery white plumes buzzing and humming with insects towered over smaller species.  Gray goldenrod, showy goldenrod, sweet-scented goldenrod, and wrinkle-leaved goldenrod all bloomed profusely.  Over to one side, near a quarry pit, the triangular leaves and strangely shaped flowers of spotted bee-balm accented the area.

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Silvery checkerspot butterflies, along with 40 other species of butterfly have been noted at Quarry Gardens.  Many of them enjoy the mountain-mints there, including narrow-leaved, hoary, and short-toothed mountain-mint.

Plants were selected for the hardpan swale that tolerate poor drainage, and that had been documented locally in magnesium rich hardpan swales.  Winterberry, golden ragwort, and blue mistflower were prominent.  The blue mistflower was especially noticeable in September, as it created brilliant cushions of blue flowers that seemed to float above the wetland sedges.  Lush longhair and sallow sedge blanketed the ground.

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Blue Mist flower is a guaranteed success in the harsh conditions presented by storm water 
management swales. It does well in the magnesium saturated hardpan swales at Quarry Gardens.

Khabira Wise’s Garden: A Story of Native Ecosystem Modeling

Khabira Wise’s gardens in northern Albemarle County are a stunning example of the Center for Urban Habitat’s (CUH) unique approach to landscaping through native ecosystem modeling.  When planning a garden, CUH considers factors such as geology, elevation, aspect, and lighting in order to decide which native plant community is best suited to each exact location.  The plant communities modeled in Khabira’s gardens are acidic oak-hickory forest understory, piedmont prairie, low elevation acidic outcrop barrens, and alluvial floodplain swales.

I visited Khabira’s Gardens on Thursday, August 31, and was amazed by their vibrancy and beauty.  In front of the house lies a large, colorful prairie entrance bed, with gravel trails leading through it.  If you follow these trails around the house, you come to an alluvial floodplain garden, where water from the roof supports a diverse and thriving community of wetland plants.  Behind the house lies the site for another planned local native prairie, called the megafauna meadow, and a swimming pool.  Below the megafauna meadow and pool is a vegetable garden and a small shed.  

I explored the entrance beds, enjoying the small, feathery, yellow spikes of gray goldenrod as they blended into larger clumps of mountain-mint and tall, white billows of hyssop-leaved thoroughwort.  Species like hyssop-leaved thoroughwort, short-toothed mountain-mint, gray goldenrod, early goldenrod, common yarrow, spotted bee-balm, butterfly weed, and New-England aster were most striking at this time of year.  Underneath these, grew many other less obvious prairie species, such as Pennsylvania sedge and Carolina rose, adding to the richness of the garden.  The plants in this section, as well as those in the uncompleted mega-fauna meadow, were closely modeled after the nearby acidic prairies at Albemarle County’s Preddy Creek Park.  Indeed, the mega-fauna meadow project will attempt to mostly use seeds gathered from Preddy Creek Park, making it a true extension of that local native ecosystem, whereas the entrance prairie beds use plants from a wider region.

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The entrance bed prairie with New-England aster and hyssop-leaved thoroughwort

Walking through Khabira’s gardens, I felt like the air was alive with the vitality of native insects.  As they zipped by, their tiny air currents brushed my skin.  Glistening, iridescent, colorful wasps and beetles, glittering like gems, crawled on flowers.  A bright yellow clouded sulphur butterfly sipped nectar from an orange butterfly weed.  I saw more than six species of wasps, eight species of butterflies, and innumerable hoverflies, native bees and beetles.  When I looked around, at any given time, there might have been more than ten bugs on any tiny bit of flower.  Native ecosystem modeling leads to this abundance by carefully selecting  native plants sourced as locally as possible, and by creating  the conditions needed for the plants to thrive, such as periodic disturbance and the reduction of invasive weeds.  Such careful attention to detail allows the natural community, in this case, Piedmont prairie, to establish, laying a firm foundation for maintaining and increasing biodiversity.

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Clouded sulphur on butterfly weed

I walked around the side of the house, to the next garden area, the alluvial floodplain-modelled garden, a water catchment system from the roof.  Khabira told me this was her favorite part of the gardens.  Rachel, the CUH employee who designed and planted this section, said that when she does an installation, she first chooses plants based on their tolerance or need for the varying moisture conditions present in swale gardens.  Within those habitat parameters, she enjoys considering “growth form, bloom time, and color, and painting with the plants on the ground.” She also pointed out that over time, new native species arrive on their own and add tremendously to the planned richness of the garden.  Looking at the alluvial floodplain garden, I could easily see how her skill has payed off.  Massive clumps of hollow joe-pie weed, cardinal flower, blue mistflower, white turtlehead, and cut-leaf coneflower created explosions of reds, blues, and yellows.  Behind the intense wildflowers, thick mats of bottlebrush grass and various other sedges and rushes formed a solid backdrop.

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Swale planting

Khabira heard about CUH from a friend who had hired them in 2012.  She was very impressed with her friend’s beautiful wildflower garden, and with how CUH provides a plant list specific to each location’s needs.  When she moved into her new house two years ago, she decided to plant her gardens for their beauty and ecological value as thriving native plant communities.   I asked her if she had had any early experiences in life that led to her love of nature, and ultimately contributed to her decision to plant the gardens.  She said that she would never forget a particular afternoon when she was about 8 years old, and really noticed the life and environment around her.  She called this “an indelible experience with the interconnectedness of all things,” and said that she could “feel the pulsing of the earth and how we were all really one being.”  Khabira’s gardens serves as a visual and living symbol of her deep love of nature and desire to contribute to the greater world.  

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Gray Hairstreak on clustered mountain-mint