Notes from the Understory

June 2018—Leaps and bounds

The next wave of flowers have bloomed, adding small dashes of yellow, white, pink, and purple to the vivid green of the leaves that dominate now. Each species seems to have its own personality. Some protect their flowers by closing up every evening: the Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) balances its purple flowers on long legs for a few morning hours, yellow sundrops (Oenothera fruticose) stay open until late afternoon in large self-seeding clumps. The pasture rose (Rosa carolina) attracts its pollinators with floppy pink petals that always seem on the brink of falling off.

The understory is attracting the usual fauna: Carolina chickadees are finding protection deep in the branches of the American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) shrubs, which are covered with white flower umbels; house finch couples are already nibbling at the green seed heads of the lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata); chipmunks and squirrels are unearthing white oak (Quercus alba) acorn caches; rabbits are stripping the bottom leaves off of small white American aster (Symphyotrichum racemosum).

Goodbye until next spring to the swaths of purple lent to us by the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), crested iris (Iris cristata), curleyheads (Clematis ochroleuca), violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea), common blue violet (Viola sororia), wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), Carolina geranium (Geranium carolinianum), and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).

By Dean Arkema

Coming up: Identifying sedges and grasses that came from our seedbank.

Notes from the Understory

Recreating woodlands in your backyard

Our (under)story
For the past several years, we have been working on a garden inspired by the natural community that might have been here before residential development—probably a Piedmont Oak-Hickory Woodlands. The idea was to use native plants to help support wildlife, from the microbiome all the way up to the neighborhood’s birds and mammals. And that the best way to do that would be to draw on plant communities that were best adapted to the challenging conditions here like the long, hot summers and the shade under several large trees.

It wasn’t obvious how to narrow this down, but with some help from experts like VNPS Potowmack Chapter board member Rod Simmons, we settled on the Piedmont Oak-Hickory natural community, and then looked up descriptions in studies done by The Flora Project of Alexandria under Rod Simmons here and by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Resources here. There is good intro information at the Plant NOVA Natives website, too. We also spend a lot of time double-checking the Arlington native status of plants at the Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora.

I am working on a full list of plants we have in our yard, which will have notes on placement, natural habitat, bloom times, water use, etc. This is a work in progress, and draws heavily on some of my favorite websites, including the Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora, Go Botany (has great notes for distinguishing similar plants), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Illinois Wildflowers page (search bar is at the bottom), and Native Plants of the Carolinas & Georgia.

May 2018—Rainstruck
The summer plants that seemed cautious about the colder weather in April jumped out within days of the four inches of rain we got in recent days, and have started giving the spring ephemerals some competition.

By Dean Arkema