Sunset, December 11


Late afternoon on an overcast, dreary day, I glanced out a west-facing window to see the sky on fire.  Dashing downstairs, I threw on a coat, grabbed the camera bag and tripod and jogged down the street.  (The view west from my house is not good.  Too many trees and houses.)

In the three minutes it took to get to a more open area the light had faded considerably.  Working as fast as I could with freezing fingers, I set up the tripod, mounted the camera, chose some settings, and started shooting.  The above was the best I could do.  Three minutes later it looked like this:


I’m going to start leaving the camera and tripod set up by the front door.  And set an alarm to remind me to check the sky every afternoon.

Beautiful Leaves


It’s hard to keep up a wildflower blog in December in the mid-Atlantic, so I’m taking a break.  Expect only a few posts over the next few months.  If we have a typical (whatever that means) winter, by mid or late March the spring beauties and harbinger-of-spring will be coming back, and so will I.

In the meantime, here are a few pictures from a full-moon maple (Acer japonicum) in my front yard.  This is an extraordinary tree of graceful form and bright autumn color, and rather unusual to find in the nursery trade.  Much more common is Japanese maple (Acer palmatum).

And one more rant about common names vs. botanical names.  I didn’t mix it up. You’d expect Japanese maple to be A. japonicum, but nope!  Japanese maple = A. palmatum; full-moon maple = A. japonicum.

These pictures are corrected for exposure but otherwise untouched.  The colors really are this vivid.


maple leaf on hellebores (Helleborus hybrids)






maple leaf on Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra)







Tree of the Day: Bald Cypress

Taxodium distichum; Cupressaceae (cypress family; some authorities place it in the redwood family)


This time I’m not cheating!  The bald cypress is actually found in the Potomac gorge, though just barely: there are a few stands on Theodore Roosevelt Island, which is at the southern (downstream) end of the gorge, well within the Coastal Plain region.

The USDA lists bald cypress occurring from Texas to New York (threatened in Indiana), but according to the US Forest Service, it’s a tree of the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains (and inland in the Mississippi river valley), growing no further north than Delaware.

Either way I was tickled to find a few specimens so close to home.

The bald cypress is a large, long-lived tree.  The tallest known is 145 feet tall and almost 18 feet in diameter.  The oldest known specimen (located in North Carolina) is believed to be more than 1,620 years old.

There are two other species of Taxodium (or not, depending on which taxonomist you’re consulting).  All three are native to the southereastern US and found nowhere else in the world.


An unusual thing about bald cypress: it’s a deciduous conifer.

In conversation people often misuse the terms “conifer” and “evergreen”, possibly because most conifers are evergreen.  But not all evergreens are conifers – not even close.  Let me explain….

Conifers are cone-bearing trees: pines, spruces, firs, junipers, and so on.  They have characteristically scale-like or narrow leaves called needles.

The words “evergreen” and “deciduous” describe the way trees hang on to their leaves.  Deciduous trees shed all their leaves at about the same time – usually during the autumn, sometimes (as with American beech and some species of oak) during the winter.  But regardless, each leaf lasts for only one year.

Evergreen trees shed some leaves every year, but each leaf stays on the tree for several years before falling off.  Most needle-leaved species are evergreen, but there are a large number of broadleaf evergreen plants, like southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), some viburnums, cherrylaurel, rhododendrons, live oak (Quercus virginiana).  And some plants might be either deciduous or evergreen, depending on where they’re growing.  Sweetbay magnolia is one example.

As for deciduous conifers, there are only a few: the dozen or so in the genus Larix (the larches), the three in Taxodium, and Metasequoia, Pseudolarix, and Glyptostrobus (each of these genera contain a single species).  So that’s only 14-21 species of trees worldwide.



Slope Fen, Cape Breton Highlands


Looks like a grassland at the edge of the boreal forest, doesn’t it?  Actually, it’s a slope fen; there’s water flowing very, very slowly under there.  You can’t walk across it, but there is a boardwalk around it.  There are a few open pools of water within.


So you might be wondering, as I did, what distinguishes a fen from a bog, or from any other type of wetland?  And what exactly is a wetland?

According to Lewis Cowardin of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “wetlands are lands where saturation with water is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities living in the soil and on its surface (December 1979).”

There are four main types of wetlands: marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens.

Marshes are wetlands dominated by herbaceous vegetation.  Most of the water in marshes comes from the surface, but in many cases groundwater is also a source.

Swamps are wetlands dominated by woody vegetation.  There are a few swamps on the Maryland side of the Potomac gorge.  Long-tube valerian, winged monkey flower, and lizard’s tail are some of the wildflowers I’ve found there.

Bogs are wetlands formed by the growth of sphagnum moss either over a pond, filling it in, or over land, preventing water from evaporating.  Either process results in a wetland characterized by very acidic water and a low amount of nutrients.  Not many plants are well adapted to these conditions.  Regardless, the bottom of a bog is generally impermeable, so most of a bog’s water comes from precipitation.

A fen is basically a bog that receives some groundwater; as a result, fens have more nutrients and less acidic water.  They support a broader range of plants than bogs do.

Bogs and fens are found mostly in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and in some alpine areas in the middle latitudes.  There are no bogs or fens in the Potomac gorge.


A slope fen is exactly what you’d think it is: a fen situated on  gently sloping land. Sadly I did not learn the names of most of the plants I found here, though I believe the area is dominated by rushes, not grasses.  (Hmm, now I have an idea for another blog post.) 20140915-DSC_0200

If you click on the first picture and zoom in, you’ll see some goldenrods and a northern pitcher plant.

In case you were wondering, the sevenangle pipewort featured on November 26 was found in the shallows of a very large pond, not in this slope fen.