pinxter azalea, pinxterbloom,
pinxterflower, pink azalea
Rhododendron periclymenoides
(formerly R. nudiflorum)




About ten days ago I read that the pinxters in Rachel Carson Conservation Park were in bud. A few days later, I went to have a look, but only a few were open. A few days after that, I went back and found them fully open, glorious splashes of pink blossoms among the pale green of new leaves on other trees.


There are thirty two native species of Rhododendron in the continental US. Seven of these occur in Maryland, mostly in the western counties or on the coastal plain. Three species are found in the piedmont. This species is a deciduous shrub growing to twelve feet tall (usually less). Like most ericaceous plants it prefers moist but well-drained acidic soils. At Rachel Carson you can find it near rock outcroppings and along the shore of the Hawlings River.


Supposedly pinxter is a fairly common plant, but I’ve never come across it before. I’ve read that it can be found on Sugarloaf Mountain. Guess I need to get back there soon. It’s listed as endangered in New Hampshire, expoitably vulnerable in New York, threatened in Ohio, and special concern in Rhode Island.


About the name…  According to  Cookies, Coleslaw, and Stoops: The Influence of Dutch on the North American Languages (Nicoline van der Sijs, Amersterdam University Press), the word “pinxter” comes from the word “pinkster”, the Dutch name for the religious festival known in English as Pentecost. You can read more about that here.


The more I looked at this flower, the more fascinated I became by its structure. Note the five stamens and one very long pistil per flower. In general, plants in the Ericaceae have twice as many stamens as petals (typically ten stamens and five petals, but not always). It took awhile but I finally read that the North American azaleas are an exception to this rule, having the same number of stamens as petals.

Rachel Carson Conservation Park


flowering dogwood (Cornus florida, Cornaceae)
stands out among other trees

Along the banks of the Hawlings River in northeastern Montgomery County lies a 650-acre area called the Rachel Carson Conservation Park. The park has no facilities, just a few interpretive signs and about six miles of natural-surface trails through the rolling woods and meadows.



wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), often heard in deep woods but seldom seen



Among local native plant enthusiasts this park is known primarily for its pinxter flower azaleas, and that was reason enough for me to go. But I was pleasantly surprised by how nice the area is. By “nice” I mean not full of people and trash, and not over-used. I found some wonderful flowers and plants other than the azaleas, including two species that I had never seen before. This always makes for a great day but one of the species was an orchid, which catapults Rachel Carson Conservation Park to the top of my favorite places list.

Animal viewing was good, too. There was a wild turkey that I couldn’t get pictures of; I was making notes at the time and those birds move fast! There were lots of spicebush swallowtails but they didn’t sit still for more than a second.



northern green frogs (Lithobates clamitans) [I think]





see the pink shrub peeking out?





More about the plants in the next several days.

Carderock Area, April 25


bastard toadflax
Comandra umbellata


The season is progressing rapidly: many of the ephemerals are gone already. When I visited the greater Carderock area on April 25, a few new species were in flower, all about a week and a half to two weeks earlier than last year.

Still blooming:
azure bluets (full bloom)
field chickweed
star chickweed (starting to wane)
sweet cicely (just starting)
wild ginger
wild blue phlox (waning)
wild pink (a little past full)
plantain-leaved pussytoes (almost done)
golden ragwort (almost done)
lyre-leaved rockcress (almost done)
early saxifrage (almost done)
spring beauty (waning)
toadshade (including yellow form)
common blue violet
creamy violet
smooth yellow violet



wild geranium
Geranium maculatum




Newly blooming:
cinquefoil, dwarf (just starting)
Carolina cranesbill
hooked crowfoot
spring forget-me-not
fringetree (just starting)
wild geranium (just starting)
Coville’s phacelia (looking a little past its peak)
rattlesnake weed
Rubus species
spiderwort (just starting)
wild stonecrop (just starting)
bastard toadflax
long-tube valerian (just starting)
violet wood sorrel

20160425-_DSC0179Oxalis violacea, Oxalidaceae

Table Mountain Pine


aka hickory pine, prickly pine,
mountain pine, squirrel pine
Pinus pungens

The table mountain pine is endemic to the Appalachian Mountains, where it’s found mostly in the Ridge and Valley and Blue Ridge physiographic provinces. In Maryland, that includes Frederick, Washington, and Allegany Counties, though there are no records of table mountain pine in Washington County.

This specimen was found at White Rocks in the Sugarloaf Mountain Natural Area, which is actually in the Piedmont province, though at the westernmost part, right at the edge of the Blue Ridge province.

Table mountain pine grows slowly, with a rather crooked, many-branched habit, and is often flat-topped. It rarely grows taller than 60 feet, although the tallest on record was 94 feet. It prefers exposed, rocky sites (like White Rocks) where there’s little competition from other trees. The seedlings actually take root in rock crevices.

Identifying it is fairly easy, as there aren’t too many pine species in Maryland. The fact that it’s 2-needled and has spiny cones helps, along with noting the habitat. More on pine identification (and an explanation of “2-needled”) in a future post.

I was wondering about how it got the name “table mountain pine”, since sometimes it’s written with capital letters: Table mountain pine or Table Mountain pine. Was it named for a specific place? The internets gave the following answers:

“Pinus pungens is named for generic Appalachian mountain forms, not a specific mountain, and so the common name should not be capitalized as a proper noun.” (University of Georgia)

“This tree was first collected around 1794 near Tablerock Mountain in Burke County, North Carolina, hence the common name `Table Mountain pine’.” (North Carolina State University)

So who knows? Though the second source sounds authoritative.


Sugarloaf Mountain


view from White Rocks, looking a little north of west past
Cactoctin Mountain towards South Mountain

I could probably spend the rest of my life exploring the Potomac Gorge and still never learn everything about it. But there are other interesting natural areas nearby, and I’ve sworn to spend more time exploring them, and less time in the gorge.

So I decided to start with an old favorite: Sugarloaf Mountain. “Mountain” is relative, since the peak is only 1,282 feet above sea level, but it is about 800 feet above the surrounding land, and the only place of elevation of any sort east of the Blue Ridge, so “mountain” it is. It’s located in southeastern Frederick County, a few miles northeast of where the Monocacy River meets the Potomac. It’s near the western edge of the Piedmont physiographic province.

The really unusual thing about Sugarloaf is that it’s a privately owned park that’s open to the public year round, sunrise to sunset. Development has been minimal: there’s a one-way road up to near the top and back down, three parking areas (and one at the base), some picnic tables and portable toilets, and a nice network of heavily used, very worn trails.

Sugarloaf was my playground back in the ’80s and ’90s. It was one of the places I went when playing hooky from high school (when I had a car available). I went hiking on it with my best friend the night of our senior prom. After college I had a job nearby and often hiked there after work. But as time went on and I moved further away I spent less and less time there.

Last weekend Steve and I went back, for the first time in many years, and of course I kept my eyes open for wildflowers. I went back two days later without him to do more detailed exploring. Everything that was blooming was about two weeks later than in the Gorge. Here’s a list of finds; only the ones marked with an asterisk were actually blooming.

aster, white wood
bellwort, perfoliate
cinquefoil, dwarf*
corydalis, short-spurred*
cucumber root, Indain
dogwood, flowering*
fleabane, unsure which species*
meadow rue, unknown species
pussytoes, plantain-leaved*
rattlesnake plantain, downy
rue anemone*
saxifrage, early*
serviceberry, either downy or common*
skunk cabbage
Solomon’s seal, smooth
toothwort, cut-leaf*
toothwort, slender*
violet, common blue*
violet, marsh blue*
wintergreen, spotted


Short-spurred corydalis (Corydalis flavula, left, with dime for scale) was by far the most abundant of the flowering plants, which is interesting because it’s described as “uncommon” on Sugarloaf by Choukas-Bradley and Brown in their excellent book Eastern Woodland Wildflowers and Trees; however, the book was published in 2004. A lot can change in twelve years.

There were plenty of ground pines and ferns, too, including ebony spleenwort and Christmas fern, and several others that I’ll have to go back to identify once they’ve grown a bit more.


Most exciting, for me, is the downy rattlesnake plantain (right), a native orchid that I had never seen before. The distinctive leaves make it easy to identify.

About the lead-in photo… White Rocks is actually an outcrop on a hill (800′ above sea level) that’s part of the Sugarloaf Mountain natural area, but not part of the mountain proper. The tree In the foreground is a table mountain pine; more about that next time.