Where Was I?


One morning after waking with a headache and ennui, I decided to break out of my rut and get to a place I’ve never been to but have been wanting to get to for years.

This location is well-known among native plant enthusiasts but not so much to the general public. Although not far from anywhere, it’s largely surrounded by private property, so even though it’s a public park, access is limited.

Despite a few dozen nymphal lone-star ticks hitching a ride home on me, it was worth the effort, because I saw five new-to-me plants. None of the species are rare, threatened, or endangered, but still, I’m happy.

I’m sitting in an airport now typing this (and trying not to scratch). With any luck over the next few days I’ll have enough down time (and internet access) to research and write about these flowers. Stay tuned.

Not much to look at, is it? Can you guess where it is?

Tiny Flowers in Big Masses


Somewhere along the downstream third of the Billy Goat A trail there’s a 40-foot traverse along a cliff face – really one of the best parts of the trail. I was working my way down those rocks when a bright spot of yellow at the bottom caught my eye.

Helenium flexuosum (Asteraceae) is by no means an unusual plant: it can be found throughout the Maryland Piedmont and much of the eastern US, ranging from southern Maine south to Florida, west to Wisconsin and Minnesota and eastern Texas. It’s not on any state’s conservation list. But for some reason, I’ve only seen it once, along Billy Goat C, and that was two years ago. So I was delighted to see such a nice stand of plants along a very well-used trail.

This plant, along with its close relative common sneezeweed (H. autumnale), likes sun and wet soils, so look for both species along riverbanks. There are huge stands of H. autumnale along the rocks on the northern shore of the Potomac in D.C., upstream of Fletcher’s Boathouse.


What I really love about this flower is how well it demonstrates what composites are all about. The three-lobed yellow “petals” are the ray flowers, of which there are typically 8 to 13, while the spherical purplish-brown head can consist of 250 to 500 disk flowers.



The photo on the right shows two inflorescences. The bottom several ranks of disk flowers are open on the left one, with the double-lobed stigmas protruding. All of the disk flowers are open on the inflorescence on the right. Click on the picture to see a larger image. Isn’t that neat?


Bonus Plant

I had a few goals for my second hike on the Billy Goat A trail:

  1. find spatterdock and get better pictures
  2. find orangegrass and get better pictures
  3. get better pictures of purple-headed sneezeweed and seedbox


So it came as a surprise and delight to find this before finding any of the above.

This is Opuntia humifusa, aka eastern prickly pear, the only cactus to grow wild in the state of Maryland, where it’s mostly a plant of the coastal plain. But that’s one of the neat things about the Potomac Gorge: you find things there that aren’t usually found in the Piedmont. Also, strangely, there are records for this plant in Washington County, in the ridge and valley physiographic province.

This species is fairly well distributed through the mid-Atlantic, the South, and the Midwest. It’s listed as endangered in Massachusetts, exploitably vulnerable in New York, special concern in Connecticut, and rare in Pennsylvania.

Being a cactus, it of course is going to like growing on thin, sandy, rocky, well-drained soils, and prefers full sun as well. The Illinois Wildflowers site says that one of the species’ biggest threats is invasion by woody vegetation (presumably because of shading). I found this stand in a somewhat open area growing amid scrub pine (Pinus virginiana) and shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum), in a surprising amount of shade. This is a good size specimen (a few feet across). I hope it can hang on a few more years.


Eastern prickly pear is also known as devil’s tongue, low prickly pear, and smooth prickly pear. Don’t let that last name fool you: it may look more or less smooth, but it has hair-fine spines that can cause a lot of pain.

As in Death Valley, I was there at the wrong time to see it bloom. You can see the shriveled flowers in the first picture. I did have a look ’round for other plants, but as there are signs all over Billy Goat A asking people to stay on the trails, I didn’t go far. (Bear Island is under tremendous stress from overuse.)

Oh well. It’s something to look forward to next summer.

Tiny Plant, Tiny Flower

On Monday, after hiking most of the length of the Billy Goat A trail, I arrived at the place where my friend and I had found this plant a few days before.


Hypericum gentianoides


About eleven species (ten native, one alien) of Hypericum (St. Johnswort) can be found in the Maryland Piedmont. In many of the bedrock terraces in the Potomac Gorge I’ve seen good-sized stands of H. prolificum, aka shrubby St. Johnswort, like this:








The flowers of shrubby St. Johnswort are showy, up to an inch across, with numerous stamens.






The flowers or orangegrass, not so much.

Here’s most of a plant:20160815-_DSC0123-2

Orangegrass, also known as pineweed, is an annual that can stand up to a foot and a half tall, but the stems are so slender and the leaves so minute that it’s likely to be overlooked as “just another tuft of grass” when not in flower. Orangegrass is an eastern North American native, endangered in Iowa.

Granted this is not a spectacular flower, but I’m always happy to find something I’ve never seen before.

Back for a Second Look

Somewhere around the midpoint of the Billy Goat A trail, at about the highest elevation, is an area called Pothole Alley. This exposed bedrock was riverbed back before the Potomac cut the Gorge, and the water-smoothed rocks are full of potholes.


It’s neat to see something like this at the top of cliffs fifty feet above the river, but what’s even neater to a botanerd like me is that the potholes, filled only by rainwater (flooding at this elevation happens every few decades, on average), hold enough water to support obligate wetland plants, like this one.



Nuphar advena


Also known as cow lily, yellow pond lily, and immigrant pond lily, spatterdock is native to the eastern half of the US, ranging from Maine to Florida, partway into the Great Plains, and north into Ontario. It grows from a rhizome rooted in shallow, quiet water (one to five feet deep), with most of its leaves floating on the water. It can be aggressive in ideal growing conditions.


Although the flower doesn’t fully open, it opens a bit more than this. When I went back to Pothole Alley three days after taking this photo, I found two more potholes with spatterdock in them, but none of the plants were flowering.

If you look closely at this photo, you’ll see what look like three outer petals (with a bit of green on them) overlapping three inner petals. All six of these are actually sepals; the numerous petals are hidden inside. The flattish part in the center is the pistil, which is surrounded by several rings of stamens.

I think I need to go back to Pothole Alley and try to find a more-open flower to photograph.

A note about the terminology

“Emergent aquatic” is a phrase used to describe a plant’s growth habit. Freshwater aquatic plants are often described as

  • emergent: rooted under water, with most of stem, leaf, and flower above or on the surface of the water
  • submergent: rooted and with most of the plant under the water
  • free-floating: non-rooted, growing in and on the water

“Obligate aquatic” is one of the Wetland Indicator Status terms. These phrases describe a species’ likelihood of being found in wetlands:

  • obligate wetland: almost always occur in wetlands (greater than 99% probability)
  • facultative wetland: usually occur in wetlands (67% to 99% probability), but may occur in non-wetlands (1% to 33% probability)
  • facultative: occur in wetlands and non-wetlands (probability 33% to 67% of occurring in both wetlands and uplands)
  • facultative upland: usually occur in non-wetlands (67% to 99% probability), but may occur in wetlands (1% to 33% probability)
  • obligate upland: almost never occur in wetlands (less than 1% probability)

(sources: Hydrophytic Plant Classifications; USDA PLANTS Database as linked above)