A Mystery Shrub Identified

On April 19 I finally made it out to Rachel Carson Conservation Park for the first time this year. I had three goals, one of which was to see the stunning pinxter azaleas in bloom. I was a bit early for that.

I was almost too early for the second goal, which was to solve a mystery from the spring of 2016. One of the places where the pinxters bloom is a little hilltop of exposed rock. It must be acidic soil, because there’s a profusion of other ericaceous species: mountain laurel, blueberry, spotted wintergreen. And a spindly shrub that was in bud, but I never saw it in flower.

Until this year. Just a few buds were open on the 19th. I knew it right away for something in the rose family, and from there it was quick work to determine that it’s chokeberry (Aronia species). But I wasn’t able to determine which chokeberry until I went back on the 27th, when the pinxters were in their glory; the mystery plant was blooming, too.

This is Aronia melanocarpa, black chokeberry, a small shrub (about six feet tall) that ranges from New England and the mid-Atlantic south in the Appalachians and into parts of the Midwest. In Maryland it grows in the piedmont and areas to the west. Like the other plants I found nearby, black chokeberry prefers well-drained, moist to dry acidic soils in the woodland understory.

There are only two other chokeberry species in Maryland, A. arbutifolia (red chokeberry) and A. prunifolia (purple chokeberry). Some authorities consider the latter a hybrid of the other two species; in their texts you’ll see it written as Aronia x prunifolia. As with other members of the Rosaceae, the taxonomy of this genus is unsettled: some authors place the species in the genus Photinia, and in the past authors have placed them in Pyrus (pear) or Sorbus (mountain ash).

Whether or not you call them Aronias, the genus is easily distinguished from other similar rosaceous shrubs (like Amelanchier species). The clue is the presence of dark spots (called trichomes) found on the top surface of the leaves, along the lower part of the midrib. No other rosaceous shrubs have these. The best way to determine the species is to examine the fruit, which are colored as the common names suggest. In the absence of fruit, look at the undersides of the leaves. A. melanocarpa is glabrous (smooth), A. prunifolia is slightly pubescent (short hairy), and A. arbutifolia is densely pubescent.

As luck would have it, I have one of the latter in my yard, so here’s a look at a densely pubescent leaf.

The third goal I referred to was to make sense of a particularly vexing violet I had found the previous spring. More on that in an upcoming post.


So Very…







Not my favorite color.





But how can I not love this plant?





I wrote about pinxter azalea last year and don’t have anything to add.





I just wanted to post more pictures.




Rhododendron periclymenoides (Ericaceae) in Rachel Carson Conservation Park, April 27. Also look for them on the lower slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain.

Mid-April Update

rue anemone blooming in a patch of violet wood sorrel leaves (no flowers yet) at Rachel Carson Conservation Park

Along the Billy Goat B trail on Tuesday, there were still plenty of spring beauties, star chickweed, and field chickweed. While Virginia bluebells are waning fast, wild blue phlox is past its peak but still going strong. Plenty of Coville’s phacelia, but I wasn’t able to find any Miami mist. In a few places along footpaths between the trail and the towpath you can find wild geranium in full bloom, too. Close to the river a few stands of golden Alexanders are open.

azure bluets, violet wood sorrel, and wild pinks in dappled shade near Carderock

Small patches of violet wood sorrel are blooming along the trail and in the greater Carderock area, which is looking great, with plenty of azure bluets and wild pinks in the rocky areas. Plantain-leaved pussytoes are blooming, too, and dwarf cinquefoil is just starting. Bastard toadflax is budding up and a few days from opening. A few days behind it, perhaps, will be rattlesnake weed, also budding up. Sessile bellwort is done already, and the yellow violets are mostly done, but there’s plenty of creamy violet still. Toadshade is hanging on, but most of the other ephemerals there are done (except spring beauty, of course).

Look up: flowering dogwood and pawpaw are in full bloom.

flower buds on pinxter azalea

Over at Rachel Carson Conservation Park, the pinxter azaleas and showy orchis are in bud; the former will be open within a few days, the orchis in maybe a week. There are a few stands of azure bluets by the river, and gobs of rue anemone and spring beauty everywhere. Look for mayapples and jack-in-the-pulpit, too. There are several nice stands of perfoliate bellwort along the Fern Valley trail.

I also found a new-to-me shrub that I haven’t identified yet. Hopefully it’s something good and interesting and I can write about it in a few days.

perfoliate bellwort at RCCP

Two White Violets


creamy violet
Viola striata





sweet white violet
Viola blanda




It is with some trepidation that I venture into violet territory, as there are 117 species across the US, and violets are known to hybridize freely, so that identification often comes down to tiny little details.

According to the blog Mid-Atlantic Nature, nine white violets can be found in this area. A cross check with the Maryland Biodiversity Project shows that only six of these are present in the Maryland piedmont. And, the two shown in this post have some unique characteristics, so I’m fairly confident that they’ve been correctly identified.

As you can see in the pictures (if you zoom in), creamy white violet has two bearded petals, while sweet white violet has a reddish-brown stem .

Creamy violet is all over the place on Billy Goat C downstream of Carderock, with some occurrences upstream along Billy Goat B as well. I’m honestly not sure If I’ve seen sweet white violet in that area; You have to be pretty close to see the details. I saw this one plant (only this one plant) in Rachel Carson Conservation Park.

The two species have similar ranges, in most parts of the country east of the Great Plains, with V. blanda found further north and V. striata further west.

Update 5/10/16

It’s possible that the sweet white violet pictured above is actually primrose-leaved violet, V. primulifolia, a naturally occuring hybrid of V. lanceolata and V. macloskeyi. I can’t really say without better pictures.

Showy Orchis


aka purple-hooded orchid
Galearis spectabilis


The morning before I left to go to Rachel Carson Conservation Park a second time, someone posted a picture of showy orchis on the Maryland Native Plant Society facebook page. So I went with two goals: to shoot the pinxters, and to find some orchids. It didn’t take too long to find them, but my planned two hour outing became three, then four, then five as I found more and more beautiful and interesting plants to shoot.

Showy orchis is low-growing, with a pair of large basal leaves and a single stem that may hold up to a dozen flowers. It ranges through most of the US and Canada east of the Mississippi River, and somewhat into the Great Plains states, growing in calcareous soils in rich, moist woodlands where there isn’t too much competition from other plants. As with other orchid species, showy orchis has very specific growing requirements (including the presence of certain fungi in the soil), which makes it a difficult plant to grow in the home garden. Attempts to transplant them from the wild are doomed to fail.


Showy orchis is endangered in Maine and Rhode Island, threatened in Michigan and New Hampshire, exploitably vulnerable in New York. There’s one other species in the genus Galearis (G. rotundifolia), but it grows much further to the north.

“Orchis”, by the way, is not a typo. It’s a genus in the orchid family, consisting mostly of temperate Eurasian species. Galearis spectabilis was previously placed in that genus, so the common name is just a translation of the plant’s old Latin name, Orchis spectabilis.