As you walk the Arboretum grounds in March, you will find an abundance of flora and fauna that are inspiring subjects for sketching. Meteorological spring has arrived early, the buds on many native plants and trees are opening, and some hibernating creatures have reemerged. The overall feeling is that of an awakening.
From the bridge to the Visitor's Center, observe the red maples (Acer rubrum) in full bloom in a variety of reds and burgundies. Eastern painted turtles (Chrysemys picta picta) have been sunning on logs, and, in the distance, spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), the tiny tree frogs whose piercing calls sound like jingling sleighbells, sing a hopeful song.
My focus this month is the early ephemerals and trees already in bloom, and those getting ready. Standing at the back door of the Visitor's Center, face the South Meadow and turn right on the South Meadow Loop. Veer right at the Native Bee House. On your right at the edge of the woods, look for the American dogwood tree (Cornus florida). Note the plump buds at the tips of its graceful branches that will unfurl into April blossoms.
Walk to the first bridge over Blockston Branch. Look down at the floodplain to check in on the eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). There is barely a blossom (a green and purple mottled hood) in sight, as they finished blooming early this year. Instead, the floodplain is dotted with clusters of fresh, bright green skunk cabbage leaves growing up through the leaf litter, some almost a foot high! The single green heart-shaped leaves of golden groundsel (Packera aurea) have been joined by more leaves to form ground-hugging rosettes. Soon they will grow stems about a foot and a half tall, topped with clusters of small yellow daisy-like flowers that bloom in April and May, with the stunning effect of rivulets of gold flowing across the floodplain.
Walk across the bridge to the intersection of Blockston Branch Walk and Upland Walk to look at the American paw paws (Asimina triloba), a grouping of small trees in the understory with smooth gray bark. The "mother tree" in this patch sends out underground runners from which all the surrounding younger trees grow. As March progresses, watch for rounded purplish flower buds growing on the mother tree's branches, directly out of the bark. They will open in late April to early May, forming striking deep purple bell-shaped flowers that measure about 1 ½ inches across and are said to smell faintly like rotted meat, which attracts pollinators like blowflies and carrion beetles. Paw paw is the only host plant for the elegant zebra swallowtail butterfly (Protographium marcellus). Females lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves, which the larvae begin eating as soon as they hatch. Wherever you see this striking black-and-white-striped butterfly with long tails on its rear wings, a paw paw tree is certainly nearby.
Turn left on Blockston Branch Walk, and watch on your left for a patch of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). These lovely spring ephemerals are up and in bud! Look for groupings of elongated green-gray oval leaves with smooth edges, 8 to 10 inches high, shielding clusters of blue-violet buds. When in bloom, the flower stems will have grown to almost 2 feet, topped by nodding sky-blue bell-shaped flowers up to an inch long. They are pollinated by bumblebees and other long-tongued bees, several types of butterflies and skippers, hummingbird moths, syrphid flies, and bee flies. The bloom period is about three weeks. In early summer, fertilized flowers will produce wrinkled nuts, each with four seeds. Soon after, the plant goes dormant, dies back to the ground, and practically disappears.
Observe the trail edges and throughout the forest where mosses (division Bryophyta) bring bright green cheer. There are at least 12,000 known species of mosses. They serve as nature's seed starter, providing the moisture and cover that many native perennials need to germinate. As a habitat for insects and arachnids, including lightning bugs, earthworms, ants, spiders, and mites, mosses host these food sources for songbirds and are also used as nesting material. And, if near streams or pools of water, mosses may be chosen as nesting sites by salamanders. One of my favorite mosses found at the Arboretum is the common fern moss (Pleurocarpous Thuidium delicatulum), which forms a lush evergreen spreading carpet resembling delicate miniature ferns.
As you walk, keep looking and observing. What else can you find to sketch?
Words and sketch of Virginia bluebell by Diane DuBois Mullaly
Maryland Master Naturalist/fine artist