Mid-July brings many jewels and curiosities to the forest floor. including Selfheal and Ghost Pipe, to name a few. And with so many native plants boasting medicinal value, this nature adventure of mine is sparking an interest in foraging. No telling where that will lead...
Let's start with the native bloomers of the streamside meadow -- this is the new trail section in the stream valley recently opened up for hiking. It is a classic "wet meadow" -- sunny, but occasionally flooded, with many species that you won't see in the shadier woods nearby. First to pop out along the trail is Carolina Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense). The classic daisy-like flowers are easy to spot amongst the taller meadow grasses. Some consider this plant an invasive or a weed (well, I never...), but it is native to Virginia and has its fans, which include bumblebees and other insects. After all, what is a weed but a plant growing where it is not wanted and these native plants are most definitely wanted here. As pretty as it is, Carolina Horsenettle is poisonous though, which helps it to survive but means its off limits for foraging.
Next up (or rather down) in the wet meadow is Appalachian Low Bindweed (Calystegia spithamaea) another species native to Virginia with a modest common name that is sometimes -- ahem -- viewed as a weed, although in a meadow situation it is wonderful to see and also manages to hold its own against the invaders.
The closer I looked at what was growing in the streamside meadow, the more interesting foraging possibilities began to appear. White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia) was easy to overlook until I glanced up which is where the delicate flowers appeared. Yes, this one is also sometimes considered a “weed,” but it enjoys high ecological value for bees, wasps, butterflies, and other insects and birds, and sports a long history of medicinal uses for many conditions, including calming the nerves!
The small cream colored flowers and narrow pods of the Hemp Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) give it away. Its height and aggressiveness also provide it with the toughness needed to compete with the invasives in the meadow, as shown in the picture below (note the encroaching Porcelain berry). Butterflies love it and it has a long history of folklore use for its fiber, or hemp.
In the streamside meadow there are many herbacious perennials that have not yet flowered, so it is difficult to identify them. But tall grasses are abundant, and one grass in particular -- Deertongue (Dichanthelium clandestinum) a tall, cool season panic grass that does a super job holding the banks of streams in place along floodplains. Its common name comes from the wide, stiff leaf blades which reportedly resemble a deer's tongue although I have never seen one close up myself. (the deer's tongue, that is)
On to the forest floodplain floor. The first gem I came across was King of the Meadow or Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum pubescens). This is a great pollinator and does well in residential gardens in the right spot, as long as it gets its feet wet. It too has medicinal value, and is used as a spice. Definitely not poisonous.
The Naked-flowered tick trefoil (Hylodesmum nudiflorum) was still blooming from last month, but beginning to look a bit tired in spots. Its special season will soon end. But in the meantime, we get to take another close up look at those incredibly sweet little faces bobbing in the wind.
At various spots along the stream valley floor I came across Spotted or Dwarf St. John's Wort (Hypericum punctatum or Hypericum mutilum), super special perennials with epic medicinal uses. And its small yellow flowers brighten up the forest floor this time of year.
Grab onto your chairs for the next one. July is when Ghost or Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) rises up out of the ground like a spirit from beyond. I promise I did not touch up this photo -- that is really what it looked like close up. Ghost Pipe has no chlorophyll, which means that it cannot photosynthesize, and gets its nutrients from nearby underground fungi of tree roots. The root of Ghost Pipe is said to have medicinal value and the topic of 'colorful' Cherokee legends. Nature comes up with some strange stuff.
Deeper in the forest, the abundant foliage of Virginia Knotweed (Persicaria virginiana) is just now beginning to send up its long, slender wands of tiny, white, flowers. They are notoriously difficult to capture in a photograph! Oval-shaped seeds will eventually jump off the plant when touched, thus leading to its other common name, Jumpseed. It lights up the shady garden. Its also edible and an infusion of it was used by the Cherokees to treat whooping cough.
This one is a bit of a stumper. I came across this single specimen of a tall vibrant phlox species along the floodplain in a bed of native ferns. It was a stunning sight. It appears to be Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) although it is a bit out of its normal bloom time range. Nevertheless it was striking to see, all alone there on the thick green fern carpet.
And last but not least, the prize find of the day -- a large stand of Common Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) clustered along a sandy and rocky stretch of the floodplain floor. It most definitely belongs in the floodplain natural plan community yet it has been remarkably elusive (at least to me) for a long time. Selfheal is the larval host of the Clouded Sulphur butterfly, a bee magnet, and long used as a herbal remedy for many, many ailments (hence the common name). It is said that Selfheal is one of those plants that can do anything.
And that does it for the stream valley bloomers of mid to late July. I also observed many asters, goldenrods, and swamp agrimony forming buds and getting ready to bloom, suggesting the arrival of fall around the corner.