An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

June 30, 2008

The Old Cape Henry Light

After the camping trip (from the previous post) was over, my son and I went to the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse which is located on Fort Story. When I was in college, Fort Story was one of our preferred places to go to the beach. This is where the Chesapeake meets the Atlantic, the waves were usually good, and the crowds were never there. You could just wave a hand to get through the gate and onto the base. A few world events later, and it is now a little more difficult to get on base. We had to submit ourselves to everything short of a full body cavity search to get on. They needed I.D., auto registration, all compartments, hood and doors open, and a mirror search of the undercarriage. The guards went through all of our camping gear, cooler and bags, and the whole time one of the guards kept his hands on his gun as if we were about to bolt. The lighthouse was the first public works project that the newly formed United States chose to fund. George Washington took an avid interest in the construction of the light and it was completed in 1791. It was built on the top of a tall hill, probably the remnants of an old sand dune.

From the top you get a good view of the Chesapeake, the Atlantic and Fort Story. There were many dolphins in the water feeding, playing and doing whatever it is dolphins do. You also get a good view of the "new" lighthouse.

This is the underside of the dome.
I wondered why they kept these bags of Quickcrete door near the stairs. Was it for emergencies?
The base of the tower is made of soft Aquia sandstone, and originally it was below the soil line at the top of the hill the tower rests on. With wind erosion the base is now exposed 7' below its original level.
The "new" lighthouse began operation in 1881, and is still in use today. The old light was purchased by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) and is one of their 32 owned or maintained properties.
The fence outside of the lighthouse grounds is adorned with black ribbons, and on them is a hand written list of all of the soldiers who have been killed in the current Iraq war. The memorial is very organic and citizen driven, and stands in marked contrast to the officialness and sterility of the base. The ribbons were already fading and tattered, and I feel that many people's awareness of this ill-conceived war is in the same condition as the ribbons.

June 29, 2008

First Landing State Park

Yesterday was my son's Cub Scout Troop's first overnight family camping trip. It was held at First Landing State Park where I like to occasionally hike, but I have not camped there since the late 70's when I was with a church youth group. Back then it was known as Seashore State Park, and I must be getting old because I can't help but call it that.

The park is located in Virginia Beach at Cape Henry, where the Atlantic and the Chesapeake get introduced to each other. It is called First Landing to commemorate that fact that the people who founded Jamestown stopped here first after their crossing, before heading inland. It is easy to figure why they kept going when you see the ecology of the place. Our camp site was just beyond the dune system in a scrubby maritime forest. Its forest is made up of wind blown Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana), gnarled Loblolly Pines (Pinus taeda) and Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera).

The only flowers currently in bloom were Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) and Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).

It was a short walk to a wide, unspoiled beach, one of the few left in the city. Most of the area around First Landing has had the Oaks taken down, the dunes flattened and condos raised.

The T-shaped structure in the water is a trap whose design has been used for centuries to capture fish as they migrate up and down the shore.
If you click on this picture you can see a small boat in the foreground that was tending to the traps. The large ships in the background are colliers, and there were 10 of them anchored outside of the harbor waiting to enter. One of our dubious distinctions here is being the largest exporter of coal in the world, and you have always been able to judge the state of the world's energy situation by how many ships are waiting to be loaded. Further in from the coast are the hiking trails. This area was once the shoreline and is unusually hilly for this area. The landscape undulates following the contours of the former dunes that have built up over the past 5000 years. Forests now cover the area and in the swales between the hilltops, water has collected and swamps have formed. There are over 600 plant species in this ecosystem and for many this is their northern most point.

First Landing is the only place in Virginia where Spanish Moss grows, and this is probably why I like to hike there, as it reminds me of the Lowcountry. Spanish Moss is a bromeliad and an epiphyte needing only high moisture and heat to grow. The printed trail guide tells me it was used by native Americans as a diaper and latter on it was used as furniture stuffing.

The trails wind through the forest and goes over elevated boardwalks in the swamp. The main trail is an old country road that takes you directly to the north end of the resort strip. It is often crowded with bikers, walkers and runners. In the swamps the primary tree is the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), and regular readers know I have a thing for the tree. Be thankful I didn't show you all of my Cypress pictures.

This is a fallen Sweetgum (Liquidamber styraciflua) whose trunk runs along the ground for over 50'. At the end of the original trunk, in an act of defiance, is a side branch turned main trunk.
Not all trees have such a will to survive.
This Loblolly was about 5' in diameter at the base.
At the other end of the park there is a very popular boat and kayak launch that gives people access to Broadbay, and there is a safe place for swimming, fishing and crabbing as well.

June 27, 2008

Vitex agnus-castus (Chaste Tree)

This tree is blooming now all across the area, and is probably about 1-2 weeks earlier than normal. I am fond of this plant because it is very hardy for us; blooms when few other trees are blooming - and it is lilac-blue. I know of no other tree that blooms this color in this climate. There are pale pink and white cultivars available, but why would you want them when you can have blue? Vitex can take a lot of heat and sun, can withstand coastal conditions and whistles through any drought. However, it does not like to have prolonged wet feet. It is hardy from the warmer parts of zone 6 into zone 9, and in the colder parts of its limits, it can be treated as a cut back shrub, similar to a Buddleia. In the mid range it behaves like a multi-stemmed shrub, and here it makes an attractive small tree reaching about 15' tall. If you spend the time to do a little lower limb pruning, its attractive blocky bark is revealed. The blooms last about a month attracting lots of bees and the occasional hummingbird. If you have the inclination and a sturdy ladder, deadheading makes them bloom again in early fall. The leaves are reminiscent in appearance to marijuana, and both the foliage and the seeds have a strong medicinal smell. There is no appreciable fall color.

Vitex is native to southwestern Europe and western Asia, where it has a long storied history. It was mistakenly believed to be an ANAphrodisiac quelling the sexual desires of people who ingested it or slept on beds of it. It was thought to keep the thoughts of temple maidens pure while they tended to their duties, and kept the hands of monks out from under their robes and the robes of others (hence the name Chaste Tree). Coincidentally, it does have an effect on the body's hormones and has been proven to ease PMS and promote lactation. If you do a little on-line research, you will discover scads of information on Vitex's medical/herbal uses. Author Stephen Foster has an interesting article here about Vitex's medicinal history.

This shot below may seem a little hazy, and that was because it was an extremely smoky day with the fires from the swamp still churning away. Even though at this point, the fires are 90% contained, they are mainly peat fires and produce a particularly acrid smoke.

The bees can be so thick on Vitex, that you get the illusion that the whole tree is subtly moving.

I like to see Vitex planted in groups and limbed up, looking like a grove of small gnarly trees. This makes a great place to plant shade tolerant perennials. If you ever visit Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, look next to the Big Bad Wolf and you will see this done very nicely.

One last thing; try to avoid planting Vitex rontundifolia or Beach Vitex. It has become something that needs to be eradicated in the coastal dune ecosystem. It is just as pretty and just as tough, but it is choking out natives that do a much better job of dune stablization.

June 21, 2008

Hemerocallophilia - Isn't There a Pill for That Yet?

At work today it was our annual Flower Festival - the last big weekend before the summer sales doldrums set in. Among other things, we put a lot of things on sale, had bee keepers visit, offered wine tastings, had local artists display, had book signings and helped the Isle of Wight Humane Society raise funds. However, the whole event seems to be a vehicle for moving Daylilies, and we had a lot to move. Our display gardens are full of them as well. Daylilies are about the only plant we propagate a portion of ourselves, everything else we bring in from wholesale growers. Although I have not joined the cult yet, several of my fellow employees are active members of the Tidewater Daylily Society, and I guess you could say it is one of our signature plants.

Although I make often light of it, I can't deny that there are some striking blooms on the market right now, and I have more than a few myself. All of these shots were taken at work this week while the Daylilies were at their seasonal peak - and this time I took names.

CleopatraDakar Eye Yi Yi
Grey Witch
Lake Effect
Lavender Arrowhead
Nell Mcreery Ruby Spider
So Many Stars
Spacecoast Cranberry
Wild Horses

If this was not enough for you, next Sunday the 29th, at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, the Tidewater Daylily Society will be having their annual show. If you want more information you can visit them here.