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.

October 9, 2017

Early Fall on the Lower Chickahominy

     This past Saturday I took my kayak to the Chickahominy River, close to where it meets the James. This was not my first time here. When I was a child my father belonged to a rod and gun club with a cabin on a bluff overlooking one of the river's tributaries, and visits there are some of my fondest place memories. The water here is brackish, more fresh than salt, but still subject to the tides. This mix of different waters allows for an abundant diversity of animal and plant species, which made hunger a little less threatening to the native Americans who once called this place home. It was here that Capt. John Smith was captured, and taken to the chief of the Powhatans. As the flawed story goes, Smith's life was eventually spared by Pocahontas, the chief's daughter. Today the river and its tributaries remain relatively free from development, and save for a few houses and a bridge or two, it is easy to imagine what the Chickahominy may have looked liked centuries ago.
Chickahominy River 10-7-17 (30)

Chickahominy River  with Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress) 10-7-17 (18)

Chickahominy River  with Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress) 10-7-17 (17)

Chickahominy River  with Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress) 10-7-17 (15)

Chickahominy River  with Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress) 10-7-17 (13)

Chickahominy River  with Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress) 10-7-17 (29)

     The Chickahominy has become one of my favorite places to paddle, and after any time spent there I always come away renewed. Part of the allure for me are the trees, specifically bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), and the opportunity to paddle between their knees and underneath their canopies. At the moment this species is tied for first place with live oak (Quercus virginiana) as my favorite tree. This weekend they were just beginning to sport their fall orange color. As I rounded one clump of cypress I could hear a loud commotion created by a pair of belted kingfishers, whose calls always sound like bitching to me. They were upset by a wake of vultures and a juvenile bald eagle perched in the trees along their part of the river. The kingfishers would not rest until the intruders were gone, and the presence of a lumbering middle-aged man in a bright red kayak was enough to push the raptors on their way, quieting the kingfishers. The lone eagle joined several others further down the shoreline; the place is thick with them, almost like pigeons.
Chickahominy River with Turkey Vulture10-7-17 (4)

Chickahominy River with Turkey Vulture10-7-17 (5)

     In one area of the river some of the cypresses looked as if they had been frosted. While it made for interesting photos, the "frost" was actually a coating of guano, probably from cormorants, or egrets.
Chickahominy River  with Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress) 10-7-17 (20)

Chickahominy River  with Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress) 10-7-17 (21)

     The cypress were not the only trees with fall color. A few red maples (Acer rubrum) right next to the shore were starting to turn, as were a few sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua), both a little further along, color-wise, then their kin on drier land. In many of the trees poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) climbed in shades of red, orange, and yellow, proving that even one of our most reviled plants can have its moment. All over the coast here, not just along the Chickahominy, the white blooms of saltbush let you know what time of year it is.
Chickahominy River 10-7-17 (7)

Chickahominy River with Toxicodendron radicans (Poison Ivy) 10-7-17 (8)

Chickahominy River with Baccharis halimifolia (Salt Bush) 10-7-17 (6)

     Eventually I had to leave the river, and as I neared the campground where the landing was, I was brought back to reality. One camper at a site right on the river was busy hanging his oversized American flag on a pop-up tent, right next to his oversized "Make America Great Again" flag so, all the other campers and everyone on the water would have no doubt as to where he stood. Who does this on a camping trip? My gut response was to yell adjectives, but that would have been just as bad as waving oversized flags in other people's faces, and I didn't want to find out if he was exercising robust second amendment rights as well. I feel like we are living in a land of multiple realities these days, with collisions an ever present danger. I think I prefer a reality full of birds, paddling on mixed waters under bald cypress.
Chickahominy Riverfront Park 10-7-17 (2)

September 30, 2017


     In the small courthouse town of Accomac on Virginia's Eastern Shore is a building that has always intrigued me. It looks like a Greek temple expressed in wood, and throughout the South you can still see many modest buildings that have been adorned with a few columns and a portico. I find it interesting that this architectural form has inspired so many structures, millennia after it first arose in the ancient world. This particular building started life in the late 1800's as the town's Baptist church, but it did not yet have the Greek adornments. It was moved to its current site for use as a school when the church built a more substantial building. At some later point the columns and portico were added. In the 1920's a more substantial "modern" school was built adjacent to the old school, which is now used only for storage.
Accomac School (1)

Accomac School (5)

Accomac School (9)

Accomac School (4)

Accomac School (10)

     On the right in this old photo you can barely see the building through the trees in its original location, and in its pre-Greek form.

     The "modern" school also has a temple form in the center of the overall structure. Unfortunately the fate of both buildings is uncertain. It has been a long time since either has been used to teach students, and money for nonessential renovations does not flow freely in one of Virginia's poorest counties.
Accomac School (11)

     However, I am taking it as an encouraging sign that the county is still keeping both buildings painted. A bright white has recently replaced the very dull ocher that was on the old building for years. This freshness is what prompted my photos, and made me ponder, for the first time, a crude resemblance between the temple in Accomac and another more famous building in Richmond, both with Ionic columns.

     Virginia's capitol building was designed by Thomas Jefferson and Charles-Louis Clérisseau, and it is considered the first neoclassical building built in North America. The two took their inspiration from the Maison Carrée in Nimes, France, a very well preserved Roman temple, and we know the Romans took their architectural inspiration from the Greeks.

     Out of necessity the capitol has changed over the years, most noticeably with the addition of wings and front steps.

     It has also survived several crises in its 200+ years, including this proposed renovation from 1973 (as if Jefferson didn't have enough to keep him from turning over in his grave).

     The building also served as the capitol of the Confederacy during most of the Civil War, and at the end of the war survived its greatest threat. When it became clear the war was lost, the evacuating Confederate forces torched the warehouses to keep the stores from Union hands. Unfortunately for the citizens of Richmond, the fire spread uncontrollably and much of the town was destroyed, however, the capitol was spared.

     With the city still burning, the mayor of Richmond and a group of citizens surrendered the city to nearby Union troops, who managed to quell the fire. Some might say that the citizens and their city deserved what happened, but recent history has led me to believe that there are times when some compassion ought to be considered for everyone, even those that make ignorant shortsighted choices, and back wrong causes.

(When you started reading, I bet you had no idea we would end up here, but that is how my mind works. Apologies to those that need it.)

September 22, 2017

Assateague in September

     Several weeks ago my wife and I attended a family wedding on the Eastern Shore, and at the last minute of packing I decided to throw my bike into the back of the truck. The wedding was not until late afternoon, so I headed up to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands to ride their bike trails. I always find it beautiful there, and I always leave feeling better than when I arrived. However, Assateague is changing. Recent storms have seriously eroded the beach, and a combination of erosion, sea level rise, increased exposure to salinity, and insects are turning the islands stands of loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) into ghost forests.
Assateague with Dead Pines (3)

Assateague with Dead Pines (2)

Assateague Marsh with Great Heron (1)

Assateague Beach 2

Assateague Beach

Assateague (2)

Aralia spinosa (Devil's walking stick)

Solidago (Goldenrod) (1)

Solidago (Goldenrod) with Spicebush Swallowtail (2)

Agalinis maritima (Salt Marsh False Foxglove)

Heterotheca subaxillaris (Camphorweed) (2)

Kosteletzkya virginica (Seashore Mallow)

Snapping Turtle

     If you would like to find out more about Assateague, click here, and here is link to a post I wrote a couple of years ago on a similar trip. 

April 4, 2017

Early Spring at Eyre Hall

     This past week I crossed the bay to speak to a group of garden club ladies on the Eastern Shore. On the way back to Norfolk I decided to visit the gardens at Eyre Hall, especially since this was one of those rare trips to the Shore when I was unencumbered by either disinterested, impatient family members, or dogs suffering from a loud case of separation anxiety. I have been to the gardens about 4 times now, but never at this time of year. As I mentioned in my first post about Eyre Hall "The first members of the Eyre family settled here beside Cherrystone Creek in the 1660's, and about 100 years later, construction began on what was to become the family seat. Around 1800 a parterre garden was planted behind the house, and it is considered the oldest continually maintained ornamental garden in the state, and one of the oldest in the country. Today Eyre Hall is still occupied by descendants of the same family, and they graciously open the garden to the public without charge, and without appointment."

     Further south, the roads to old plantations were traditionally lined with live oaks, but in Tidewater it is done with eastern red cedar, and there is a about a mile of the trees lining the road to Eyre Hall.
Eyre Hall (2)

Eyre Hall (4)

     By an outbuilding, a large camellia was still in bloom. Overhead in an ancient Magnolia grandiflora a noisy flock of grackles seemed untroubled by my presence.
Eyre Hall - Camellia

Eyre Hall - Camellia (3)

     The garden is a series of large boxwood parterres separated from the surrounding fields by a fence of brick and wood. Inside the parterres, each is planted somewhat differently, but they all smell overwhelming of box. Overhead are more magnolias, and old crapemyrtles. Along one edge of the garden are the ruins of an orangery, and next to it the family cemetery.
Eyre Hall (13)

Eyre Hall (10)

Eyre Hall - Leucojum (2)

Eyre Hall - Artichoke

Eyre Hall (39)

Eyre Hall (60)

Eyre Hall (35)

Eyre Hall (28)

Eyre Hall (29)

Eyre Hall (25)

Eyre Hall - Orangery Ruins (6)

Eyre Hall - Orangery Ruins (3)

Eyre Hall - Cemetery

Eyre Hall - Orangery Ruins (1)

Eyre Hall - Orangery Ruins (2)

     The fence pictured in the previous photo and in the following is in the front of the house. Underneath the crapemyrtles are planted nothing but peonies, and the bed is full. I should come back later when they are blooming. Forsythia was finishing up beyond.
Eyre Hall (22)

Eyre Hall - Forsythia

     The axes (plural of axis - I had to google it) of the parterre garden line up with various windows and doors from the house. One axis goes all the way through the garden, uninterrupted, out the back gate, through a wide daffodil-lined woodland walk, and ends at Eyreville Creek. The woods on either side of the walk start off semi-cultivated and quickly go wild. One area under numerous hackberry trees had been completely overrun with Vinca major. At the waters edge escaped, but well behaved Muscari were blooming near a carpet of moss. Gulls, herons, and egrets created the soundtrack.
Eyre Hall (41)

Eyre Hall - Woodland Walk (2)

Eyre Hall - Vinca and Celtis (1)

Eyre Hall - Woodland Walk (3)

Eyre Hall - Eyreville Creek (1)

Eyre Hall - Moss by Eyreville Creek (2)

     Eyre Hall is just off of busy Route 13, but far enough from the main road that you may lose track of time or even what year it is.