Small wonders

Small wonders

Tiny Northern cricket frogs, Acris crepitans, are plentiful and active now along Quarry Gardens trails. America’s smallest vertebrate, this cricket frog may leap up to three feet in a single jump. The featured photo shows one, about half an inch long, posing on the palm of a Quarry Gardens trail hiker. Their patterns vary; many have a green Y-shape on the back and a triangle on the head; this one has black-bordered red-orange spots—cute as a spotted frog. It’s tempting to think of them as “babies” but, of course, baby frogs are tadpoles. If you hear calls that sound like marbles clicking together, you’re hearing cricket frogs.

Tiny and elusive is the Quill fame flower, Phemeranthus teretifolius, pictured above at about twice life sizeRelated to portulaca, whose leaves it resembles, it grows in thin, dry soils—at the Quarry Gardens, through a patch of asphalt near the Visitor Center, and in a half-inch of gravel on a rock at the overlook platform. Sporadically, a 6-8-inch flower spike produces brilliant half-inch fuchsia blossoms that bloom for about two hours in the afternoon—after which each new flower fades away. So ephemeral are they that not much is known about them. And so elusive of pollinators are they that, lacking them, they self-pollinate.

Tiny and charming are the slender leafless flower wands of Naked flowered tick trefoil, Hylodesmum nudiflorum, along QGs trails this week. Scattered through the dry woods, they are a native in the pea family. More familiar may be their seeds: those flat little green ​triangles that stick like Velcro to socks and pants legs in late summer. Come and let us send some home with you.


Small Delights

Small Delights

Among the many plants ​that invite a closer look here in late June is Striped wintergreen, Chimaphila maculata, or pipsissewa. The featured photo is of this diminutive and charming plant in bud, and here is a photo of it in bloom.

It can be found in dry (usually acidic) woods, the leaves visible even through winter. On a bloom stalk about 6 inches tall, the white buds hold for a month or more before opening to a downward-facing flower. Creek Indians called it “pipsisikwau,” meaning “breaks into small pieces,” and used it as a medicine to break down gallstones and kidney stones. Indigenous to the site, we’re seeing it along the stream trail and above the North Quarry.

By the roadside vernal pool across from the North Quarry, is a small group of native Winterberry hollies, Ilex verticillata, added last fall. Their tiny pale green blossoms nestle into the leaf axels on new growth in June, where they elude all but the most observant passer-by. By fall, the female plants will dazzle with brilliant red berries, a treat for birds throughout the winter. This is a plant that usually prefers acidic soil. The Quarry Gardens’ soil pH ranges from 7.2 to 8 in most places (7 being neutral and anything higher being alkaline). Devin Floyd, of the Center for Urban Habitats, collected soil samples this week for a detailed lab analysis to help us understand how such plants are getting the nutrients they need. We’ve noted several instances of apparently healthy dwarfism in acid-loving plants. For example, inspired​ by our legacy hollies, we’re using the acid-loving American holly, Ilex opaca, which normally can reach a height of 30 feet, as a screening shrub, hoping it will stay a healthy dwarf.

The gardens are young, and much of what is emerging is new to us. New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus, is one example. A dense, compact, shrub, it produces small rounded clusters of tiny fragrant white flowers in late spring. During the American Revolution, the dried leaves served as a (caffeine-free) tea substitute, hence the name. It will grow in dry, rocky soil—like much of ours—reaching 2-3 feet tall (if we can get the deer to leave it alone).

Another revelation this month—for one whose home garden includes cultivars of false wild yellow indigo whose blooming spires reach up to 4 feet—was Wild Indigo, Baptisia tinctoria. This perennial shrubby member of the pea family with small yellow blossoms, grows well in dry, sunny spots—like atop the south-facing wall across from the Visitor Center exit​. The low mounds may eventually reach 2-3 feet in height. Later this summer, the seed pods will turn black with seeds that rattle inside, accounting for the sometime-name “rattleweed.” It was once used as a substitute for true indigo dye, despite it’s yellow flower.

More than 600 visitors have toured the Quarry Gardens so far this year. Here is Armand last weekend ​with some of them at the overlook platform.

Quarry Gardens Rocks

Quarry Gardens Rocks

Devin Floyd, whose Center for Urban Habitats team has surveyed the QGs existing biota and planned the gardens over the past two years​, has along the way found rocks that help to explain our peculiar horticultural experience. A geologist by training, he plans an exhibit of rock samples for the Visitor Center.


The sample pictured on the left—composed of magnesium plus iron silicate and calcium carbonate minerals—was found near the quarries where the soil pH is 7.5-8 (alkaline). The sample on the right is an example of ferrous silicates, with “jack rocks” or “devils dice” emerging from the matrix; it was found just east of the quarries where nutrient-poor soils with pH 4.5-6 (acid) are more typical of the Charlottesville formation. (Both areas are “ultra-mafic” formations, characterized by metamorphic rocks with very low silica content, and rich in minerals.)

As the rocks make the soil, such extreme variation in geology creates the potential for a great diversity of plants and animals—one reason we’re up to more than 580 species, and counting.

Devin’s more scientific explanation may be found i​n ​CUH’s Facebook May 19 posting:

In other rockin’ ​news, last week’s Nelson County Times article announcing the Quarry Gardens’ public opening has made the rounds of other News & Advance-associated newspapers including the Charlottesville Daily Progress and the Waynesboro News Virginian. The web version of the article is here:


Historic Tour Now History

Historic Tour Now History

The Nelson County Historical Society’s tour of historic homes and properties—featuring six Schuyler sites—had us so busy Saturday we failed to take photographs. The featured photograph is of some of the visitors watching the introductory video in the Visitors’ Center, and the photo below of Armand and volunteers at the guide orientation on a prettier day than we had for the tour.


Despite early morning rain and cool, cloudy conditions all day, upwards of an officially estimated 175 or so visitors participated​ in six guided walks and several mini-walks along the main Quarry Gardens trail. We spoke with many who came from far away, making the tour an occasion to re-connect with family, friends, and places in Schuyler.

Our thanks go out to all the guides who helped us—Carol Dworin, Mary Hanna, Bev Hovencamp, Robert and Susan McSwain, Glenn Picou, and Richard Velletri—all either Master Naturalist or Master Gardener volunteers. Also, thanks go to the historical society volunteers who organized the day, directed traffic, and sold tickets. The biennial tour is the society’s principal fundraising event, and it seems to have been a success.

In other news, birders Ezra and Theo Staengl (aged 13 and 10), accompanied by their mother, Joanna Saladis, on a recent two-hour morning walk spotted 126 birds of 32 species around the Quarry Gardens. Their finds included both scarlet and summer tanagers, a flock of 30 cedar waxwings, 17 yellow-rumped warblers, and 10 blue-gray gnat catchers, among others. A few were new to our survey of biota, bringing the record up to 67 species of birds.

Ezra’s  ©2017 photo of a tree swallow.

Overall, 584 legacy species—plants, animals, insects—native or not—have been recorded at the Quarry Gardens, and in the eco zones an additional 96 native species have been added.




We’re Open

We’re Open

The Quarry Gardens project will probably never be “finished,” but the Visitors Center got close enough by our “Opening in April 2017” deadline to allow the brag that we’re “On Time and—even if not entirely—Under Budget.” The Visitor Center is finished, with paint and doorknobs in place, and the gardens are planted but for a few species yet to be sourced. Here’s a view of the substantially completed building:

To come: Wall maps of the garden galleries, native plant exhibits, the completed model of the Nelson and Albemarle railroad, a geology exhibit, and a lawn grass research project.

On Sunday, April 23, the forecast rain held off for our open house to honor the Quarry Garden’s builders. About 50 architects, engineers, craftsmen, landscapers, and workmen came with their family and friends to see the completed Visitor Center, view the introductory audiovisual presentation, have a snack, and take a walk with Armand around the main trail. (Two of the family members grace the featured photo.) Below, Armand with tour group at the Viewing Platform.


In bloom for the occasion: dwarf crested irises, rue anemone, plantain-leaved pussytoes, among others. Devin Floyd found a new butterfly to add to the QG’s biota, a zebulon skipper.

(Not to be outdone, Armand added a new species of his own, his first, discovered two days earlier—what Devin characterized as a “robustly large,” if still not very scary, worm snake.)


The final photo for this round is of QG mascot, Skyla, contemplating  the opening’s buffet.


To book your own free tour, see the Visit section of the website, choose a date from the Events list, and RSVP telling us how many are coming.

Oh, the butterflies!

Oh, the butterflies!

Featured photo: Juniper hairstreak on Golden ragwort, April 2017

Devin Floyd wrote this post—unintentionally. It came, with photo, in an email following a visit to locate trails correctly on the garden map he’s drawing:

“The butterflies of the season are on full exhibit at Quarry Gardens. At the moss phlox and golden ragwort are juniper hairstreak, gray hairstreak, striped hairstreak, and likely a whole host of elfin species. Juvenal’s duskywing is the dominant butterfly puddling in the quarry loop gravel drive, and gemmed satyr dances in the Giant’s Stairs gallery among the bluebells and spring beauty flowers.

“Other species noted in passing were sleepy orange, eastern tiger swallowtail, American lady, spring azure, eastern tailed-blue, and questionmark. Eastern comma and zebra swallowtail are undoubtedly lurking. Alighting on boulders is the blue corporal dragonfly. Singing from the trees was the worm-eating warbler and a bald eagle screamed as it soared north above the stream corridor.

“I do love this time of year. The quarries have so much to offer, even when its galleries are just beginning to wake up. I especially like the dried Andropogon and Panicum stalks in the wind, and the blackened seed heads of flowering plants.”

Below is an American lady on mountain mint, photographed late last year.

Zebra swallowtail, June 2016.


We progress rapidly towards opening day. Our “soft opening” will consist of hosting all the workmen and participants who structured the Quarry Gardens over the past three years, along with their families, at an event to be held on the afternoon of Sunday, April 23 (assuming the re-printed, then lost-in-FedEx invitations arrive soon enough). Regular tours will commence thereafter–see the schedule on the website and sign up for a particular (available) day and time. Finishing touches include construction of the keypad-controlled lift-bar gate, completion of the porch wings, installation of the Garden Shop cabinetry, touching up all of the paving, and sundry painting tasks and furnishing. The railroad display is coming along, but will not be ready in time for the opening, and a lot of the exhibits are yet to be installed, but it is getting close. Perhaps of greatest interest over the next two weeks will be to see how our 40,000-or-so new plantings have survived the winter.