In Our Backyard

The Potomac Valley Collection at Meadowlark

By Jennifer Naughton, Fairfax Master Gardener
Meadowlark stone markerSpring is the stuff of poetry, stirring with the electricity of new life. Perhaps, this seasonal charge is all the more palpable when you are a gardener and live with one hand in the pulse of dirt and an eye fixed for the golden-green unfurling of leaf. Or perhaps, the thrill comes from growing up in a climate where spring may last a day or two as it did in my hometown of Buffalo, New York –a place renown for winters that refuse to end, where Easter bonnets are habitually worn with mittens and the plowed snow at the end of the driveway remains piled high and dirty until May.

Most likely, the call to spring reaches beyond either explanation and is more elusive, more primal. It’s when the plant world beckons us outdoors with a siren’s cry — come see me, come join in this new life. The yellowing forsythia, crocus and ephemerals breaking ground, skunk cabbage littering the woodland floor and traces of pinkish red outlining new dimension to trees and setting them aglow — all provide a feast for the senses and lure us into its natural world.


Cypripedium parviflorum – Yellow Lady’s Slipper

The Washington, D.C. metro area provides endless opportunities to interact with spring: the Hamamelis collection at Green Spring Gardens, the National Cherry Blossom Festival at the Tidal Basin or the Rhododendron and Cornus collections at the U.S. National Arboretum. Yet, nothing captures the heart of spring more than entering a world that feels lost in time, a spot that preserves the beauty of place and leaves it untouched, where ancient species still exist, proliferate and offer biodiversity as nature intended. The Potomac Valley Collection at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens is one such dreamy, mythical place.

Jeffersonia diphylla

Jeffersonia diphylla – Twinleaf

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna has three distinct native plant collections. The Potomac Valley Collection (PVC) is the Gardens’ largest, and unlike the Native Tree and the Native Wetlands Collections, which include species native only to Virginia, the PVC is based on the geography and flora of the Potomac River basin. The PVC contains flora from each corner of the over 37,000 square meter region that spills out of Virginia into Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland and includes the provinces of the Appalachian Plateau, Valley and Ridge, Blue Ridge and Piedmont. Keith Tomlinson, manager of Meadowlark Gardens and steward of the PVC, which he instituted in 1998, states that a principal goal of this collection is to educate the public about the connection between garden conservation and saving plants in the wild that are under siege from urban sprawl, grazing and logging. Protected here, the general public can see uncommon species like Cypripedium parviflorum or Aplectrum hyemale.

In one visit to the PVC, you can experience all four provinces and their flora in an hour. The northerly Appalachian Plateau, home to red spruce and hardwood forests, has an understory of Rhododendron calendulaceum as well as Arisaema triphyllum, Erythronium umbilicatum and Uvularia grandiflora, which light up the PVC forest with their fresh green, golden, red hues from February to May.

Clematis addisonii

Clematis addisonii

The undulating landscape of the Valley and Ridge province hints at the geography that lies beneath. Eroding rock of limestone and shale support diverse flora with fertile soil in the valley. Low elevation ephemerals such as Jeffersonia diphylla and Trillium sessile bloom at the base of the PVC trail. Sun-loving plants of the hottest, driest conditions also survive here. Among these are Clematis addisonii and Opuntia humifusa, found tucked near natural boulders as the PVC trail leads out toward the experimental meadow. These species stand out as exotic, otherworldly both in and out of bloom (flowering occurs in late spring to early summer) and make a perfect home for snakes and other wildlife.

In the broad Blue Ridge, limestone outcrops support many species in the open forest including Thalictrum coriaceum viewed on the southern side of the PVC trail, a rare plant with white-purple flowers from May to June. Near the woodland edge and beside a patch of phlox in bright sunshine, Taenidia integerrima blooms yellow in May and smells of celery when foliage is crushed. Host to both the black and Ozark swallowtail caterpillars, T. integerrima is not normally found in cultivation.

Dicentra cucullaria

Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s Breeches

The Piedmont foothills give rise and way to streams and hollows. Captain John Smith recognized its beauty in 1607: “The country is not mountainous nor yet low but such pleasant plaine hils and fertle valleys, one prettily crossing an other and watered so conveniently with the sweete brooks and christall springs, as if art it selfe had devised them.” Dense understories of Asimina triloba and Lindera benzoin bloom in this province and grow alongside prolific, nutrient-rich plants such as Asarum canadense, Podophyllum peltatum, Dicentra cucullaria, Uvularia perfoliata and Sanguinaria canadensis. Great colonies spread forth within the PVC woodlands in March through April sometimes alongside benches encouraging admirers to sit among nature’s finest carpeting.

The Potomac Valley Collection offers a view into the venerable woods, ridges, sun-dappled and sunlit valleys of mid-Atlantic America. The trail brimming with lush flora is animated with the call of the red shouldered hawk, the drumming of the pileated woodpecker and the chase and dance of blue birds. A visit to Meadowlark’s Potomac Valley opens a window to the wild and brings forth a desire for permanence in this ephemeral world.

New plant conservation initiative at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, U.S.A.: the Potomac Valley
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