Elephants and Passion
by Kathy Bilton
Sycamore Islander, October 2001
I had been aware of the Island, having seen it on maps and having ridden by on the towpath but became much more conscious of it during a meeting of the Botanical Society of Washington last year. Chris Lea was doing a presentation about the fluvial influences on plant communities in the Potomac Gorge. Some of his research had been conducted on Ruppert's and because of this, some folks from Sycamore were in attendance.
Some flowers prefer wet feet
One of the most spectacular flowers one can see on the Island in late summer is the Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Its irregular tubular flowers, with two lobes above and three below, are very attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds, though not to cardinals. The Island is also home to its somewhat less showy cousin, the Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica). As you may imagine from the name, this plant has a history of medicinal use.
Another very attractive genus, Hibiscus, is represented by two different species. The Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) as well as the Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis) can be found at the river's edge at various places around the Island. If you have ever eaten Okra, you have eaten a close relative of these lovely plants.
Late summer brings forth a profusion of members of the Daisy family
Elephant's Foot (Elephantopus carolinianus) can be seen growing very close to the clubhouse. Its somewhat rough leaves come out long in advance of the time it flowers. The bluish-purple bloom consists of many small flower heads which rest on a leafy green bract. Like the Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and the Eupatoriums, it does not have a typical daisy-like appearance.
An array of Eupatoriums is in evidence at this time of year, from the towering Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium sp.); the attractive violet-blue Mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum); Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) which is reputed in folk medicine to be able to help broken bones heal; to the very common White Snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) and others. White Snakeroot is thought to have been responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln's mother. In past times, milk sickness was quite a problem. Many people were sickened or died after consuming milk from cows that had a large amount of this plant in their diet.
Yellow Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), has wedge-shaped yellow rays and a prominent dome-like center disk. The powdered disk flowers and leaves of this plant have been used in the past as snuff which accounts for its name.
The Island has vines too
I was excited to see that the Yellow Passion Flowers (Passiflora lutea) were in bloom as I had never before seen this species in flower. The common name was given to its more showy relative Passiflora incarnata by early Christian missionaries who felt they saw the passion of Christ symbolized in the complex and showy flowers. This perennial vine is said to be great for attracting butterflies to your garden.
Also thriving on Sycamore is a native member of the Squash family. The One-Seeded Bur-Cucumber (Sicyos angulatus) has small greenish white flowers and a fruit covered with barbed spines. However, another vine was an unwelcome sight. I spotted a bit of the triangular leaved Mile-a-Minute Weed (Polygonum perfoliatum), a very problematic and fast-spreading invasive from Asia. I pulled up a little but one really needs to have gloves to go after it because of its prickles.
Kathy Bilton is a field botanist who delights in wildflowers. She lives about 65 miles up the towpath from the Island.
Click here for the full collection of Late-Summer Wildflowers pictures.