Virginia BluebellsAn ephemeral scene of Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) along Cedar Run, Prince William County, VA.
I’ve learned not to take it personally, the attrition of people who start off on my Native Trees and Forests guided walk. My tour leads ultimately to the Cedar Run floodplain and the famous Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). Along the way we learn about forest ecology. However, some folks are really just here for the remarkable ephemeral display. Before long they make a beeline to the bluebells. This is, after all, the Bluebell Festival at Merrimac Farm. And so I appreciate even more the folks who stay with me for the whole walk.
This year by the mid-point of the tour our group had dwindled to 8. Once the numbers had thinned, I began noticing more details about my guests. A young girl, perhaps 11 years old, was walking with her mom. The girl was wearing a long black robe with a hood. The lining of the hood was a pinkish red. Her brunette hair and fair skin contrasted with it nicely. She carried a notebook by her side and a pencil in the hand that held the book.
"Do I detect a Hogwarts robe?", I inquired.
"Oh yes", her mother replied, "AnaBeth is into all things Hogwarts." Then to her daughter, "What is the name of the tree that that those wands were made of?" Mom was clearly not the aficionado in the family.
After some barely audible musings, AnaBeth answered, "Harry Potter had a Holly wand. But the most powerful wand was the Elder Wand." Turning to me her eyes widened. "Do you think we will see an Elder tree today?" she asked. "I would love to see an Elder tree."
I hated to disappoint her, but I could not think that there even was such a thing as an Elder tree, at least not in the eastern U.S. Perhaps there was in England, or perhaps only in the imagination of Ms. Rowling.
I took an immediate liking to this young girl. I sensed in her an eager interest, an enthusiasm for learning and exploration that I was sure extended beyond the world of Harry Potter. And I found myself more keenly aware of the opportunity to help her see wonder in this real world of nature: of forests and trees, bluebells and birds, of things more delightful than any product of human imagination. A world fashioned by the wisdom and grace of a Creator immeasurably greater than us, but one who takes pleasure in bending low to show us the work of his hands, wonders we can see and hear and touch.
"Well... I don't think we will find any Elder trees here. But perhaps our forest can work its magic on you."
She smiled and we walked on.
Farther along we came across a tree whose leaves look much like poison ivy. Because there is poison ivy along the trail I usually stop here to help people learn the difference between the rash inducing poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, and this, one of its look-a-likes, the harmless Acer negundo. So I stopped and pointed out the 3 notched leaflets of Acer negundo, more commonly known as Boxelder.
The young girl stepped forward and interrupted me, "Did you say box ELDER?"
"So there ARE Elder trees here!" Her voice rose in delight, her hands reached out to touch the young tree.
"Huh”, I thought, smiling a little to myself at having missed the connection. "So there are."
Our little group walked on, talking trees and gradually, almost imperceptibly dropping in elevation until we came to the edge of the realm of bluebells. One small plant announced that we had arrived. Its broad, bright green leaves subtended a tall arcing stem weighed down at the tip with a cluster of blooms in various stages of unfolding. We looked ahead where in the distance we got our first glimpse of the larger colony. A layer of blue as clear as the sky hovered over the ground, like a peaceful tropical sea.
Close-up of Virginia Bluebell I find the unopened flowers every bit as interesting as a Bluebell in full bloom.
I‘ve led tours to this colony every year for the last several years and every year we seem to reach the bluebells at a different time in their development. Never before had we caught them at such a perfect moment.
Their stunning beauty surprised me. I let out a spontaneous "Whoo hoo!" of joy at the sight of them. How could I be taken by surprise? It was as though I had been away too long and had forgotten how very lovely they are. I felt my soul expand with a sense of relief, releasing some weight of the world built up in my heart that I wasn’t even consciously aware of.
As I normally do at this spot in the walk, I thanked everyone for touring with me and released them to take their time meandering among the bluebells. Still, a few people stayed with me, asking questions as we walked further into the colony. High overhead the rising trill of a Northern Parula drifted down from a forest canopy just beginning to sprout fresh leaves.
At our feet Mertensia now lined the path on both sides of us. The colony was lush and dense, at its peak of color. A lightly overcast sky made the blue of their blossoms positively glow across the forest floor. They were spectacular, the best I had ever witnessed.
Just ahead young AnaBeth had stopped by a large cluster blooming at the edge of the trail. I came along side her and bent down to get closer. She bent down with me. I gently placed my hand under the cluster of flowers, lifting their nodding heads so we could see them in intimate detail.
Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)A single flower cluster shows the progression of the unfolding blossoms from deep pink when newly emerging to the pale blue of the fully open flower.
The little girl opened her notebook. It was a sketch pad. On one page was a simple pencil drawing with a long, single line forming a shallow arc representing a flower's stem and small bell-like flowers alternating up the stem. Each flower was short, recurving at the end of the petals and each sat on its own, sessile on the stem and far separated from the others. She held her drawing out next to the bluebells in my hand. With a voice that embodied the joy of discovery and held no self-reproach, she said, "Why, they don't look like this at all! I need to completely redraw them!" It was clear the task required immediate attention and would be a very pleasurable undertaking.
Her bright intelligent air made me want to stay and enjoy her exploration of the bluebells, to see her study their structure, drawing out how they are organized on the stem, the shape of the blossoms yet to open, still deeply pink and compressed, then elongating and unfurling; colors morphing like wet litmus paper until their hues fade to the pale cerulean of a fully open bluebell.
But other responsibilities pulled me back to the Stone House where our tour began. As I walked on I thought that if I were to look back, and my eyes could search her out, I would find her settled down on a fallen log, paper and pencil in hand, absorbed in a fresh portraiture of her new friend.
All photos and text are Copyright © Julia Flanagan unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.