“Plants are a lot like people—they have their redeeming qualities even when they’re hard to tolerate,” Tony Russell said as he gestured at an invasive vine winding its way up a willow oak tree.
Russell is a member of the Virginia Master Naturalists, and has been an active volunteer with the Ivy Creek Foundation and other nature organizations for years. On October 20, he led this year’s last plant walk at the Ivy Creek Natural Area. About a dozen local nature lovers, many of whom have attended similar walks in the past, met Russell at 9:30am with water bottles and trail maps, ready for what will be one of the last of the monthly forays into Ivy Creek’s forest this year.
The walk began around the parking lot, where Russell shared some lesser-known tidbits about trees we see around Charlottesville every day.
The white pine, which lines the Ivy Creek Natural Area parking lot, is one of the easiest pine trees to identify, Russell said. As the tallest tree in the Eastern U.S., it can grow up to 20 stories high and is the only pine tree in the area with needles in clusters of five. Russell said the pine adds a new tier of branches, which radiate out like wagon wheel spokes, each year, making it easy to determine its age.
Making his way across the lot toward the barn, Russell stopped to discuss the white oak, another common species easily identified by its turkey foot-shaped leaves and large acorns. And good thing it’s so prevalent, because the area’s forests depend on the white oak as a keystone species. According to Russell, when the American chestnut trees began to disappear a century ago due to a deadly foreign blight and left other plants and animals in the lurch, the white oak picked up the slack. It became vitally important to wildlife, providing shelter and replacing chestnuts with acorns as a primary food source. The trees can live for hundreds of years, Russell said, and he recommended visiting James Madison’s Montpelier to check out some 250-year-old white oaks.
Besides forest natives, Russell also taught the group about several invasive species, not all of which deserve scorn, he said.
“Invasive is a pretty nasty name to attach to a tree that has some redeeming qualities,” he said, pointing to the Royal Paulownia, or princess tree.
The princess tree grows giant, umbrella-like leaves, and beautiful light pink flowers in the spring. Russell compared it to a dandelion because of its ability to spread its seed —an adult tree can send out about 20 million seeds, making it an effective invader.
Russell continued leading the group around the fields and along miles of trails until about noon, taking full advantage of the 65-degree weather and cloudless sky, pointing out species and answering enthusiastic questions along the way. The group covered everything from holly trees to umbrella magnolias, and learned how to distinguish one type of buckeye from the next by examining the buds at the end of its twigs.
The walks will resume in the spring, and in the meantime Russell is devoting time to his grandchildren, other volunteer projects, and the book he’s writing, drawing from a lifetime of running around on his farm and in the woods.
“I just want to help people know more about the world around them,” Russell said.
The Ivy Creek Foundation will continue hosting volunteer work days and Saturday bird walks through the winter months. For more information on activities and volunteer opportunities, visit ivycreekfoundation.org.