Vanishing act: Conservationists make the case for saving Albemarle County’s rare and threatened habitats

One of Albemarle’s most unusual plant communities, a south-facing granite slope not far from the Nelson County border, also comes with a remarkable view. Photo: Ian Nichols
One of Albemarle’s most unusual plant communities, a south-facing granite slope not far from the Nelson County border, also comes with a remarkable view. Photo: Ian Nichols

The evolution of conservation

The idea of species rarity is a construct, but hardly a useless one. So says Chris Ludwig, chief biologist with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage program and one of the primary authors of 2012’s Flora of Virginia, the first comprehensive atlas of native plants published in the Commonwealth since 1743.

A species considered rare here might be common 150 miles to the south. But that doesn’t mean preserving it isn’t important, said Ludwig. “It indicates there’s something about the soil, the hydrology, or the land use of a site that makes for something special,” he said. And while Albemarle is just outside the range of some of the state’s rarer species, it’s rare geology has given rise to some singular and beautiful habitats.

Our local mountains are underlain with greenstone, some of the oldest rock on the planet, high in magnesium and iron. Over the eons, it’s weathered into a mineral-rich soil resistant to erosion, even at high altitudes, where it’s interspersed with relatively barren outcrops of more acidic rock. The mix has given rise to forest types and plant communities endemic to this sliver of Appalachia, many of them in Albemarle, Ludwig said.

At the same time, Charlottesville, like most other long-settled eastern cities, has a rich array of invasives. It’s a familiar problem: Without natural checks, the foreign plants—some likely introduced by that most revered of local botanists, Thomas Jefferson—can overpopulate and choke out natives.

“Pockets of diversity exist everywhere, and next to them are these invasive species just waiting to gobble up these natural areas,” Ludwig said.

Two decades ago, as growth pushed outward from the city into the rural zones in earnest, a few members of the local environmental activist group Citizens for Albemarle decided the county needed to expand its efforts to shield certain areas from development.

“We were all biologists,” said Tom Olivier, a retired population geneticist who moved to the area in 1981 and has since been active in the local chapter of the Sierra Club. “And what struck us was that although Virginia law in many ways is weak on the environment, it gives local governments a great deal of power over land use regulation. If you regulate land use, then you’re doing a lot to protect or not protect your local environment.”

At the time, even the word biodiversity was new outside scientific circles, and the idea that government should take on responsibility for preserving it was downright foreign, Olivier said. But the scientists set their sights on changing the county’s Comprehensive Plan, the giant guidance document that lays out ground rules for growth and development within a municipality. The point at the heart of their educating and agitating: If we’re willing to spend public money to preserve farmland because it has value as open space, we should also shell out to protect areas simply because they have natural importance.

The group lobbied successfully for the addition of a new natural resources chapter in the plan, which the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to add in 1999. The next few years represented a sea change in county policy, Olivier said. A Biodiversity Work Group was formed, and its members, Olivier among them, set to work on a 234-page report that laid out an action plan for protecting sensitive areas, starting with the hotspot list, a collection of local properties deemed particularly important, pieced together with extensive help from years of notes by a legendary local naturalist named Mo Stevens. A year later, the ACE program was created, one of only three such conservation programs in the state at the time. Next came the formal creation of the Natural Heritage Committee, which was seeded with members from the work group and charged with monitoring biodiversity and advising elected officials on land use.

It was a vote that “absolutely wouldn’t have happened today,” said Olivier. Because that’s when things changed. The political makeup of the Board tipped to the right, and bipartisan support for biodiversity protection faltered. The wheels really came off when the housing bubble burst and the economy tanked, Olivier said, and county staff started to shrink.

“They simply stopped replacing people,” he said. “There was a sense of a priority shift. People who used to be assigned to work in long-term planning were instead evaluating cell phone tower applications.”

Efforts to track down the owners of high-priority properties identified in the 2004 report slowed. Staff could only meet with the committee once a month.

That’s when Olivier and several others left.

“We were supposed to be doing big things to protect the landscape,” he said. “I said ‘I’m not going to give the appearance of the county working to protect all of this when in fact all we have is a committee and nothing else.’ I left, a bunch of other scientists left. Last time I looked, the committee had half a dozen openings.”

Nearly a decade after the county codified its intent to protect biodiversity, the economy is rebounding. The question is whether commitment to conservation will, too.

Peter Hatch (right), retired head of gardens and grounds at Monticello, wanders the woodlands of Estouteville with estate owner Ludwig Kuttner. The Green Mountain property is home to what several local naturalists believe is a native stand of Calycanthus floridus. Photo: Ian Nichols
Peter Hatch (right), retired head of gardens and grounds at Monticello, wanders the woodlands of Estouteville with estate owner Ludwig Kuttner. The Green Mountain property is home to what several local naturalists believe is a native stand of Calycanthus floridus. Photo: Ian Nichols

Gardens without expense

If there’s a botanical mystery involving Jefferson cooking in Albemarle County, you can bet Peter Hatch has an opinion on it. The one that leads us to Estouteville, the historic Keene estate atop Green Mountain, is no exception.

Hatch recently retired as head of gardens and grounds at Monticello, leaving a 34-year career that had made him famous in botanical circles the world over, for the quiet of a farm on Lickinghole Creek in Crozet. He’s still botanizing on his own time, tracking down unusual Albemarle County plant communities, particularly ones that, by some evolutionary twist, are growing outside their normal range.

Which is why we’re at Estouteville at the invitation of Hatch’s friend Ludwig Kuttner, the German-born developer and entrepreneur, who lives on the sprawling estate with his wife, six dogs, and, at any given time, various family members and staff. Also making a home on the low hilltop some 15 miles south of Charlottesville is a rather nondescript, twiggy shrub with ovate leaves.

Calycanthus floridus, or sweet shrub, has grown at Estouteville for as long as anyone can recall. The plant, which in late spring and summer bears dusky maroon flowers with a scent compared to bubblegum and apples, is rare in the Commonwealth. Its native range is the Piedmont of the Carolinas, and experts’ assumption has always been that any Calycanthus that appeared in Albemarle—including the ones at Monticello—was planted or an escaped cultivar, a garden shrub gone wild.

Then came the discovery of an entry in a Jefferson journal from 1778. One early March day, he wrote that he planted 19 “Calycanthus from Green Mountain, the only place I’ve ever heard of them. They are said to be very common in S. Carolina.”

A great botanical clamoring commenced. When subsequent research revealed that the first estate on Green Mountain, built in 1800, had been known as Calycanthus Hill, and that the place name might be even older than that, several local experts were convinced that Estouteville’s collection of the shrub represented a rare island of far-flung natives. Hatch is one of them.

That alone would have recommend the site as one worthy of the hotspot list. But there’s more to this place than that. Estouteville is a place of remarkable beauty largely because of the human stamp, not in spite of it.

Kuttner roams the grounds with us in a wool plaid jacket, his shock of floppy white hair falling over one eye, exclaiming over fall-blooming crocuses and taking notes as Hatch dispenses botanical wisdom. He delights in pointing out the highlights of his home landscape with its broad views of Southern Albemarle. Beyond the Palladian-style house with its porticos overflowing with sculptures are trees. Everywhere, trees.

“There are over 500 that were planted here,” Kuttner says. Some, thanks to him and his wife Beatrix Ost, an artist, have sprouted strange fruit—tentacled sculptures that light up at night. Many of the ancient native trees in the woods further from the house have died and become sculptures themselves, their bark and branches painted bright colors: a royal blue dogwood here, a pink oak there.

Their approach to managing the land may be whimsical, but it draws praise from Hatch and from Murray. Twice, the Kuttners have timbered sections of the 200-acre property, taking out many of the dead trees and leaving some to rot, and encouraging low-growing plants below. It’s a delicate, deliberate forest management style described and promoted by Jefferson himself, and probably practiced on the property since his time.

“It’s a grove,” says Hatch as we stand in the shade of a cathedral-like stand of towering tulip poplars and chestnut oaks, some of them upwards of two centuries old. And he quotes Jefferson in his way, not Jefferson the statesman, but Jefferson the gardener: “He had ideas about groves. He said, ‘In America, we can make gardens without expense. We have only to cut out the superabundant plants.’ It’s a nice expression.”

It’s in the shade of the high-cut canopies of the old hardwoods, up against the gravel road that runs along the ridgeline of Green Mountain, that we find the Calycanthus. It’s an unassuming-looking bush at this time of year, but it has a different look than its cultivated sisters of the same species, just a few hundred yards away in a more formal garden. It’s sparser, wilder. It’s a puzzle, Hatch says, this Southern shrub growing here among an assortment of other unusual species, including smooth gooseberry (“more of a Yankee plant,” he says) and, in spring, the rare and lovely yellow lady-slipper.

Whatever the reason for the odd bedfellows’ appearance in these woods, Hatch says, they’re probably all still here because this low mountaintop has remained virtually unchanged in its use since the Colonial era.

“It reflects a great diversity that’s promoted a lot by the old forest we’re in,” he says.

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