Text and Photos by Devin Reese
Lots of customers came to Long Branch Nature Center on Saturday, May 7th, to pick up plants they had pre-ordered from the biannual Arlington County Native Plant Sale. When I first arrived to volunteer, I saw several people already working behind the table and just a single customer, and I figured the event was overstaffed. I was soon proven wrong as a steady stream of cars edged in and out of the tight parking spaces of the Nature Center lot. Passengers alit eager to carry off their selection of native plants, which kept us all pleasantly busy. The rainy weather definitely didn’t dampen any spirits.
Customer Evelyn, a dual language Arlington elementary school teacher, wanted to attract butterflies to her garden. She first become familiar with the types of plants that butterflies prefer when she taught science at Escuela Key Elementary School in Arlington. As Evelyn loaded several milkweed (Ascelpias) plants into her car, she talked about the joy of raising painted lady caterpillars (Vanessa cardui) through their metamorphosis to butterfly adults. She planned to create a native butterfly garden to enjoy and share with her students.
Michele, another customer, had found her inspiration during the pandemic. While cooped up inside for the better part of two years, she watched her redbud seedling (Cercis canadensis) grow from what looked like twig to a proper plant. After acquiring it free from an Arlington native tree program, she had “babied it” through the pandemic and enjoyed the modest but apparent results. Michele was ready to nurse more native plants into growth, tickled that the redbud had survived and would likely “outlive” her!
Some customers had budding young naturalists in tow. Dad Alex, once ARMN certified and now volunteering as District Manager of the DC Area for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, was led in by his son. The son chatted enthusiastically while waiting for the plants, reminiscing about his recent frog-themed birthday party hosted at Long Branch. He is a fan of red-eyed tree frogs and, clearly, of nature in general. The frog pond in his own back yard was reported to be teeming with tadpoles, likely wood frogs said his dad.
As customers kept arriving, Park Naturalist Bobbi Farley keep things organized at the sign-in table. Duplicate lists of every plant order allowed volunteers and staff to divide and conquer: Ask for the customer’s last name; find it on one of sheets and assess roughly how many plants they ordered; have them wait while you go find their plants; deliver the order in a tray or box; review the plants to make sure the order is correct; check off the name. Bobbi’s voice rattled off plant names so they could be accounted for: “1 Jacob’s ladder – check; 6 Virginia bluebells – check; 2 wild geraniums – check.” As each order wrapped up, Bobbi called out, “Want a free bag?” Going on seven years that these sales have been held at Long Branch, Bobbi said “it’s great to get the word out about native plants to the community, including the ecological benefits to migrant insects and birds.”
The system ran like clockwork, not only thanks to the multiple volunteers working alongside Nature Center staff, but also because it was well organized. Park Naturalist Jaron Winters (pictured above) did lots of the prep work. He reported that the hardest part was figuring out which species to sell and getting the complex order form together. He looked through catalogues of native plants to see what looked interesting, as well as considered what people bought in previous sales. Jaron predicted, for example, that Virginia bluebells would be a “big hit” and explained that most of the plants come from Environmental Concern’s wholesale plant nursery, and some from the Earth Sangha’s wild plant nursery. In the two years since he started at Long Branch, Jaron has gained a greater appreciation of sharing knowledge of plants with people.
Long Branch Nature Center and Outreach Manager Rita Peralta just started at the Park in February of this year. While she came with a background in wetlands, this was her first Long Branch plant sale and she was impressed with how Bobbi and Jaron successfully juggled the plants, customer orders, and volunteer signups. But, of course, there were a few glitches, such as deer breaking into the supplier’s inventory and munching some of the plants. When something a customer had wanted wasn’t available, the Nature Center staff proposed a substitution. At pick up, each customer’s order was already compiled and labelled, including any recommended substitutions. That way, no money was returned, and in only one case did I notice a customer concerned about the substitution, because his wife had ordered the plants and was “very picky.”
ARMN volunteers supported the Nature Center staff in keeping the day running smoothly. Ginny McNair (pictured above) completed the master naturalist training in 2010, followed by her husband Nick Nichols in 2013. Ginny has served various roles with ARMN, including leading training. Nick is a birder and capped off the day by spotting a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) quietly presiding over the sale on a low branch. There were several scarlet tanagers flitting around too, which Ginny explained were seasonal migrants to the area.
Find this biannual Arlington County Native Plant Sale, along with other native plant sales and additional information on natives on the ARMN website.
Wildlife (All forms of life that are wild, including plants, animals, and microorganism – Natural Resources Service).
Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) range throughout eastern North America but got their scientific name from the Colony of Virginia. Native Americans used bluebells to treat various ailments, including whooping cough and tuberculosis. Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello, conferred another common name of “Jefferson’s funnel flowers.” Indeed, they are funnel-shaped with a narrow tube culminating in a bell shape. Pollinators must reach for the nectar through the tube, making the flowers attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds, but only to long-tongued bees. Virginia bluebells are ephemeral, blooming for several weeks in the spring and by early summer going dormant. They die completely back to the ground but are perennials that renew the following spring. Learn more about Virginia Bluebells on the Virginia Native Plant Society website. See also: https://www.reconnectwithnature.org/News-Events/The-Buzz/5-things-bluebells and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mertensia_virginica.