ARMN Winter Book Share: Food for the Body, Mind, and Spirit!

Text by Lori Bowes; photos by Rodney Olsen

Once or twice a year for the past decade, ARMN members and friends who enjoy nature writings meet at a local restaurant for a Book Share event. In February, we met in the Ballston Quarter food court where everyone could select their own lunch. Most people opted to patronize Maizal, a Latin street food vendor that “serves up a fresh take on one of South America’s most coveted street foods, the arepa.” The savory food was a perfect accompaniment to our conversation about enriching books. 

Photo shows a group of volunteers around a table piled with books.
Marion Flynn (l), Lori Bowes (r), and other book lovers enjoy discussing nature-related books at the ARMN Winter Book Share.

The event proved a nice opportunity to reconnect with local naturalist friends and catch up on one another’s projects, while being enticed by some new publications. The materials that people shared were diverse, including articles, science essays, nonfiction environmental books, historical nature fiction and even a podcast.

Photo shows three volunteers. One holds up a book while two others look on.
Joanne Hutton (l) listened as her husband, Powell Hutton (r), talks about the impactful book, The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions.

For example, Powell Hutton talked about The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, a 2017 book by science journalist Peter Brannan about the current sixth mass extinction in the context of Earth’s past mass extinctions and the evidence for their causes.

Photo of a volunteer holding up a book
Margaret Chatham discusses the book, Journal of Garden History: An International Quarterly 16(1) January-March 1996: Bartram’s Garden Catalogue of North American Plants, 1783.

Margaret Chatham shared her impressions of a wonderful classic: Journal of Garden History: An International Quarterly 16(1) January-March 1996: Bartram’s Garden Catalogue of North American Plants, 1783.

Jill Barker introduced the historical fiction book, The Island of Missing Trees by novelist, Elif Shafak. It’s described in a Harvard Review as including a “prominent fig-tree narrator, who brings her own arboreal expertise into the story,” an ideal vantage point for Master Naturalists.

And I recommended a podcast entitled, “The Science of Birds: A lighthearted exploration of bird biology.” With more than 70 episodes available to date, it promises a fascinating listening and learning experience about nearly all aspects of bird biology.

Does a book share event sound interesting to you? Keep an eye on the ARMN list-serv or subscribe to the ARMN newsletter to find out when the next one will take place. Anyone with an interest in nature is welcome. We hope to see you at a future Book Share event!

The works shared during the February 2023 meetup included:

  • Teaching the Trees, Lessons from the Forest, by Joan Maloof, 2010
  • Oaxaca Journal, by Oliver Sacks, 2012
  • Journal of Garden History: An International Quarterly 16(1) January-March 1996: Bartram’s Garden Catalogue of North American Plants, 1783
  • The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the World of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery, 2015
  • The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, by Peter Brannan, 2017.
  • Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds, and Shape our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake, 2020
  • The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf, 2015
  • An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, by Ed Yong, 2022
  • I Contain Multitudes: the Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong, 2016
  • “Smart Plants” by David Haskell in Scientific American,  
  • Fen, Bog, and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and its Role in Climate Change, by Annie Prioux, 2022
  • Seed to Seed, by Nicholas Harberd, 2008
  • Anything written by Bernd Heinrich
  • The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks, 2015
  • The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us, by Steve Brusatte, 2022
  • Saving the Wild South: The Fight for Native Plants on the Brink of Extinction, by Georganne Eubanks, 2021
  • Bird Brother: A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife, by Rodney Stotts, 2022
  • Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for Planetary Intelligence, by James Bridle, 2022
  • Ministry for the Future, a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2020
  • The Island of Missing Trees, a novel byt Elif Shafak, 2021
  • The podcast, “The Science of Birds: A lighthearted exploration of bird biology.”

Fighting a “New” Non-Native Invasive in Town: Reports from the Front Line on Removing Italian Arum

Text by Kit Britton; photos by Jim Bly, unless otherwise noted. 

The February 26 Italian arum eradication event at the grounds of Culpepper Garden senior living community was the kickoff of a stewardship activity to last one year. A plant that was likely spread to the site as an escaped houseplant, in the root ball of a purchased plant, or by bird transmission of seed has turned into an ecological nightmare.

What is Italian Arum and Why is it a Problem?

Italian arum (Arum italica) is an ornamental plant that was brought to North America because of its attractive winter foliage and orange berries. It has been listed as a “dirty dozen” plant in Virginia can spread quickly to nearby areas and can outcompete native plants. It can be spread further by birds that eat and disperse its seeds. Arum has orange-red berries that grow in oblong clusters and can be toxic to both humans and wildlife. Its flowers emit an unpleasant odor, and its oils are a known skin irritant. Even with all these negatives, it is still commonly sold in the horticulture trade as both a houseplant and a landscaping plant.

Photo showing Italian arum spreading across the forest floor.
Italian arum infestation in an Arlington backyard. Photo by Brooke Alexander.

Sightings of this plant in Arlington vary. Some are found on the margins of parks near houses and gardens and in backyards and neighborhood vacant lots, but they also appear in parks far from potential backyard origination points. Unfortunately, once Italian arum takes root, it can become quite dense. 

At Culpepper Garden, staff and residents were horrified to discover the potential damage this spreading invasive could do to this iconic 5-acre site. As a resident of the community and ARMN member, I suggested that we contact Jennifer Soles, Invasive Species Coordinator of Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Once she investigated the situation, she developed a protocol for eradicating the Italian arum from the location.

Photo of two volunteers examining an arum plant before putting it into a bag.
Volunteers work together to extract and bag an arum plant.

At Culpepper Garden, the Italian arum plants were more widely spaced than in many places, making their removal easier. Using Jennifer Soles’ directions, we dug up each plant with its surrounding soil, lifted the whole mass carefully into bags, and marked the holes from which the plants had been removed with red flags for a one-year measurement of outcomes included in the project design. It took 11 volunteer Master Naturalists, community volunteers, and resident volunteers about three hours to dig up and bag 36 plants found in four distinct areas of infestation. 

Later, Culpepper Garden grounds maintenance staff picked up the tied bags and carefully transported them to the trash dumpster for treatment as trash (not compost, which could spread their seeds).

This project is coming at the right time because it may add information about control options at a time when Italian arum infestations are on the rise—not only at Culpepper Garden but in area private properties and public spaces where ARMN park stewards work. (Park stewards are Adopt-a-Park leaders who oversee volunteer stewardship work in Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church parks and engage with neighboring park communities.) And there is still time to dig up the plants prior to their 2023 seed production.

How Does the Italian Arum Spread?

Photo shows exposed tubers of the Arum plants.
Exposed tubers that show lateral root growth of Italian arum plants.

Arum italica has two methods by which it propagates and spreads. First, the above ground foliage grows from an underground tuber or bulb; the tubers propagate by forming multiple bulblets or daughter tubers, which separate and produce new stems. As the tubers spread laterally, Italian arum spreads. Sometimes, small plants can be eradicated by digging out all plant parts and tubers.  

The second method of propagation occurs when the plant flowers in the spring and summer and produces heavy seeds that drop onto the ground below or not far away. Wind cannot carry these seeds, but water flow can. And birds eat and spread the seeds.

Photo shows the light yellow flower of the Arum plant.
Arum flower head. Photo by Pedro Pinho, CC-BY-NC. (Arum berries are pictured above.)

The seeds themselves form a “transient” seed bank with less than one year of viability; not a “persistent” seed bank with seeds viable for more than one growing season.  Despite the transitory nature of the seeds, the next step in the reproductive cycle from seed is formation of a tuber that stays dormant for two years. So, there is effectively a three-year lurking danger from underground: one year as viable seeds and two years afterwards as dormant tubers. On the Culpepper site, seeds dropped by plants in summer 2022—as well as seeds up to two years older than that—can germinate plants now.

So, How Can We Get Rid of Italian Arum Once and For All?

Photo shows two volunteers working with shovels.
Volunteers use shovels to remove Italian arum plants and their surrounding soil.

In January, Master Naturalists exchanged strategies to eradicate Italian arum from their parks and neighborhoods, and after spirited discussion, the consensus was that digging and removing all plant material and more dirt than one might think necessary is needed to dispense with both dormant bulblets and the stubborn seedbank lurking in the soil. 

In addition, for resilient plants like this Italian arum, Master Naturalists wondered if chemical treatment would be an effective long-term solution. The problem is that only complicated chemical mixes may work, and these are beyond the reach of typical homeowners. This solution was also nixed by the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board (a state where this invasive plant is rampant). There has been no consistently reported success with any chemical mix. With that, the Noxious Weed Control Board confirmed that manual methods including deep digging are the way to go. So, the Master Naturalists are sticking with manual removal, too.

The Plan for Culpepper Garden

We decided to monitor the holes left behind from which the arum was pulled and the broader infestation areas on a weekly basis and note any new growth. Italian arum plants found will be removed immediately. Weekly removals will ensure that we get the plants out when they’re very small. Removals at or near the holes will hopefully provide data to evaluate and refine the eradication protocol. The admittedly optimistic scenario of no regrowth in and around the holes would indicate that we successfully removed dormant seeds and tubers. Some regrowth but less than at a distance in the broader infestation areas could indicate that we need to dig deeper. Also, if the plant doesn’t appear at or near the holes but does show up at a distance in the broader infestation areas, perhaps we are dealing with bird transmission or other forms of transmission.

The project will end on Feb 16, 2024, when the one-year monitoring period is over, after which we will use the data we gathered to refine protocols for future Italian arum eradication. 

Normally, ARMN volunteers only work in parks or other natural areas rather than private properties. While Culpepper Garden is private property, it has been designated as “Private Property of Special Ecological Significance.”  As such, ARMN volunteers may work here on invasive plant removal projects.

Photo shows a volunteer smiling at the camera
Volunteers feeling optimistic as they remove arum at Culpepper Garden.

Restoring Nature by Whittling Away at Woodlawn Park’s Invasive Plants

Text and photos by Devin Reese, except as noted.

A volunteer is bending over by a creek.
ARMN Volunteer Becky Hamm looking for small invasives sprouting up.

I joined a group of volunteers recently who were getting ready to attack exotic invasive plants on the banks of Lubber Run stream. The site—Woodlawn Park—is a small park tucked into a residential neighborhood in Arlington. Perhaps its diminutive size explains how well its invasive plants are being addressed, or perhaps it should be credited to the enthusiasm and dedication of its volunteers.

Beth Kiser is the volunteer ARMN Park Steward for Woodlawn Park and the lead for the ARMN Park Stewards Program. (Park Stewards are Adopt-a-Park leaders who oversee volunteer stewardship work in Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church parks and engage with neighboring park communities.) Beth said that she is about five years into organizing volunteer work in Woodlawn Park and that, thanks to a cadre of regular monthly volunteers and support and coordination from Arlington County staff, the site has gradually transformed. 

Another neighborhood volunteer explains that “We’ve been working for a long time on removing the bush honeysuckle.” According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, “Bush honeysuckles can rapidly invade and overtake a site, forming a dense shrub layer that interferes with
the life cycles of many native woody and herbaceous plants.” Today, the group is equipped with a Weed Wrench to wrest any bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) out by the roots without disturbing the soil. Watching another volunteer tackle a different invasive plant, porcelain-berry vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), a volunteer laments that, “It’s so evil. Porcelain-berry deserves more [removal] attention.” Like the bush honeysuckle, porcelain-berry can outcompete native plants for water and nutrients. 

One volunteer holds her phone out
Park Steward Beth Kiser showing volunteer Curt how to use the SEEK app.

Volunteer Curt is working to get the porcelain-berry vine out complete with its roots. “Wow, it does have a huge root. It’s going so far back. Is that normal for porcelain-berry?” As Curt remarks that he’s pretty new to this invasives work and needs people pointing stuff out, Beth shows him how to use the Seek app to help identify plants. The app is a companion to iNaturalist, the online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists who create and share biodiversity information about plants, animals, and other organisms to help people learn about nature. However, Seek is designed to be more youth-friendly by including live AI-based identification using phone camera video as an input. Curt and Beth quickly corroborate that another plant he has removed is a type of privet.  

This is Curt’s first month of volunteering for naturalist habitat restoration projects, and he hopes to get to join the next ARMN training course. He has long been interested in the natural world and would love to improve his skills in identifying organisms, birds in particular. Curt also works as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in the paleontology curatorial department. “I work with dead things at the Smithsonian,” he explains. So, this is his chance to work with living things. 

The spines of the black locust tree.

Becky Hamm is a member of the most recent ARMN cohort and volunteering at Woodlawn Park for the first time. Her inspiration to become a Master Naturalist came from living in a place with no outdoor space of her own during the pandemic. Her job in data analytics keeps her indoors. When she moved to a rental place with a yard, she wanted to create something other than a mowed patch; thus, began her exploration of native plants. Becky marvels at a native black locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia) growing streamside, recognizing its distinctive paired spines, i.e., “big old thorns.”

A volunteer in a winter coat and cap holds a weed that he has pulled from the ground.
Volunteer Joao with a handful of invasive Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense), another invasive import that can choke out native plants.

Meanwhile, one of Beth’s regular volunteers is working at the south end of the park. Joao lives a stone’s throw from where he’s removing invasives and has been interested in tending the park since the beginning of Beth’s stewardship program. He waxes poetic about how the program has boosted the number of “beautiful, wonderful birds that come and sing,” including an owl that he recently heard “mewing like a child.” He comes out in the evenings to enjoy nature at dusk. Joao explains that he grew up on Madeira Island, Portugal, in a setting with an abundance of colorful flowers. He returns regularly to Portugal, but also appreciates the Virginia nature right here in his front yard. 

Beth explains that regular, community volunteers like Joao have helped gradually change the park to a wilder space. “It’s looking pretty clean” of invasives, she says, “and I credit all those folks who’ve been coming for a few years now even during the pandemic,” as well as support from Arlington County staff, who provide input on invasive management approaches. Where resources permit, they also arrange for carefully targeted spot treatments of herbicides to address invasives that volunteers can’t remove by hand. This partnership has proven essential, she says, in having lasting impact in restoring the area’s natural spaces and keeping up volunteers’ engagement in the work without getting discouraged.

In the five years of her supporting the park and the ARMN Park Stewards program, Beth is most excited about the native species that pop their heads up through the leaf litter now that there is clear space for them to grow back from seedlings or from dormant seeds in the soil bed. Thanks to getting invasives out of the way, she now sees native plants like wild ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum), asters (family Asteraceae), native black cherries (Prunus serotina.), hollies (Ilex spp.), tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera), American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), and a few oaks (family Quercus). The native plants in the park appear to be part of two distinct remnant ecological communities that Beth describes as “floodplain forest” and “possibly mesic mixed hardwood,” respectively, pointing to the floodplain area where there are American elms (Ulmus americana), boxelder (Acer negundo), and remnant green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), which is amazing for this small patch of a park.

An up close photo of English ivy
English ivy (Hedera helix) on exposed tree roots.

In some harder-to-access areas in the park, invasives continue to take root. For example, English ivy blankets exposed tree roots in the steep slopes of Lubber Run that get less volunteer attention due to limited access. A volunteer says “Ivy is so evil. I don’t trust it. I always give personalities to the most invasive plants.” By her metric, we are wrestling with a lot of evil plant personalities as we pull, cut, and chop up. In the winter, with most of the plants not in their seeding stage, we can either chop them up and leave them on the ground to add to the valuable forest floor covering, or we can hang them up higher on branches. Beth talks about how people often remove the leaf duff (litter) from the ground, even though it harbors beneficial insects such as butterfly larvae and fireflies, microbes, and nutrients. Allowing the leaves to stay in place over winter can help these insects to thrive.

Serrated shovel that works well for extracting privets.

Eventually, ARMN volunteer Hal Cardwell climbs down into the stream valley with Beth’s specialized shovel (which she in turn had learned about from another neighborhood volunteer). Capitalizing on its serrated edges, he’s able to extract several well-anchored privets from the soil. A few slices and the privets are out!

An upclose photo of a weed pulled from the ground
Oriental False Hawksbeard plant removed with its roots.

Even as the group wraps up for the day, we find a few more opportunities for restoration. Curt spots a flowering plant on the streambank near where we started our work, and Beth excitedly says “Get it. That’s a Rose of Sharon with seed pods!” Indeed, this invasive’s fluffy brown flowers taunt us from their skinny stalks. Curt reaches down and gingerly pulls the Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) out, careful to include the whole tap root. Right at our feet, Becky finds an errant Oriental False Hawksbeard plant (Youngia japonica) anchored to the ground. “It’s really aggressive,” says Beth, as Beth lays it—conquered—on a rock. 

Even at such a well-tended site, there are no shortage of opportunities for volunteers to battle invasives and improve its ecological quality through native plant regeneration. As we clean up, Beth tells us about the fireflies (Photinus pyralis)—an indicator of ecosystem health—that blink in the restored riparian vegetation along the stream during the warm months, and attract community members to gather and celebrate them together one night each June. The work today that helped to preserve a home for these beloved creatures was indeed well worth it.

Photo of a group of volunteers posing with a bucket and tools.
Volunteers after the day’s work. Photo by Beth Kiser.

Wildlife (All forms of life that are wild, including plants, animals, and microorganism – Natural Resources Service

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) Black locust, considered invasive in some states, is native to eastern North America from Pennsylvania to as far south as Georgia. When British colonists encountered the plant in 1607, they recognized its resemblance to Old World Locust and named it accordingly. A member of the pea family with pairs of round leaflets on spiny branches, black locusts improve soil quality by fixing nitrogen at their roots. The black locust produces fragrant white flowers with copious nectar that attracts native bee species, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Although toxic to some livestock, black locust provides habitat for native wildlife, including nesting songbirds and foraging deer. Learn more about black locust here.

The Grass Seeds, My Friend, Are Blowin’ In the Wind

Text and photos by Noreen Hannigan, unless otherwise noted.

Yes, grass seeds are blowin’ in the wind, but they’re not necessarily producing a pretty song! The list of non-native invasive grasses that escape cultivation from yards and gardens keeps growing. The 2022 edition of Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas, Field Guide by Jil M. Swearingen and Judith P. Fulton characterizes invasive plants as “an invading army” that can spread rapidly to take over natural ecosystems and be “difficult if not impossible to eradicate” once introduced and established over wide areas. 

What Kinds of Grasses are Considered Invasive and Why Is This a Problem?

Because many of the plants in local yards and for sale in garden centers evolved elsewhere, under different conditions, they no longer have the kind of competition to control their spread that they would have in their original setting. They therefore have the freedom to run amok away from their homes (like teenagers on spring break). They multiply rapidly and can displace native plants, form monocultures, and thereby eliminate sources of good-quality nutrition for our year-round and migrating wildlife. Some also release chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth of other plants, or hybridize with native plants, which alters those plants’ attractive qualities for wildlife. These are just a few of many ways invasive plants degrade the ecosystem, which leads to populations of animals, birds, and insects (both in the young and adult phases) going into decline due to scarcity of food from the native plants on which they depend. This, in turn, robs the entire planet of biodiversity. Note that all of these plants are fine as long as they stay where they evolved. And in turn, some plants from our region have been introduced overseas and are invasive in other places for the same reasons the non-natives here are a problem. It’s all about keeping plants and wildlife where they evolved and not, as the saying goes, “moving puzzle pieces around.”  Ecosystems take millions of years to evolve and moving a plant halfway around the world in a day’s airplane ride happens way too fast for an ecosystem to adapt.  

Back to the newly revised Plant Invaders field guide, though, I noticed while I was thumbing through it that it includes almost double the number of invasive ornamental grasses and sedges than previous editions. One new entry in this field guide is Chinese fountain grass, Cenchrus purpurascens. (It actually goes by a couple of Latin names, including Pennisetum alopecuroides. And—no surprise—it goes by more than one common name, too, but more on that in a moment.) This non-native grass is widely available for gardeners, usually with no mention that it can escape gardens and invade natural areas, with detrimental consequences, so it’s important to have our antennas up when we are visiting garden shops.

I had an unexpected encounter with this escapee hiding on an inconspicuous section of the stream bank of Four Mile Run near Bon Air Park last fall. I had just come home from the Falls Church Farmers Market on a Saturday morning in late November and was about to enjoy a piece of warm spinach quiche and a cup of coffee when I got a text from my neighbor and fellow ARMN member, Mikki Atsatt, saying that she had spotted Chinese fountain grass, with its seed heads ready to fling themselves into the water and onto the wind, and said she was on her way to the park to do something about them. Mikki had contacted ARMN president, Phil Klingelhofer, and asked permission to go to Bon Air Park and deadhead these mischief makers ASAP. Not only did Phil approve, he grabbed his collecting pail, and joined in. More later on why she needed to ask permission to remove the seed heads in the park, and why anyone should do this before removing any plant material from a park or natural area.

I ate my quiche and drank my coffee faster than I intended and joined Mikki and Phil at the crime scene where the escapees were hiding. One personal “benefit” of my delay was that by the time I showed up, Mikki had figured out that the seed heads were so ripe that they could be easily stripped by hand, as opposed to having to be cut off. This was a great time saver. Nevertheless, it took about two hours to strip the seeds off that stand of fountain grass. Ninety nine percent of them went into our buckets to be emptied into the trash for disposal; however, it was impossible to prevent a few seeds from dropping onto the ground or getting stuck to our clothing. Ugh!

While the seed heads look soft and fluffy to the eye, according to the Vascular Plants of North Carolina website, the seeds are “notorious for their extremely strong and sharp spines which catch on clothing, fur, and skin alike.” Indeed, my clothing was covered with them when I left, so I can confirm how easily these seeds, which are like a grain and open after a hard freeze, can be spread not only by wind and water but by animals (including humans). Unfortunately, all we were able to do that Saturday morning was thwart the immediate spread, but every little bit helps. 

A photo of a black pant leg with many seeds sticking to the fabric
Seeds that hitched a ride on my pant leg from Bon Air Park (and removed in my shower to prevent them from spreading further).

What if You Already Have This Plant in Your Yard?

If you have Chinese fountain grass in your garden, consider removing it, or at least deadheading it every fall and dispose of the seeds in the trash before they break open. According to Jennifer Soles, Arlington Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resource Specialist, it has been found in numerous natural areas in the County, and once established, it is difficult to dig up. Ms. Soles said that the County is looking at strategies for controlling it in the future, and that she expects Chinese fountain grass to be added to future lists of invasive plants impacting our entire region. Meanwhile, until control methods can be employed, she said, removing the seed heads helps to slow the spread, so volunteer efforts are welcome.

Besides the clumps found in the Bon Air Park area, more was located along Four Mile Run in nearby Dominion Hills. In addition, ARMN member and Park Steward, Marion Jordan, reports that she and her team of volunteers have been fighting an infestation at Barcroft Park. Another stand of it was noticed by ARMN member Colt Gregory at Potomac Overlook Regional Park near the Visitor’s Center last summer. He and fellow ARMN members Linda Willen and Marion Jordan got permission from the park manager to deadhead it. Since then, volunteers have been digging the plants up, and plans are being made to replace them with native plants.

While you as a concerned citizen might want to grab the nearest pruners or shovels and attack this grass when you see it on public property, such as parks and stream sides, please resist the urge to do so on your own. The sites I discussed above are being worked by trained volunteers who have permission from local park authorities to do so. It isn’t that your enthusiasm wouldn’t be appreciated, but invasives-removal must be done by people who have had approved training on how to distinguish a true invasive from a native look-alike and on avoiding collateral damage to nearby vegetation or soils. If you see something you suspect is Cenchrus purpurascens growing in a park or other natural area, you should contact the park authority for the county or city where you found it to report the location so they’re aware of it in planning future invasives treatments. Most local jurisdictions prohibit the removal of any plant or animal material from parks or other natural areas without specific authorization.

Photo of two volunteers crouching to cut a big patch of ornamental grass. The grass is bright green with seed heads sticking out of the top.
ARMN members Linda Willen and Colt Gregory cut Cenchrus purpurascens at Potomac Overlook Regional Park. Photo by Marion Jordan.

More specifics about Cenchrus purpurascens 

I thought all I had to do was take some photographs and the iNaturalist identification app. would label it for me. It was more complicated than I expected because the plant is known by different names, including even more than one Latin binomial name!  It comes from tropical Asia and Australia and appears in the records both as “Cenchrus purpurascens (Thunb.)” and “Pennisetum alopecuroides (Spreng.).”  My first reaction was, “Wait, what the heck are Thunb. and Spreng?” I learned that they were botanists who separately named the plant: Carl Peter Thunberg, a Swede who studied under Carl Linnaeus in late 1700s, and Kurt Polycarp Joachim Sprengel, a German botanist working around the same time. 

I then decided to search the  Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora, which identifies it under Cenchrus purpurascens and notes that “Molecular studies indicate that Cenchrus and Pennisetum form a monophyletic clade [meaning they had a common ancestor] and should be merged. Nomenclaturally, Cenchrus has priority over Pennisetum.” In addition, as noted above, the Plant Invaders field guide refers to it as Cenchrus purpurascens. It felt like a major victory to finally know the name of what to write about! (However, as explained above, be aware that you will also encounter it as a pennisetum.) 

Cenchrus purpurascens is also called various common names in the trade, including Chinese fountain grass, Chinese pennisetum, and swamp foxtail fountain grass. In addition, there are several cultivars of this plant sold in the landscape trade. (There is also a related grass called African fountain grass or Crimson fountain grass (Cenchrus setaceus). This fountain grass is more of a problem in Western states, however.)  By any name or any origin, avoid purchasing and planting any of these Cenchrus grasses. If you already own one, consider digging it up and replacing with a native alternative (discussed below), or cut off the seed stalks and put them in the trash at the end of the season before they spread. Please do not compost them or place them your organic yard waste bin. The seeds will germinate and keep spreading in the yards of people who use municipal compost in their own gardens. 

What Should You Plant Instead of a Non-Native Ornamental Grass?

If you want attractive ornamental grasses in your garden, there are locally native alternatives to Cenchrus purpurascens, such as river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis), pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). These are all generally native to Northern Virginia, but it’s always best, check the Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora to be sure a plant is locally native to your particular location. 

While I will not go into it here, there are other introduced ornamental grasses such as Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis), which also seed themselves into natural areas and are becoming invasive. There are native alternatives to these as well. Take a look around your garden and see if you find some introduced grasses that you can replace with locally native alternatives. If that involves more work than you are up for, at least cut the seed heads off before they ripen and escape. You would be surprised how far away they can spread to our meadows, woods, and streams.

English Ivy, a Deadly Invasive, is a Winter Target for Removal from Local Parks

Text and photos by Nancy Cleeland

Like rust, English ivy never sleeps. It escapes yards and creeps down embankments and over rocks and up trees all year long. Planted by colonists in the 1700s and still sold in garden centers as a carefree ground cover, this ivy smothers the ground with dense mats and drapes the canopy with heavy, sun-blocking, deadly vegetation.

English ivy (Hedera helix L.) is one of the most destructive invasive plants in our local natural areas, according to the field guide Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas, which describes it as “an aggressive invader that threatens all vegetation levels of forested and open areas, growing along the ground as well as into the forest canopy.” Ivy outcompetes vegetation on the ground and trees for water and nutrients, and when it encircles trees, it holds moisture near the bark, encouraging rot. 

Close up photo of an ivy vine on a tree
Ivy close-up on trees at Spout Run.

According to the guide, “An infested tree will exhibit decline for several to many years before it dies. The added weight of vines also makes trees susceptible to blowing over during storms.” Also of note, English ivy only matures when it climbs, and then it produces berries that birds can carry long distances to infest new areas.

But there is some good news: With steady, determined effort over many years, English ivy can be cleared from invaded areas to the point that occasional sweeps are enough to keep it in check.

English ivy’s year-round growth habit makes it easy to spot in winter, when its waxy green leaves stand out from the brown landscape. Ease of spotting is one reason it is often targeted for removal at this time.

On a brisk morning in mid-February, about 30 volunteers gathered at a parking lot near Spout Run for a foray into National Park Service land along the George Washington Parkway, where the ivy was thick. Amy White, an ARMN member and Weed Warrior volunteer with the National Park Service who organized the event, described our priorities—freeing the ivy-choked trees that were still alive. Loppers and saws were the tools of the day; mere garden clippers were no match for vines at least several inches in diameter. 

Photo showing ivy covering the tops of three trees.
Ivy climbing and choking trees at Spout Run.

In clearing ivy, one must be careful not to pull the entire length of the vine, which can tear off attached bark and harm the tree even more. The recommended technique is to cut roots around the base or cut an ivy-free band around the trunk, as described on this ARMN web page. Unrooted, the vines will eventually die, turn brown, and disintegrate, allowing the tree to breathe again. The cut ivy can be left behind on branches and logs to dry out, as long as it doesn’t touch the ground to resprout.

It’s important to distinguish between destructive English ivy and beneficial native vines such as native wild grapes (Vitis spp.) and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), which should remain untouched in parks and natural areas. 

We spread out, climbed the steep embankments and chose targets from among the many ivy-choked trees. In some cases, the ivy was so thick it resembled a second skin of bark. It can take 15 minutes or more to free a single tree in this state—prying a bit of ivy loose and sawing out a chunk, one at a time. What a great feeling it was to liberate a tree, which seemed to sigh its gratitude. 

We worked silently, focused on the task at hand. After a fast two hours, our scheduled time was up. Reluctantly, we packed up our tools and filed back to the parking lot. So many trees were left behind, but we had certainly made a dent in the problem. According to Amy, by morning’s end our group had “saved” about 300 trees. More events will be scheduled this spring.

In contrast, a few days earlier at Gulf Branch Park in north Arlington, a crew of volunteers fanned out and canvassed the ground for any ivy plant that dared poke above the leaf litter. The trees were gloriously free of choking vines.  Jen Soles, Arlington County’s Natural Resources Specialist, directed our group along both sides of the stream, where we also spotted and removed a few other early blooming invasive ground plants. 

Photo of the forest in Gulf Branch park.
Trees at Gulf Branch free of ivy vines.

Jen had been Park Naturalist at Gulf Branch for 10 years before her promotion, so she knew the terrain well. She recalled arriving at a park draped with choking ivy and chipping away at the problem over a decade. Volunteers from ARMN and other groups helped battle the vine, cutting it off trees and pulling roots out of the ground. It kept coming back. The game changer came when Arlington began using trained contractors to apply selective herbicides to the roots to prevent regrowth, she said. That combination of boots on the ground and expert application of herbicides eventually created the more natural landscape we see today. 

ARMN, National Park Service Weed Warriors, Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria and more local groups clear invasive vines and other destructive non-native plants every weekend. If you’re interested in joining us to liberate a few trees from the deadly choke of ivy, check out ARMN’s Volunteer Opportunities page with a calendar of events.

What is Killing Our Oak Trees and What Can We Do to Help?

By Colleen O’Hara

Oak decline has been a growing concern in our region. In fact, many of us have experienced this outbreak firsthand in our own back yards or neighborhoods. But why are these oak trees dying and what can we do about it?

How do we know that we have a problem with our oak trees? 

The first indication of oak decline is visible in the upper canopy of the tree. Dieback begins from the tips of the branches and progresses inward and downward. Branches can die during the growing season sometimes leaving a canopy of brown leaves, but typically branches will fail to leaf out in the spring, said Patrick O’Brien, an Urban Forester with Fairfax County Urban Forest Management in a recent webinar on oak decline.

Photo showing an oak tree whose branches have no leaves
Oak tree dying. Photo by Joseph O’Brien, US Forest Service,

Eventually, larger branch and limb dieback will occur over several years or even decades. Other symptoms include sparse foliage, and new sprouts along the trunk and limbs called “epicormic sprouts”, O’Brien said. 

The occurrence of oak decline can vary from a few trees in an urban forest to several thousand oaks in large, forested areas. So far, there has been no scientific evidence in Virginia of Sudden Oak Death, which is a water mold pathogen, or of Oak Wilt, which is a fungal disease, he said. 

The next question is: What is killing oak trees?

 “Unfortunately, most of the time there is no clear explanation for why an oak died or what is responsible,” O’Brien said. “Tree death is the result of a combination of interacting stresses over years or decades.”

These stressors involve the interaction of “predisposing,” “inciting,” and “contributing” factors, and these factors can vary considerably from one area to another, he said. 

Predisposing stressors include age, poor soil, and density (tree spacing). Inciting factors include drought, soil compaction, high temperatures, root damage, and defoliating insects. Contributing stressors include armillaria fungal root rot, two-line chestnut borer, and ambrosia beetles. 

O’Brien notes that, generally in Fairfax County, some oaks are more vulnerable to oak decline due to their advanced age and history, which makes them more susceptible to inciting factors and more vulnerable to insects and diseases, he said.  

It’s impossible to know the entire history of a specific tree, or what factors have impacted it over the years, O’Brien said. As oaks age they have less tolerance for events such as land use changes and disturbances, and competition. 

Short-term discreet events add further stresses to oaks and initiate their decline. These include early season damage to foliage caused by a wind storm, insects, or late spring drought and frost.

During drought, defoliation, or injury “a tree must use its stored food reserves to recover,” O’Brien said. Recovery from a prolonged drought is a significant strain on the tree’s carbohydrate reserves, which can affect the tree as many as 10 years after the event. “This could leave them weakened and vulnerable to insect attack.”

As noted above, secondary insects and diseases cause further stress and damage to trees, including armillaria root rot, two-line chestnut borer and ambrosia beetles. 

Normally these insects and diseases are present in the environment and take advantage of stressed trees, but by themselves cannot initiate oak decline, O’Brien said. When contributing factors such as these are present in oak trees, they are considered “the nail in the coffin.”

Fairfax County is in a recovery period from the timber boom of the late 1800s to early 1900s, which means most trees in the forest are around the same age, are getting older, and as they grow larger, compete for resources, said Jim McGlone, Urban Forest Conservationist in the Virginia Department of Forestry. 

These factors along with drought, flooding, and unusually cold weather, cause stress on trees. “As the tree develops more and more stress, they become less able to resist endemic secondary pests and pathogens,” McGlone said during the webinar. 

So, with all of these stressors, what can we do to help our oak trees? 

First, water trees during a drought! Trees in the Mid-Atlantic are adapted to our typical summer weather and water regime, with temperatures between 80 and 92 and around 2 inches of rain per month. Use a soaker hose placed on the ground in a spiral around tree and let it run over night in a slow trickle of water. Use a soil moisture meter to check if the soil is dry 3 inches deep. If it is, then it’s safe to water deeply. Be sure not to overwater, McGlone said. How much is too much? Vincent Verweij, Urban Forest Manager with Arlington County, Virginia, says it is difficult to overwater an established tree unless the soil is already soaked. He recommends watering mature oaks only during dry periods.

Second, get rid of turf, especially under trees. Turf likes warm, dry, bacterially-dominated soils and trees like cool, moist, fungally-dominated soils. “Trees and turf are fighting with each other to create the conditions in the tree’s root zone that the tree likes,” McGlone said. 

There will be five times more tree root mass under mulch than there will be under turf, he said. Turf tends to restrict the infiltration of water and oxygen in the soil below its root zone. Pull the turf back and mulch around the tree with two to three inches of green or brown mulch. Mulch to the property line if possible, but at minimum to the tree’s “drip line,” which generally extends from the trunk to where the tree canopy or branches end. The roots however, extend much further. 

Photo showing the base of a tree with a layer of mulch in a wide circle around the trunk
Well mulched tree. Photo by Jim McGlone, Virginia Department of Forestry.

“Under a good organic mulch you will get cool, moist, fungally-dominated soil, which is what the trees like and what you will find out in the forest,” McGlone said.

One resource is Chip Drop, a service in which arborists and tree companies deliver free wood chip mulch to your house that they can’t use. But beware: they may provide large loads that you will probably need to share with your neighbors! 

When mulching, wood chips are best, and leaf litter is good too. Avoid bark mulch or mulch that creates a barrier on top of the soil and doesn’t allow water or vapor to penetrate. 

Another option is using “green mulch,” which means creating a shade tolerant native plant garden underneath the tree to keep the soil cool and increase water infiltration. This approach has the added benefit of supporting native insects and birds, which are in decline, and sequestering more carbon than turf would, McGlone said. “We have evidence that people planting native plants in their yard help support our bird and insect population,” he said. So, this is a win-win for trees and local birds and insects.

A photo showing a backyard of a house. A tree in the background is surrounded by shrubs and flowers.
Green mulch. Jim McGlone, Virginia Department. of Forestry.

Don’t mound mulch against the trunk of the tree or above the root flare either. This creates a “mulch volcano,” which could eventually kill the tree by making it susceptible to disease and insects.

Photo showing a mound of mulch around the base.
Mulch volcano. Stephen Curry, Lower Merion Twp.,

These tree-friendly approaches may also add some years to the life of an oak that is in decline. In addition, an arborist can help reduce soil compaction, and treat with growth regulator to simulate root growth. 

However, if it’s time to plant a new oak, look for one that is less than 1.5 inches in diameter, create a good size mulch ring that at least extends to the drip line, and if there is enough space, plant it in a group 10 feet apart from other trees. “If the tree is well planted, small and given room, oaks can grow pretty fast,” McGlone said. “It comes down to right tree, right place.”

To view the webinar in its entirety, go to:

Additional links:;;

Harbingers of Spring

by Colleen O’Hara

You could argue that no flowers are more patient than spring ephemerals—waiting all year to pop up for only a week or two when the weather starts to warm. Keep an eye (or an ear) out for spring peepers, wood frogs, and salamanders, too. As the weather warms and the rains fall, they begin to emerge from their winter rest, ready to breed. 

Spring Ephemerals That Will Pop Up Soon

Spring ephemerals blooms brighten brown winter landscapes and fill an important ecological function by providing food sources to the season’s early pollinators.

You may have already seen oddly hooded Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) emerging along creek beds in January. Among the first to emerge, it can produce its own heat and attracts pollinators with its odorous flower. 

Photo of a skunk cabbage
Photo by Colleen O’Hara.

March is the perfect time to get outside and admire other harbingers of spring. Here are some to keep an eye out for:

Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica) will begin to emerge toward the end of March. With blue and purple hued bell-shaped flowers, they are easy to spot in floodplains and slope forests, especially when they grow in masses. 

Photo of bluebell flowers
Bluebells. Photo by Joanne Hutton.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is another March bloomer that grows in rich moist soil. Recognizable by its delicate pink to white flowers, the spring beauty is easy to spot along trails. The flowers close at night and on overcast days to protect the pollen.

Spring beauties. Photo by Toni Genberg.

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullania) begin to bloom in March, too. Their flowers range from white to pink and resemble a pair of pantaloons hanging upside down. Look for them in moist shady areas.

Photo of dutchman's breeches
Dutchman’s breeches. Photo by Toni Genberg.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is another ephemeral that will begin to bloom in March. The white petals of the flower are surrounded by a cluster of yellow stamens. The flower gets its name from the red color of its sap, which can irritate the skin. They like moist shady areas. 

Photo of bloodroot
Bloodroot. Photo by Toni Genberg.

Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is often found alongside bloodroot and begins to bloom in March. It has mottled dark green or brown leaves (said to look like the skin of the brook trout) punctuated with small yellow flowers.  

Photo of a Trout Lily
Trout lily. Photo by Steve Katovich,

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is also an ephemeral but blooms a bit longer—from March to May. It starts with a white flower, followed by a large, lemon-shaped berry. It can be found in deciduous woods, shaded banks and moist habitats. Box turtles eat the fruit and spread the seed. (The foliage, roots, and unripe fruit are toxic to humans, however.)

Photo of Mayapple
Mayapple. Photo by Steve Katovich,

See: Plant NOVA Natives for more on local ephemerals.

Some reliable viewing spots for these and other ephemerals include:

To really get into the “weeds” of ephemerals, you can take a guided walk with a park naturalist at Windy Run.

Chorus of Frogs and Other Amphibians to Watch for Very Soon

Spring ephemerals aren’t the only things coming to life early. Local amphibians emerge during late February and early March. 

You might hear the distinctive chorus of spring peepers  (Pseudacris crucifer) in the evening. At only about 1.5 inches, these frogs are small, but their high-pitched “peeps” can carry quite a distance. (It’s actually the male peepers you hear, calling to find a mate.) Spring peepers overwinter under leaf litter, and emerge in the spring to breed and lay their eggs in vernal pools. One way to recognize a spring peeper is by the X pattern on its back. 

Photo of a spring peeper
Spring peeper. Photo by Linda Shapiro.

Even before the spring peepers, you’ll likely hear the chorus of “quacking” of male wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus), as they emerge to begin the breeding season. Wood frogs are about 2 to 3 inches in size and are very tolerant of the cold. In fact, they can tolerate having their bodies frozen during the cold winter months. The females, which are larger than the males in order to carry thousands of eggs, will lay their eggs in vernal pools. To identify a wood frog, look for a dark “bandit mask” around the eyes.

Photo of a wood frog
Wood frog. Photo by Linda Shapiro.

About the same time as spring peepers and wood frogs, you may also see spotted salamanders

(Ambystoma maculatum). These amphibians are recognizable by two rows of light yellow spots that run from their head to their tail. At around 7 to 10 inches long, they are our largest local salamanders. Your best chance of seeing them is during March when they make their way to vernal pools to breed. Most of the year they stay hidden beneath logs, rocks or burrows. 

For more on spotted salamanders visit

Photo of a spotted salamander
Spotted salamander. Photo by Linda Shapiro.

These amphibians would not be able to breed without the appearance of spring vernal pools, which are temporary ponds or wetlands that can dry up in the summer. They are relatively safe spots for frogs and other amphibians to lay their eggs. With very few predators, these shallow pools provide the right environment for these creatures to emerge and complete their lifecycles. They are also near woodland to provide food and shelter for the adults. Both Long Branch Nature Center and Gulf Branch Nature Center have vernal pools, so be sure to plan a visit. Dora Kelley Nature Park in Alexandria also has a marsh that is visited by all these amphibians during March.

See Capital Naturalist for more information on vernal pools. 

And get out there to see these wonderful Harbingers of Spring for yourself!

Lacey Woods Park Grape Vine Discovery!

Text, photo, and video by Nora Palmatier

In late January, ten volunteers met at Lacey Woods Park in Arlington to remove English ivy and porcelain berry vines from the edge of the managed area next to the forest. This is an area we’ve long neglected in favor of the natural area in middle of park. On this day, we removed vines covering a grove where there used to be houses with non-native azaleas, saucer magnolias, and rhododendrons. Then we noticed a 6″ DBH (diameter at breast height) “tree trunk” bent over, which after following its path through the rhoddies, realized it was a native grape vine—a rarity in Lacey Woods Park. We’ve only found one other back in the park’s thickest section of greenbrier (Smilax roundifolia). The photo below doesn’t do it justice, but the yellow line shows the vine’s path as it winds thru the rhoddies, over a holly tree (Ilex opaca), and up the limbs of the Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Given that woolly adelgid have decimated so many hemlocks, finding one showing no damage from this insect was a find in and of itself! (And the red line was a first attempt that refused to be deleted.) 

Here also is a video of the vine:!AvAGQhg3_2eBgd0rPrnr_ZxgWapepw?e=830q4Q. But even that doesn’t show its 60-foot length. 

I returned the next day and discovered there is an auxiliary branch of the vine roaming over a stump that appears to have had grapes this year. Definitely, this will be explored during the summer when I hope to taste a native grape before they’re all gone to the birds.

I also posted news of the grape vine’s discovery on the ARMN and Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria listservs and received the following comments:

  1. Reminder to NEVER cut a vine until you have a positive ID that it’s an invasive and not a valued rarely seen native. We can always return and remove an invasive, but we can’t glue a cut vine back together.
  2. Those wanting native vines in their own yards need to research the growth patterns and best locations. As Plant NOVA Natives states, “Right Plant, Right Place.”
  3. Total Awe that such a treasure was only now discovered when so many of us have traipsed Lacey Woods Park the past decade for bird watching, tree walks, and invasive removal workdays.

A grape reminder that natural treasures exist even in the managed landscape. (Pun intended.) If you come to our next workday on Feb. 18, 2-4 pm, we’ll be happy to show you. Sign up at Bring your binoculars and we can argue about where exactly the vine ends….

For additional information on wild grapes, check out Alonso Abugattas’s blog piece:; see also the National Capital Region

Nature Two Ways at Green Spring Gardens: A Wildlife Hike, and “Birds, Blooms, and Beasts” Photography Exhibit 

By Elaine Kolish

Although the weather on January 8, 2023 was chilly and overcast, the mood of the 15 or so ARMN members who turned out for the back-to-back events at Green Spring Gardens (GSG) was warm and sunny. Organized by Cynthia Ferentinos, the afternoon began with an hour-long hike, followed by a 30-minute viewing of Barbara J. Saffir’s extraordinary wildlife photos that are on display as part of a group photography exhibit in GSG’s Horticultural Center through February 5. Barbara created the “Birds, Blooms, & Beasts” exhibit to showcase her images and those of the seven members of her Nature Photography DC/MD/VA meetup group.

A volunteer stands before a group of people amongst garden beds.
Ginny McNair explains that these beds are maintained by the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. The chapter holds a plant sale from April to October in beds behind the GSG horticulture center on the first Wednesday of each month. Photo by Elaine Kolish.

While birds and wildlife were the focus of the hike, the leaders, Ginny McNair and Carol Mullen, and participants stopped to identify and admire native plants and trees along GSG’s native trail and to discuss the advantages of keeping leaves in garden beds and retaining native pithy stems from spent perennial plants for insects as places to overwinter and lay their eggs. 

The group also worked on winter tree identification techniques (e.g., alternate vs. opposite leaves/buds; bark characteristics). The birding was successful with about a dozen species identified either by sight or ear, including Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, and Black Vultures. All the species were entered into the eBird app. and the complete list is at:

Photo of an Indigo Bunting amongst sunflowers.
Publicity Photo of Indigo Bunting on a sunflower for the GSG Photography Exhibit, “Birds, Blooms and Beasts.” Photo by Barbara Saffir and used with permission.

The participants cheerfully moved onto activity two, appreciating the warmth of the indoors and viewing and hearing about Barbara’s photographs. Barbara likes to take photos in our locale to show people what can be found in their own backyards. In her outings she also learns interesting facts about bird song, noting that flocks of Indigo Buntings just a few hundred feet apart sing different songs and that baby birds learn their songs from male birds, but not necessarily their own fathers. 

Treat yourself and head over to GSG to see this amazing exhibit before it ends on February 5 and while you are there, enjoy the grounds and the gardens.

About the Event Leaders

Ginny McNair.  A long-time Master Naturalist with ARMN who has also led ARMN’s training for new members in the past, Ginny is warm, patient, and extremely knowledgeable. In short, a great hike leader. (Unfortunately, she was not available for an interview.)

Carol Mullen. Carol has been observing flora and fauna since her 20s when she worked in many National Parks, first for the concessions and later as a National Park Service Ranger. She was also a trailing spouse for 20 years abroad and got to know the local flora and fauna everywhere they lived. When she returned to the states, becoming a Master Naturalist fit her interests perfectly and provided an opportunity to fulfill her goals of meeting people and contributing to her community. 

Since becoming a Master Naturalist in 2017, she has worked on a variety of ARMN projects including stream monitoring and birding. A devoted at-least-once-a-week birder, she loves entering her observations in eBird. She has also participated in the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge for the past six years and loves taking as many pictures as possible to submit to the iNaturalist app.  

Barbara J. Saffir. Barbara is a new addition to the ARMN family but is not a new Virginia Master Naturalist. She recently transferred from the Fairfax chapter in anticipation of moving into the Arlington area. A former journalist and political researcher on the national staff of the Washington Post, she now spends much of her time helping others enjoy and photograph nature. Barbara loves photographing local birds and critters to show people what can be found in their own backyards. She and the current army of digital wildlife photographers sometimes capture behaviors that are unknown, little known, or previously undocumented by ornithologists and wildlife biologists. For example, she wrote a scientific article for the Virginia Herpetological Society when she documented spotted turtles in Prince William County for the first time while leading a hike. In 2022, she documented Northern Cardinals nectaring on cherry trees. In 2020, she documented both male and female mallards gobbling down big leopard frogs. Barbara leads photo safaris in the metropolitan DC area as well as hikes that cover a wide array of topics (natural history, American history, citizen science and fitness). She regularly delivers presentations to groups like the Harvard Club of DC, libraries, camera clubs, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and of course, ARMN members. Barbara has already published one blog since joining ARMN that encourages us all to get outside “to discover winter’s wonders.”   

You can see 11 more of her photos at a solo exhibit at Brookside Nature Center (Birds & Beasts @ Brookside) until April 30 and later in the year at the renowned Patuxent Research Refuge as she has been granted a solo exhibit there in June 2023. You can also visit her site,

Martin Luther King, Jr., Weekend – Nature Volunteering Events

Come volunteer to help heal the environment on Martin Luther King, Jr., National Day of Service Weekend, Jan 14-16, 2023!  You’re invited to join Arlington Regional Master Naturalist (ARMN) Park Stewards to remove non-native invasive plants and help restore the natural ecosystem, while enjoying time outdoors with community members in our area’s beautiful parks. Wear gloves, sturdy shoes, long pants, and bring a water bottle. Bring tools if you have them; extras will be provided. All ages are welcome. Children must be supervised at all times by a parent or guardian.

SATURDAY, January 14, 2023

Gulf Branch Nature Center & Park

Saturday, January 14, 9:30 – 11:30am

3608 Military Rd, Arlington, VA
Contact: Jennifer Soles, 703-228-3403,

Sign up:

Theodore Roosevelt Island

Saturday, January 14, 10:00am – 12:00pm

Theodore Roosevelt Island, Washington, DC

Meet at the stone wall on the parking lot side of the footbridge.  Parking is tight at TRI, so consider biking or walking across the footbridge from Rosslyn.

Sign up:

SUNDAY, January 15, 2023

Long Branch at Glencarlyn Park

Sunday, January 15, 2:00 – 4:00pm

625 S Carlin Springs Rd, Arlington, VA 

Contact: Steve Young, 703-966-2966,
Meet in Long Branch Nature Center parking lot.

Sign up:

MONDAY, January 16, 2023

Doctor’s Run Park – Trash Pickup

Monday, January 16 – 1:00-3:00pm. 

1301 South George Mason Drive, Arlington, VA 

For details, contact Carolyn L at:

Sign up:

For future events, please check the ARMN Volunteer to Restore Native Habitat page.

Thank You!