Three Riparian Areas in Spring Part 1

I managed to take advantage of the nice weather the last couple days and go to one of my favorite state parks. While only an hour away and just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Tuckahoe State Park is light years away from the concrete jungle kind of town where I live. In this park, you will not hear many cars. Instead you’ll hear the wind in the trees, the honk of a Canadian goose or the who-cooks-for-you call of the barred owl. You’ll look up to see a bald eagle soaring silently just above the treetops or the streamline form of a great blue heron flapping its enormous wings with incredulous grace. It’s the type of place that if you go on a week day and start walking the trail, after about an hour and only if you let it, sanity will creep back like a gentle breeze.

But now I’m back to the city and can already feel the grit of it grinding me. And so I daydream while walking my garden, searching in vain for that sanity. Something to take me back.

I’ve also been reading a book I got from my library, Peterson Field Guides Eastern Forests. I like this book because instead of just describing plants and animals, it describes how certain plants and animals indicate a natural community. The book doesn’t go into too much detail about soils and climate but enough to indicate they are the foundations of natural communities. Of course since it was written in 1998, there is no talk about climate change or even much about invasive species. It refers to non native plants as “aliens” that while sometimes aggressive are nothing to be too worried about. But that makes it even more interesting and I suppose scary to think how much things have changed in just 20 years. I also like how the book goes into some detail about forest succession and disturbance, two significant occurrences in time that shape forests.

Most of the natural areas near me are riparian areas, the areas that can’t be developed or farmed and so they’ve been allowed to develop into forest communities. I’m going to write a three part series about three of these places starting with Tuckahoe.

Located in the middle of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Tuckahoe is basically a swampy creek at the beginning of Tuckahoe creek that flows into the Choptank River. Choptank people lived there, but as is usual with Native American history, I couldn’t find much about that. The park’s name comes from the arrow arum plant that grows in wetlands and is commonly known as “tuckahoe”. The Native Americans made flour from the roots. As is often the case with waterways, there was a mill but the creek was too swampy to do much else with it. Then, sometime during the 60’s someone had the bright idea to make it into a recreational lake but that idea was soon put to rest as there wasn’t enough water flow to make much more than a murky pond. Then the planners discovered an enormous overcup oak in the swamp which they figured was big enough to be an attraction and worth saving. So the creek remained and a murky pond was made instead. Rumor has it that Harriet Tubman used the swampy creek as a route for taking slaves north and Frederick Douglass was apparently born in a cabin somewhere along the creek.

Flat land and a sandy loam soil form the basis of the farming economy that surrounds the park. In 2015, Caroline County was ranked the top agricultural county in Maryland leading all other counties in barley, wheat and vegetables. Mega chicken farms with sheds long as football fields can raise some 300,000 chickens per farm. Tractors you could drive a car under are computerized and air conditioned.

But the towns are small and sleepy. Everyone knows each other and talks about farming at the local diner. Life comes down to the basics of climate, sun, soil and water.

From reading the forest field guide book, I’m pretty sure Tuckahoe is somewhere between an Oak-Hickory Forest, a Northern Riverine (Floodplain) Forest, a Southern Mixed Pine-Oak Forest and a Southern Mixed Hardwood Forest but it has so many different plants it’s really hard to pin down. The soil on the trail is sandy, moist to wet and most likely acidic but I’m not too sure what the swamp area soil is like. It’s hard to really tell what’s what with these communities but I’m guessing there’s an overlap since Maryland is kind of on the border between the northern region and the south. Regardless, the plant list is long.

Trees range from loblolly pine, sweetgum, black gum, red, black and white oak, red maple, black cherry, hickory, green ash, beech and sycamore. The understory is made up of river birch, ironwood, chestnut, chinkapin, pawpaw, sweetbay magnolia, dogwood, American holly, spicebush, hearts-a-burstin, azalea, mountain laurel, poison ivy and greenbriar. The forest floor is covered with ephemerals such as spring-beauty, mayapple, pine needles and lots of sweet gum husks. There is even a orchid called the crane-fly orchid and a few I wasn’t sure of. And a tiny pine tree called the ground pine that only grows a few inches high. And there’s the mysterious skunk cabbage which is suppose to smell bad and produce heat that can melt the ice around it.

Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata)
Mockernut Hickory (Carya alba)
Loblolly Pine and Mountain Laurel
Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa)
Virginia Bluebells
Crane-fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)
Not sure what this is but you can see how sandy the soil is.
Ground Pine (Lycopodium obscurum)

I was able to identify many of these plants with the help of Adkins Arboretum, a non profit that promotes appreciation and conservation of native plants. With large areas of meadow and well maintained forested trails, it sits on the edge of Tuckahoe park and charges $5 to tour the grounds.

I have to admit the animal life of Tuckahoe seemed sparse when compared to the noisy robins, starlings, blue jays, goldfinches, song sparrows, house finches and the not so noisy but tenacious rabbits and squirrels in my own garden. The creek had large fish that may have been stocked and considering the heavy farming in the area, I know the water is polluted.

Greenbriar patch

But what I did see and hear in Tuckahoe was different. A prairie warbler, a sparrow I’d never seen or a bird I hadn’t heard. This was subtle life, not so used to humans. Bats came out of their holes at dusk and peepers peeped. Butterflies blended with tree bark until they opened their wings revealing a dazzling display of color. Turtles sunning on logs slipped silently into the water. Raccoon footprints, an owl hoot, a scuffling in the leaves. I’m not sure if it was the unseasonably warm weather or the lack of people. Tuckahoe probably isn’t anything special but to me this place, with its quiet beauty and smell of pine mixed with spring farm manure is sanity.

Woodpecker art
Patch of spring beauty (whites are blown out. I think my camera battery was going dead here.)


Water, woods or wetlands? Tuckahoe has a trail for every traveler

Maryland at a Glance