Prickly Pear Cactus and Other Reds: Asheville Botanical Garden

Several weeks in a row I’ve had the pleasure of strolling the grounds of the Asheville Botanical Garden. It’s a place that soothes the spirit and, at the same time, awakens all the senses. If you love nature and native plants, it’s impossible to walk the paths without being sidetracked: a terrarium-size cluster of tiny wildflowers, a wide swath of ferns, a hawk landing at the top of a stately old sycamore.

This year I missed the spectacular show of early spring bloomers like Sweet Betsy  (Trillium cuneatum). But, now — several months later — there is still plenty to admire.

I was drawn to the beauty and intricacies of many plants and habitats, but for some reason everything of red hue jumped out me. It began with the striking display of Eastern prickly pear cactus at the Peyton rock outcrop.

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Opuntia humifusa – yellow flowers and red fruits

Often, folks are surprised that there is a cactus native to the southeast, expecting it only in the midwest or other, more arid parts of the U.S. But prickly pear cactus survives on rocky, well-drained areas in the mountains. The red, pear-shaped fruits, often called “tunas,” can be peeled and eaten. This plant can quickly take over space in a garden, if sited in the right environment. Maybe you like the looks of it in the landscape, or maybe you find it slightly jarring to the eye. I thought the display at BGA was striking and pleasing in its rocky setting.

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Silene virginica, Firepink, is an adaptive native wildflower that just glowed along the path by Reed Creek. Firepink doesn’t seem to colonize readily — at least I haven’t seen large groupings of it– but one or two is enough to catch the eye. These plants grow in both moist and dry habitats and the long tubular flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds. According to Tim Spira in his book Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont, bees sometimes bore into the bottom of the long flower tubes to rob nectar.

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Heuchera or alumroot provides a beautiful contrast to stone and the silvery greys of lichen. It’s a tough, adaptable plant. I’ve seen it growing in the crevices of dry rock outcrops as well as on high-humidity river banks.

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Spigelia marilandica or Indian Pink is one of the most beautiful Appalachian natives. It attracts hummingbirds (and stops meandering bloggers in their tracks). There was a grouping of these near the BGA gift shop — quite lovely. Spigelias grow in woodland environments and spread by underground rhizomes.

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I could not stop looking at this exotic-looking little vignette. The red bug stayed at this spot a long time. And, reluctant to leave, so did I.

Frog Footprints (Or Not)

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A spot by any other name …

Galls and other leaf oddities have intrigued me lately. On an early evening walk with my mother a few weeks ago, I picked a bright-colored leaf from the lower limb of a nearby oak tree. I wondered out loud about the light green spots on the surface.  My brother’s sweet and observant four-year-old grandson, who had just presented me with some tiny yellow, roadside flowers, said, “I’m pretty sure it’s frog footprints.”

Those of us in the grown-up world might think those spots are actually a kind of leaf blister called Taphrina caerulescens. But, for now, we’ll keep that information to ourselves.

For a four-year-old, there’s plenty of time to learn about botany and plant diseases and factual reasons for green spots. Frogs and their footprints are the reality for now.

Signs of Summer: The Farmers’ Market

Farmers Market near UNC-Asheville

Farmers Market near UNC-Asheville

A sweet family. A dog. Colorful Plants. Homegrown (and homemade) food. A beautiful day. What more could you want?

Change Ahead: Wampoldtopia Home and Garden

wambold9 On a garden bloggers tour of Asheville a few years ago, I spent a sensory-rich morning at the home of two artists, Damaris Pierce and Ricki Pierce. Somehow, I never got around to writing much about this intriguing place, named Wampoldtopia after the street that runs by the property. Then, this week-end, I read a recent article about Damaris and Ricki’s plans to give up the house and its lovingly-crafted gardens.  I figured it was time to look back at my photos and re-visit Wampoldtopia. When Ricki came to build a pond at the house in 2002 or so, Damaris lived there alone. It wasn’t long before Ricki moved in. The couple married and undertook one outdoor project after another, turning their hillside site into a fantasy of whimsical art, stonework, gardens, and pathways. wambold1 One look at the hillside and you can see why neighbors and passers-by have been curious about the fairyland web of artwork and plants. For the past few years, the couple has opened the gardens for special tours and visits by community groups. Still, they’ve tried to retain some privacy — not always easy with such enticing visions within the boundaries of fences and walls. wampold2 Damaris’s art and Rick’s stonework blend seamlessly throughout the outdoor space. With every step, there’s a treasure to see — each tangible evidence of a whole lot of talent and just plain hard work. wampold7 For years, Rick brought home some of his leftovers from stonework commissions. Always another project…. wambold8 Most of the bricks in this pathway were salvaged from road demolition projects, then placed, one by one, to create textural interest and access alongside the house. wampold10 Some people have an angel sculpture and some people have one enfolded by a lovely stone surround. wampold3 There was a bench near this straight little shallow stream, or rill, as the English might say. Despite quite a few gardeners milling about the hillside, you could still hear the soft trickling of water and the chatter of birds looking down at all the crazy humans ooh-ing and ah-ing over every little botanical/creative treasure! wampold5 Would you think this is a fairy house or a full-size shed? Actually, it’s about the size of a dog house. Very charming and unexpected as you walk along one of the paths criss-crossing the hillside. wampold9 The owners found this innovative way to disguise a chain link fence on the back of their property. The arches are made of cement and stucco, I believe, and the petals of mesh with some type of material on the surface. To me, it’s always sad to leave a garden, especially one that represents as much planning, labor, creativity and love as this one. Will the new owners take care of the garden? Will they keep things the way they are, maybe overlaying their own touches onto the space, or will they change much of it? Either way,  I wish Demarius and Ricki the best as they explore new and separate paths. I also thank them for that fine spring morning I spent at Wampoldtopia.

Winter Walk: Charleston’s Leafy Appeal

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Outstanding architecture, restaurants, gardens, and a rich cultural history — Charleston offers it all in abundance. On the rare occasions we get to visit there, we head downtown, park the car, and walk the Battery and side streets until feet and backs say “no more”.

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Even on a cold, winter day, Charleston is a feast for the senses. Always tuned into plants and gardens, I gravitate toward the private courtyard spaces, peeking through delicately-filigreed gates and fences wherever I can.

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I’m fascinated by the toughness of street trees, crammed within sidewalks into tiny rectangles of soil. Crape myrtles are prevalent here, but there are plenty of live oaks, as well. They’ve all survived decades of car emissions, extremes in weather, and foot traffic across their roots.

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It’s hard to imagine a tree with more site adaptability than these tree-form crape myrtles. Many of the ones downtown appear to be ‘Natchez’, an excellent cross of two species that was developed by the U.S. Arboretum. ‘Natchez’ is more mildew-resistant and cold hardy than most older, shrub-form varieties. Fortunately, those in charge of downtown pruning have rejected the increasingly-common practice of topping crape myrtles and turning them into summer-blooming lollipops.

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Of course, there’s always an exception.

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The cemeteries of Charleston are rich in plant variety and texture. Camellias (C. sasanqua, most likely) were in bloom a few weeks ago, but may now have succumbed to the ice and record low temperatures of the past few days.  It felt a little intrusive to walk the paths threading between weather-worn tombstones of people who died so many years — even centuries — ago.

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Palmettos (Sabal palmetto) are an iconic tree in Charleston and the state tree of South Carolina.The fronds are used by local crafters to make baskets and “rose” bouquets. At this park beside the Cooper River, palmettos form a backdrop to a sign that amuses tourists, advising them there is no lifeguard stationed at the pineapple-topped fountain.

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We saw plenty of evergreen plants, including creeping fig vine (Ficupumila) and Podocarpus, a conifer called yew pine. Here, these plants nearly obscure walls surrounding this secluded entryway and garden.

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Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) is an evergreen shrub that grows in many gardens here. It’s not hardy in my area, so I took time to enjoy the gorgeous white flowers, glowing in front of a richly-patterned, textured wall.

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Live oaks (Quercus virginiana) are a cherished part of the history and charm of Charleston. They, too, seem to thrive in narrow strips of soil along the street. Such a regal,beautiful tree.

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The massive, splendid specimens of southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, look happy and completely at home in the Charleston landscape.

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One courtyard had the native eastern dogwood, Cornus florida . It’s very common in southern Appalachia — not so much in the deep south.

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Many gardens visible from side streets had dwarf boxwood hedges — Buxus x ‘ Suffruticosa’, I would imagine. These boxwoods work well in small gardens where the constraints of straight-lined driveways, iron fences, and houses call for more geometric, formal design. The appearance of perennials and flowering shrubs would enhance these boxwoods come springtime. Yes…. springtime… I think I must (have to) go back and see the transformation!

Winter Light! Charleston, S.C.

Despite appearances/time between posts, I am not snowed in with Gardenopoly at the home place in Asheville. Instead, I’ve been holding off a bit, waiting to write about a recent visit to my favorite southern city, Charleston, South Carolina. With so much of the U.S. immersed in extreme, snowy weather, it just didn’t seem right to ramble on about a wonderful, balmy place in another part of the country.

But now things are thawing in most places, and I figured some posts about the Charleston/Kiawah area would be appropriate — maybe remind us that spring is not so far away.

Soon I’ll write about the gardens and sights of Charleston, but for now I want to show three photos of the glorious landscapes we saw.

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It’s hard to know where to look first: the sky above the Cooper River, the reflections on the water near the pier, the sparkling water in the fountain, or the gradations of light on the stone. All so beautiful at dusk.

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The interplay of light on the sides of old houses, brick-lined driveways, leaves, and tree trunks is striking this time of year. There are so many courtyards like this throughout the historic parts of downtown Charleston — every one is a vignette of its own.

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Yes, a sunset is a sunset and pictures of them abound. This sunset, watched from the Battery, was spectacular, I have to say.

Next time: Roses on the Pier

BGA: Microcosm of Southern Appalachia

Sunday was one of those unrushed, perfect days that began in a setting dear to my heart. It was the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, where garden manager and naturalist Jay Kranyik led a group of outdoorsy-types eager to learn about natural plant communites and ways to model aspects of them in our own gardens and landscapes.

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Carex grayii – Gray’s Sedge

As Jay transitioned our group from sunny, dry (xeric) areas of the garden to more shady, moist (mesic) ones, he pointed out characteristics of each site and discussed design concepts used over time to ensure aesthetic and ecological compatibility in the Garden. When we reached the bog area, he got right out in the middle of it, reminding me of the title of Anne Raver’s book Deep in the Green. He told us about the evolution of this wetland habitat and the natural processes of a bog area. One of his favorite plants — quickly appreciated by our group — is Gray’s sedge, Carex grayii (shown above).

Jay Kranyik - Immersed in his work

Jay Kranyik – Immersed in his work

We left the bog area and crossed a small bridge that leads to the open grassy area where BGA’s spring and fall plant sales are held. We passed an outcrop of large boulders and rock garden specimens, but I got so distracted by the mountain dwarf dandelion that I forgot to get a photo.

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We proceeded down the trail beside Reed Creek and looked at sassafras, American climbing fern, and a variety of other native plants until we reached the sycamore meadow. Here we saw key examples of edge areas, or places where two habitats — usually dry and moist — meet. Outstanding specimens of queen-of-the-prairie, Filipendula rubra, were in bloom and covered with insect pollinators.

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Shortleaf pine – Pinus echinata

We were intrigued by the short-leaf pine, Pinus echinata, that was leaning over the creek. Its striking, plate-like bark stood out among the surrounding textures and shades of green.

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Jay led the group toward the cabin, past an unusual cove-type planting. Some of us were lagging behind, reluctant to leave intriguing plant groupings or microscopic habitats. I’ve been visiting this patch of land since my days as a student at nearby UNC-Asheville. Now, I’m a volunteer at the garden, but still find infinite possibilities for exploration and wonder. With over 600 native plant species and a nearby water source, there is an abundance of bees, butterflies and other insects, not to mention birds, snakes, and larger critters. The garden changes on an hourly basis, it seems.

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We spent a good bit of time near the entrance of the garden, looking at plants that border the parking lot and the nearby street. We heard the rationale and strategies for planting this sunny, normally-dry area. Trees such as sourwood, black gum, and hemlock help buffer traffic noise and visibility and create year-round beauty, plus food and cover for birds.

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Eryngium yuccifolium – rattlesnake master

Rattlesnake master is a showy complement to the little bluestem grass, butterfly milkweed, monarda, and other drought-tolerant plants that edge the gravel parking lot.

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Liatris aspera – Rough Blazing Star

I was quite taken with this blazing star, Liatris aspera. It’s one of those plants that calls one to linger, wondering how such complexity and beauty exist on one plant. No showy blooms yet, no blazing color — just plant perfection.

quiltgdn_mmtnbgalight_mmtnSome people come to BGA looking for lots of blooms and formal beds like the quilt garden at Bilmore Estate. One visitor, surprised by the comparatively wild plantings at the Botanical Garden, announced that the place looked much like what he might see on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Jay replied “Thank you”, for that’s exactly what he and the BGA staff and volunteers are striving for.

BGA is a patchwork of light and shadows, teeming with plant diversity and ever-changing biological processes. It’s a place to return to — again and again — to recharge and get inspiration for your own garden. Our Sunday group would surely agree: Come visit BGA and re-discover Southern Appalachia!

 

 

Birds and Fun and Flora: Ijams Nature Center

With all its wildlife and plant abundance, my own yard feels like a nature sanctuary. It’s always changing, and I just walk outside to get there. But on lush, cool days in May, I’m ready to meet friends and family to experience the outdoors in a different setting. Last week, it was Hatcher Garden in Spartanburg that enticed me; this week,  Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville.

Ijams has changed considerably since  1910, when Harry and Alice Ijams purchased the Center’s original twenty acres for their home place. The couple set out to create a haven for birds and plants, and they just kept on creating and expanding. In the 1960s, the land became a public nature park. Now owned by the City of Knoxville, Ijams is a non-profit park overseen by staff and a board of directors for the purpose of conservation and public education. Over the years, the Center has expanded to 300 acres, including ten miles of walking trails.

Every creature plays a role

Every creature plays a role

One of the first teaching opportunities at Ijams appears on a sign leading to the visitors’ center. The display is about turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and shows that nature is not just about pretty butterflies and songbirds. The cycle of life and death is complex, with each plant and animal playing a part of the process.

Skink sunning outside Ijams Education Center

Skink in the sun

A five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus, sits on top of a carved duck close to the roofline of the visitors’ center.

Nature vignette

Nature vignette

You’ll see a bit of this and that at the nature exhibits inside Ijams. Glad I didn’t see a snake this big outside, although I appreciate its purpose in the scheme of things. The turtle and fish, all slow-motion in the water, were definitely alive.

Ijams gift shop

Ijams gift shop

The gift shop has nature-themed gifts and regional crafts for sale. The shop is a source of revenue for Ijams, plus a dispenser of snacks and souvenirs for little visitors. Okay … for big ones too.

Mourning dove on the nest

Mourning dove on the nest

A mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, kept a sharp eye on visitors below. I wish I’d gotten a sharper photo of this appealing little bird.

We had a private visit with a red screech owl just below the dove’s nest. I’m saving that (longer) story for another day.

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Behind the education building, we saw this very fine specimen of native fringetree, also called old man’s beard. I love this tree, Chionanthus virginicus.

Native honeysuckle

Trumpet honeysuckle

Oh, and how could you not swoon when you see the native Lonicera sempervirens, or trumpet honeysuckle? All kinds of pollinators are attracted to this vine. It’s a little hard to find at nurseries, but don’t give up. There is a yellow version of it — nothing like the invasive Japanese honeysuckle vine that grows throughout the southeast and beyond.

Mead's quarry

Mead’s quarry

This lake (ducks or geese in the distant background) used to be a quarry where marble was extracted for buildings and monuments. We climbed to the top of the steep, stone cliffs, passing a small country graveyard along the way.

Old graveyard

Old graveyard

I’m always moved by graveyards, especially small, remote ones like this that are on the verge of reverting to wild.

Lichen just off the trail

Lichen just off the trail

One of my goals for this year is to learn more about lichens. We saw these just after a pair of indigo buntings landed in a nearby tree. Such beautiful birds. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted both the photos I took of the buntings before they flew away.

Invasive wisteria

Invasive wisteria

Since there are so many positive examples of nature conservation at Ijams, I’m a bit reluctant to mention how disturbing it was to see so many invasive plants growing rampantly  on the property, especially near the quarry. At first I thought this was kudzu, but it was the Japanese import Wisteria floribundans (abundant flora, for sure).

On my own 3/4ths acre lot, we struggle with English ivy and Japanese stilt grass (Microstegia) so I understand the challenge of invasives. Recent rains have only added to the problem. But the level of wisteria, multiflora rose, poison ivy and other invasives at Ijams seems a call for remediation.  Otherwise, the entire property and surrounding countryside will be compromised.

A child who cares

A child who cares

To end on an upbeat note, I’m including a drawing and poem that was displayed near the administrative offices at Ijams. It’s by a third-grader named Ethan.

My brother’s name is Nick

Pollution makes him sick

He doesn’t like pollution

So I came up with a solution.

 

Pollution is everywhere

It scares the bunnies and hares

Trucks and cars pollute the air

Ride your bicycle because you care.

 

Don’t throw trash in the street

Pick it up and be real neat

Don’t dump chemicals in the river

Some day it might harm your liver.

 

So, go, Ethan, third-grade budding naturalist. And go Ijams, until my return another day.

 

Hatcher Garden: A Place for Community

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Hatcher Garden – Open 365 days a year

Chilling out was high on my agenda Wednesday as I drove to meet blogging friends Janet (Queen of Seaford) and Julie (Growing Days) in Spartanburg, South Carolina. We arrived from points north and south to walk through Hatcher Garden and Woodland Preserve, a small community garden not far from downtown.

Hatcher Garden was originally part of the private estate of Josephine and Harold Hatcher, who bought the property in 1969. Over the years, they acquired adjacent lots, gradually expanding the garden haven they created for family, and friends. In 1987 the Hatchers donated the gardens to the Spartanburg County  Foundation, ensuring an ongoing resource for nature lovers and the community. When Mr. Hatcher died in 2003, he left an endowment to provide ongoing funds for the care of the garden.

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The garden varies in topography — just enough to make the landscape interesting and the transitions from light to shade areas appealing.  Usually, rock-lined streams flow through the garden, but the pumps had been turned off following a four-inch rainfall the previous week-end. I do love the sound of water in a garden, but the birds probably missed it as much as I did.

Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum' - Golden Full Moon Maple

Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’ – Golden Full Moon Maple

Hatcher has a nice conifer collection and a varied selection of ornamental trees, ground covers, vines and perennials. We saw lots of yellow and gold-leaved plants. A bit jarring to me, although I did like the yellow full-moon maple, Acer shirasawanum ‘ Aureum’, that we lingered over on our way to  a nearby pond.

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Julie, Growing Days and Janet, Queen of Seaford

We posed in front of old trees and enjoyed the sights of children, turtles, even a small bridal party. Seeing a dawn redwood reminded me that I always forget which tree has opposite leaves or needles — dawn redwood or bald cypress. Janet passed along a tip someone had shared with her: remember Meta/Meet. Meta for Metasequoia and Meet for join together.

I was pleased (Janet too) about a feature article about Julie that appears in this month’s issue of Carolina Gardener. The article, A Garden Full of Heirlooms, is about Julie’s business — growing heirloom and organic plants. It’s a great article, written by Jennifer Horton. Check it out if you can.

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For me, the day at Hatcher was as much about the overall experience as it was about plants. I’ll remember the green, the sound of birds, the subtle changes of light, and the companionship of two new friends. I’ll also remember the sense of history and pride that fairly emanated from the garden’s grounds. It was if The Hatchers were saying” We loved this place and we hope you do too.”

Trails, Trains, and Crawdads

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After a mentally-draining session with blogs and websites, my son and I found reprieve in a late-winter walk along Third Creek greenway in Knoxville. We parked at the Sutherland Avenue entrance and walked down a straight stretch of paving with grass clearings on either side. Groups of fat robins converged at the edge of a thicket of trees and undergrowth. There is good habitat for birds here: cover, water, and (presumably) plenty of food.

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More evidence of birds, in this case woodpeckers. This tree has been foraged repeatedly for grubs and insects.

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We saw bird silhouettes in distant trees, and a grouping of what appeared to be young, native beech trees with their buttery-brown winter foliage.

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The creek meanders alongside the path. The view was pretty from the first vantage point when the sun was out. Unfortunately, the creek had just flooded and there was a good bit of trash and debris on the banks in some areas. The grasses and other plants (too early in the season to know what they were) had been flattened by the rising water.

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The course of the stream was changed to a curving one by a process called stream re-meandering. According to this sign, the stream was dredged and straightened several decades ago because of erosion, sediment, and other problems associated with nearby development.  Some people who grew up in this area say the stream was always straight. I don’t know. Unfortunately, there are still issues with the creek, as this sign will attest:

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We saw a lot of bamboo, privet, and other invasive plants along this section of the greenway. It’s hard to keep invasives under control in areas such as utility right-of-ways, greenways, shoulders of highways, and other disturbed areas. At my own house, the creeks have eroded, and privet has seeded itself — with the help of birds — along the steep banks.

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A happy surprise — which brought back many childhood memories – was the discovery of crawfish holes in the moist areas near the beginning of the trail. According to the sign we saw later, the holes were made by Appalachian brook crayfish (also called crawfish and crawdads). I think these were the very ones that kept making tunnels in the dam of my dad’s pond in North Carolina. He spent many an hour plugging up crawfish holes.

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The trail leads to an area of thick vegetation near a railroad viaduct. The trestle is supported by thick columns, and the creek flows under some of them near the point where the greenway trail splits.

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On the tracks above the greenway, a train was carrying a load of fresh lumber. The late afternoon light was reflected on the concrete below the tracks. I was so absorbed in the sound of the sparkling creek, cascading over the rocks near the viaduct, that I forgot to get pictures of people running, riding bikes, and walking.

This might have been my favorite part of the trail. I love trains — the mystery and romance of them and the evocative sound of their horns from a distance. With the train, added to the winter sunshine and rushing creek, it was one of the best-ever escapes from a computer.