Marine Corps Base Quantico -- Spring green and sky blue were the colors of the day at the annual Bluebell Festival at Merrimac Farm Wildlife Management Area in Prince William County Apr. 17.
The wetlands surrounding Cedar Run Creek on the farm’s 300-acre property are home to the largest concentration of Virginia Bluebells in the Northern Virginia region. Each April, the native wildflower covers the brown-and-gray early spring floodplain with a carpet of fresh blue and has been celebrated with a festival every year since 2008.
Marine Corps Base Quantico partnered with the Prince William Conservation Alliance (PWCA) to purchase the farm, which borders the base, as part of the Readiness and Environmental Program Integration (REPI). REPI’s goal is to create buffer zones around military installations to prevent encroachment by development and to ensure that the installations do not become the final habitats for endangered plants and animals. It is now a permanently conserved natural area, with trails for exploring the forest, meadow and wetlands.
Visitors to the 2016 festival had the option of going on guided tours through the floodplain or exploring the bluebells on their own. The tours were led by naturalists, arborists, gardeners and bird-watchers and each focused on a different aspect of the farm’s ecosystem.
Charles Smith, a naturalist with the PWCA and the Prince William Wildflower Society, led a tour pointing out the native plants of the area and their role in the wetlands environment. He talked about how native species have evolved to live with the local climate, soil type, and animal population.
He pointed out a flowering blackhaw viburnum, a shrub native to the area which provides food for caterpillars of all kinds.
“When you plant non-native species, there’s nothing for native insects to eat,” he explained, pointing out a flowering blackhaw viburnum shrub “And so many animals depend on insects for food, so removing the insects destroys the ecosystem.”
A bird song made up of a few clear tweets followed by a longer trill sounded and Smith told the group it was a Field Sparrow’s breeding call. He also noticed a Prairie Warbler’s buzzing call.
“Some of you may have pulled this out of your garden,” he said, holding up a scraggly bright green weed with a sticky texture. “This is sometimes called ‘bedstraw,’ because people used to use it to stuff their pillows and mattresses with, since it sticks together.”
Smith identified another common weed, Garlic Mustard, which he said was introduced from Europe as a food plant — the leaves are edible and taste like garlic — but is now considered invasive.
More wildflowers became visible as the group entered the wooded wetlands. Smith pointed out claytonia virginica, or Virginia Springbeauty, a tiny white and pink flower named for colonial botanist John Clayton, and small Azure Bluets.
“These flowers look pretty but they look the way they do to attract insects, not us,” Smith said.
Arriving at the banks of Cedar Run Creek, the group saw the carpet of Bluebells spreading out across the forest floor. Visitors were welcome to meander through the flowers and photograph them up close, accompanied by the music of songbirds, the buzzing of lazy bumblebees, and the sunlight sparkling through the trees.
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