American Horticultural Society’s Meadow Thriving
Meadows are rare in Northern Virginia.
Visitors to the 4-acre André Bleumel meadow at the American Horticultural Society at River Farm can quickly suffer from sensory overload.
In late summer and early fall, busy, buzzing bees are sampling the fragrant mountain mint. Crows are cawing and titmice squeaking as bald eagles and hawks soar overhead. Yellow- and black-striped tiger swallowtail butterflies are nectaring on purple, white and magenta blossoms, as yellow black-eyed Susans burst up through 5-foot-tall grasses and wave their silky, golden “heads.”
Even the black- and gray-speckled indigo seed pods exude beauty as they sway in the breeze. From the mega to the micro, the Bleumel meadow is now reaching its
second flush of color for the year as many plants come into their glory.
The meadow is named for the son of AHS former board Chairman Kurt Bluemel, who donated 100,000 plugs that 100 volunteers planted in phases between 2004 and 2008, transforming a former expanse of grass to an explosion of plants and animal activity.
“Meadows are one of the fastest disappearing habitat types in Northern Virginia,” said Charles Smith, head of the Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch for the Fairfax County Park Authority. “Treeless areas are often converted for active human uses. There is a lack of understanding by the general public of the importance of treeless habitat types that provide critical habitat for many plant species, and the animal species that are associated with and depend upon them."
The Bleumel meadow is a “work in progress,” said AHS spokesman David Ellis. “It is constantly evolving," he said. "It is never done.”
While managers do not have to regularly mow or fertilize, they do have a prescribed burn every two years or so to help control invasive species and reinvigorate the growth of desired plants.
The meadow has attracted a diversity of wildlife, from foxes to rodents to beetles. “It has been a tremendous influence in bringing in birds because of the insects. I have seen as many as 30 different insects on flowers, like wasps, bees and flies,” Ellis said.
Children, especially, like to scamper down the meadow’s meandering paths. “They can almost hide,” Ellis said with a chuckle. “And even if they cannot understand it, it holds more fun than mowed grass.”
Children are more enticed to the meadow than adults, he said. “Some adults think there are bugs down there, that it is messy,” he said.
AHS has no regrets, said Ellis, calling the meadow one of the organization’s most significant accomplishments, “something unique to northern Virginia.”
People who like tidy, manicured gardens could be put off by its wild, undisciplined appearance. “It has a function,” Ellis explained. “It’s a buffer to the river, a good bio-filter. Pollutants are absorbed.”
There’s something to enjoy every season, AHS horticulturalist Sylvia Schmeichel noted. In September, plants like ironweed, Joe Pye weed, asters, helianthus and compass plants will be blooming. The pokeweeds will dangle their deep purple berry clusters, a favorite of birds. As many plants go to seed in the fall, a variety of bird species feed on the seeds. The inflorescences of switchgrass and Indian grass will turn shades of gold, bronze or a rich brown.
“It’s a great model,” Ellis said. “It shows we can do something in a large space that is environmentally sensitive and also beautiful.”
About River Farm and the AHS
River Farm is the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society, 7931 East Boulevard Drive. On the Potomac and in the Mount Vernon area, it is one link in the “ecological necklace” along the river. In the 18th century, the property was the northernmost of George Washington’s five farms.
River Farm is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, excluding national holidays. Through Sept. 25, it is open from 9 a.m. to 1 pm. on Saturdays.
Through Sept. 25, botanical watercolors exhibit, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 pm.
Sept. 22, annual gala, call 703-768-5700, extension 132, for details.