Dyke Marsh Is Ablaze in Color
Fall walk delights as Hurricane Sandy made its way north.
As Hurricane Sandy churned up the East Coast Saturday, meteorologist Barry Sperling spotted a sunbow, a rainbow-like circle shimmering around the sun.
“It’s a sign that it will rain within 12 hours,” he told the group on a fall colors walk in the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. “Also called a ‘halo,’ the sunbow is the refraction of light through a cirrostratus cloud."
Pat Salamone, a Friends of Dyke Marsh (FODM) board member, led 15 people on a two-hour morning foray along the Haul Road, the main pedestrian trail in the preserve, and pointed out the brilliant colors bursting out all around and varied tones of vegetation heading into winter’s quiescence.
The star-shaped yellow leaves of the sweetgum tree and the orangey leaves of the sassafras quivered in the gentle breeze.
The yellow, orange and red leaves of the poison ivy vine dotted the woodland. “Poison ivy has a lot of virtues,” Salamone stressed. “The berries are high in fat and great food for birds.”
The dangling purple clusters of pokeweed berries are also favorite bird snacks, she told the group, highlighting the arching magenta stems of the plant. Salamone described the garnet-colored Virginia creeper vines as “tree jewelry because of the way the vines drape around.” The Virginia creeper is on Virginia’s state seal, she noted.
Spicebush swallowtail larvae like the spicebush, past FODM president Ed Eder remarked, pointing to the plant’s banana yellow leaves.
Salamone and Eder bemoaned the pervasive, non-native plants along the trail. The fall seedheads of the autumn clematis look like a “bad hair day,” Salamone quipped, and the invasive porcelain berry “takes over,” she explained, pointing to a tangle of vines smothering the landscape. English ivy carpeting the ground and snaking up trees is especially challenging. Salamone explained that this ubiquitous vine can “go arborescent” as it reaches for the sun and then bear flowers and fruits that are spread by birds.
Wetland plants like pickerelweed and spatterdock were receding into the soil for the winter.
“They’re going into the primeval ooze,” Dorothy McManus commented, as all eyes zeroed in on the pudding-like black muck of the tidal wetland.
Narrow-leaved cattails, crowded in broad thickets, were dispersing seeds. This plant is the “signature plant” of Dyke Marsh, Salamone offered. One fuzzy, hotdog-like flower can send out 250,000 seeds in the fall, she said.
Salamone suggested that people leave tree snags instead of completely cutting down dead trees, showing the participants a 15-foot snag pocked with multiple cavities carved by birds, likely woodpeckers.
“The snags provide habitat,” Salamone said. “Insects love them.”
Counting five or six holes near the top, “It’s a condo,” McManus added.
Several plants are sources of beverages, said Salamone. The sassafras is used as root beer flavoring and the berries of the staghorn sumac can be a lemonade ingredient. Another plant is not so human friendly. Eder targeted in on the water hemlock or cowbane and called it “the most poisonous plant in the U.S.” Cows can die from eating it, but on the plus side, it is the host plant for black swallowtail butterflies which ingest protective toxins when they eat the leaves, making the adult butterflies unpalatable to their predators.
As a bald eagle swooped over the boardwalk at the walk’s end, Salamone summed up the morning’s adventure: “The best part of all is we
can see wetland plants without getting our feet wet.”
The Friends of Dyke Marsh have teams that work to control invasive plants in Dyke Marsh. If you would like to help, email Ned Stone at firstname.lastname@example.org.