Ralph White: Meadows ‘rare natural areas in urban settings’

Loni Eddy and her children Noah and Grace plant wildflower seeds at Reedy CreekA dozen volunteers from HandsOn Greater Richmond did something Saturday that might help bring more butterflies to the James River Park — they planted wildflowers in two meadows at Reedy Creek near the visitor center and along Riverside Drive.

“Meadows are the most rare natural areas in urban settings,” said park manager and naturalist Ralph White. “We have tall trees — some even quite old — we have shrubs, and grassland and brooks and ponds and rivers. But tall grasses and wild flowers are often associated with vacant building lots, abandoned home sites and backyards.”

Joel Eddy and his son Noah cut English ivy at Reedy CreekPark trails manager Nathan Burrell worked with the volunteers, who also spent plenty of time doing the thankless and never-ending task of cutting invasive English ivy. But the romantic allure to the morning’s work was the wildflowers. The spaces had already been mowed and tilled, leaving volunteers with the fun tasks of spreading the seeds and hay over top. The meadows will help encourage more diversity of species at the river.

“There are landscape ordinances that govern the height of mowed vegetation so that undesirable plants and animals will not prosper near people’s houses,” he continued. “The trouble is, these pieces of fallow land and scruffy vegetation house the bulk of birds, butterflies and beetles that are the most easily viewed parts of nature and which comprise the base of the food chain.  Eliminate this environmental niche and you reduce the species variety in the city by three-quarters or more.”

HandsOn Greater Richmond volunteers at Reedy Creek“That’s where natural area parks come in.   The key to making a meadow — with planted wildflowers — or an abandoned field — with native and invasive weeds –work is to have foot paths through them and clearly defined border around them,” White said.  “And to mow them periodically — sometimes once a year, sometimes twice, occasionally every other year — so that there will be a natural variation is plants…and the associated insects, birds, and mammals.”
In the first year after a field is plowed, the plants that come up will be annuals, White said. In the second and third years they will be perennials.  “If left alone, they will be overgrown by woody perennials and will gradually morph into shrubs and then trees.  Meadows are always a temporary phenomenon here in the East,” he said. 
Mitchell Riggan helped plant wildflowers in a meadow beside Riverside Drive“They were maintained, in the past, by Native Americans who set the woods on fire every year,” he said.  “More modern meadows are usually fallow farmland, temporarily abandoned fields or grazing land or they are old industrial lots or even the edges of sometimes maintained land like the edges of old cemeteries.  The other place is in natural area parks, like the James River Park.”
White said that in early summer at the Reedy Creek meadow, look for these treats from Mother Nature:
  • Egg masses of preying mantises (they look like cylinders of styrofoam)
  • Spittle bugs (look like wads of spit)
  • On yellow flowers, look for yellow crab spiders. 
  • Butterflies: In the mid-summer, various types will be flying around. Viceroy, Red Admirals, little Blues,  and especially the big Tiger Swallowtails.  
  • Various fireflies in June and July.
  • Dragon flies patrol the area for mosquitoes. 
  • In the late Fall and winter, there lots of seed-eating sparrows… and nearby, attentive hawks. 
“The energy of the sun comes down to the tops of the flowers right at waist or shoulder height,” White said. “All the actions of nature take place at kid-eye height.  There is no better place to see real-life action in nature.”

One response to “Ralph White: Meadows ‘rare natural areas in urban settings’

  1. Pingback: Talking Meadows with White ‹ Hills and Heights

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