An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

April 27, 2013

Hoffler Creek

     As I mentioned a few posts back, I am participating in the Virginia Master Naturalist training program, which includes classroom time, but also includes field trips.  One of these was a trip to Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve in Portsmouth, Va. This place was once a waterfront farm owned by the Ballard family. Since the mid 1800's the family made a comfortable life for themselves raising fruits and vegetables to send north by steamer to hungry cities further up the Eastern Seaboard.  This was long before the days of tomatoes from Florida, grapes from Chile or lettuce from California, and when those realities came into being, the family sold the land to the Virginia Dept. of Transportation.  Good topsoil was pushed aside so the clean sand underneath could be mined to use in building local highways, creating a deep pit in the process that soon filled with water. Once the highways were finished, VDOT put the property up for sale, and several developers salivated over its prime waterfront location, but a group of local residents thought of something better. VDOT offered the property to the city of Portsmouth for $1, but the city refused. Of all the cities that make up Hampton Roads, Portsmouth is the poorest, and much of the land within its boundaries is federally owned and generates no tax revenue. So they were not warm to idea of yet another unproductive parcel.  But never underestimate the power of a small group of determined citizens.

Leaning Loblolly

On the Trail

Hoffler Creek

     Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve is about 140 acres of forest and tidal marsh centered on Lake Ballard.  There are miles of trails through several different habitats; a couple of blinds where close to 200 different bird species can be seen; there is a visitor center and a kayak dock. This is so much better than yet another vinyl-clad village.

Cercis canadensis (Eastern Redbud)
Cercis canadensis

Gelsemium sempervirens (Carolina Jessamine) 
Gelsemium sempervirens

Hoffler Creek (2)

Living Shoreline

On they day we were there oaks unfolded for the season.
Oak Unfolding Over Water

Oak Unfolding Over Water 2

Aesculus pavia (Red Buckeye)
  Aesculus pavia

     The old Ballard mansion is no longer there, but many of the family's plants are still around, and while some have lived a life of good behavior, others have taken far to well to their Virginia home.  Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinensis), Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), English ivy (Hedera helix) and Vinca minor are all doing their best to choke out Hoffler Creek's natives.

Camellia japonica
Homeplace Camellia

Hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish Bluebells)
Hyacinthoides hispanica

Lunaria annua (Money Plant) is listed as naturalized, or invasive depending on what you source you read.
 Lunaria annua (my best guess)

Oxalis crassipes (Pink Wood Sorrel)
Oxalis crassipes

Wisteria (8)

Even given its invasiveness and python-like grip, there is no denying wisteria's beauty.

Wisteria (9)

Wisteria (4)

     When the Ballard family left Hoffler Creek, the marked graves of their ancestors were moved to a nearby church, but the unmarked graves of their slaves remain. The site of the old cemetery is covered in Vinca minor, a plant long associated with graveyards. Our tour leader said that vinca was thought to help keep the world of the living and the dead separate from each other.
  Vinca minor (3)

Vinca minor

     I say this with no basis in fact, but I feel that Portsmouth probably has the area's most disconnected-from-nature population, particularly its children.  So Hoffler Creek and its extensive education and outreach programs are an essential city service.  Quite the bargain for a buck!

(You can see the complete set of my Hoffler Creek photos here.)


  1. What an interestig and beautiful field trip! It's fortunate that this plce is being preserved.

  2. I am glad those citizens were able to organize and create the nature preserve. The land may have been only a buck, but the trail creation, kayak dock and visitor's center weren't that cheap, I am sure.

  3. I love stories of people power and this area is so beautiful. I'm glad they were successful in preserving it for enjoyment and education in common. Lovely photos, as always!
    As to the Vinca - one of my yearly battles here. I look forward to the day when I can't find any to pull up. Looking on the bright side, however, according to the tour guide at least I won't have zombies!

  4. I like this story, it has such a happy ending. The more natural areas can be saved from sprawl, the better. Of course, as you point out this area is less than completely natural. Even so, it is a wonderful resource. A lovely setting, though, even with the invasives.

  5. Even in my northern VA suburb, it seems like the only time my students spend in nature is during organized sports. They don't know what to do with free time, except use electronics, and can't handle the sun after 10 minutes of being outside. Pathetic!
    I also took naturalist courses and really learned a lot. It's a wonderful program. :o)

  6. Oh it is so lovely and lush, but I could not imagine going for a hike without my dogs.

  7. This is very much like a field trip I just experienced today in Milwaukee. Jason at gardeninacity sent me over here to check out your post. I'm glad you're enjoying the MN training. I just started it here in Wisconsin, too.

  8. I never heard of this spot. What a great place to experience nature, invasives and everything. So, vinca helps separate the living from the dead? Interesting.

  9. What a special place, power to the people!

  10. What a wonderful story full of gorgeous pics. I love training for places like these. I had training at the Tucson Botanical Gardens 3 years ago and it was some of the best fun I had in a long I learned a great deal. Have fun!! I'm from Wisconsin originally and have gone to Minnesota many many times. But now that I bird......well all of these areas are brand new to me. I imagine all the incredible birds hiding in those trees along the trails:)

  11. Good luck in your program. You are in such a beautiful place. The wildflowers are lovely as is the scenery.

  12. The stories behind your photos are intriguing. Hard to believe anyone would pass on such a beautiful spot on earth for a mere Buck!

  13. What a gorgeous place and a heartening story of its protection. You'll make a fine guide.

  14. Preservation of open space is so important in urban and even suburban areas. Great to see people stepping up. Love your pictures and historical tidbits. Think I'll run home tonight and start eradicating vinca though :).

    Oh, and thanks for the note cards. They are lovely. Been meaning to drop you a line but garden season seems to have consumed me.

  15. SO important to have spaces like that and even more important to have people to show the way back to nature!