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.

June 29, 2008

First Landing State Park

Yesterday was my son's Cub Scout Troop's first overnight family camping trip. It was held at First Landing State Park where I like to occasionally hike, but I have not camped there since the late 70's when I was with a church youth group. Back then it was known as Seashore State Park, and I must be getting old because I can't help but call it that.

The park is located in Virginia Beach at Cape Henry, where the Atlantic and the Chesapeake get introduced to each other. It is called First Landing to commemorate that fact that the people who founded Jamestown stopped here first after their crossing, before heading inland. It is easy to figure why they kept going when you see the ecology of the place. Our camp site was just beyond the dune system in a scrubby maritime forest. Its forest is made up of wind blown Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana), gnarled Loblolly Pines (Pinus taeda) and Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera).

The only flowers currently in bloom were Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) and Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).

It was a short walk to a wide, unspoiled beach, one of the few left in the city. Most of the area around First Landing has had the Oaks taken down, the dunes flattened and condos raised.

The T-shaped structure in the water is a trap whose design has been used for centuries to capture fish as they migrate up and down the shore.
If you click on this picture you can see a small boat in the foreground that was tending to the traps. The large ships in the background are colliers, and there were 10 of them anchored outside of the harbor waiting to enter. One of our dubious distinctions here is being the largest exporter of coal in the world, and you have always been able to judge the state of the world's energy situation by how many ships are waiting to be loaded. Further in from the coast are the hiking trails. This area was once the shoreline and is unusually hilly for this area. The landscape undulates following the contours of the former dunes that have built up over the past 5000 years. Forests now cover the area and in the swales between the hilltops, water has collected and swamps have formed. There are over 600 plant species in this ecosystem and for many this is their northern most point.

First Landing is the only place in Virginia where Spanish Moss grows, and this is probably why I like to hike there, as it reminds me of the Lowcountry. Spanish Moss is a bromeliad and an epiphyte needing only high moisture and heat to grow. The printed trail guide tells me it was used by native Americans as a diaper and latter on it was used as furniture stuffing.

The trails wind through the forest and goes over elevated boardwalks in the swamp. The main trail is an old country road that takes you directly to the north end of the resort strip. It is often crowded with bikers, walkers and runners. In the swamps the primary tree is the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), and regular readers know I have a thing for the tree. Be thankful I didn't show you all of my Cypress pictures.

This is a fallen Sweetgum (Liquidamber styraciflua) whose trunk runs along the ground for over 50'. At the end of the original trunk, in an act of defiance, is a side branch turned main trunk.
Not all trees have such a will to survive.
This Loblolly was about 5' in diameter at the base.
At the other end of the park there is a very popular boat and kayak launch that gives people access to Broadbay, and there is a safe place for swimming, fishing and crabbing as well.


  1. You son must have loved this trip. What fun, cubs camping with their families.
    An entire exotic flora unknown to me, apart from the eucalyptus. Very interesting. I wonder, could you post a map?

  2. Wonderful narrative--I really enjoyed reading this and learning about the area. And, any time you want to start a bald cypress fan site, let me know.

  3. Joco,
    On my next post, I posted a map - just for you.

    I'll let you now when we start screening prospective members.


  4. What struck me the most was that some plants in this area are at their Northern most zones. It looks more like something off the coast of Georgia than Virginia. I had no idea. The pictures are beautiful in their bald sort of way. The cypress would be a good banner pic for the fall.

  5. Anna,
    This corner of Virginia has more in common with coastal Carolina and Georgia than it does with the rest of the state. We are surrounded by water and that keeps winters milder (and summers less awful) than in the rest of the state.


  6. I have thriving transplanted Spanish moss in my yard in Northampton County, near the Accomack county line. I have it growing on old live oaks and pecans. (I haven't jumped on the palm tree craze in Hampton Roads so this looked like an alternative.)

    I brought it from the state parks on either side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. I had to prove to my neighbor that it wasn't going to spread wild like some foreign plant like kudzu. Spanish moss is known in the area but many folks just assume it's a danger.

    If you are going to grow it I suggest you get it from some place like Virginia Beach where it is more hardy. It isn't just the parks but where else can you fill a few garbage bags up? Well, golf courses but don't let them see you.

    On the Eastern Shore of Virginia I have found Spanish Moss in the isolated ares of state parks, it wasn't plentiful.

    There really should be a place you can order it in bulk though. They have these places with hardy bred palms, why not Spanish Moss?

    I've heard of folks in across the bridge in Virginia Beach as well as the Shore who rip it down whenever they have the chance because of misconceptions and aesthetics.

    I was reading about how Spanish Moss was once an industry here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. People used to sell it to packing companies, use it for furniture filling, for fire and apparently some sort of fertilizer so it may have died off through the years from weather changes or harvesting.

    1. Is your Spanish moss still thriving? I will be driving thru the eastern shore and I would love to see it do well there. I think the state should re-introduce it to areas on the shore since Va Beach has grown up and populations have dwindled there

  7. Hi,
    My name is Sarah and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blog posts about Virginia Beach to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, drop me a line at Sarah(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you :)

  8. Really enjoyed the photographs and narrative but like Todd Wudder alluded I wanted to chime in on your suggestion that First Landing is the only place in Virginia that Spanish Moss grows naturally. The very northernmost natural population in the country is located just outside of Eastville, Virginia on the Eastern Shore. I actually visited the location a couple of months ago and although it is no longer very plentiful it is very hard to miss as it is just off the road and across from the VDOT station. It also grows naturally and plentifully on the northern end of Knotts Island, within the jurisdiction of Virginia Beach, it grows very plentifully within False Cape State Park in the most southeastern corner of Virginia Beach and can be found naturally as far west as the swamps surrounding Franklin and Suffolk, Virginia and within the Great Dismal Swamp.

  9. Really enjoyed the photographs and narrative but like Todd Wudder I wanted to chime in on Spanish Moss within the Commonwealth. It grows plentifully and naturally in False Cape State Park in the very southeasternmost corner of Virginia Beach, on the northern end of Knotts Island within the southernmost area of Virginia Beach, on Owl Creek, also in Virginia Beach and as far west as the swamps surrounding both Franklin and Suffolk, Virginia; most notably the Great Dismal Swamp. I have seen it growing plentifully in the neighborhoods around Lafeyette Park in Norfolk and have also found a natural population known to science as the northernmost location since 1930 outside of Eastville, Virginia on the Eastern Shore. If you would like some photographs, I'd be happy to provide them.