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.

October 23, 2009

Caledon Natural Area - Potomac River Trip Pt. III

On the far outer reaches of the vast sprawling northern Virginia suburbs lies Caledon Natural Area. Here on the Potomac River, less than 60 miles from Washington D.C., are over 2500 acres of old growth and virgin upland forest. This area was first settled in the mid 1600's and remained in the same family's hands for centuries. It was donated to the Commonwealth in 1974, and it was easily apparent how special this gift was. Not only was it home to a very ancient forest, but it was also home to a recovering Bald Eagle population. Soon after it was donated, the shoreline here was designated a no-boating zone, part of the trails are closed during the nesting season, and today Caledon has the largest concentration of Bald Eagles on the east coast.

Caledon - Trail Entrance

Caledon - Quercus alba 2

Caledon - Trees With Vines 3.1

As much as I think the Eagle is a magnificent bird, I came to see the trees, besides we had already spotted half a dozen flying over Westmoreland. The forest at Caledon is primarily made up of different Oaks (Quercus sp.), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Beech (Fagus grandifolia) and Dogwood (Cornus florida), but the queen of the forest is the Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). They are by far the tallest of the trees, and though I am not always that good at judging heights, I would guess the largest of these are close to 150' tall. They are not Redwood tall, but for this side of the continent, they are magnificent. Underneath these giants is surprisingly little undergrowth, mainly a carpet of leaves and in wetter areas ferns. Also on the floor are the broken skeletons of previous giants knocked down during storms, plus there are still a few remnants of the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) that succumbed to Chestnut Blight during the first few decades of the last century.
Caledon - Long Down 1

Also at home on the forest floor is a plant that is listed as protected in Virginia, Lycopodium digitatum or as it is known here, Running Cedar. This plant was once a traditional Christmas decoration and was over-harvested throughout the state, hence its protected status.
Caledon - Lycopodium digitatum

I brought along my favorite son as a reference so you can see how large and tall some of these trees are. Here he is, not sitting on a tree trunk, rather on a fallen branch from one of the large Tulip Poplars.
Caledon - Tulip Poplar With Downed Branch 1
Caledon is also home some forbidden, inter-species love. Though I got the impression that the Beech (on the left) is not as committed to the relationship as the Oak (on the right) is.
Caledon - Merged Trees 1

Caledon - Merged Trees 2
I was hoping to see a little more fall color while we were there, but it was still too early. There was a lot of green with only a few hints of what was yet to be.

Caledon - Fall Is Coming 2.2

Caledon is part of the National Park Service's National Natural Landmarks Program which "recognizes and encourages the conservation of outstanding examples of our country's natural history". There are close to 600 sites already designated and if you click here you can see which sites are in which states.
Caledon - On the Trail
Thanks to a generous gift, good decisions and wise management, Caledon looks as it may have 100 years ago, and could likely look the same way in another 100 years into the future. If I were a tree, I would be happy to call this place home.

Submitted to the 41st Festival of the Trees - "If I Were A Tree"


  1. Great pictures...glad I stumbled on your blog.

  2. Another great place to visit. I am most intrigued by the beech and oak growing together. That branch that your son is sitting on is enormous! I am always amazed at how tall and straight and true Tulip Poplars can be.
    There was a show on NPR yesterday about trees, only heard a little of it. Think I will download the show and listen to the whole thing. What I did hear was discussion of the Virginia's Remarkable Trees book.

  3. Dear Les, thank you so much for showing this protected spot! The trees are more than just plants, they are entities to themselves. We have that running cedar here, a gift from our daughter who lives in the very NE corner of TN, nearly in VA. Good to know its name and I will let her know it might be protected here as well. Love the oak/beech affair, very sensual. Will check out the link to look for areas near us! Thanks!:-)

  4. Weird combo that oak and beech. The shagbark is magnificent! I'd go for the trees too. Thanks for introducing me to the running cedar. Very pretty. I hope it recovers.

  5. Great pictures! Now I have to go there as well. But I feel bad for all your non-favorite sons.

  6. Hoosier,
    I am glad you stumbled here as well, come back any time.

    I got Remarkable Trees of Virginia for my birthday this summer. They mentioned Caledon and when we decided to go to Westmoreland, I worked Caledon into the schedule. I will be on the look out for the NPR piece.

    Your daughter must live near Bristol. I love going camping near there. While I was researching this post, Va. came up as the only state where this plant is protected, so it must have been only used extensively here to grace mantles and make wreaths from.

    That tree with the cool bark was one of the few with a tag on it, but it said White Oak. It did not look like any White Oak I had ever seen, but I have not seen all White Oaks.

    Don't feel too bad for my other children. All our efforts are focused on just the one, and thank God we don't have more.


  7. Taking a break from vacuuming and dusting...uh! Here is the link to the NPR show--
    Haven't had a chance to listen, blastin' tunes to clean by right now.

  8. She does, Les, out in the country where there are similar looking large trees, native ground orchids and old stumps like those you have shown. We also used to live near there, in the same type of woodlands. It was full of magic. I miss it still.

  9. This is on my "want to go list" for quite a while now since we are not living too far away.. I was wondering how it looks like so I know how to plan for bringing baby along. Thanks for the pictures!

  10. Wow, the bark pattern on that first tree is super fantastic. I'd love to see that in a black and white. Great time of year to be out in the woods.

  11. A beautiful place. It's wonderful that it's been preserved.

  12. The forest there is very similar to the forests here in tree species and thin undergrowth. It looks more level though. We also have the Lycopodium here. The protected plant from florists here is the Galax. I even read an article awhile back about the feds busting pickers in the Pisgah National Forest.

  13. Janet,
    Thanks for the link. I can't clean house without the stereo blasting either. I got the whole downstairs done while World Party was playing.

    I know it must have been hard for you to leave that area, it is so beautiful. I have camped and hiked near Mt. Rogers Va. about 4 times and it is one of my favorite destinations.

    It would be a fairly easy hike carrying your baby. The main trails are a series of adjacent loops and are arranged so you can take a short hike, a long one or something in between. I bet the foliage there must be very nice right now.

    I'll play with the B/W and may post it on my Flickr acct. Thanks for the prompt.

    Sweet Bay,
    It was indeed a beautiful place. My only regret was not being able to get down to the river, but we only had limited time, besides we had just recently spent a day on the river.

    It was more gentle rolling hills here, but the closer you got to the river the steeper it got. I am glad the feds are going after the poachers, some of them are the same kind of people who would shoot a bear just for its gall bladder.


  14. Wonderful shots Les, I love the Black & White photo the best. Looks like you & and your favorite son had a nice trip. :)

  15. That beech / oak combo is out of this world freaky. It also reminds me of my marriage, slowly and slowly growing over.....

  16. Very cool.

    Two questions:

    To which tree does that shaggy bark (at least that is how I refer to it) - in the second image (I think it's the second one) belong to?

    I remember as a child going out in the woods around my grandparents farm (my Mom's parents) collecting running cedar for the mantelpiece. There is still a huge 'patch' of it on the property (which has since been sold and developed, but fortunately with some degree of care). I hadn't thought about running cedar in awhile - I knew that it was now protected, a hort friend told me that a few years ago when I was home. I probably contributed to it's decline, but what a nice memory.

  17. Racquel,
    The B&W was taken very close to a clearing near the parking lot and amphitheater. So the area was not as pristine and had a lot more small stuff including those vines, but it was still nice.

    I hope that was a postive comment about your marriage, especially since you are practically a newlywed. The beech will likely out-live the oak which had some signs of rot.

    That was one of the few trees with a tag and it said White Oak, though to me it looked like something else. My mom used to use running cedar at Christmas too, so we are responsible as well.


  18. What a beautiful place. It sounds like a perfect day. Your son is a cutie.

  19. Wonderful Post Les ... Your photos are great ... the trees ... the trees are amazing... Yeah to those wise one who have place this magical place under protection... yeah to you for sharing it! and the link. Your Beech and Oak ... yikes I fear for the Beech. I have an Oak and Black Birch embraced in a similar dance ... the Oak is leading here too. Carol

  20. Thanks, Les. Another wonderful place I've never heard of and now want to visit. Those trees look pretty amazing and beautiful photos by you.

  21. Les, The last photo is my favorite...well, maybe inter-species love is! I have always wanted to find Running Cedar in the woodlands...It wouldn't be happy here but a girl can dream! Thanks for the wonderful tour! gail

  22. Hi;
    Loved these photos... I biked the towpath along the Potomac River a few years ago. Couldn't get over how lush and lovely these areas were. Rare to have trees, much less a shady trail, where I live in a high plains desert.

  23. Joan,
    It was a great day and I'll pass along the compliment. It will cause an eye-roll I'm sure.

    I guess no one should turn their backs on those oaks.

    I had never heard of this place too until this summer, but managed to arrange it into our plans. I have always wanted to see virgin forest and there are so few left.

    I am fond of the last picutre too. I know that Running Cedar will not easily grow in cultivation even where it is native. Will it not grow in your area because of the limestone?

    I love the fact that many parts of this area are lush with trees, but I like to see wide open spaces as well. We got to see a lot of high plains areas on our Co. trip this summer and it was a nice contrast to our usual vistas. As beautiful as those views were, I would still prefer the woodlands.


  24. What a wonderful trip! I like the scale of the person (your son?) to the tree and the most unusual texture of the bark. Your photos are beautiful. There is nothing as grand as an old growth forest. Thanks for sharing!

  25. wow! these are really tall trees!
    i love the beech and oak. where i am - southern india - i see a lot of neem (azadirachta indicahi) and peepal (ficus religiosa) together - barks and branches intertwined.
    thanks for sharing!

  26. Sarah,
    Yes that was my one and only child, unless you count the ones that go around on four legs.

    Thanks for coming so far to visit my blog. I am familiar with the Neem tree, or at least with the pesticides made from it. We offer it at work as an alternative to stronger chemicals.


  27. I knew it! I love it I can actually remember what I read, hate it I can never remember where I read it on a blog:)

    I found the running cedar on my walk and had often admired it. Snatched a bit for my garden here but wanted to be sure it would not be invasive so I tried to ID it with no luck and had to turn to my blogging friends. Seems it is not invasive but hard to start a colony. I have just the spot here so will give it a try. Thanks for the link to the post-this was the exact one.

    Happy Holidays!